Lindsay Tuggle: on
Alice Notley

  Lindsay Tuggle

  ‘The abyss of a wound’

  Elegiac Shamanism in Alice Notley’s
   Alma, or the Dead Women

Endnote links: If you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.

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Photo: Alice Notley. Photo courtesy The Poetry Society.
Photo: Alice Notley. Photo courtesy The Poetry Society.

Alma, or The Dead Women, interweaves the events surrounding September 11, 2001, and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, with the phantasmal trances of Alma, a ‘shamanic’ heroin addict who ‘shoots up’ into her third eye [See Note 1]. Along with the cult of ‘dead women’ who surround her, Alma inhabits her own world, ‘secretly thought by a woman dreaming and dead’ (13). Her visions create a ‘geomatricarchal’ epic that incorporates Greek, Sumerian, Egyptian, and Native American mythologies, shamanistic practices and mourning rituals (13). Alma constructs a poetics of mourning that is at once fiercely personal in its clarity and specificity, and infinite in its capacity to grieve for the ‘forgotten dead,’ for entire species, for the earth itself: ‘this is larger than epic, because it must be larger than these disastrous times’ (91). Collectively, the women form a spectral chorus, ‘chanting’ ‘the anguish of ruins’ (62). Alma and her ghostly companions are shape-shifting conjurers whose ‘binding spells’ and ‘curse tablets’ seek to alter history as it unfolds — to reincarnate a ‘desecrat[ed] landscape’ and ‘dissolve’ the ‘autocracy’ of the Bush presidency (81, 121-124). These visionary ‘shades’ emerge from their underworld disarmingly fluent in the ‘literal though not literate way of unsong’ (94, 100).

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Alice Notley has written many elegies: ‘White Phosphorus’ for her brother, (1988), Beginning with a Stain for her stepdaughter (1987), Close to me and Closer … (The Language of Heaven) (1995), for her father, whose ‘literal voice’ she transcribed alongside her own: [Note 2


I wrote Close to Me… in ’91 and ’92, beginning around Christmas-time and concluding in February. I remember feeling very happy writing it, waking up mornings with my dead father’s voice in my head. In order to write his speeches properly I had to have faith that that was his literal voice I heard. I let the voice dictate to me exactly what to write with very little interference from ‘my’ rationalizing self… I am loathe to say he didn’t really dictate his part of the poem; and I feel the daughter’s parts of the dialogue are nowhere near as good as the father’s. He bested me. He should have, he had the knowledge of the dead. [Note 3


Notley’s work unsettles the elegiac genre – poems are written for the dead (or, in the case of Close to Me, partially by the dead) but hers is not a poetics of memorial, or a singular narrative of haunting – This is a reciprocal dialogue. The dead are far from silent, or absent. Her father’s ghost dictates poems that outshine her own, glittering as they do with the ‘language of heaven.’ Like Close to Me and Closer, Alma, or the Dead Women is an act of conjuration, in which the poet acts as a medium whom the dead speak through. The grave is a portal, an invitation to convene with ghosts, and in so doing, to become one.


In a 2013 interview Notley discussed the practice I define as poetic mediumship, an invocation of marginal voices that seeks to ‘rescue’ the ‘forgotten dead’:


I have several poems where I speak for the genocided dead and that’s part of the endeavor — it’s to rescue the dead, who never have got from life what they deserved, far less than that. And dead women: a theme in all the books. I mean, what did they get? What does one get? So I’m trying to speak for everyone.

[Interviewer]: To speak for everyone.

[Notley]: Speak for everyone. Yes. I make myself available. [4


Notley’s ‘endeavor’ to ‘speak for the genocided dead’ is a radical act of empathy and hospitality. She subverts arguments against collective mourning as appropriation, insisting on the urgency of recording abandoned histories. In ‘Not Enough Food,’ she anticipates charges of literary ventriloquism, but refuses to dwell there: ‘the trail of tears is fresh for the asking. in this world of ethnic deaths all over her body, Cherokee is sick of being god too… Can you presume to say Cherokee? no says Hahvahd Universitay. No says Stanford Universitay. No says Brown Universitay’ (Alma 28). Mimicking ivy-league accents, Notley questions the authority of patriarchal institutions to dictate the reach of her poetic voice (or anyone’s, for that matter). If the only marginal narratives academically endorsed are those of the massacred, is this not another form of historical genocide, which serves to silence living representations of trauma? Notley’s intention to ‘speak for everyone’ defies rhetorical appropriation: rather than assuming the agonies of others like Whitman’s ‘changes of garments,’ her poetry seeks to resurrect and incarnate peripheral bodies. [5]  She makes herself ‘available’ to ghosts long silenced by history.

‘The abyss of unmaddening’


In keeping with Notley’s conjuration of the ‘forgotten dead,’ Jacques Derrida invites us to consider a hospitality that extends beyond death, an invited haunting: ‘We need to go further and think of hospitality toward death. There is no hospitality without memory. A memory that does not recall the dead person and mortality would be no memory. What kind of hospitality would not be ready to offer itself to the dead one, to the revenant?’ [6]  Haunting and hospitality are irrevocably linked as mnemonic devices that recall and resurrect the lost other. Both require a host in order to stage their arrival. As Anne Dufourmantelle writes in her ‘Invitation’ to Derrida’s Of Hospitality: ‘The hostis responds to hospitality in the way that the ghost recalls himself to the living, not letting them forget’ (4). In bearing witness to atrocities, Alma’s collective mourning captures the tension between the turning away of survival and the embrace of death. In order to commence her epic descent, it is not enough to merely remember the dead, she must enter the underworld as a dead woman herself, voluntarily. The medium must be willing to be entirely occupied by the ghost. To take on the ‘impossible mourning’ that the revenant dictates is to become an specter oneself, a phenomenon Notley terms ‘voluntary negation’ (Alma 81).[7


The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for ‘medium’ includes the following definitions:

An intermediate agency, instrument, or channel; a means; esp. a means or channel of communication or expression.
re. Spiritualism. A person believed to be in contact with the spirits of the dead and to communicate between the living and the dead.
An intervening substance through which a force acts on objects at a distance or through which impressions are conveyed to the senses; any substance considered with regard to its properties as a vehicle of light or sound.


The concept of mediumship correlates with Notley’s poetics across several texts. In the Preface to Close to Me and Closer, she describes herself as a channel for her father’s voice, which she records without interference from her ‘rationalizing self.’ In a 2007 interview, she discussed the process of writing under trance:


I think poets tend always to write in a trance. When writing the poems in Mysteries of Small Houses, I deliberately went into a trance first, the process was ritualized… The state was more heightened. The air turns particular colors sometimes, and one feels deeply blissful, or there’s a sense of some grace as a substance — a material entity — pervading the body.[8


In her narcotic hallucinations, Alma acts as an intermediary between the living and the dead. Far from passive specters, Notley’s ghosts reclaim corporeal agency: ‘you are not in control of all matter, and we are forceful and capable of changing the particles, for example, of thought and ideation’ (81). From their underworld, the dead women wield the power to ‘unmatter’ the ‘fathers of death’ (81).


Notley rejects the ‘classical touch’ of a ‘beautiful, conservative elegy,’ in favor of the blood and chaos of Alma, an invalid, working-class addict, house-bound in her son’s attic. This is a radical new form of elegy, for want of another word. Perhaps, alongside Alma’s descent into ‘the abyss of unmaddening’ – it can be read as un-elegy. An undoing of the self / other divide through a collective chant that entails not only listening to the dead, but carving out an interiority which invites them to inhabit the host as ‘a material entity, pervading the body’:


i would die, yes and be lauded, dead, by a dead poet. i lament my own thus-fate, as in who cares, are you ready for, the beautiful conservative elegy, classical touch to your death … i am trying, blood on the scoundrel to get past the cliché pressed into your heart cycle streams of friends wander curving, to make a complication of how to live… Alma is bleeding from her forehead, catch the blood in a cup, your own, the geomatriarch deity bleeding for our cruelty, fat-assed desuetude, cannibalism, and prevarication. (Alma 22)


In the words of Hélène Cixous, ‘We need a dead (wo)man to begin. To begin, we must have death. [T]he dead … are the doorkeepers who, while closing one side, “give” way to the other.’ [9] For Cixous, ‘writing is learning to die,’ an act of self-negation through which the author invites multiple resurrections, of her ghosts and of her selves.


Notley’s ‘primary myth’ begins with Alma (meaning ‘soul’ in Spanish), who enters the land of the dead through hallucinogenic dreams: ‘at the beginning of the world is Alma shooting up into her forehead? that is our primary myth. she says and does it again to dream the desert. our second myth of being owls. these will be our other myths, not to live by for we don’t want to live by anything’ (227). In ‘preperception’ of ‘the haunted future’, Alma moves beyond ‘a frightened elegy’ toward the construction of an ecopoetics of mourning, in which ‘the land is in you, now’ (231, 46). The poem ‘Earth Speaks’ addresses the universality of loss and the impending trauma of environmental genocide: ‘i am seething with corpses and those of the future’ (171). Grief becomes both planetary and personal: ‘the land says, i am weeping through you. i am sending up waters into your weeping self. that’s why it feels like its coming from nowhere’ (46). Notley’s subaltern choral voices interweave tragic personal narratives, currently unfolding war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and legacies of ‘massacres’ such as the Trail of Tears and the Cherokee removal of 1838-9, engaging collectively with the stories of their ghosts: ‘there has been so much suffering on American soil that it arises in black shadow gauzily from the ground the fearfulness of guilt and racism. the rhetoric of this war takes no account for the shame of the past. there is blood in the ground everywhere’ (68).


The infinite multiplicity of trauma as a global phenomenon necessitates a discourse on the hospitality of mourning strangers, persons often defined according to categories of distance and difference. The ethical imperative behind this dialogue cannot be ignored. As long as certain casualties are privileged over expendable others, the necessity of disaster (be it preemptive war or the escalation in so-called natural disasters) can be rationalized as unavoidable. In order to begin the work of mourning the unknown, or those who, as Judith Butler argues, have been deemed ‘ungrievable,’ it is necessary to move beyond a figuration of mourning as bordered by the known (personalized, localized), towards an understanding of the blank face of grief: a god-shaped hole capable of absorbing anyone. [10]  Butler discusses the appropriation of particular forms of mourning for political and national purposes, and the absolute denial and denigration of other forms of mourning, those that exist outside the parameters of the preferred functional bereavements that can be utilized in the ‘working through’ of nationalist agendas:


Certain forms of grief become nationally recognized and amplified, whereas other losses become unthinkable and ungrievable… A national melancholia, understood as a disavowed mourning, follows upon the erasure from public representation of the names, images, and narratives of those the US has killed. On the other hand, the US’s own losses are consecrated in public obituaries that constitute so many acts of nation-building (Precarious xv).


Beyond this discussion on the categorization of deaths in terms of grievability is the question of how the public consecration of those deaths deemed significant in the process of nation-building, or as justifications for acts of war (for example, those who died in the twin towers), constitutes another failure in the hospitality of mourning. When we are able to approach the work of mourning those who are faceless, forgotten, or unnamable, we can cease categorizing the dead as tragic or expendable, legitimate or illegitimate, familiar or other. This cessation of ownership is an integral approach toward the threshold at which we can contemplate mourning on a global scale, as an ecological act, existing beyond the individual, beyond even the human.


Notley extends the boundaries of hospitality and remembrance toward the anonymous dead: ‘Alma asks who must i grieve for today. i do not even know who they are’ (147). Alma interrogates the rationalizations of sanctioned torture and collateral damage that underlie the war on terror:


And have you
been       forgotten      now that you’ve been declared too few
your corpses too few to be important. (178)


Alma offers what Derrida describes as an ‘infinite mourning’ for casualties of ‘an endless war, that is, both infinite and unconfined, a war that can never be internalized nor externalized.’ [11] Her ‘forgotten dead’ exist in a state of perpetual anonymity, in keeping with Derrida’s ‘arrivant’:


[Who] surprises the host … enough to call into question, to the point of annihilating or rendering indeterminate, all the distinctive signs of a prior identity… [T]he absolute arrivant does not yet have a name or an identity … I call it simply the arrivant, and not someone or something that arrives, a subject, a person, an individual, or a living thing.’ [12


As a figure of ‘absolute mourning,’ the arrivant bears the mark of a ‘bottomless wound, an irreparable tragedy’ that ‘one inherits without ever coming to terms with.’ [13] It is not possible to fully mourn the arrivant, because the dead stranger is inherently unknowable. Her arrival bears the inheritance of an infinite and spectral wound, one that can never be closed. It is, according to Julia Kristeva, the ‘secret wound, often unknown’ that manifests as diaspora. [14] Because of this ambiguity, mourning for such an entity must move beyond specificity, beyond the qualifying borders of selfhood and otherness. Such mourning would be ‘absolute’ in the sense that it knows no ‘prior identity’ – it mourns the impossibility of mourning, the ‘infinite distance of the other.’[15] The nameless ghost calls into question the concept of mourning as a finite process of grieving for a specific loss. The arrivant shatters the fantasy that mourning is a quantifiable act particular to an individual death: ‘It is absolute mourning, mourning of life itself, but mourning that can neither be worn or borne (no life can put on such mourning any longer) nor go through the ‘work’ of mourning’ (Derrida, On Touching 50).


‘Absolute mourning’ cannot be ‘worn or borne’; it can neither be expelled from one’s body nor cast aside as a garment. This faceless grief exists beyond the capacity of any individual. For Alma, it takes a chorus, and requires a willingness not only to elegize the dead, but to join them. Notley’s ethical responsibility toward the abandoned dead recalls Antigone, the archetypal figure of unburial, who, as punishment for her subversive act of burying (and then reburying) her brother, was herself buried alive. Butler has argued that Antigone is compelled by a cognizant manifestation of the death drive, given the known consequences of her refusal to comply with Creon’s edict that her brother, Polynices, remain unburied. ‘Antigone is already in the service of death, dead while living, and so she appears to have crossed over in some way to a death that remains to be understood.’ [16] Butler’s reading of Antigone speaks of an ethical responsibility toward lives that exist outside the parameters of ‘productive,’ socially-endorsed mourning. This analysis reveals the empathic hospitality of mourning strangers, an act that necessitates a ‘transfiguration’ of the self:


The drama of reciprocal recognition begins when one consciousness finds that it is lost, lost in the Other, that it has come outside itself, that it finds itself as the Other or, indeed, in the Other. Thus recognition begins with the insight that one is lost in the Other, appropriated in and by an alterity that is and is not oneself, and recognition is motivated by the desire to find oneself reflected there, where the reflection is not a final expropriation. Indeed, consciousness seeks a retrieval of itself, only to recognize that there is no return from alterity to a former self but only a transfiguration premised on the impossibility of return. (Butler, Antigone 13-14)


The mourning of strangers necessitates a reciprocity that unfolds as consciousness becomes ‘lost’ in the Other. Transfiguration occurs when one seeks to return to the prior self, only to find that such a return is impossible. The psyche is transformed not only by the recognition of this internal difference, but also by the impossibility of returning to its prior status. Such mourning requires a borderless hospitality, unqualified by the limits of selfhood or otherness, which is willing to transgress those boundaries with the knowledge that this trespass is permanent, that one will emerge forever changed.


The dead women’s ‘voluntary negation’ is an act of corporeal and linguistic violence: ‘this work is an attack’ (Alma 59). The chorus moves beyond literary speech, toward the shape-shifting dissolution of corporeality. Passing through the ‘abyss of unmaddening,’ where they begin a series of metamorphoses, Alma conjures a poetics of creative destruction (82). The women enter ‘negative space,’ where tyrants are ‘unsung’ (111, 81):


we will negate ourselves totally. all women must now be negative, do not participate. do not … give in … do not exist… because existing now is to be part. […] do not do or be anything… withdraw into our space … into our space … the space of the dead. (Alma 48)


Notley interrogates the history of a nation paralyzed by a violent cultural amnesia, which ‘doesn’t care to remember, remember histories, to single out ghosts it prefers / to be filled with them’ (Alma 233). Alma illuminates ‘the echoes of old ‘massacres’ embedded within the Bush administration’s rhetoric of pre-emptive war and permissible torture (Alma 231). Notley fuses and fluctuates elegy, epic, and literary shamanism to her own purposes, enveloping local, cultural and global bereavements: ‘this is not a fiction as document: it is proposed as vision to be deployed for instruction, weapon, solace, or nothing at all’ (Alma 81). In doing so, she returns to the poet the ‘shamanic’ powers of ‘seer and creature owl,’ offering that which appears as desert ‘poison’ as the medicinal equivalent to a needle in the third eye (Alma 328).


‘The height of the wound’


In ‘The Mark Upon Me,’ the dead women trace the scars that represent their collective history, pre and postmortem. This is the beginning of their morphological transformation. Something nonhuman enters Alma through ‘the abyss of the wound’ (45):


the mark turned out to be an owl face
the mark upon me owl face / vulva can you see?
who was it who marked
Can i contain the words for reason
      fifty thousand feathers?
She claims residence inside my body
      as if it were normal
i become a woman-sized owl, become
myself, an owl (27)


The ‘hole in forehead’ created as an injection site is now a portal through which Alma becomes a deity: ‘there is no god but Alma’ (81). Through a catalog of traumas, intergenerational scars are reconfigured as ‘saint marks’: ‘What will the dead women tell you? / We know what a mark is, it is god’s scar (41, 27). The scar is a sign of regeneration and a signifier of divinity. Alma articulates the hospitality of the wound: it hosts new tissue or infection. It invites growth, whether from within or external to the host. It is only through descent into the subterranean ‘syntax of marks’ that the women can cast aside the ‘stitches’ imposed on their mouths: ‘at the height of the wound you are free’ (185, 102, 92).


Alma’s heroin-induced wound catalyzes her deific ‘emergence’: ‘the shamanic circumstance all of this flows from my feathered head after the syringe’ (121). Her descent into the underworld, metamorphosis, and consumption of hallucinogenic ‘poison,’ all parallel shamanic practices in North and South American indigenous cultures. In his work on literary shamanism, George B. Hutchinson explores the ‘relationship of ecstatic performance to cultural crisis and development …. Ecstatic transformation gives the visionary a method of responding to environmental change.’ [17] Alma embodies a ‘howling planetary grief’ that is, in Notley’s words, ‘larger than a city or a country, sometimes larger than a planet. It seems to fluctuate between being specific people, a nation, more than one nation, and an intimate void.’ [18


Descent into the underworld is a common motif in shamanic mythologies, and is often correlated with bird guides. Margaret Stutley’s introduction to Shamanism illuminates many correlations with Alma’s journey. ‘Whether the shaman is ascending or descending [her] soul leaves [her] body. Accompanied by helping spirits and the souls of [her] ancestors [s]he makes a vertical descent from the Earth through successive subterranean levels or regions called ‘obstacles’… Goldi shamans cannot undertake the subterranean journey without the bird spirit that ensures their safe return to earth… During the underworld journey the shaman often appears to be dead.’ [19] Alma and her chorus pass through various regions of the underworld. They voluntarily enter ‘negative space,’ where they encounter the ‘guardian of the earth,’ and begin their metamorphosis. They continue through the ‘emergence basin,’ a desert landscape that exists in the core of the earth, toward the ‘gully’ at the center of the desert, similar to the Mojave Valley where Notley grew up. Here, they resurrect as a ‘new species’ of ‘ghost flowers,’ from lingering traces ‘half decayed but standing on the earth’ (Alma 118, 341).


In ‘The Feminine Epic’ (1995) Notley described The Descent of Alette as a ‘defiance of male tradition’ in which the heroine symbolically murders the subterranean ‘tyrant.’ Yet, she conceived of her epic project as unfinished, in a statement of intention that anticipates the existence of Alma nearly a decade before her arrival: ‘I still want to write an epic… I want to discover a woman’s voice that can encompass our true story on conscious and unconscious levels, in the literal present, witnessing more than one culture … a woman’s voice with access to the mystery of the dream’ (‘Feminine’ 180). In ‘Homer’s Art’, she interrogates the poverty of feminine voices in the Western epic tradition:


Both of Homer’s public stories … are generated by a war and are male centered – stories for men about a male world. The epic poem is taught in universities as the epitome of achievement in Western poetry – a large long story full of ‘cultural materials’, usually involving a war either centrally or peripherally … ‘Thus, how could a woman write an epic? How could she know if she were to decide the times called for one? Meanwhile we ourselves have experienced a rather strange faraway but shattering war.’ [20


Alma is rooted in calling forth, and listening to, the discarded voices and blank spaces that exist in the wake of a war that is, seemingly, open-ended. Through her, Notley suggests that mourning in the face of an unending war, which acknowledges the inherent unknowability of the casualties of such a war, requires the invocation of old gods and the creation of new ones. It requires an epic – it is an epic act, at once personal and global, intimate and abstract.


Notley was influenced by the female protagonist of the Sumerian epic The Descent of Innanna. She describes Innanna’s journey into the underworld, her sister Erishkegal’s domain. Her motivations for leaving the living are ambiguous: ‘Why she goes is not explained except that the underworld has attracted her focus’ (‘Feminine’ 174). In order for Innanna, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, to return to the Upper World, she must ‘find a substitute for herself, for her death: someone to take her place.’ She ascends surrounded by the galla, demons from the Underworld who will ensure that she sends back a replacement. Innanna finds that everyone she left behind has mourned her – all but one. ‘Her husband isn’t in mourning, but happily sits on her throne; she fixes the eye of death upon him, as her sister had on her’ (175). Like Alma, the moral of Innanna’s resurrection tale is that we have an ethical responsibility to mourn the dead. Failure to mourn elicits dire consequences. In both epics, the male patriarchs’ refusal to grieve is linked with a desire for power. Innanna’s narrative is also, as Notley explains, grounded in the unconscious: ‘Innanna is a long, chanted poem [that] contains mythological or dreamlike action, the kind of action women do participate in, at night in sleep, or deep in their psyches, when they tell themselves secret stories about their lives … almost without knowing that they are’ (175). In the nocturnal trance of dreams, Alma and Innanna enter the land of the dead and undergo a series of trials, through which they seek to ‘destroy’ the violent men who have ‘usurp[ed]’ their thrones (Alma 78, 125).


Alma’s intention to resurrect the ‘forgotten dead’ also parallels the Egyptian Book of the Dead. As Jon Davies explains, these funerary texts were designed to escort the dead towards daylight, rather than the darkness of the grave: ‘The spells and incantations of the various books of the dead were aimed at bringing the dead “out into the day”, which as a title would be a much more accurate translation of the purpose and spirit of the books… The Egyptians called them “Books of Going Out into the Day.”’ [21] Evolving over many centuries, these spells and incantations provided a guide to navigating the afterlife (Davies 31). Death is followed by a journey entailing a series of trials that pass judgment on the deceased; if the result is favorable, salvation is attained. Alma’s traversal of the netherworld ends with the dead women’s emergence into the desert ‘gully’ and final metamorphosis as ‘ghost flowers.’ The posthumous embodiment of light is a recurrent theme throughout their travels: ‘dictator, in the dictation the light escapes – that is, he is next. because there’s always a next drastic focus up there. the light from their corpses splitting open, and from the beetles which were eating them, is their – doesn’t have to be a word. oh what did you say their light was’ (169). The wounds of the dead are illuminated. Light is elusive, linguistically and materially. Light escapes the dictator through the act of dictation – it threatens to claim him next. Light defies language and authority: it ‘doesn’t have to be a word.’ It shines from corpses and the insects that consume them. This indifferent glow binds together the dictator and the dead through the beetles that ingest their flesh. In the end, we are all carrion.


‘The Bleeding Negation of the Word’


The dead women ‘avenge’ the atrocities committed against them through the negation of selfhood in favor of a collective ‘cell,’ from which they can influence events on earth. The inhabitants of the underworld ‘retain certain ancient shamanic or visionary powers, which allow the projection of images in public arenas, that is mind space, for the purposes of haunting, cursing, omenizing, and terrorizing those who would harm us or innocent others’ (81). Alma offers the following instructions for ‘How the Dead Women May Operate from Negative Space’:


there is sufficient peace in each of our deaths to maintain a universe of light: but we retain a compartment of loathing in each as a weapon; that we would as soon kill a leader as follow one; that to kill means to negate you before us, to void your identity so it is like ours, though less rich (your great ignorance) if you interfere at all with our lives, now passed in voluntary negation[.] (Alma 81)


Each ghost preserves ‘a universe of light,’ alongside ‘compartment[s] of loathing’ that serve as weapons. Wielding their ‘shamanic powers,’ the dead women construct an underworld ‘terrorist cell’ capable of ‘unmattering’ those who threaten them: ‘can we / qualify as a terrorist cell asks a burrowing owl/ we want to scare you scare you away … from my terror cell i declare you non-existent’ (204).


Owls are a recurrent totem throughout Notley’s poetry. Her brother, a Vietnam veteran who died of an overdose after suffering years of post-traumatic symptoms, was transformed into an owl in ‘White Phosphorus.’ In The Descent of Alette, her father was symbolized by an owl who offers Alette the weapons required to defeat the tyrant (a beak, talons, and feathers). In a 2007 interview, Notley elaborated on the origins of owl imagery across her published work:


The word is a pun on my brother Al’s name, and then on my name too. At the end of ‘White Phosphorus’ I have a vision of my brother as an owl after his death … As my father’s name was also Al (and others in the family) the pun, and totem, really spreads. So in The Descent of Alette I gave the animal identity finally to the father, who as the owl in the poem has become his ultimate self and is Alette’s teacher, her guide into the possession of owl powers, her instructor in killing the tyrant from the psychological point of view of an owl — a clean kill, a blow from nature… A totem is a point of identification with another species — it can also be a plant — with its talents and powers. (Conrad, 2007)


Totemic alliance involves a willingness to discard one’s humanity, to identify ‘with another species.’ Alma first becomes an owl-deity; the dead women are eventually resurrected as ‘ghost flowers.’ It is customary for a shaman to have ‘a twin spirit in the shape of an animal, which becomes the chief spirit or alter ego.’ (Stutley 7). Birds have long been associated with shamanic rites, especially those involving descent into the underworld. (Stutley 13). Owls carry a particular significance; among indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, owls were believed to bring shamans in contact with the dead, grant nocturnal vision, and enable the recovery of lost objects. [22] Owls frequently feature in variations of the Orpheus myth found in indigenous cultures throughout North and South America, including the Pomo of Northern California, in which owls spirit the deceased Orpheus figure into the land of the dead. [23


‘Alma as owl’ testifies to the supernatural powers of those fluent in the language of the netherworld: ‘i am the night bird you must fear, owls particularly are believed to bring prophetic tidings to the few great countries who can interpret their language. / i am that language’ (207). The totem animal’s language was believed to be a variant of the secret shamanic ‘spirit tongue’ (Stutley 17). According to Margaret Stutley, knowledge of bird language enabled a shaman ‘to understand Nature’s secrets, and to prophesy.’ Often such knowledge was gained by eating a snake or another magical animal; the dead women consume ‘a table of snakes’ during their travels (148).


Led by Alma as shaman, the chorus chants ‘binding spells’ and constructs ‘curse tablets’ to combat the unfolding wars in Afganistan and Iraq: ‘i bind Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld, and their tongues and words and deeds; if they are planning war for today let it be in vain. Beloved Earth restrain them, and make them powerless and useless’ (105). Found throughout Mediterranean antiquity, binding spells, or curse tablets, are prayers in which the author requests the gods (or a dead intermediary) to harm another on their behalf. The texts were inscribed on thin sheets, usually metal pierced with nails, with the intention of influencing by supernatural means the ‘actions or welfare of persons … against their will.’ [24] The bound tablet was buried underground or underwater; graves were the most common deposition site. According to Valerie Flint, ‘the preferred graves were those of people that had died by violence, ’ whose souls were believed to ‘remain restless until they had reached the occasion of what would have been their natural death from old age, and wander about their graves and cemeteries, particularly at night. Such souls were thought more likely to give help, through an enhanced degree either of animation or bitterness’ (Flint et al 16).


In order to reach a greater number of diasporic ghosts, curse tablets were often placed in battlefields, mass graves, or places of execution. In addition to the dead, various deities were invoked in the spells: ‘Hermes, the escorter of souls to the underworld, Persephone or Kore, the bride of Hades, … Hades himself and the underworld witch-goddess, Hecate, were appropriate powers to appeal to, as were the Furies, the avengers of those that died by violence. Earth-mother goddesses in all their manifestations were important too, such as Demeter and Ge/Gaia’ (Flint et al 44). Alma’s spells call upon the divine aid of ‘Beloved Earth,’ Hecate, Persephone, Psyche, and Eurydice (Alma 105, 282, 312). In addition to curses intended to alter the circumstances of an individual, ‘prayers for justice’ are another distinctive category of curse tablets. These texts called upon the dead and deities to intervene against an injustice or crime, often an act of violence or theft (37). Alma’s ‘Curse Tablet of Dead Women’ is both binding spell and prayer for justice:


      may the men now ruling wherever on earth, elected or not, be bound; the rulers (call them that) of the United States, may they be bound.
      and we, the dead women, ask justice for all the wrongs done to us in time: we demand the binding of dead men still puissant in their evident rightness, as displayed in literature and written history, in mores and cultural practices sanctified by long usage: we ask that those dead men be bound, at last. we ask the binding of their tongues and limbs. we demand the binding of the tongues and limbs of any who would usurp our power in present or future, as male presidents, leaders, elected or self-appointed, directors of institutions, all men of wealth, and also men of no apparent stature, who would steal our power. may your tongues and limbs be bound indefinitely.
      bind them before they complete the binding of the earth. this prayer to all natural force within and without us; bind them and leave them bound. bind them before they complete the binding of nature. (125)


Alma’s rhetoric echoes the texts of Mediterranean binding spells. Specifying the paralysis of ‘tongues and limbs,’ she seeks to silence oppressive leaders in word and deed. Yet this is a symbolic invocation; she acknowledges that it may not appear to physically alter the actions of rulers: ‘though your deeds have powerful effects; but you will observe, in your binding, that notions of heaven dissolve: for we cast you into the negativity of our lot’ (125).


Through their own ‘voluntary negation,’ the dead women wield the ‘power [of] our syntax our marks our reflections and conversations, as scribe, as names, as light’ (81). As specters, they are capable of ‘dissolv[ing] heaven’ and ‘negat[ing]’ the rulers of earth — past and present, living and dead. This ‘unmattering’ is a hospitality to the wound as the negation of the border between the body’s surface and its underworld; binding is achieved through bleeding:


i am losing something she says a sort of literary substance. everything i was that was made up is leaking out…
i am bleeding because letters were ripped out. so i could be this. now no one wants to kill me. i don’t know what word i used to be.
in the beginning was the bleeding negation of the word      at this point      wake up … there cannot be a because now      the dead women when the letters have been ripped out (281-2)


Blood pours from the wound so that metamorphosis can occur, a transformation of the body and the word. Literary substance is erased, all that is fictional (‘made up’) leaks away. Letters are ‘ripped out’; dead women are no longer represented by the singularity of language. This subversion enables them to escape violence (‘now no one wants to kill me’). Through linguistic and corporeal negation, the dead women elude both causality and harm.


The last section of Alma, simply titled ‘Rites,’ charts the dead women’s final act of alteration and erasure:


woman with a broken body. woman with a decayed lower body beautiful woman      brunette with no flesh on her lower body it’s bone      and there isn’t even a leg there, look      on that side! she is writing      she’s a member of the new species. (341)


Her ‘broken body’ is fatally ‘decayed,’ yet she is rendered ‘beautiful’ in the absence of flesh. Even as her corpse fades to bone, she continues to write, articulating the emergence of this ‘new species.’ Decomposition is regenerative; another life, and another text, flourishes from her posthumous wounds.


‘Ghost Flowers’


Following their ‘emergence’ into the desert gully, the dead women undergo their final transformation, ‘the first flowering’: ‘in the Sumerian underworld ghost flowers call says the Guardian … i can see you says the ghost flower it is called seeing and it is to know that you have a ghost in the gully’ (301). The ghost flower, or mohavea confertifloera, is an annual found in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of California, Nevada, and Arizona, the landscape of Notley’s childhood. Through the medicinal properties of desert plants that promote wound healing (such as the barrel and beaver tail cacti), the dead women evolve into a ‘new species’: ‘the ruthless flower ignores you in order to bloom … often colonizes disturbed areas such as abandoned dirt roads. i am the new species. i am an old flower. can often be found on dirt roads and pipelines disturbed ground.’ (326). The ‘disturbed ground’ ‘colonize[d]’ by these floral ghosts recalls the burial of curse tablets at sites of mass violence. From this abandoned landscape, Alma reincarnates flowers marked by lingering subaltern traces: ‘the mark on the ghost flower is of her ghost. is it the ghost? not precisely, it is rather how that ghost can continue. in this myth …. they say they are resumed and bloom up into mind’ (233).

Ghost Flowers, or mohavea confertifloera
Ghost Flowers, or mohavea confertifloera


‘Ghost flowers’ ‘bloom’ from the ‘decayed’ remnants of women buried in disturbed ground (341, 233). These spectral flowers remain haunted, themselves. Their ghosts reside in their scars, the marks that recall the violent acts which brought them to the underworld. Yet these haunted marks are also regenerative: ‘it is how that ghost can continue.’ In order to bloom, they must ‘ignore’ the living, but once they have ‘emerged,’ they embody an elegiac hospitality:


this is the Guardian’s elegy, so much is beautiful if you don’t do anything but look at it or be it who does that but the dead and the hidden in the gully i am the Guardian of all dead bodies and their plants they become and small animals among them endangered. is there anything worth doing except being here? (231)


The ‘Guardian’s elegy’ reveals itself only to those who are still enough to ‘do nothing but look at it or be it’ – in other words, only the dead. It is an elegy written for and to the dead, by the Guardian of their bodies and ‘the plants they become.’


During their floral metamorphosis, the dead women consume their ‘daily datura,’ the plant commonly known as jimson weed, a hallucinogenic and poisonous herb traditionally used in Native American sacred ceremonies (343). They ingest ‘poison enough to permit our luxurious growth in death,’ enabling their resurrection as flowers with the capacity to regenerate themselves: ‘i am alive now flower      the flowers can pollinate themselves      as can many desert annuals’ (327). ‘Self-pollenation’ represents an infinite cyclical return:


the dead can come back to      and there are so many of us to
I am summoning all of you      and our no seeds gain a means of dispersal
the dead always come back and all the dead women who have ever
are now beneath this tree      with their poison       my     
this is my poison no this is our poison no now            in this beginning.’ (328)


The beginning of the ‘new species’ is catalyzed by a ‘summoning’ and a ‘dispersal.’ ‘Ghost flowers’ require no cultivation, no seeds, only poison in order to blossom. They have erased any dependence on material sustenance: ‘we are salvage from air within air’ (327). Yet they invite the hospitality of a reader, the silent act of ‘looking’ that is bearing witness (231). To return to Cixous, ‘we can be killers of the dead, that’s worst of all, because when we kill a dead person we kill ourselves. But we can also, on the contrary, be the guardian, the friend, the regenerator of the dead’ (13). Alma invites us to be the guardians and guests of dead women, to inhabit their underworld: ‘anyone damaged come here and join the new species’ (338). In the current climate of ecological and humanitarian disasters, in which trauma is a virtual contagion, we are all damaged, to varying degrees. Conversely, we are also complicit, to varying degrees, whether by action or inaction, in the creation of trauma and diaspora. For example, as a dual citizen of the Unites States and Australia, I am governed by countries that stage geopolitical conflicts which displace refugees, then incarcerate those seeking asylum. We are all, in some sense, beholden to dead and dying women. The question remains, do we kill them again, or do we open the door?



[1]  Alice Notley, Alma, or The Dead Women (New York: Granary Books, 2006) 81, 13. All subsequent references to this edition are parenthetically cited in the text as Alma.

[2]  In her essay, ‘The ‘Feminine’ Epic,” Notley discusses the deaths of her brother and stepdaughter and how those losses influenced her drive to write an epic poem. Coming After: Essays on Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005) 171-2. All subsequent references to this essay are parenthetically cited in the text as ‘Feminine.’

[3]  Alice Notley, Preface, Close to me and Closer … (The Language of Heaven) and Désamère (Oakland, California: O Books, 1995) 5.

[4]  [Note 1]   “At the Mercy of My Poetic Voice’: An Interview with Alice Notley,’ The Boston Review 12 November 2013:

[5]  Walt Whitman, Norton Critical Edition of Leaves of Grass, ed. Michael Moon (1855; New York and London: Norton, 2002) 692.

[6]  Jacques Derrida, quoted by Anne Dufourmantelle, from an unpublished seminar conducted in Paris, January 1996. ‘Invitation,’ Of Hospitality, trans. Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000) 144.

[7]  Jacques Derrida, On Touching – Jean-Luc Nancy, trans. Christine Irizarry (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005) 35. All subsequent references to this edition are parenthetically cited in the text as Touching.

[8]  C. A. Conrad, ‘A Conversation with Alice Notley on Trance, Tarot, and Poetry,’ PhillySound: New Poetry, 31 January 2007: HYPERLINK “” All subsequent references to this interview are parenthetically cited in the text as Conrad, 2007.

[9]  Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing (New York: Columbia UP, 1993) 7.

[10]  Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004) xiv. All subsequent references to this edition are parenthetically cited in the text as Precarious.

[11]  Jacques Derrida, Memoires for Paul de Man, trans. Cecile Lindsay, Jonathan Culler, Eduardo Cadava, and Peggy Kamuf (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989) 177.

[12]  Jacques Derrida, Aporias, trans. Thomas Dutoit (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993)

[13]  Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx: The State of Debt, The Work of Mourning, and The New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994) 21.

[14]  Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991) 5.

[15]  Jacques Derrida, The Work of Mourning, ed. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001) 205.

[16]  Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000) 47. All subsequent references to this edition are parenthetically cited in the text as Antigone.

[17]  George Hutchinson, The Ecstatic Whitman: Literary Shamanism and the Crisis of the Union (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1986) xii.

[18]  The phrase ‘howling planetary grief’ appears in Alma (187). The second quote is from the following source: ‘Brian Kim Stefans Interviews Alice Notley,’ Jacket 15 (December 2001):

[19]  Margaret Stutley, Shamanism: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2003) 34.

[20]  Alice Notley, ‘Homer’s Art,’ Coming After: Essays on Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005) 401. For more on Notley’s epic poetry, see Page DuBois, “An Especially Peculiar Undertaking’: Alice Notley’s Epic,’ differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12.2 (2001) 86-97.

[21]  Death Burial and Rebirth in the Religions of Antiquity (London Routledge 1999) 29.

[22]  Keyser, J. D., C. Pedersen, G. M. Bettis, G. Poetschat, and H. Hiczun, ‘Owl Cave’ Oregon Archaeological Society 11 (1998): 116.

[23]  Lila Wistrand Robinson, ‘A South American Indian Orpheus Tale,’ The Journal of American Folklore 85.336 (June 1972) 181-183.

[24]  Valerie Flint, Richard Gordon, Georg Luck, and Daniel Ogden, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome (London: Athlone Press, 1999) 1.

Lindsay Tuggle

Photo courtesy Lindsay Tuggle


Dr Lindsay Tuggle is a poet and literary scholar. Her poetry has been recognized by several literary prizes and appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She is currently completing her first scholarly monograph, The Afterlives of Specimens: Science and Mourning in Whitman’s America. Her research examines the space between science and sentiment, the historical moment of convergence at which the human cadaver is both lost love object and subject of anatomical violence. An essay based on the second chapter of her book is featured in The University of Iowa’s Walt Whitman Quarterly Review: at Lindsay’s research has benefited from numerous grants and fellowships, including The Australian Academy of the Humanities Travelling Fellowship and the Kluge Research Fellowship at the Library of Congress. Photo courtesy Lindsay Tuggle. You can read an interview with Lindsay Tuggle on the American Civil War here.


You can read a long interview with Alice Notley in the Kenyon Review here. She says, inter alia, ‘This is perversely the result of my living in such intense solitude in Paris. I am quite isolated here, though when I visit the States I am probably too social. Here I am mostly alone, in my apartment, a condition that at first implies an extreme condition of “I” but somehow winds up as a “we.” I cannot be French, but am I really American or anything at all except a member of the human species?’

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