Spirit of Speech in Notley’s Certain Magical Acts

In Alice Notley’s Certain Magical Acts, there is one narrative voice that wishes to be more. In between frequent calls for more voices, the narrator in Certain Magical Acts pushes for a new language, a language of accumulated voices. The voice-collector narrator switches between historical and contemporary modes, hovering in a zone of reverberance. Switching back and forth between an ancient voice and contemporary one, an asclepiadic line and free verse, every magical act is a moment of reverberance between historical and contemporary voices.

In Voices the narrator states that “I am always the spirit of more than myself—/ See the shade of more cling to me as shade, if I’m an image/ if a soul is” (31). The voice of “the spirit of more than myself” is the product of what Hegel describes as art over the course of history in The Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel’s narrative of historical change involves a direction and continuous division of spirit. In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel characterizes history as the process of a single immaterial thing—spirit, unfolding. In terms of art, beauty gets to know itself better and progresses through history, working towards perfection. According to Hegel, the architecture of ancient civilizations was the beginning of beauty in its symbolic stage. This stage progressed into its classical phase, where the concept of architecture was applied in the sculptures of ancient Greece. This, then, naturally progressed in to the romantic phase of music and paintings. The voices that are scattered through Certain Magical Acts embody the final form of art as beauty understands itself; poetry, sound as a speech act. These voices, however, push at the limits of Hegel’s formulation by introducing forms of lyric poetry from the classic era, working to create an inclusive language of historical and contemporary voices. The “spirit of more” mentioned above moves through several forms of art; the shade that clings to the narrator evokes a three dimensional aspect to the spirit, referencing the symbolic and classical stage of beauty. The “image” the narrator confuses momentarily with herself evokes the illusion of life in two-dimensional forms of art, like paintings from the romantic stage of beauty. Combined sonically, they all lead to the same truncated hypothesis ,“if a soul is”. The rest of Voices attempts to complete this formulation.

In a stand-alone line, the narrator brings together two voices, “Two of us, dual case, speaking at once, voiced in the one of her” (46). The unit of “us” is the narrator and an unidentified other. The specification of “Two of us” could refer to the unit of just narrator and other, or to two such units, two of “us” being four voices. The additional specification of “dual case” specifies two separate entities, separating whatever union took place in the grammatical joining in “us”. The action of “speaking at once” brings “us” together again, only to re-aggregate within “her”. In this one line are multiple unions and separations, a mimetic moment of the spirit of art entering and exiting different forms, as the voice that comes from two different sources combines inside a new form. This line seems to form the voice into a figure for collective use, that it can be combined and separated as many times possible without being altered. Thus the spirit of art, arriving at speech, can now be transmitted without danger of transmutation.

The magical act of the poem, however, is in creating the sense of transformation through combining voices to make a new, inclusive language. There is a turning point, at which the narrator states “I’ve turned to something else, turned into it” (47). This motion pivots the narrator between older and newer forms of the spirit of art, as well as to the next line in which she “Found the buried lightness.” There is immediate confusion in the next line, “I think you mean likeness.” Lightness and likeness are confused just as shade and image were in the opening lines of the poem. The fact that this lightness is “buried” implies it has been recovered from the historical process of a spirit unfolding. It has always been there, just lost in the folds. The confusion with “likeness” is not just a sonic similarity,then; there is a recognizable quality of the old in the new, but it is of the spirit recognizing itself through history. A speaker argues in that same line, “No it feels shrugged off, I’ve lost weight” implying that this is the motion of history—a shrugging off of an old form for the new (47). The flippant non-sequitur of “I’ve lost weight”, in this case, can be read as a reflection from the spirit of speech itself. The turn these lines signal bring in an older form of speech on the next page.

The shift from irregular to stitchic meter made up of greater Asclepiadic lines coincides with a shift in voice. The staggered lines reveal a voice that sounds out of place, “I am distressed, in exile/ by my own choice— /is it a wish or fate?” (48). The line is built, at the base, with choriambs, beginning and ending with a spondee. Its structure is self contained and symmetric, though the content of the lines implies a containment of different kind. The regular rhythm is interrupted by regular cesuras, represented on the page as step-down lines, creating a visual of falling as the stress rises and falls. The line seems to poke fun at its own structure—the “-stressed” syllable in “distressed” is the first un-stressed syllable.  The stress that falls on the last syllable, “fate”, seems to imply that that is the answer to the speaker’s question; another level of self-containment. However, not all the lines in this section of step-down lines fit the meter of the greater Asclepiad, although they all do contain the correct number of syllables per line. The fixed number of syllables and the irregular stress point to a problem with the template of translating classical forms into contemporary ones. The accentual-syllabic meter is the rhythm of contemporary voices; the  rhythm of the classic voices are based on the length of the vowel. Trying to map over the rhythm of long and short syllables with a template of stressed and unstressed syllables merely creates a likeness to the classic form.The weight of the syllable is lost in the process, producing an artificial lightness that complicates previous usage.  Whereas before, the “lightness” implied recognition on a deeper level, here the lightness of the syllables is a reminder of something lost.

Toward the end of this section of staggered lines, the narrator accepts the uncertainty of their position “not knowing what spirit/ in me changes/ me, I can only be its” (48). This line also begins and ends with a spondee. However, the choriamb structure is shifted, resulting in a stress pattern that is almost exactly opposite to the previous line. The cesura after the sixth syllable separates the “spirit” from “me”, only to unite them again in the next four syllables. The cesura after the ninth syllable separates the action of  change from the medium the change takes place—again, “me”. In both instances of “me” the long vowel of “e” can be heard, leading up to the long “i” in “I can only be its”. This line, in fact, is the heaviest, with the weight of the long syllables in “me”, “I” and “be”. The stress that falls on the final syllable, “its”, emphasizes the inevitable fate of this relationship, one of historical union. The voice belongs to the spirit of art, therefore all who have used, are using, and will use it share in the history of its spirit.

Returning for a moment to the line “Two of us, dual case, speaking at once, voiced in the one of her”, the reverberance of the voice from the Asclepiadic lines are apparent. The line is 16 syllables long, and the comma after “case” and “once” coincide with the regular cesuras after the sixth and ninth syllable. Without the visual of the stepped-lines, however, the rhythm of the accentual-syllabic meter sounds more organic. By refraining from the regimented structure of the variable foot, the narrator frees her voice to borrow from the classics while maintaining a natural relationship to the contemporary.

Notley’s Certain Magical Acts, specifically the Voices section follows a voice looking for other voices. Establishing historical voices through classic forms of lyric poetry, the narrator attempts to inhabit the role of voice. This role of the voice is an extension of Hegel’s conception a spirit of an idea, such as beauty, coming to understand itself though art throughout history. This voice troubles the clear divisions of forms of art Hegel makes in The Phenomenology of Spirit by using Asclepiadic lines from the classic era, which Hegel categorized through architecture and sculpture. Bouncing from historical to contemporary voices, the narrator extends language as an invitation and inhabits history, sharing in its unfolding with the reader.


Works Cited
Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. Ed. J. N. Findlay. N.p.: Oxford U, 2013. Print.
Notley, Alice. Certain Magical Acts. N.p.: Penguin, 2016. Print.


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