Stacked Time: On April Gibson’s “The Span of a Small Forever” and Alice Notley’s “Being Reflected Upon”

Heather Treseler reviews April Gibson’s “The Span of a Small Forever” and Alice Notley’s “Being Reflected Upon.”

By Heather TreselerApril 27, 2024

Stacked Time: On April Gibson’s “The Span of a Small Forever” and Alice Notley’s “Being Reflected Upon”

Being Reflected Upon by Alice Notley. Penguin Books. 0

The Span of a Small Forever by April Gibson. Amistad. 144 pages.

ELONGATED. TRUNCATED. TURNED INSIDE OUT. I worked recently with a colleague with whom I had not collaborated since the early days of the pandemic, and the two of us tried to describe our experiences of time in this four-year interval: before COVID-19, after COVID-19, during lockdown, postvaccination. Primitive markers aside, we couldn’t find a satisfying way to describe the radical abbreviation and elasticity of time we had experienced, the bizarre texture of it. Lockdown, which sounds like an adult version of being grounded, felt recent and long ago, its piquant forms of loneliness remembered like a barely survived illness: an interval of sustained pain, which, as a species, we might be programmed to forget.

Two poetry collections released this month—April Gibson’s debut, The Span of a Small Forever, and Alice Notley’s Being Reflected Upon—resist this self-protective amnesia and demonstrate poetry’s way of scrambling the clock. Although at different stages in their lives and writing careers, both Gibson and Notley mix the past, present, and future into a continuum that includes all tenses: one’s ghosts and one’s hopes jumping rope. Their depictions of time insist on an essential continuity, resisting cultural tendencies to sanitize the past or fetishize the future.

Gibson’s collection is substantial; it is a debut that is not a glimmer of promising talent but the annunciation of a career. Ranging from pantoums, list poems, and odes to prose poems, ghazals, a haibun, and an erasure from the Mayo Clinic’s profile of Crohn’s disease, Gibson’s poems are technically accomplished, varied in mode but not in intensity. They draw the reader into the cruxes of the narrator’s family of origin, South Side Chicago neighborhood, and a childhood complicated by religious dogma and misdiagnosis.

In the opening poem, “Recessive,” a rogue gene speaks, forecasting the poet-narrator’s illness:

         I am the slim chance
for my world premiere

The offbeat handclap
that will soon ruin the song

I am the shell game for which
you win a glitch […]

Riddle me this:

How many mistakes
does it take
to make a bad seed?

The poem’s last tercet juts from the DNA-like stanzaic pattern as if enacting the metaphor of the “offbeat handclap / that will soon ruin the song.” Here, the smallness of one’s genes and their outsized, ramifying influence are juxtaposed. Indeed, throughout the book, Gibson explores notions of nature versus nurture, biological fate, and social determinants of health as these issues concern a girl grappling with the “riddle” of an unrecognized disease, one that causes spells of acute pain in which she feels “bludgeoned […] from the inside out,” and one that results in weight loss, energy depletion, and embarrassment.

Yet a metonymic “white coat,” in the poem “Misdiagnosed,” informs the girl and her family that there is “nothing wrong” and attributes her “ruined body” to the “sin” of adolescent behavior, not a systemic inflammatory disease. Tragically, the narrator endures over a decade of suffering before being properly assessed and treated surgically. As the poem draws to a close, its couplets begin to rhyme, and these pairings (room/assume, sees/agony, white/light) deliver their own sonic condemnation:

         All that’s left is silence and quiet people in the room,
holding breath as they stare each other down and assume,

but the white coat never looks down, never sees
me looking up, as if to God, for answers to my agony.

My gaze extends beyond the pale into fluorescent white;
my body is a magic trick, disappearing me into the light.

In the aftermath of clinical misinformation, the doctor fails to look at his patient. She, in turn, projects her gaze into the fluorescence of hospital light, dissociating herself from the trauma of being blamed for her suffering. While the clinician may have godlike powers of pronouncement, the narrator has learned to excise herself, imaginatively, from the scene, a “magic trick” of her own, escaping “the pale,” in both senses of that word. In this poem and in “Nil Per Os (Post-Op Pantoum),” Gibson brings the reader into the immediate scene and its psychic epilogue as the speaker reckons with her “flesh a crater / carved apart.” In this way, Gibson’s poems mimic the eternal present of a chronic illness.

Gibson plays with time in other ingenious ways, rewriting personal and cultural narratives. She revisits months spent locked inside an Evangelical-run home for teenage unwed mothers, and a subsequent stint within a toxic romantic relationship. But as she “stop[s] listening to fathers and Gods,” she writes her own mythos, one in which love is both “sitting between your grandma’s knees” and “watching a lover’s hip become a hill to climb.” She notes, with keen insistence, “Love is the closest thing to traveling time,” and positions transcendent love as a countervailing force against elements in her environment.

In a section of the book entitled “Black Woman Press Conference,” Gibson directs her grit—and sardonic wit—toward the 2016 US election, workplace sexism, and the claustrophobia of all-white liberal enclaves. This critique is part of a larger demand that Black women claim their power to protect their tenderness. In the book’s penultimate poem, “Afterlife,” she tracks a reverse migration from Chicago to the Deep South of her forebears, embracing a cosmogony of “women with palms / big enough to swallow fists” and conjuring ancestors:

         grandmothers’ dead
grandmothers into the soul
of my unborn child
from the dry birth
before my birth
on a couch in Mississippi
we push
history through space
in time, we all return

Childbirth is figured as a process that delivers history into the present (and future), instilling old souls into new bodies. It is a positive inscription, one that counters the biological fate of inherited disease. In a collection committed to upending scripts from Genesis to catchphrases of liberal pieties, Gibson suggests that poems can rival the genetic code: rewriting and rewiring received stories.

A similar commitment to refuting, to making a habitation in a difficult world, and to fusing temporal planes marks Alice Notley’s Being Reflected Upon, a collection that adds to the poet’s output of over 40 books since 1971. A doyenne of the second generation of the New York School, Notley states in her biography that she “has never tried to be anything but a poet,” and her work testifies to that endeavor—to live through poems.

Being Reflected Upon begins at the conclusion of Notley’s breast cancer treatment, when she is approaching her 73rd year and decides to write about the 17-year interval since the loss of her second husband, Doug Oliver. Fetchingly, she wonders “what had been going on” during those years in which she had been “living in isolation in a populous city,” Paris; writing books; grieving the deaths of Doug, her mother, her brother, and her friends; grappling with the “newsworthy”; and observing life in her noisy neighborhood “once home to lepers and prostitutes.” If Gibson’s collection meditates on childbirth in connection with temporal continuities, Notley’s book is marked by grief-work, communion with souls across mortality’s threshold, and assessment of her life’s purpose.

Notley’s quest is more archaeological than linear. She is less interested in her persona than what, as a palimpsest, has been inscribed on her awareness and, thus, into her poems. What she finds is not “a chronology” but episodes of “stacked time”: events from her life hinging freely into other memories and premonitions. She figures herself as a magnet and mirror, an amanuensis of a greater power:

I discovered I was an unabashed location of unreported events of the Spirit, or Timelessness […] I tried to let as many people as possible into my mind, I changed the past the present and future by blending them. I became the one who held things together as they, the things, kept their motions going, being reflected upon me.

If readers can accept this artifice—as theatergoers accept the constancy of song in a musical—then they are in for a wild, kaleidoscopic ride as Notley’s poems dramatize their process of cognitive unfolding, much like Gertrude Stein’s prose.

The first poem, cheekily entitled “That Kind of Poem,” provides a key to her travels. As if evincing Freud’s adage that there is no greater pleasure than the sudden release from pain, Notley marks the end of her cancer treatments with a giddy delight, even if this joy is edged with the knowledge that her reprieve may not be permanent:

         It’s lovely no more radiation treatments though ev-
eryone prefers being alarmed about politics
to poetry and that’s a mistake But it’s a crisis of
course. I’m so happy not to go to l’Institut Curie
at least for months I dreamed of an empty body
last night a decision as to what necklace should be

put inside it.

From political debate to jewelry, Notley suggests that bodily concerns are contiguous with political (and poetic) concerns and that dream life is an adjunct to consciousness. Imagining her irradiated body as a vacant cabinet for jewelry, for the decorative redeeming function of art, Notley makes the poem a paean to her own survival. Movingly, in the last stanza, she observes: “who would have thought the poem says I’d be / still alive and in Paris, France for the health care / […] I can’t figure what lasts on a tiny / planet of phantasmagoria except one’s love.” Historical identity is not as interesting to Notley as tracking one’s attachments, passions, and ardors.

And these are unpredictable: to wit, a poem called “The Cure,” which chronicles her recovery from hepatitis C, is adjacent to a poem titled “Jim Carroll’s Ass,” which recalls Carroll mooning Notley’s late first husband, Ted Berrigan, with his “pearly” behind at a pool hall. Similarly, in a poem called “I Heard Him,” she communes with her dead brother Albert, befriends a heron, encounters a flasher, and sagely notes: “I don’t like being / a person. I prefer being a mind.” At times, Notley’s mind feels like a speeding double-decker bus from which we can gaze out each window simultaneously.

If her collection has a through line, it is Notley’s loves, incidental and formative, from long-term partners to someone met once on a “shuttle in Dallas.” While her work has none of the formalist fealty of Gibson’s poems, it is rooted in surprise and the mind’s overlaps, leaps, and contradictions. She asserts that her poems preexist in a celestial “green room” featuring a “stele or slab” on which there is an “ongoing change of individual letters like an old- / fashioned railroad time of departures board.”

Understanding her writing as the translation of an “original language,” Notley positions herself as the scribe of chthonic energies, the “particles” and “particulars” of life itself, whereas Gibson connects her work to the voices of ancestors, recast memories, and tableaux’s hidden base beats. Both poets seek to capture stories outside of chronicled history and the fluid experience of temporality—what T. S. Eliot termed the “mixing / [of] Memory and desire”—outside of fixed clock time. Their poems are not artifacts of objective reality, but bright bits of language and song: homages to the persistent, layered, and inescapable hum of subjective experience, the chronicity that we can’t otherwise capture or measure.

LARB Contributor

Heather Treseler is the author of Auguries & Divinations (2024), which received the May Sarton Prize, and Parturition (2020), which received the Munster Literature Centre’s international chapbook prize. Her poems appear in PN ReviewKenyon ReviewHarvard Review, The Iowa Review, and The American Scholar. Her essays appear in Boston Review, PN Review, and eight books about poetry. She is a professor of English at Worcester State University and a resident scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center.


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