cover image In the Pines

In the Pines

Alice Notley, . . Penguin, $18 (131pp) ISBN 978-0-14-311254-9

Notley takes the title of her 30-somethingth collection from a notorious American folk song: a man tries to get his lover to admit she's been unfaithful, asking her where she's slept, and her ambiguous answer—“in the pines”—only makes things worse. That menacing rhetorical moment informs the whole of this searing collection, which is part autobiography, part riposte to literary culture, and part lyrical reclamation of feminist territory. The at times deliberately ugly long opening title poem is a grotesque's monologue that shades into omniscience—“All I am is this. So all of writing is changed”—and back to embodiment: “It's almost a story or a poem but it's really a song because it's ripping me apart.” Suffused with pain and white-hot accusatory anger, the poem delves into illness, death, love, and being “defective” in a manner that's almost unbearable to read, and which makes dazzling shifts in perspective that keep it rising like a house of cards, or a life. The two sections that follow—the prose poems of “The Black Trailor” and the lyrics of “Hemostatic”—amplify and expand the title piece, reverberating “in this crushed out room where/ all times come,” giving the book a crushing yet sad and graceful symmetry. This master poet continues to inspire and challenge. (Oct.)