Culture of One by Alice Notley

Patrick James Dunagan

Hecate is the bestower of "luck," associated with the underworld, the moon and "crossroads." She is "She who works her Will." I interpret her symbolism as the representation of female instinct and intuition, the guide that can help one choose the best direction (at a metaphorical crossroad) via the gifts of the unconscious. She can come as dreams that reveal what is hidden from conscious thought. Hecate is the carrier of torches in the dark and the guider of transformation.

                          -- Hoa Ngyuen, "An Interview," Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics

Only one person at a time says it, even if, as at the beginning of the world it is the myth made up by everyone.
                           -- Alice Notley, "Women & Poetry" Coming After: Essays

Alongside poets such as John Ashbery, Bernadette Mayer, and Joanne Kyger, Alice Notley resides in the top tier of greatest living North American poets consistently worth reading to this day. Her work refuses to meet expectations to plateau out in some kind of boringly predictive Stevensian grace as "the Tradition" encourages all believe the fate of the elder to be. In ever-changing fashion her poems consistently challenge, arriving full of vigor and unrelenting in demands made upon the reader. It has become more and more evident that her writing continues to evolve not just because she'd be bored with her work otherwise, but because the work demands her allegiance remain to the writing first and foremost. This doesn't always make for easily enjoyable poetry.

Her latest published collections, such as Alma; or the Dead Women (Granary, 2006) and Reason and Other Women (Chax, 2010), prove extremely trying at times, offering few easily recognizable points of connection to what just may be happening or where the writing is going. Words, lines, and any sense of her using poetic 'forms' appears fragmentary, broken off mid-thought, and undeveloped fully. There is cohesion, ultimately, but reading through these works from cover to cover is a rather grueling task for even the most shit-happy reader. For those who are not likely to bother with these more grueling texts, Notley's latest publication Culture of One allows for a different display of her interests and the considerable dexterity of her practice.

In many ways, Culture of One is one of Notley's most accessible books, imminently more readable by a much wider audience than the recent others mentioned above. The book is quite novel-like, possessing a clear set of characters and events which move along in a more or less plot-like structure, similar at least superficially to recent video games and the resultant films they get turned into. In a recent interview posted on-line at Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics, poet Hoa Nguyen addresses the narrative drive in her own work as an expansion of what she originally finds in Notley. She speaks of having found herself brought into the position of needing to "reevaluate my relationship to narrative in my poems and understand, differently, what Notley is after when she speaks of stealing story from the novel and putting it back into poetry where it originated." Nguyen goes on to cite Notley's statement: "What a service to poetry it might be to steal story away from the novel & give it back to rhythm & sound, give it back to the line."

With Culture of One Notley achieves just such a result. The poems demonstrate the skill of a virtuoso alchemist of the experimental line easily dropping any obtuseness of expected poeticizing with a refreshingly cavalier demeanor. At points this work confounds with its basically narrative impulse but it's clear throughout that Notley remains one with the poem underhand. Readers familiar with Notley will find a furthering of interests from her previous writings that is both new and worthwhile without being overly burdened, while those readers unfamiliar will not find the writing as off putting as they might some of her other collections.

Finding variety in her own writing is nothing new or objectionable to Notley herself. In her essay, "Thinking and Poetry," from her collection of essays Coming After, she declares, "I find being a poet something that must start again all the time; I'm always reinventing my practice, discovering what I believe is true and how to express it." While Culture of One turns away somewhat from concerns shown in her other latest published works, it remains in many ways a return to, or at least a continued exploration of, concerns first appearing within her previous collections published by Penguin beginning with The Descent of Allete, continuing with Mysteries of Small Houses and Disobedience.

Such a return is not at all surprising since all of Notley's later books are cantos of a Whole; one long Poem which comprises her mature writing life. She seems always to be writing and it is always in the form of a long connected sequence(s) strongly defying any chronological reasoning. "Allete" for instance first makes appearance in poems near the end of Houses, yet Houses was published after Allete. Her composition practice arises from out her inner psychological/emotional states and is threaded along her memory/vision of life. It is intensely autobiographical at core but not limited to Notley's own specific experience or for that matter any other individual perspective. The chorus of voices is that which is heard and demanded for by the poem. Notley as poet is only the venue into which the words flow and through which they arrive to the world of her readers.

Recently, poet Zoe Skoulding, in her critical article "Alice Notley's Disobedient Cities" published in the Feminist Review, describes Notley's writing practice as one of "exploration not only of literary space but also of the material and political spaces with which it is imbricated." Such exploration continues with Culture while being further expanded. As Skoulding notes, the earlier works take place in cities and share a "motif of descent" which is not quite the case here where the only descent is one taken by the poet herself prior to commencing to write. Notley is engaging her own imaginings of a remembered place and time that is both factual as well as not. 

Notley undergoes a descent into the folds between her conscious and unconscious states in order to write. I recall watching a video recording made of a community writing workshop she gave in San Francisco shortly around the time of Houses appearing and she encouraged participants to try such a practice, imagining digging a pit into which to lie one's self down in the dark and therein greet whatever poem is to be found. The peculiar tale told in Culture of One arises from out such darkness. It tells the various stories of "Marie" (very much a Hecate-like figure) and her dogs living in the town dump of a small desert community which is vaguely situated sometime in an American southwest of the 60s or 70s, but could just as easily be the 90s, and unfolds within a dreamy but nonetheless hard, precise realism.

As the poems progress, Marie's own story opens to intervening tales of the other community members with whom she has contact: from the pack of teenage girls who play at being Satanists and terrorizing each other as much as Marie, to an aspiring young rock star on the way down, due to drugs, as she rises to Fame, as well as a local shopkeeper who serves as stand-in suitor to Marie, amongst others. This is a poem of imagined memory which defies any conventional restrictions or expectations. One way to describe the imagery behind its narrative drive would be a series of inter-connected dreams derived from too much over-exposure to B-movie exploitation horror films shot on back lots of the 70s. The grime is everywhere and the poems are embedded within it.

While on one hand there certainly isn't much in the way of fun and good times to be found here, a sense of necessity is pervasive. This is a story that requires being told. Notley is very clear that she writes poems for the sake of the poems and not herself. As she states (again, in her essay "Thinking and Poetry"), "In the face of what must be said, does it ever matter if one says, 'i' or not, if one tells a story or not, if one uses certain forms or not? Say what must be said." In Culture of One, as she has been consistently for these last several years of writing, Notley holds true to her impulses, maintaining a drive of living the writing as it presents itself to her. When things get difficult they remain difficult. Pride does not come into it and neither does pity. Like Jack Spicer writes to Lorca, "Words are what sticks to the real." Without much fanfare or concern for what may come, Culture of One offers a meaty and firm grasp a hold of the real.

Culture of One
by Alice Notley
Penguin, 2011
ISBN 978-0-14-311893-0
$18.00, 142 pgs




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