On a book tour of his novel about art and war, Anil’s Ghost, Michael Ondaatje tells a tale of moral responsibility, an Indian fable of a King who wakes up to find a corpse tied around his neck. Every time the King buries it, and the corpse returns; try as he might to dispose of the body, the corpse keeps returning. Songs and Stories of the Ghouls occupies a similar terrain; this experimental book-length movement of verse, prose-poetry and poetic prose in three movements represents an attempt to give voice to the casualties of violence, violation, genocide and war, all imagined as feminine, or who are feminised.
Alice Notley’s verse enacts different lives, stories and endings for these women whose lives have been rubbed out of history, or who have been the subject of monstrous and misogynistic classical myth-making. In Notley’s conjuring, Dido’s importance is not as Aeneas’ tragic lover; if Carthage is destroyed, it is also resurrected; Medea did not kill her sons. Other female “familiars” are also present in the text – for example, Echo, Lady of the Animals, Lady of the Mountains, broken female torso(s) of classical antiquity statuary, the “Palms Motel” woman whose dead body the coroner inspects – these relentless, restless female spirits clamour to be heard. They refuse to stay in one place; they refuse to stay in one shape; like Lady Lazarus, they also refuse to stay dead:
You cost me my house and body
when I come back a Medea
to haunt your controls I’m no
poor girl now; have you seen a
black cape like this? I can still
shake you up by pressing my finger
to your chest […]
Songs and Stories of the Ghouls is a dense, ambitious feat of feminist philosophy where to sing of the dead, to sing as one of the dead is a performative enactment of feminist rage, a spirit-possession poetics that enables the ghouls to emerge:
I will enter their space
late today & become enraged
I will know exactly how much it has cost me
to be a woman.
As an imaginative conduit, the “I” changes, shuttling furiously between different “familars”, presided over by the figures of Medea and Dido. The poetic subjectivity is substantial yet is also a hollowed out, a performative echo of her predecessors “in images and carvings of sounds”. That such a womanly collectivity is possible is confidently asserted, “I see the pasty face of a white/ woman. But/ I see everyone else/ Somber inside me”, yet the line breaks indicate the holding of a paradox; subjectivity constitutes a kind of strategic essentialism in Songs and Stories, but is also put under erasure in the Derridean sense. Proper nouns are stretched to breaking point as the narrative “I” is always in conversations with other shadowy ‘I’s, or the former suddenly turns into some other self. The present is but an ever-present loop stitch within the covers of the book so that the passing of time is also a exceeding of the temporal. Needless to say, this deliberate undermining of conventions and this level of complexity and allusion make for difficult reading; poetry that is, as the narrator says, “a different shape that follows”. Yet the invitation to enter this space is beguiling; the “I” of the poems speaks directly to the “you” outside the page, singing of”’real country” of the poem: “I’m messing with your head. Why? So you can see a story. All of us want you to see it. How are you doing this? Magic.”
Contemporary poetry today is dominated (perhaps) by the lyric mode framed in small luminous well-wrought urns or comely artefacts. Songs and Stories is of the epic mode, where the adventures of heroes are narrated or where the founding of a nation is sung. These are, of course, heroines of a different kind of nation. For all its complexities, it is wonderful to see philosophical ambition given such orchestral power.