Hannah Faith Notess is a cunning poet, but her guile is accomplished directly and in the open: she is like an art thief who, even after the authorities have been tipped off, walks into a museum at midday through the front door and exits the same way fifteen minutes later without arousing suspicion, because who would ever expect that approach?
This means that we readers are left in the aftermath scratching our heads and wondering what just happened—which is saying something, because poetry fans are no fools. In fact, while maybe it is going too far to say that most of us read poetry suspiciously, like officers scrutinizing security footage for someone who looks fishy, maybe it is not. Poets are mysterious characters with many powerful tricks at their disposal, so we readers want to know as soon as possible what they are up to and whether we can trust them. One whiff of a too-sentimental phrase,a quip that sacrifices integrity for cleverness, or a cloying closing line, and we are on guard, wondering why that blonde woman is wearing sunglasses after nightfall, or what she is clasping so tightly in her leather clutch.
In The Multitude, Notess’s first full-length book of poetry, directness is accomplished through diction that is graceful but uncomplicated, images that are complex but not obscure, and a wit that is sharp but points away from itself. While some poems in this volume function as extended metaphors, they aren’t puzzles: often the titles themselves (“To the Body Carried Out of the Apartment Across the Street,” “To the Girl Playing Mario Kart in the Botticelli Room,” “To the Ghost Who Put His Arm around Me at the Camp Meeting”) direct readers to a subject, draw attention to that subject’s action, and locate us in a specific place, all before the first line.
Sometimes, the place where the poems locate us is domestic, as in “Burlington, Northern Apocalypse,” set in Burlington, Washington:
...cloud-swamped scrap of a town
swept so clean by God’s broom
all that’s left is a shuttered hardware store
and the diminished chord that rides the Doppler down
then slinks away to die in a rusted out-railyard.
At other times it is international, like the “brown bookshop on Mirza Ghalib road” in Calcutta, where “women decorate Mother Teresa’s tomb / with marigolds because it is white and bare.” In still other poems, the place is virtual, as in “St. Augustine Enters the World’s Largest Pac-Man Maze.” The trope is both hilarious and haunting, evidenced in lines like, “I seek you, my Creator, / yet pursued by heresies / and ghosts of heresies,” and, “What does the cornered / soul devour? What fruit / revives it?”
It is important to note that the settings in this latter category of poems—which also includes “Mario World” and “Yoshi (A Pastoral)”—may be virtual, but they are not vacuous. While other authors might use video games as a metaphor for contemporary disconnection or spiritual barrenness, Notess’s gamescapes are verdant with meaning. Complex relationships are playing out within them. In “Street Fighter II for a Broken Sega Genesis,” one player addresses the other:
though I jump in one direction only,
no longer master of the lightning kick, simplicity
our quarrel beautiful. My adversary, my beloved,
fight me, fight on with your one good
The most affecting poems in the book are, like this one, expressions of devotion from narrator to beloved, whether it is brother or lover. In “On the Drill Field at Virginia Tech,” young siblings watch a marching band appear on the horizon, “a distance mass of white / uniforms…. / the folding lacework / of waves at the sea’s edge.” We know, even before the narrator leads us into the future, that the children cannot remain together in this moment of joy and sound; they will grow and change, and other events unfold like dark storms across this place.
Contrast this tender reflection with the immediacy of desire in “Haight Street, Halloween,” in which the heat we are blasted with in the opening lines (“Over and over, the air blazed, / incinerated / itself. We were not yet in love….”) continues to build to the end:
How many times
the thing I wanted stayed hidden from me,
obscured by my longing?
Turn, oh turn to me, I said, without
opening my mouth.
These passionate moments are keenly observed by a dispassionate—which is not to say distant—gaze, as if by someone who is in the habit of kissing with her eyes open. This capacity is exercised with even greater intensity in a series of poems sprinkled throughout the volume about “the witch,” who does things we are accustomed to witches doing: she conjures, she spells, she turns children’s bones to knives. But she also brings dead men back to life in order to sleep with them, her carnality achieved through incantation, the body reached only through words. And the efficacy of spells, we all know, is dependent not only upon words but on exact words, spoken in an exact order—one mistaken syllable and things could go horribly awry. In this way, spellmaking is not so different than poem making; both witch and poet are serious craftspeople.
But yet another woman appears throughout The Multitude: the Blessed Virgin, in some ways opposite of the witch. Instead of reaching the body through words, she produced the Word through her body. But both she and the witch are treated with such care that while they do not meet in a single poem in this volume, we suspect that if they did they might get along just fine. Maybe that will happen in Notess’s next book.
Yes, The Multitude is populated by—dare I say it?—a multitude of places, ideas, themes, and people. Art and love and grief are there, in physical settings and virtual ones, along with history and myth, the carnal and the holy, faith and doubt, the living and the dead. Notess blurs the lines between each set, which feels, maybe contradictorily, like a clearer presentation of what it is like to live in this world.
A space is made for all of it, all of our experience, nothing excluded, the same gaze extended to that which is high and that which is low. While this is true for the book as a whole, the best example contained in an individual poem is “The Rain Falls on the Just and the Unjust,” which includes “the brown leaves and the green leaves,” the “skinny girls and the fat girls,” and “the place where we made love in the woods and the place right next to it / where we did not make love.” Notess isn’t trying to redeem anything; she blesses everything by seeing it and reflecting it back to us.
By the time we reach the title poem, which is also the final poem in the volume, we are ready to hear these lines, the authorial directness present again: “Listen, if Christ arrives to feed the multitude, / it won’t be the kind of miracle you expect.” Neither is this book; it is a different kind of miracle. Lucky for us, Notess isn’t an art thief: she is an artmaker, which is not without its own element of subterfuge. But instead of taking something away like a thief, or turning one thing into another like a witch, she presents us with a view of the thing in a way that makes it transform, before our eyes, into a truer version of itself. It is the opposite of the old magician’s trick of diversion; instead of asking us to look away, she asks us to look more deeply at what is there.
And by the time we look up, she is long gone, perhaps speeding away in getaway car or on broomstick, but more likely—and more hopefully—strolling down a side street, filling her pockets with items she will bring back to show us later.
Dyana Herron is a writer and teacher living in Seattle who works at Seattle Pacific University.