Reviewed by Chad Davidson
In “My Bodyguard,” one of Waltzing Matilda's many prose poems, Alice Notley declares, “I just want to do the same old thing differently.” And the reissue of this book-length debut (originally published in 1981 by Lina Hornick's Kulchur Foundation) affords readers the perfect occasion to reassess her unique brand of “differently.” What's more, the book acts as a cross section of the then-contemporary poetry scene, a sampling of playful lyrics, shiny, near-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, second-generation New-York-School nonchalance, and hauntingly intricate dialogues.
Even though Notley had already been publishing poetry in slimmer volumes and chapbooks for a decade before the arrival of Waltzing Matilda, part of the excitement in reading through the hodgepodge of wildly varying poems and voices is to witness the formulation of an aesthetic, the honing of a style. The short lyrics, for example, possess the charm of Joni Mitchell lyrics, where the “clearest of gins taste of / bluish protection” and “the earth slopes kindly down around me as if / To say the closure will be a little, just a little, like this.” The book is also pocked with cigarettes, booze, and drugs in the sprezzatura of the 70s, while giving readers a backward gaze at the relationships between Notley and other New York artists, most importantly her husband and poet, Ted Berrigan. And for the initiated, certain lines become all the more doleful given Berrigan's amphetamine use and subsequent death in 1983: “I'd die for you, too, // though, you fuck-head / I do hope / I don't have to.”
There is more than merely charm, however, to Notley's O'Hara-influenced “I do this, I do that” poems, as in the beginning lines of “First Pre-Spring in Five Years without Own Crocuses”:
Why today is the first of the lovely springish days
yet I've used up all the praise words other years
and see & hear & smell nothing specific to
tell am only the one sense in which is a body
body knows it's one of those good warm days . . .
Hidden in playfulness, though, are the nodes of anxiety and, at times, darkness that are perhaps out of the range of O'Hara's lunch poems. When asked at the ending of “Dream” who she is, for example, Notley's narrator answers, “Why I / am almost exactly Simone Weil.” Similarly, the “melancholic tense” of the narrator in “Poem” becomes evident as the husband goes east “To see his mother this heavenly morning / She has lung cancer, wants, says she, to make it through / One more World Series with the Red Sox. Doubtful.” If that isn't enough, the last line clinches the deal: “He married me, we say, because I smile like her.”
Waltzing Matilda, though, is most provocative in its lengthy dialogue and epistolary prose poems, which dominate the book. Some verge on the surreal, for instance, “The Wall of Paintings,” in which the characters include “Lady in the Clock,” “Lady with Breasts,” “Wizard,” and “Black Oval.” In other cases, as in “Elephant & Ocean,” surrealism becomes a veneer hiding what appears to be difficult psychic territory, as when “Ocean” declares, “He's turned and gone. What shall I do? Shall I rage & destroy a coastal city? Shall I become pure sorrow & then evaporate? Shall I swim north & freeze to melt only when he loves me? Shall I shriek with the gulls & clutch at Hart Crane's bones?” Notley's dialogue poems take enormous risks and offer readers drastically different voices, from the stripped down, two-dimensionality of “Reading Evelyn Waugh” (“We're not interested in sex, we're only interested in climbing mountains”), to the sometimes comical and lexically intensive “My Bodyguard” (“Here's the Greek word that means desire to cross over to the other side. Pothos. / You mean the Greeks stood on the river bank and said Pothos! Pothos! / Something like that”).
Perhaps the most compelling of the long poems is the title poem, which begins with the beguiling scene of her son in a fever:
I am an exhausted not-that-chrysanthemum Oh brother
Nothing's funny nothing's pretty, all the jokes
& gems collided at Gun Corner & then they did that
you know rolled over & over down the hill to the bottom of
the tin-can gulley
And then there's me you know I that am like a stomach sick of.
Rather than hold to any linear narrative, the poem more closely resembles movements in a long symphony, tonally sequenced rather than narratively arranged. Interspersed throughout the twenty-page poem are various forms including mostly diary-like entries and epistles, one recipient of which being simply the “Adviser.” During these letters especially, Notley's narrator and her various and manic veneers appear to break down a bit offering us a look at emotionally troubling material in the guise of a confessional or helpline. The first of these letters involves mainly what the narrator should do regarding a comment her husband made while leaving the house, “that he was beginning to realize he should start batting [her] on the head more often when he felt like it that was all there was to it.” Her questions to the adviser, though verging on hilarious, are still haunted by the gravity of physical abuse, for she is at first “of many minds to bat on about this.” She also begins to analyze his statement to her, thereby avoiding the force of it: “Do you suppose my husband woke up thinking he & I were two other people [. . .] or do you suppose he was momentarily gaga as I believe they say in England and imagined he had once or twice batted me on the head?” The Adviser's reply is worth a citation as well:
So if down on you & your husband
The light that wreaks temporary change the kind that distresses
Remember it's not psychology sociology numerology history or you, it's
the gypsy moon's shivery long dark white tresses.
No doubt his evasiveness, not to mention his suspicious rhyming (the entire page-and-a-half letter rhymes), lends to the entire sequence an ironized chauvinism.
Waltzing Matilda is a tour de force of Notley's multifarious talents and her earlier experiments. Likewise it reads like a “who's who” of the 70s poetry scene and a “what's what” of the poetry trends. Finally, and this is most important, the poems are wonderful: engaging, revealing, ambitious, frustrated, and always aiming extremely high. If they fail at times, their failures are extravagant. Notley is an American original, and Waltzing Matilda is, for her readers, an apt foundational myth.