Culture of One by Alice Notley
Alice Notley kills me. Some vestigial mental piece of furniture drops on my foot, or a bad tooth falls out of a necrotic brain cell, leaving room for something entirely new. Everything stops while my consciousness adjusts. She kills me and brings me back in a different place. While many poets have to chase the lint of thought and feeling with a butterfly net or something used to skim the surface of an aquarium, Notley is magnetic: a poetry force field. Dreaming about her, you find yourself there and you write the address on your skin. It gets in. Notley gets in. She uses language in defiance of its purpose and achieves exquisite emotionality. Jean Valentine and Gerald Stern also astonish this way: the poems get into your veins and become part of your cellular structure the instant they settle in your mind, yourself. Feelings that alive become your feelings, jump the synapse. When you ask what just hit me -- the answer is transformation.
Culture of One is devastatingly beautiful, moving and original. It is, as it says on the back of the book, "a novel in poems" without a table of contents. Marie is a woman who lives in a shack she builds (several times, as it is burned down repeatedly by mean girls) at a dump in Arizona, but she used to live in a house; it was burned down with her baby girl inside, by a man she slept with once. Marie reminds me of homeless people I've encountered. People who live in the woods off the bike path and won't move even when offered housing. You reel from the magnitude of psychic pain, the trauma that forces someone into extreme isolation. Marie has removed herself from our culture, but she creates a new culture of mercy and love. She documents the collective I.
Well into this volume of persona poems, sometimes the poet-narrator speaks, with clarity, but offstage, as in "The Book of Lies." This, she says is our culture:
Do you believe this stuff or is it a story?
I believe every fucking word, but it's a story.
Don't swear so much. Aren't we decorous? What
Is a culture?
It's an enormous detailed lie lived in, wrought beliefs,
A loving fabrication. What's good about it? Nothing.
It keeps you going, but institutionalizes inequality, killing,
and forced worship of questionable deities; it always presumes
an absolute: if no other an absolute of intelligence and insight.
The lore of certain people -- men -- what you're referred to.
At times the narrator leaves this town in Arizona and brings us from "the Buy-Rite but there it was / on the corner of rue Laffitte and rue La Fayette on that darker / intersection of rue Charbol and rue d'Hauteville, anywhere around me," which sounds like France, where Notley has been living for many years. The narrator reveals what happened to the "real Marie," near where Notley was born in "Lapis Fumble": "the real Marie was run over twice, in the 60s by army / jeeps: the army arrived for war games in the desert."
The culture Marie creates is absolutely not the one described in "The Book of Lies." In Marie's culture, mercy erases and replaces accumulation of wealth, war, corruption and other abuses of power. Marie has no money. At one point we discover that she receives a small check from an anonymous donor monthly. Mostly, she barters.
Marie is creating is a codex: "a true dump / manuscript, a book of pages of any paper, cardboard / covers, with text and illustrations in ink, crayon, the occasional blood, / and other pigments exactly at hand -- char-black, rubbed leaf." She has enemies: evil girls (and, tangentially, their fathers) and she has Mercy with her numerous long arms for touching people. Mercy speaks sometimes. Leroy lies all the time until he gets a kind of truth serum, or venom. His love Ruby is dead, but she speaks to Leroy, reluctantly. He disturbs her deadness, foiling her attempts to continue to transform herself.
With Notley, we encounter thinking as it is being thought, thoughts with a beating heart. We see how a self, the essence of humanness, goes about its day and night, nearly invisible. Exceptional artists can build a room or shrine for this unquantifiable essence. They can use whatever building materials are available. And what if the energy the room is built around swells; what if you're Mercy incarnate? This from "Retraction":
You have become too large for your identity larger than the room
you sleep and awaken in, the details of it as mask recede, as you fail
to remember why you were worried, what age your face.
These loves too miniscule cannot pull you to mask earth,
a grounding in the demands of status and risk, passions of girls and kings
Then why does mercy exist, if she doesn't care in particulars
if nothing one does moves her, vile or affectionate?
Marie seems to merge with the goddess Mercy:
All she does is use her power, continuously to forgive. Why act then?
I found myself with so many arms I could do nothing but
touch whoever reached towards me. My hands did not hold
objects -- as in some depictions -- they didn't have time to hold things.
Could I ever become too large to touch you? But I'm
not aware of each touch. But one arm must be holding the pen,
Marie holds the pen in "Word Door":
Walk through the word door, Marie. It's my own word,
a head with long ear-planks on top, tusks, and a nose from hair-
line to lipline, rectangular. I'm listening to you, the word says,
with my ear-planks. The word is red-ocher, black and white.
I'm going to tell it stuff. The man set fire to my house, because
he wanted to. He didn't have an e-co-nom-ic motive, why
comes later, a traitor in words.
Eve Love is Marie's daughter, a rock star who suffers from addiction. She cuts herself frequently.
[...] screaming with lost
hate—drowning in emotion, can't find its sides for pity's
sake. It won't let her out.
And later in this poem:
Marie's fascinated by this hateful music. Leroy's crying
like Ruby's leaving him again. But it's Mercy who has left
for one night; you're alone, can't you take it? I've got to think.
Unplugged. Languages of despair are dispersed through
the atmosphere, in terrible colors; my powerful daughter's
In "Your Clothes is Messed up," Marie remembers the pyromaniac she calls R; he's haunting her. In "The Geode's Promise," she's preparing the letter R for her codex:
What more can be done to me? She says. Plenty, it says --
she's painting the letter R in the bathtub; it's being cleansed.
I'm very clean, says R. Why am I the only one you washed?
I'm not telling myself why, Marie says. Is it because
I'm the first letter of the name of the man who burned
you and your baby? I wish that I could never think again,
Marie says. And now, and now I'm not thinking. She
paints a bird in the sky above the bathtub, which sits
in the desert in front of the Old Woman Mountains. The
R leans back in the tub, relaxing in the suds.
You could almost call this interaction with the letter R an ars poetica, but Notley instructs on creating things, as in "Embracing the Shark":
Marie discusses the subject with the letter as she paints it:
You're shaped like a fish, and you stand for embracing the shark.
I am probably a glyph, the letter says to her, sanctimoniously.
You are a damned shrunk shark. The woman who is also shrunk
is riding in your mouth, legs inside, torso out, and she looks ahead
at the water. You don't eat her legs. Why not? Because
you're embracing back, and that's how you do it. There's a funny-
looking bird standing on your head. I want to eat your legs,
the letter says. You're a letter not a shark, and it isn't me.
Alice Notley is a radically human poet. Her vision of a world where evil and corruption are replaced by Mercy, a goddess with arms touching everyone, is alive in this stunning volume.
Culture of One by Alice Notley