Culture of One

Culture of One (Poets, Penguin) BY Alice Notley. Penguin (Non-Classics). Paperback, 160 pages. $18.

The cover of Culture of One (Poets, Penguin)

Alice Notley started in the late 1960s as a fiction writer and has always, as a poet, maintained an interest in plain diction and storytelling. She has long been, also, a master of the visionary mode, and so her new collection, Culture of One, is double-voiced. Her title implies that “one” is an outlaw creating a stand-alone world, but the book advances the parallel argument that to make culture is to be mystically inclusive: “I am more powerful than a president; I am a charmed and desperate / poet speaking to everyone.” A dust-devil swirl of scenes set in a busted-down town in the Southwest, Culture of One projects a dream realm, an American hell that just might, for a few fierce souls, be salvageable.

Notley’s renegade is Marie, a scavenger living at the dump out in the desert, who may or may not have lost her baby when a drifter, who may or may not exist, burned down her shack. Marie is collaging a book called “The Codex” out of junk. In her book—Notley’s book, the book of culture—other characters emerge: Eve Love, a meth-amphetamine-addicted rocker-demiurge; a cohort of mean girls who kill Marie’s dog; a melancholic named Leroy who owns the Buy-Rite; Leroy’s dead wife, Ruby; a Satanist chick with good intentions; and the goddess of Mercy. Notley moves hallucinogenically among these guises, in short poems strung continuously across page breaks rather than sequestered in their own allotments of white space. Common to nearly every piece is an autobiographical “I” who orchestrates the other personae. Notley grew up in Needles, California, where, apparently, she really did know a dump dweller named Marie. Such authenticity is urgent, since, “You have to keep caring about the ones you were placed in life / with.” But authenticity is not the same as knowing “who one is”: “The mask is what you use; it isn’t a fake, it’s a mask.”

Like much of Notley’s poetry, Culture of One evokes a love for the ballad form and a rage against patriarchal violence; here “semi-naked girls with vinyl buttocks” who buy into a misogynistic status quo serve as foils for the poet’s own scathing refusal. “This is a sorry culture, babe,” the Moon—who might be Satan—tells the Satanist. “You have to make your own.” To Marie, the burnout Eve Love delivers a matching exhortation: “You can escape a corrupt old age, Eve / Love says. Come with me, poetry mother, to an inevitable / horizon, along the hot and grey path of the negative way.”

The via negativa refers to Saint Augustine’s path to knowing God by understanding what he is not. Add to that Marie (Mary, the poetry mother) and Eve and Satan and Leroy (le roi, the king), and Notley’s hardscrabble poem-story expands toward Blakean epic. Bearing persecutions and writing her way toward truth out in the gullies, Marie becomes a kind of female-artist desert father, an eremite who doesn’t avoid other people. Her consciousness is an effect of language: “never real, but hurting; / I hum between the letters where I am evinced.” This is lushly beautiful, but Notley ends the poem—titled “Rake My Dismay with Crystal Nails”—in the voice of “I” speaking frankly to herself and her avatars. “I don’t want you to suffer; // I don’t want to, either.” Of course, they—we—suffer anyway. Culture feeds on suffering, which is why, for Notley, some of us should try to make a different one.