I WENT DOWN THERE by Alice Notley

I went down there, played the drum, called to everyone.

I have found you because you’re there, all of you.
I want to hear what you say; I’ll speak what
you tell me to. I don’t think this is about love;
you are telling me we need a new description.
Maybe a new language, but you want to understand it.
Everything I say from now on you are saying
to me. In many languages, from many faces; I’m your mouth.

I saw you
come to me
as if you were
a god; as if
a god were the
essence of all us.

I don’t believe we can save our civilization;
I do, I do believe it.
I don’t want this poem to be beautiful. I do.
I have no skills; I have no hope; I don’t want
any hope. I simply want to sit here, in this
calm. I don’t want the electricity to fail. I
don’t want war to come here.
I sat beneath the tree for awhile. There was only
one tree left. Here it is pouring rain. The two
men are in a contest to take over the world.
They will be voted for to make it seem as if this
is what we want. Don’t ever speak to me from ecstasy,
my life is broken. Tell me what style you like though,

I need to scream: do you have that one? I want
a woman to be in office where I can see her.
The economy works like mythology, by changing the magic
in the story, like you change a person into a tree, a spider,
or a computer. The computer weaves faster than
Arachne, and outsourced casts a net of loss over us.
I see the net, it’s silver, fine, it keeps me from resting;
it whispers in my ear with its superconductive
powers, you must go to work. I am sporadically employed.
I am by nature a peasant: don’t you try to change me.
I want you to leave me alone. I am a middle-
class westerner, who deserves plenty and calm.
I am an Inuit, my world is melting. I’m an African immigrant,
trying to go home to Europe, return to security and peace,
which I remember from my human past and from longing.
I must see a woman hold power, significant power,
before I die. You won’t see that. This is no style. None
of you are thinking to me in a style. I don’t want to work
in this stupid office. Can we destroy the pyramids of power?
I mean, they’re made out of dust. You’re all just
dust and dried blood, you’re dead. You are not absolute.
Why am I carrying a peony, in my mind? I am looking
at it, white with pink streaks, to present to the monument
of our exalted state. I killed a lot of people. I will always
have done that; when I die I will have done that; when
I’m dead I will remember that I have done that. I’m
not interested in style or syntax or vocabulary. But I am.

They crowd around me in the dark; it’s hard to hear.

I’m crouching inside a dark space, near other
bodies, waiting to dock, hoping we’ll make it across
this small expanse of water. Too many bodies. I
don’t want him to take another wife . . . Do I
need him? Do I really have to have this life?
I’m screaming for food, I’m asking for grain.
There has to be enough for us, so give it to me, I
can cook anything; I can cook flour, or dirt.
I can cook locusts. I can eat grubs raw. I
can chew leaves, but the trees are dried up.
This is the story. The trickster is wearing a red
shirt. He walks across the space of the story. He
says if you make your mark on this piece of paper
and give me all your grain, I’ll give you a house and
a television, I’ll give you more stories than you’ve
ever imagined. Now I have no grain, no house,
no telly. The stories swarm in my head; the trickster
looks just like me, except he has a bushy tail
sticking out from his jeans. I have no words for
what I need. I think it is what we need; but do we
have to need something? Not very much. I’m
starting to see something, I’m starting to hear,
but I know I never really arrive. I wanted him to
love me, but then that wasn’t enough. We
gave ourselves to each other, but then
we had done that. Which one of us was more? He
was always more. I am the desire you want
to have, so you can feel yourself continuously
inside the line of desiring unwinding against
the horizon leading to infinite nowhere.

Molting, the first rush of June is now September.
Prophesy if you dare. I can no longer find any
rationale for living. My life is as small as a firefly’s.
I am always uncomfortable; often I suffer.
I go on wearing this tie, stiff as a hatchet,
around my neck. Tied to the tradition
of boss and cattle. I want more rice. I want
to see and know that rice is beautiful. I
don’t want to speak this language that doesn’t
know me. What can we do about our world?
Why do you all make me struggle? I have to put
up with these people who keep forming me. I can’t
stop changing as they tell me what to do,
even though I resist them; I say I do but
I can’t. Change will arrive suddenly for me.

Most of us are slaves, largely by consent. Or,
you could say we’re brainwashed: women are.
I don’t believe we have it so bad. I do, I work
in a shelter for battered women. I submitted to
a pharaonic circumcision. I, I have no
problems. I’m a distinguished professor in a country
that has always had a male president. I support
one of the current male candidates. I always wear
the clothes that I’m supposed to, for my status. I
have no food for my children. I’m well-off, my husband
beats me, he’s a wellknown inventor with several
patents. Who has changed as a consequence
of anything that they know? I’m sure I will change
before I die, unless I die today or tomorrow. Can’t
we tear this building down, I mean, tear it down?
There are so many of us. I propose the founding
of a country like Israel for women. I propose
the following solution for Afghanistan:
airlift out all the women and children who wish it.
Convey them to that country, the new one.
Pull out the American and European troops and
leave the Afghani men there to battle for
whatever it is they want. But it isn’t like that!
I want to move to the new country right now.
My child is dead, and I want to be with him
in my thoughts; I want to live with him in my mind.

The light took my face. That’s all I want to think about.
I only want these moments between me and the
elements. If I couldn’t see, I would still see, I know it.
I’m anxious, and my mouth is distorting: I need
to wear a hat to cover my hair. I have to
cover up a lot of parts of me. Everyone does. The
morning-glories have already stopped opening.
I want to say something subtle, but I can’t.
It’s that, now that no one loves me, I don’t mind.
I feel awkward, I don’t know how to stand up
among others. Every morning I ask somebody
what day of the week it is, to make contact.
I’m signalling to others that I’m good. It’s
now strange to live in this body. I don’t
feel at one with it at all. I’m sure I haven’t
always had this kind of body to be in:
where precisely am I inside it? I move my
toes, they’re not so far away. I don’t want
to talk to anyone, but I also have to say that.
I’m nervous about succeeding. I think
succeeding’s a hoax. I think everything’s a hoax.
I want to go back to where I once lived,
but it isn’t there any more; that one of me
isn’t here. Are we now making a style?
I speak like a person in my language, with
the wind anxiously hovering, in a receptacle,
over my shoulder. I’m taking pills for my
anxiety. I get charms from a maribout. I’m
trying to make a girl fall in love with me; I’m
afraid it won’t work, but it’s a way of making
my love take an outer shape. I want to tell
you she wears scarlet lipstick, and her
shoulders slope down. The nape of her
neck is indented. She’s very neat in appearance.

I’m roaring through your mouth, I only roar.
I am a wind of energy, I am evil, but
I can’t stop and so I rush along, seeking
gratification. I won’t stop. I don’t want to. I’ll hack
everyone to death that I can see. I’ve been
told to cut and kill with my blade. I will
do it and do it again; I will never apologize.
Why should I be sorry? I am not unnatural,
if I just am; and if the blood and smell are
everywhere, I must see and smell it again.
I have to keep knowing that this extremity
is mine. I know there are other things to do,
and we chose this. We had to. We just have to.
I was inside a house with a gangster with greasy
hair: I knew he was going to kill me. And so
I attacked him and fought him; I wanted to
kill him, kill him to get away. I had had to
strip for him, take off my red velvet dress,
but I had become too thin to strip for anyone.
I can’t be this one who’s just chattel; I
can’t be this woman who’s treated like an
animal naked in a picture for you, genitals
and a face of intelligence, but you can’t see that.
You’ve been brought up to think it’s normal
for women to be naked everywhere, and you
tell them to do this work for you. It’s just
more work. A soldier’s heart exploded, and I
was covered in his blood, it isn’t an image:
the guy has no chest. Who am I here for,
for me? I am somewhere in this damned world
killing people for you, while you conduct an
executive session in a clean clear room with
light and glasses of water. That tie again, those

No, I don’t have a private life. Or is it
everything I think? I don’t seem to want
anything others want. I don’t even know if
I want something. To be perfectly quiet, still alive
with no one pressing me. Or keeping me from
eating. I have to have money for food and to
replace my appliances. I hate them. I don’t want
community. I do. I don’t like other people’s fake
sentimentality; I don’t like their politics, or
their religion. It smothers me. I, I need to feel
something with a group, I mean, I like that.
You can build intensity; you can do good. No
you can’t; there is no good like that. And
nothing’s for women except stupid things to
say like ‘She isn’t feminine.’ I see men every-
where urging us to let them lead us once again
in this time of crisis. I want to walk away.
Leave the crisis. Throw out your stuff and
sit down somewhere; I’ve got a sandwich, have
a bite. I don’t want to eat meat, it stinks,
it stinks like dead people on a battlefield.
I say the same things all the time because
there’s repetition built into time to make it timeless.
I helped build it in, I help do everything. I
don’t wish I were younger, I was more stupid then.
I have no interest in being myself, I just am.
I’m doing what I always do with this cornmeal.
I’m staring out the back window, the dahlias
are up like I like them, again. I can
walk out and be saturated with light for a
minute. I want everything to be bizarre; I
want not to recognize anyone. I want to
sing in a voice you don’t own, that you’ve never
heard and judged. I don’t want to know where it
comes from, even though it comes from me. I
don’t want there to be anything to say about it.

I want to be
locked in this
situation where
he threatens me
then tells me
je t’aime.

I want to be in well-lit rooms with comfortable chairs,
but I wish I knew how to live. I’m walking in a forest;
I understand trees and plants. I don’t understand
the harnessing of nature to light up a city with neon —
that makes me feel like I’m living in your dream. I
hate my dress. I want to know the thing
that will justify my time, all the time I’ve spent
doing shit jobs. Stupid work. I have a ladybug on
my palm. I don’t move around very well now.
My life has slowed down, and I need to be cared for.
I give my sister back something for her care but
it isn’t money. We are inside care, because we have
to be there — it’s light and airy, though she gets anxious.
I want to tell everyone in the world what I know.
I didn’t dream for weeks and then I saw the sun bleed
like a Seville orange. My history and civilization
are literally melting; everyone knows. Waiting,
so they can drill. I already have no point of view
except that of the fallen. I have no individuality,
because I’m a deadened thing. I want to risk my life
for my country. It’s the only idea I can think of.
I’ve risked mine for my country all my life, being a poet
who is just a poet. I can’t tell you a thing.

At any moment a force from nowhere could rip me
out of my life. I could die of traffic or weather,
I could die of war or my heart. I have seen several
people die. I have seen so many die that their spirits
now seem to cling to my back like flies buzzing
in my ear only; I carry them with me as I migrate.
I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know which
country I’ll die in. I don’t know what the world will be
like when I die. What it will look like. What the air
will feel like. I now accept its collapse into an
ugly new nature. I saw a hawk in my back yard.
I saw a ladder-backed woodpecker two years ago.
I’ve seen a western bluebird, and a phainopepla.
It’s like a revelation. I don’t know how to stop
yelling at the people on the platform. No one
is kind to me; no one asks me what’s wrong.
I’m looking at them because they’re mean-faced.
My face is trying to get somewhere; I’m trying
to show you how smart and worthy I am.
I see in my mirror that my eyes are the same
color they’ve always been. They are for looking,
but you see them. I don’t want to starve to death,
but I’m starving in order to stay in this country.
I’d rather die than be deported. Give me papers,
which are so fragile, and so abstract — why
can’t I just live?

Why can’t I
just live?

I think the new language must be the inclusion
of everyone. It isn’t about technique, it’s about
inclusion. I don’t want to be included, but
I can’t refrain from speaking. I know I sound
plaintive. I sound desperate. I sound happy,
even though the world is a frightful dream.
I am standing somewhere underground, in
an underworld, with all the others. I never
wanted this. I am one of many, but I am
unique. Saying ‘one of many’ and saying
‘unique’ hurts me. I am just a record player now.
I am the dead. Or, I am a dead man. I
have never been words, but words have never
been words. In language I combine my flesh
with yours, and you with mine; my flesh
is tender, my skin aches from knowing you,
my hand can’t really touch you, but if you
say ‘I’ I’ll say ‘I’. I want to say ‘we’ but I can’t.
I can; but I think that I won’t do that here.
I take a word like ‘morals’ and try to weigh it
in my mind. It has no weight today. I think
it has, I just accept it. I don’t ever want to leave.
I like to be here with the word ‘maintenant’.
In this epoch I think that the Chinese are singing.
I think the Georgians are unhappy right now.
I think my own people are mixed up. I don’t
want to be in love. I’m tired of another’s thoughts.
I’m not, I can’t stand my own. I wish you didn’t
have to go through things I’ve been through.
I wish they wouldn’t go to war again. I
don’t think war is ever justified, it’s only
about death. I am a warrior. I’m young and
strong, and I’m here to help you. I’m overwhelmed
by your reality. I thought you were words, or a thought.

When I go to say what I think, I don’t want to
anymore. I don’t feel like I am where you are;
I’m not in the world except by appearance. I don’t
care if my words make your sense. I’m
communicating with blank. I want to say it in beauty,
or in ugliness. I like the beauty of being restored
to myself, in the pollen light, if it will stay
for us in the future. I don’t know that it will.
I think we had to be so many once we made machines,
and I love us, but I’ve always loved the other species
too, the ones that are saying goodbye. I don’t know
what to do. I’m always saying the same thing,
because it’s so important. I’m not trying to define
us, and are we different from those we kill?
I didn’t mean to kill a thing. I walk through
the program feeling blue; I hate the program today.
I don’t want to call the electrician, he
always hits on me. I brought four children into
the world. Some people have fifteen. I hate
makeup. I like it. I think politics is money,
in the Mahgreb, in France, and in the United
States. I had some money for awhile, but I spent it
on my kids. I’ve always done my job by the seat of
my pants. Why am I alive? I think god wanted you
to live. I don’t listen when someone says god. I don’t
want to talk about god. I’m god, as much as it’s
a word. I have a job that’s outmoded, I care
about words. I don’t care about them because you
already know what I mean. You read my mind.
I care because they’re beautiful. I’m talented with them,
like a musician is with notes, but there’s no system. It’s magic.

I’m so crazy I can’t know anyone anymore. I
listen to voices, see people who aren’t tangible
to others; they sustain me, and I need them. Who’s
to say who’s really here? I’m calling to him
while I’m working, can’t he hear my loving
thought? I know no other thing that means him but
flower, he is my flower. I hear voices in my
head continuously, at least one of them sounds like me.
I can’t hear myself properly — recorded I sound different.
I can see my body from the neck down, but I can’t
see my back, or my face. I am walking south.
I am going west. I breathe in allergies. My lips are
sealed, though I’m speaking. Everything I think’s private.
I don’t want the dead or telepaths to hear my mind.
I want her to love me. I am able to reach
someone by thinking towards them, partly in words.
I send forth my thoughts. I think a thought shape,
a flow and cloud, touch gold. I touch someone by thinking.
I have corneas and lenses on my thoughts. I have
stone grey eyes. I have brown-black eyes and
night-black skin with a purple-brown sheen.
I’m standing next to a pearl-skinned one with flax hair.
We’re the extremes of our animal; we will never see
our own bodies, existing for the eyes of others. But I
have my thoughts. I love to touch quartz.
I place the azure next to the vermillion. I gasp at
colors that only our species knows, cochineal,
gold leaf, or saffron, lapis, green lake. Have I come
from another world to inhabit this body of mine?

I’m afraid the way I think is an anthropological relic.
I always reflect my tribe or tribes. I want
us to be better people. I scream, Don’t touch me!
I painted my face white to mourn for them.
I couldn’t stop thinking, my thoughts kept attacking
my head; I was my angry thoughts, but I also watched them.
I don’t think you understand what a form is. It’s
what exists and you’re seeing it or reading it, listening:
try it on its own terms. I killed her because she had
been raped, I was supposed to. I’ll never get
over it, I’m going to defend it forever. I want to
touch a phantom, it’s the grey dove of truth,
Inca or Mourning. Or Scaled. White flies up
in my own breast: do you hear me? I need to
know the truth. I was once young and beautiful,
but that’s of no interest to me. I was a handsome
man with glowing skin. I am so fragile
I can’t speak. I have no food. Can you
hear me, all of you? I lost some fingers from
frostbite, I would get drunk and fall asleep
on the street. I’m dead I think and don’t have
any more memories. I was tortured so I could become
a man. I think normal means whatever
the people say, but I’m not gonna say it. Is
it normal for me to starve? Maybe here in this
place that’s always in drought. I was flooded out.
I’m waiting to be rescued by boat. For days
and nights I didn’t know if I wanted to live;
my whole tribe was dead. So, I was the tribe,
I had to live. When I die, a wreath will be placed
on us. I must be more than my tribe. I see
that woman’s back begging on our street. I think
she is Roma. I can’t make my hair go into
a shape I like. I know so much, but do others?

I expect to hear voices forever, even after I’m dead.
Everyone was raping me there in that field, crows
or ravaging tatters all over my soul. I can
barely walk now; I don’t even know who to
hate. I know what’s happening, but I let others
direct me. I let others say what our laws and
institutions are. I want to be lawless; I want
to be alone. I’ll pay taxes as a woman, if you
promise me equality, parity. If not, why
should I pay? I ran across the room to my
mother; I was bleeding from my forehead in a
thin stream. I love that color of green, as dark
as you can get. I want to be in a dark green place.
I caught tadpoles out there at that oasis and put
them in a jar, they have flat little heads. Every-
one’s thinking something different I believe,
everyone’s completely different. If you kill me in
war, you kill a unique person with memories
that light up inside me in fiery messages from
my past, my electric past. I hear a buzzing
wire in my head. I’m sickened by all the suffering
I’m aware of. If I can’t speak for everyone,
who can I speak for, a category? I can’t accept
an identity others give me; I won’t be your person.
I rest all night in the eye of a hurricane. I have seen
so much as a human. Is there no one, nothing
outside us, to whom I can show what we know?
Is there no way I can go outside myself, if
outside myself is only more of us? I went
to a place like another planet where I felt good
without wanting something. I went to the top
of a mountain and sat down alone. I wonder who I
will know when I die, if anyone. Is death human?

You used to
take my breath
away. Now
no one does.

I don’t want to bother anyone anymore, I try
to stay still. I have a fatal illness that will
eventually be painful. I don’t believe I’ll ever leave:
will I really leave? I think there’s another mind
out there beyond us. I don’t, I think it’s in me.
I think the other’s in me. If I find a you inside me,
will it be the human — the human potential —
or will it be the morning star? I am promising
to be good again. I am seeing the words I say.
When I leave to live in printed words, who am I?
I know I’m covered in old flesh and my hair is white.
I have so many ideas! I’m so full of thought
I can’t remember what I look like. I will
walk safely and in peace from now on. If I can
have peace I won’t need much else, if others
will allow me peace: isn’t peace a human right?
To walk where I want without others minding?
I’m a woman and I can’t go where I want
without being noticed. I want to be in my mind;
I want to move through this air like a slow bird.

Will I always be speaking here? I have something
important to say, but it’s just that when I was
a child, I went somewhere and saw a kitten and felt
really good. I’m full of a lot of souls, but I remain
singular. I’m tired of my anger, do humans need
anger? They have to struggle against each
other. Do they? I have always wanted to be
outrageous, but outrageous seems to be large,
the biggest sculpture in the world. I would go in my
mind where the others wouldn’t come, but then
they came. I let them in because they needed me.
I must need you, but why? I don’t know. I
don’t take anything for granted. I don’t want to
believe, and I don’t. I don’t ever want to be corny.
I’m sentimental and I like it. I take a thought
and hold it close and pet it. I’m dying on this
parched field, I know that I will rise up and
fly. I can’t remember my body from before
it was skinny. What will fly up is me and will not
look like anything. It won’t have to eat.
I am looking forward to existence without
eating and without serving men. Go out and tell
women to vote for me, he says. I want
to vote for a tree, or a star, or a bear. I want to
tear this building down. I want to have
another cup of coffee. And then someone said
to me, Why are you so fierce? But I’m not that,
that’s only in comparison, inside a framework of
our invention. Okay, I have to flee the storm again.
Or I could stay. I am being hounded for my
beliefs. I’m struggling to tell you, I’m always
in mothballs. I want to migrate, but there’s nowhere
left to go. If I could only find an unclaimed space.
If I could only dream from the beginning! I have
love, and I’m afraid to die. I don’t have love,
and I’m not afraid to die. I just want to sit here
forever with thoughts drifting through, trying not to
make my life finite. But I’m beating on a drum. For you.

 This poem was first published in Trickhouse vol. 12, 2011.