Inquiry and Imperative (on Johanna Skibsrud’s The Poetic Imperative: A Speculative Aesthetics and Alice Notley’s For the Ride)

In his 1923 book Spring and All, William Carlos Williams declares that “either to write or to comprehend poetry the words must be recognized to be moving in a direction separate from the jostling or lack of it which occurs within the piece.” Williams, who would later, in 1944, famously declare that “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words,” cleaves words from the structures that they themselves form. He differentiates the movement of words from the movement of “the piece” itself: like the disparate parts of a whirring or churning machine, the words in a poem simultaneously perform the function of the larger form and do their own sort of work. The poem that follows this moment in Spring and All, “Rapid Transit,” collages a number of “AXIOMS,” including: “Do not get killed.” Williams contrasts the horses common to “open country” with the axiomatic functions of rapid transit, those axioms becoming a readymade for the modernist transit poem: 

Take the Pelham Bay Park Branch
of the Lexington Ave. (East Side)
Line and you are there in a few

Interborough Rapid Transit Co.

Nearly a century later, poets are still very much interested in the relationship between the singularity of the word and its structural effects, between the direction words can take separate from the units of speech in which they occur. To fasten on a word’s “movement” rather than its destination, as Williams suggests, is to be far more dazzled, puzzled, and even driven by the idea of a poem not as a product but as a kind of act. Or, more: an act that doesn’t end; an act always in process. Two recent releases—Johanna Skibsrud’s The Poetic Imperative: A Speculative Aesthetics and Alice Notley’s For the Ride—take up the idea of poetry as an act particularly of self-knowledge.

Skibsrud begins with the premise that to know oneself has always been about questioning the very nature of what it is to be human. “The earliest interpreters of the Delphic dictum ‘know thyself’ construed it as a counsel to know one’s place,” Skibsrud writes: “to recognize the limits of individual human knowledge and power.” Self-knowledge has always been less about mere introspection and more about treating the self as a whole site of inquiry: into knowledge, into thought, into understanding, and into what it means to be human to begin with. What the history of self-knowledge has left us with, Skibsrud points out, is the modern conception of the human as both the object of knowledge and the subject that pursues that knowledge. And the nature of knowledge is similarly paradoxical: knowledge is a thing that is sought, but knowledge is also the process of seeking. What really matters, for Skibsrud’s study, is the act of reflection—the act of speculating and wondering, wandering through the angles and paths and detours of lived reality. Skibsrud calls this act an “imperative,” a word that means it is something we are commanded to do, or driven to, or that we otherwise find urgent and necessary in the course of our being. 

Embedded—or, as Skibsrud puts it, “buried”—in the imperative to approach the self in this way is poetry. Skibsrud argues that the imperative, the command, maybe even the impulse to know thyself carries with it a command to use poetry to encounter “what cannot finally be apprehended or articulated through rational thought and language.” Poetry, in its nonrationality, its departures from logic, its slipping out of fixed categories of thought, and its embrace of uncertainty, rejects the notion that to know thyself might follow a firm trajectory. Poetry instead serves as the grounds for an oscillating, variegated, or otherwise open-ended path of inquiry. In fact, poetry is not only the grounds for inquiry but the substance of inquiry itself. Skibsrud contrasts poetry with math: “Through metaphor, apostrophic address and word play, poetry emphasizes the inherently ‘fictive’ nature of both language and perception, while at the same time pointing us, like a mathematical equation, toward multiple interpretive possibilities beyond its limited symbolic form.” And unlike math, “poetry fails to conceive of (let alone embody) a solution to its problems.” Of course, Skibsrud does not really regard this lack as a failure: her book is devoted not only to understanding the process-oriented imperative in poetry but also to hailing the potential embedded in poetry’s activation of the human. Throughout chapters devoted to work by a number of poets who include M. NourbeSe Philip, Anne Carson, and Erín Moure, Skibsrud’s book tracks the motion of the word as it swerves from the structures that contain it. A chapter on the “fugal past,” for example, traces how segmented words and letters in Philip’s astonishing book Zong! break through “the impasses presented by legal language and the available historical record.” The case of Zong! is particularly illuminating in a book about imperatives, given Philip’s deep commitment to poetry as the thing capable of “un-telling” conventional documentation of the slave trade.

In grammar, the imperative is often described as a “mood.” The imperative is a verb tense; it is the “tone” of a verb, or the “mode” of one. “Mode” and “mood” are often used interchangeably in discussions of grammar—as well as in discussions of literary writing. A mode is a kind of presentation of speech; it is not quite the same thing as a form, or a genre, or a literary category, although they overlap. This is the taxonomic argument that has been unfolding in literary studies at least since Aristotle differentiated between the enunciative mode of lyric and the thematic constraints of epic, and that more recently has manifested in arguments over whether lyric should be properly understood as a mode (presentation) or a genre (form or structure). The yoking of lyric to self-presentation and self-knowledge, however contested this yoking may be, makes a study of lyric a perfect counterpoint to Skibsrud’s discussion of the self. What is a discussion of the poetic imperative if not a discussion of the categories we attach to literary speech, particularly speech typically associated with self-presentation and the category of the human? Even if Skibsrud centers her book not on something called poetry but on a quality called “the poetic” that attaches variously to linguistic engagements with self-knowledge? 

Skibsrud’s choice to ground her poetic inquiry in the central role of self-knowledge makes her book a lyric inquiry, which means The Poetic Imperative invites this lyric question: what is the risk of a poetics that places self-knowledge at its center? What gets left out? Skibsrud argues that the poetic imperative lies “at the root of any conscious effort to address oneself to the unknown.” Skibsrud’s thesis assumes that poetry is uniquely suited to an essential aspect of lived reality. Taxonomies such as form and genre, while interesting, lie beside the main point about that lived reality. But what happens to our understanding of the structures that make identity possible—and that foreclose identity, as well? What about the taxonomies that shape how we understand the self—which are even more deeply contested than the tripartite of literary genres that have been contested since Aristotle (besides the contours of the self that may come into relief as a result of poetic inquiry)? Identificatory categories such as race and gender shape not only the markers we attach to the human but the very notion of the human itself. Such categories serve to sort, govern, and exclude people not only from political structures but from the very category of the human. Knowing them is to embark on a very different imperative to know oneself. Poets like Philip, Erín Moure, and Lisa Robertson, as Skibsrud points out, produce work that asks not only what it means to be human but who gets to be counted as human in the first place. To ask that question is “not a repudiation of meaning but a call for new forms of legibility.” 

New times call for new forms of legibility in poetry that grapples with present disasters. The relationship between identificatory structures and a poetic imperative—or a lyric one—is something the poet Alice Notley has been asking about throughout a career that spans more than fifty years. Since her first published book, in 1971, Notley has produced work that engages the question of what it is to be human, work that implicitly and explicitly asks about the role poetry has to play in answering that question. Notley’s work dramatizes landscapes that draw on the surreal, the mythic, the transhistorical, and the allegorical, landscapes in which race and gender are contested ground for self-inquiry as well as the inquiry into the systems that sort and govern and exclude us. For Notley, self-reflection is an investigation of the self but more broadly of the social webs that surround it; as Skibsrud puts it, self-reflection is an inquiry into the self not as a bounded thing but into the limits of knowledge: “the infinite, the Other, and truth itself.” This is another way of saying Notley is a philosophical poet, even if she emerges from the so-called second generation of the New York School of poets, whose devotion to the quotidian and even the anti-literary characterizes work that often brushes off abstract conceptual categories. Notley has expressed great skepticism toward her association with the movement—she has said that she has “never quite identified with” the term “New York School”—but she can at least also be understood as one of the poets to emerge in the period that followed the publication of Donald Allen’s landmark New American Poetry in 1960, the anthology of a number of major avant-garde poets writing after modernist figureheads like Williams. 

Notley’s most recent book, For the Ride, on the other hand, is an experiment in abstraction and urgency. This new work pursues self-knowledge as a lyric question as well as a philosophical one. Its tonal urgencies cohere around a conceit that is both fantastical and literal: the end of the world, its survivors boarding an ark to save language from demise, accurate to our present moment of climate disasters and democratic fracturing. Written in 2010 in Paris and published in 2020 by Penguin, For the Ride consists of eighteen sections introduced by a preface that establishes the allegorical contours of the book. Notley’s preface makes plain the notion that what is most at stake in this book is the poetic, which is the only tool left to decipher the building chaos:

I started out in the l’Orangerie in Paris with Monet’s Water Lilies, and their pond, but then I, or someone, became One, on a journey to another dimension to save Words from their demise, if there were really an Apocalypse—I mean if there were and so all of language were lost. “Save the Words” is the title of chapter II. This poem goes pretty far, and terrifies me, but it should be read for pleasure. A story, with characters, and illustrations, and qualities of humor and tenderness. Note further that on the ark that takes off from the pond, the Survivors have with them an Anthology of poetry which is quoted from: only poems can deal in the inexplicable—what really goes on. And each of the poem’s characters finally becomes poems—nothing else left to one. 

When Notley writes, “only poems can deal in the inexplicable,” she comes very close to the thesis of Skibsrud’s book: the poetic imperative is in fact the definitive linguistic imperative for self-knowledge. For the Ride is an inquiry into the relationship between language and the self, and the poem’s preface does a few things to establish the bounds of this imperative. First, the I of Notley the poet converts to the One of For the Ride, the (third-person) persona who is the subject of the book’s quest, yet whose relationship to language is also repeatedly questioned and questioning: 

Does One act or is One handled by past ones unthinkingly then—
What’s placing words on One? Can’t One read them? What poem is One now?

The questions raised in these lines circle around a few recurring themes of For the Ride: the loss of language, but also the power to confer or take language away; the relationship between poetry and other kinds of speech; the alienation of a self from its capacity for self-expression. 

We know from the preface that the One of these lines is at least in part Notley herself. It is a common thing for a poet to identify with the central persona of their book. But in Notley’s case this is not only a conversion taking place in a museum—in Paris, Notley’s home since 1992—in which the speaker turns from one impressionist figure to another. Notley’s conversion into One launches the book’s inquiry into the nature of self-identification. That conversion, and Notley’s choice to name her protagonist “One,” does several things. The first is to unname and abstract the book’s hero in the service of a kind of universality. That universality may even reach beyond the identificatory categories that have previously governed Notley’s poetic inquiry into the self. The second thing “One” does is to stage an argument about gender. The pronoun “one” is gender neutral, and it implicitly universalizes what readers have come to recognize as Notley’s quest feminism. It seems the natural outcome of a few decades’ worth of questioning the received narratives and expectations of that feminism. 

For the Ride stages the world-ending loss of language as an opportunity to rethink gendered language, its confining grammar in particular: “Hate them, rules of syntax— / Can’t figure out how to say anything but talking in one’s head, / see the shapes sticking together like love, fucking sentences.” Like the words inside Williams’s machine, Notley’s words chart a different direction. The real story of language, the poem suggests, is the story of change: “Thus be story of world, what else can one live out on page or real? / Returning to chaos, the first sender. Reemphasize and change. / Meander, as One does, meandering Egypt is all profiles.” Reaching back to ancient hieroglyphs, Notley’s poem flirts with idealizing that ancient language before it turns to embrace the possibility inherent in the destructive present, the end of the world entailing the end of language:

World is coming to an end means, Word is coming to an end.
In the global warming destruction of one’s species as is known,
loss of language as one is the whole show. Build an ark of words.
One’s supposed to be inventing new language, definitely 
tearing down the old of gender, tensal submission, whatall,
pomposities to enslave one . . . Tear it down as ones save ones—
Ark of salvation and destruction of the old at same time.
Wake up! Tear it down! and save one. One is the species, words are.

For the Ride depicts an “ark” to carry off endangered words from the coming apocalyptic flood, and the image is about creation and preservation but also carries another imperative: to make a new language beyond the old limits of gender and tense. Notley’s lines make the startling declaration that the loss of One, the human species, and words themselves is an equivalent loss, but then again, the declaration doesn’t seem so startling when you consider how the book might be enacting the imperative to figure out what is going on in our apocalyptic moment—and to pursue that task, one needs to reckon with the ways language’s structures of power have helped along the end of the world.

The imperative to “tear down the old of gender” is not a new one for Notley, but the deep compressions and intensities of these lines bring a new texture of abstraction to her feminist poetics that suggests a departure from the vividly allegorical mode of her previous works. With her 1996 book Disobedience, Notley said in a 2003 interview with Jennifer Dick in Doublechange, she “decided to question everything—question reality, question politics, question received feminisms, question what my friends thought, question what everyone was telling me was the truth, question what I was telling me was the truth, question everything I thought so far, just question, question, question.” Notley’s previous book-length poems featured a number of named female protagonists—the Alette of 1992’s The Descent of Alette and the Alma of 2006’s Alma, or The Dead Women, for example—who navigate unearthly quests to kill a patriarchal tyrant or raise a number of female voices in polyphonic poetic textures to resist the masculinist war drive. The earlier works leverage the category of woman in order to build these poetic narratives in almost utopic fashion: Alette ends with its hero killing the patriarchal tyrant and then leading the masses up and out from an oppressive underground; Alma ends likewise by making its (single) lyric lament of geopolitical grief and rage a collective one. 

Alma is the most extended articulation of what Notley had come to regard as the “fatal disease” of femininity. In many ways, Alma is a contemporary revision of Euripides’ suggestion in The Trojan Women that male violence against women is the legible source of all forms of war: as in Euripides’ play, Alma is a text filled with women who are already dead, are about to be killed, or are speaking from the margins between life and death, anticipating the “tensal submission” cited in For the Ride that Notley would then write to tear down. Alma opens with Alma, the book’s iconic American goddess who tells us she is suffering from a “fatal disease”: she says, “it’s possible i’m one of the dead women. well i died in 1982 or 3, but i died in 2001 because of how many people i might be.” The grammar of Alma’s speech layers voices and subject positions: the word “but” shifts the temporal dimension of Alma’s autobiography by amplifying her death, suggesting she died again nineteen years later during the attacks of September 11, 2001. Alma tells us she “might be” the many other people who died at the beginning of the new century, speaking now from that threshold of historical memory. The poem invites a reading of the notion of “fatal disease,” then, as a feature of a modernity characterized by globalized war, violence against women, ethnic cleansing, GMO foods, car crashes, bodies sickened by pesticides and prescription medication. But the poem also invites a reading of “fatal disease” as the very state of being female. A voice named Moira says she herself can’t tell which dead woman she is: “i’m any of them waiting for the food,” she tells us, and “who promises me in my dream that there’ll be enough food next week?” Someone asks Moira whether the fatal disease of being female is a result of fate or human error. Moira responds that it is both: “men did that, is it really fate to be a woman? yes but at base, in the soul, irrelevant.” To regard femininity as a fatal disease clears the ground for something else. What binds the women in Alma—what makes this a book both about a single figure, Alma, as well as (“or”) the dead (plural) women who populate negative space—is also what tears their collective body apart. 

The women in Alma form affective communal bonds across temporalities—resisting tensal submission—but they also attack and alienate one another; they appear to exist in a state of constant hopelessness and enervated rage; and their physical and sexual encounters tend toward the violent and traumatic, ambiguously pleasurable, or eerily isolating. In the 2003 interview, Notley suggests that the blurring of life and death, of action and enervation, lies at the heart of her book’s feminist critique of global war: she tells her interviewer, “there are a lot of dead women in this book—this book is about dead women, actually, though they’re not all dead, the dead women, because I’m one of them. But since we have no role in these events, particularly now, we withdraw into negative space and take no part in it.” 

Notley’s poetry often takes on what it means to be a subject shut out of historical narrative, both because of material circumstance and because of the limits of historiography, and her work has often sought to do that historiography differently. Alma has been described by its publisher, Granary Books, as a “cross-genre” book that “submits to no discipline but its own.” But of course there has always been conceptual slippage between the two taxonomic systems of bodies and aesthetics, and that slippage inflects feminism’s relationship to history. Lauren Berlant takes up this conceptual slippage in her 2008 book The Female Complaint when she suggests that we might understand femininity as being like an aesthetic genre. Berlant suggests that U.S. women’s culture can be understood as an “intimate public,” a phrase she uses to describe what she calls “a porous, affective scene of identification among strangers” who have something in common. Berlant considers the way an intimate public is structured by shared identifications, common histories, and conventions of belonging, but also the way an intimate public “promises a certain experience of belonging”: the promise of female culture, in this particular case, “is distinguished by a view that the people marked by femininity already have something in common and are in need of a conversation that feels intimate, revelatory, and a relief even when it is mediated by commodities, even when it is written by strangers who might not be women, and even when its particular stories are about women who seem, on the face of it, vastly different from each other and from any particular reader.” Berlant’s notion of the intimate public helps address some of the ways feminist critique gets stalled and frustrated in Notley’s work by a sense that nothing tangible holds women together in any positive sense. In one sequence in Alma that deals with the presence of U.S. troops in the Philippines in 2003, one of the poem’s speakers struggles with the idea that the female body has a deterministic function in history. She says: 

i am not dead but will die in this world and my death is my soul, who is crying. as none of us has ever counted. do you know what your existence was—that is a discredited kind of question. if everything i know is from my body. where i am and my soul is. was i alive only to be aware of that fact. was i alive only to love and be hurt by that. was i alive to be told over and over by people, not just men, that i “had so much going for me.” was i alive to give the men a justification for their obscene machinations pervasive throughout the details of my own life even into my body and causing the crying of my soul. so you might say this is to go too far, but it is not. we have all been invaded, we the dead women, and that is why we are together in negative space.

Notley’s speaker insists that there is little perceptible boundary between life and death, between the possibility inscribed in living form and the deathly visions of war and gender-based violence. This female presence has already been destroyed before she has an opportunity to speak. Notley suggests that the terms of gender and poetic form remain open and unresolved, frustrated by affective binds to a political history in which “we have all been invaded, we the dead women.”

Reading the gender-neutral pronoun One in For the Ride in the context of Notley’s previously expansive and politically urgent work, work that literalizes the allegories of women’s death in order to do a kind of historiography, is to recalibrate the notion of being female as a “fatal disease.” In their often uneasy insistence on a female public, poems like Alma insist on the long poem that includes (after Pound) a new kind of history. Yet the long poem For the Ride is doing something else, something that here I am reading in the context of the poetic imperative laid out by Skibsrud. For the Ride investigates the nature of the pronoun itself as a loss of language: “One has the name of only personal pronoun here, in the tense too that’s one, / letting it all fall to pieces of aught.” A personal pronoun is a function of grammar, and grammar is a taxonomic system, but it’s also a system that establishes the relationships between things in that taxonomy. When Notley’s poem asks, “Does One act or is One handled by past ones unthinkingly then,” it establishes the long history of Ones—exemplary, singular, but somehow also common to the quest at the heart of the long poems Notley produced before this one. 

Notley’s poem in the next breath asks, “What poem is One now?” This is a question about the relationships between history, the self, and poetry; a question about what sort of temporality is embedded in selfhood; a question about what sorts of selves are embedded in a pronoun, which is both a placeholder and a marker of a self who has appeared otherwise, such as sitting in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. Finally, this is a question about the self as a poem. As Skibsrud argues, the impulse to know thyself carries with it a command to do poetry. The next logical instance of this way of thinking is that to know thyself is not just to do poetry but to be poetry. Notley’s One wants something like that: “One wants to be word, not a puppet creatured / with strung pieces anciens.” One wants to be a word, not a puppet strung with currency, not a commodity, even. And then: “One’s not different from source of the words cast upon one like light.” As the links between One and language accumulate, the poem’s discourse of the self as poem grows more flesh-and-bloody: “I’m the, your, my: bloody mouth, / reddest mouth in the universe.” 

For the Ride’s One reaches beyond the torqued feminist inquiry of some of Notley’s previous work, which bears an uneasy relationship to the category of the female. The gender-neutral One in For the Ride also firmly conceives of the self in terms of the material textures of language. That materiality becomes especially legible in a pair of lyric poems in the second section of For the Ride, “A Lyric of One” and “Lyric from Nowhere.” The first lyric begins odically: 

Oh object, come to one’s heart existing
again. One wants to like a thing or one
as in the past: oh one doesn’t like, now.
One is differently gathered about one’s
core—a tiny one, in the mind’s eye of one.

The insular qualities of this passage—a one or One coiling inward more and more tightly—furnish a lyric of self-presentation ever more abstracted, its lines carved up by accelerating commas that mark breath and segment thought. This “tiny one” seems to disappear into itself before the poem ends by reaching for connection between an assortment of ones:

The ones call out of small frogs’ throats
to each other in the black brown pond,
the copper swirled pond where the light’s
within … within one? within the wall
of sight? Within the connection between ones?

The poem allegorizes multiple “ones” calling to each other using animal sounds beyond human language, and then imagines a collection of images collating around the idea of connection: light, wall, sight, connection itself. The second lyric that follows begins with death but turns rather more reflective, imaginative, outward:

The death word or message swims in one’s wild cells,
those that refuse to be docile, grave, giving in
to the system. Oh death wanted one to depart
for the night its other hand, conglomerate
of words cohering. Love loves or hates that.

One had always wanted to be in love how stupid.
Managing no more the stores of orderly auto parts,
words, what was one saying? A shambles of
different sized stones, melting in one’s head.

More stuff’s arranged in front, appears to One, under the non-water:

One’s an ideogram for Life a one says. Isn’t one special! says the One. 
Everyone’s an ideogram, it says. Pearhead, arms, and torse—
an old ankh. Oh, says One, this is so dumb. One’s going to zap One,
says the ankh sign, changing One’s thoughts into some Egyptian ones.

The poem is called “Lyric from Nowhere,” the nowhere of the title alluding to the nothingness of post-apocalypse as well as to the nothingness embedded in the One’s very cells and thought. “Lyric from Nowhere” ironizes the idea that an individual might be an ideogram, unique and compressed with meaning, and the poem itself has many corners of compressions: “torse,” “stuff’s,” “some Egyptian ones.” The name of the section in which this lyric appears is “Save the Words” and ends in exhortation: “Behold. Now is the time to save us! / It’s that some voice, of words, says it! Words themselves want to be saved.” 

This pair of lyrics in For the Ride, with their jamming together of self and language, suggests what the poet and philosopher Denise Riley has referred to in The Words of Selves: Identification, Solidarity, Irony (2000) as “the flesh of words.” In a work that she says is meant to “cross-question the first person,” Riley argues that lyric self-presentation is always an uneasy thing, and the “uncertainty” she describes as being at the heart of lyric reminds me of the halting qualities of Notley’s lines throughout For the Ride as well as of the poetic imperative I have been considering here in the context of the book. Riley writes of the uneasy tension between categories of the self and the felt reality of speaking from the first person: “While I can’t believe in a selfhood which is any other than generated by language over time, I can still lack conviction if I speak of myself in the necessarily settled language of a sociologised subject.” The I who speaks, Riley writes, “produces an unease which can’t be mollified by any theory of its constructed nature”; hewing to the principles of accuracy and plausibility can’t really help: “The falseness of my persona telling its tale resounds in my own ears despite my best attempts at accuracy, and however plausible it may sound to its audience. What purports to be ‘I’ speaks back to me, and I can’t quite believe what I hear it say.” That unease is what Riley refers to as the flesh of words, the interplay or enmeshing of language and experience that makes selves legible, felt, known:

Calling out, calling myself, and being called are all intimately related incarnations of the flesh of words. This materiality of language is packed through and through with its own historicity. Such a materiality isn’t some antiquarian’s decorative piecrust of orality or of etymology to garnish the real meat of what is being said, its meaning-content. The linguistic materiality lies rather in the reiteration, the echoes, the reflexivity, the cadences, the automatic self-parodies and the self-monumentalising which, constituting both being called and calling oneself, constitute the formation of categories of persons. There is nowhere beyond interpellation for us.

Riley’s lyric subject is the first-person I pronoun, while Notley’s is the third-person “one,” but both poets—one writing in lines, the other in theoretical prose—are interested in the affective and world-making experience of articulating the textures of that subjectivity. For Riley, the keywords are unease, uncertainty; for Notley the keywords are chaos, prophecy, destruction. Against what she refers to as the “hazards of zealous overinclusiveness,” Riley thinks about, writes from, an I willing to dwell in the uncertain space between expression and self-knowledge, which is another way of questioning the taxonomies that shape how we understand the lyric self: “The symbolic order of language may ‘decentre’ the subject, yet it does not drain from him this ambiguous interiority, even if that arrives from the outside.” In Notley’s poem a recursive formal structure turns “one” from personal pronoun into object pronoun, a One capable of “changing One’s thoughts into some Egyptian ones” and then tearing down the old gendered nouns and pronouns, the old temporalities of tenses, all on board an ark whose mission is both “salvation and destruction of the old at same time.” 

If For the Ride takes seriously its quest to save and destroy language simultaneously, then the curious sort of stasis that runs through this book makes perfect sense. For the Ride pushes the question of self-knowledge into a different frame: not entirely fantastically allegorical and not blankly literal, either, it is a volume that asks its questions less by way of exploration and more by way of insistence. So far in this discussion I have been focusing on the themes and ideas of the book and not its formal insistence, but apart from a fairly straightforward lineated style, two main formal features recur throughout the book. The first is a set of concrete or visual poems that map out faces and boats and other shapes, sometimes not a terribly discernible shape but just one that encourages reading differently than simply across the page. For example, a boat is spelled out with letters and words and parts of speech (“wings of words” as well as “prepositions”); there are faces, a word tree, a winged coyote. The second is the recurrence of the phrase “From the Anthology,” which sometimes headlines a single poem, sometimes headlines a sequence of poems, and sometimes appears in parentheses within one of the eighteen sections of the book. As we know from the preface, the “survivors” of For the Ride “quote” from this anthology in order to “deal in the inexplicable”: the anthology is like a repository, or an archive, or a record. This excerpt from the anthology records the old way of the first-person pronoun:

From the Anthology

Chaos grey calls, order is one’s tongue or eye
is it? Can’t order me though, ultimately
I’ll say I, nothing matters to me
I’m only matter itself without bones

You put the bones in, your so precious pattern
It’s all in your head, if you have a head there
It’s just a delusionary tale, dear
make up your own language, my psychopath

Okay and one will. You can say I too, mean-
ing whatever speaks. Don’t give a shit for she
or he, categories down in flood
demolished by the world’s disappearance 

It’s a startling thing, the appearance of the I pronoun in these lines: after the clear-viewed rejection of its delusionary tale, it seems only fitting the chaos isn’t fiery red or deep murky blue but a vague gray. The floor came so quickly that it’s already gone, the ark floating on the aftermath of the world’s end. In a poem that is in fact written in the imperative tense, Notley jams together a metaphysical inquiry—“I’m only matter itself without bones”—with an idiomatic declaration—“Don’t give a shit for she / or he”—that seems in a hurry to break its lines and keep moving. If this anthology poem narrates the setting aside of he and she categories, if it exhorts its apostrophe to make up a new language, then the anthology from which it’s taken isn’t really an archive at all: it’s the ark’s commonplace book. Skibsrud posits that the poetic is an “effort to address oneself to the unknown.” What could be more unknown than the destination of an ark sailing away from the end of the world? What could be more unknown than the compositional method for assembling an anthology of works used by the survivors of an apocalypse? 

For a poet like Alice Notley, how relevant is self-knowledge when the structures of identity have met their inevitably apocalyptic end? For the Ride is a book of crisis; it’s a book in crisis; it is both chronicle of and inquiry into the earth’s falling apart and taking language with it. Some of its more awkward lines are the most revealing of its mode: “Ones are for the ride, stressed but don’t fail.” Or its most undercutting: “Moments of tragedy arise from belief in the world and one’s / agency within it—everyone backs someone or is that one, / if called lucky, the son.” Notley’s work asks: what does it mean to be compelled to write poetry? To read it? To turn to poetry in order to know oneself? One of the original meanings of “anthology” is “a treatise on flowers”; the word derives from the Greek anthos for flower and logia (collecting). Nothing grows on an ark, presumably, but things get preserved, recorded, even as it sails away toward something new and unknown, its survivors not caring anymore why they reach for the words they find. 

At the end of The Poetic Imperative, Skibsrud writes that work by the poets she discusses “is a mode of thought and an approach to language that has the potential to reveal—within every discourse and every moment of history—an opening for what has not yet been brought into either action or words.” And yet, at the same time, Skibsrud writes, “it has been more important for most poets to question and destabilize inherited truths than to look for new ones.” The parts in the machine may still turn when we pluck them out, but they might also pivot toward something unexpected. 


*An essay-review of 

The Poetic Imperative: A Speculative Aesthetics. By Johanna Skibsrud. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2020. 160 pp. $32.95.

For the Ride. By Alice Notley. New York: Penguin, 2020. 144 pp. $20.00, paper.


Julia Bloch is a Pew Fellow in the Arts, editor at Jacket2, and director of the creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania. Her books of poetry include The Sacramento of Desire (2020), Valley Fever (2015), and Lambda Literary Award finalist Letters to Kelly Clarkson (2012), all published by Sidebrow Press. She is currently writing a scholarly book about race, gender, and lyric in long poems.