Alice Notley is a rare example of a major contemporary poet whose writing life has flourished outside of academia. A crucial member of the second-generation New York School, her work blossomed in the now legendary ’70s and ’80s Lower East Side enclave of writers, artists, and eccentrics. Much of the first half of Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems, 1970–2005 reproduces increasingly more conversational and even chatty poems that depict with humor, affection, and a wily subversiveness the domestic side of this bohemian world during a period when Notley was raising her two children.
Beginning in 1988 with “White Phosphorus,” an elegy for her deceased Vietnam veteran brother that appears just past midway through Grave of Light, Notley consciously and dramatically expanded her work’s ambition. Having already proven that she could hang literarily and literally with the big boys, she decided to engage them on their prized turf, the epic, while redirecting its gaze away from, in her phrase, “the grand events of men.” She also embraced the epic mode’s communion with the dead: “I love the dead so much, talking to me/through my masks.”
Overlapping with her relocation to Paris, this new approach culminated in three books published by Penguin; of these, 1998’s Pulitzer Prize finalist Mysteries of Small Houses is, along with Grave of Light, the best volume for curious readers to begin with. The space constraints of a selected poems volume mean that the excerpts from these three collections don’t do justice to their singular range of personal expression and formal innovation. However, a generous dose of Notley’s most recent published and unpublished writing included in the closing section of Grave of Light more than compensates. This particularly powerful work enacts a precarious balance of intense grief and fierce anger unlike almost any poetry written today.