This poem arrived in my life with the force of a benediction. More prosaically, I kept seeing Alice Notley as a tag on things I liked on poetry Tumblr. Alice Ordered Me to Be Made is a great title, and I am easily swayed by titles in poetry, so I put it on hold at the library. At the very end of the book, there’s this poem, which seems to bear no relation to its title, “30th Birthday.” But this poem is here at a time when I need it, and I assigned it the relation I need it to have.
Before I returned Alice to the library, I Xeroxed “30th Birthday” and taped it up on the shelf that forms a wall next to my writing desk. I made a picture of this ad-hoc Alice Notley shrine my phone’s lock screen. This was a cool way to accomplish two goals at once: memorizing a poem and reminding myself to spend less time staring at my phone.
On a 60-mile bike ride, I kept reciting “30th Birthday” to myself through mud and sticks and city roads, past industrial ruins and a deer who dove into the canal, past trees and towns in three counties of Illinois. May I never be afraid. I came home with the poem still stuck in my head.
Let’s step into this poem and investigate my obsession.
First of all, there’s form: choppy, switching from one side of the page to another like ribs along a spine or branches on a plant. Lines with only one or two words grasp my focus, drawing me in like the stars in the universe “whose blackness is air.” This poem is a great exemplar of the type described in this excellent interview: it communicates "an atmosphere, or state of consciousness" rather than a straightforward narrative.
Poem-reading involves lots of pattern-matching, looking for ways into the poem’s logic, especially with one that’s pretty abstract in its language and balanced on some cultural references (Ali, Brando) that I don’t fully get and find a little problematic. (That is: I wouldn't choose to equate darkness with fear and to use a famous black boxer as the stand-in for this part of oneself. For further reading regarding fear of a black body, read Claudia Rankine, forever. So I don’t want to dismiss this aspect of the poem, because it definitely diminished my enjoyment of it the first time through. But I'm giving myself permission not to focus on it here.)
I read the pattern of short lines as a kind of punctuation in a poem that otherwise has barely any: they give it texture and tell you what’s most important: “but” and “lace” and “as life”; "She" and “I do.”
If the (visual, printed) form is a scaffold, the words themselves are what’s built upon it. (Duh, but stay with me here.) Another couple patterns that build on the scaffold to structure this poem are performative utterances and conditional logic statements. Both of these have fascinated me and wormed their ways into my own poems since before I found “30th Birthday,” and I’m a little dismayed that I don’t think I’ll ever do them so well.
The whole poem leads up to “I do” which is a performative utterance in the context of a marriage ceremony. “I do” means “I affirm this marriage, it is decided, it is mine.” Saying it makes it take place. In the poem’s world, “I do” has the sense of “I affirm my living strength” — a glorious and powerful sentiment to tell yourself. Coming after “I’d take me too,” “I do” arrives as a radical act of self-acceptance. It’s also the only end rhyme between two lines in this poem, at once playful and incantatory.
Returning to the beginning, the “May I”s read like a prayer, another kind of performative language act with another kind of power. And then there are the conditional logic statements that link “May I” with “I do” — “If I’m dark I’m strong” and “If I’m alive I’m strong.” There’s deep logic: strength follows from life, as if mathematically proven. If this, then that. And the whole universe and all its empty-space potential follows from “my own darkness,” which I take as a reminder not to neglect the parts of oneself that might inspire fear: the emotional parts, the dream parts, the hidden too-muchness. Those are the parts with universal strength. That’s what you draw upon when you knit up the “starry / lace” that’s the material of your art.
This is also a very satisfying poem to read out loud, with repetition on the word and sound level. Just say “the mantilla is lace / whose black is oak” a couple times and tell me you don’t feel like a powerful wizard letting all those “l” and “k” sounds lilt out of your face. It can’t be done. You are, in fact, a powerful wizard now. Aren’t you glad you opened this email?
On top of self-acceptance there’s also a lot of embodiment in this poem, another theme I love the heck out of and that Notley does so well. There’s Ali’s body, itself an act of speech and truth-telling as the first stanza describes it. There’s Marlon Brando crushing some violets, apparently. And there’s the ending: “a kind body.” Once you say “I do” to yourself, once you take yourself in all your chaotic darkness and violet-crushing life force, you can have this kindness contained in your physical presence. That’s something to aspire to. Kindness always is.
My 30th birthday is this Friday. I need reminders to never be afraid, especially of myself. Thanks for the birthday gift, Alice Notley.
PS: Send me a poem you love for my birthday. Just hit reply. Or, heck, send a postcard to the address below. If you feel strongly moved to spend money to acknowledge that I am awesome on the anniversary of my birth, please donate to the wonderful organization where I work.