Culture of One

by Alice Notley
Penguin Books 2011
Reviewed by Diana Arterian

“my smoothing wilderness of righteousness”

Alice Notley puts forth work of quality at a startling clip – about thirty books in forty years, with each volume of poems markedly different from the previous. She won me over with Descent of Alette (1996), which I happily discovered organically after reading her notes on her late husband Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets, then her At Night The States, and finally Coming After: Essays on Poetry, in which she includes her lecture on the feminine epic and what inspired Alette. Like Alette, Culture of One is a book-length poem—“a novel in poems,” as Penguin advertises—with a female protagonist. Visually, the book is dense—multiple poems on each page, four to five long-lined stanzas. With this form, Notley explores the potential narrative of an actual woman, Marie, who resided in the dump near the desert town where Notley grew up.

Notley is known for provoking self-hypnotism, or placing herself in a trance, or simply pressing on her eyelids until phosphenes begin to show themselves, all in order to access something otherworldly for her work. She often channels the resulting visions/voices straight to the page, which is a lot of Culture of One. Her writing is most oblique in the first several pages, with voices shifting within poems without any delineation. Notley moves the perspective from her narrator/self as poet, to self in France (where she currently resides), to Marie, to the personification of Mercy, to the character Eve Love (a local cum junkie rock star whose wonderful “song lyrics” Notley peppers throughout the book: “you’re the one who cares, my glittering eternal self / my smoothing wilderness of righteousness”). In the beginning, it is as if Notley’s having a conversation with these individuals about the undertaking of the book: “This poem is for me, I said, I’m trying to know something.” A lot of the writing is amorphous and difficult to follow in this first ten pages or so; but it all feels like trepidation, if anything, about approaching the character and story of Marie.

After these initial difficult pages, we come upon the book’s namesake poem in which Notley provides such tactile and direct information it’s a bit of a shock: “Marie made things in the gully…she wrote things on paper discarded in the dump and she made figures out of wood and rocks and cord” She tells us of Marie’s art, her many dogs, and her continual rebuilding of her shack after Satanist teenage girls periodically burn it down (along with all her detritus art and writing). The final line of “Culture of One” punctures the crux of the book, when Notley asks Marie, “What are you going to do when they burn up your shack?” Her answer: “I don’t care, it’ll still be great here.” Marie chooses this life, this culture of one, even at so great a cost.

Notley takes this basic knowledge of Marie, of Buy-Rite manager and pathological liar Leroy, and Eve Love, and weaves the narratives together from otherwise disparate circumstances. Initially, Marie is isolated – she only interacts with Leroy, who provides her with hose water and expired food, and with the local teenagers, who smear shit on her shack and eventually discover more cruel forms of terror. Marie is a conduit for revelation, showing others more about themselves than her personal mysteries. At one point, Leroy convinces himself that Marie has eaten one of her dogs. He asks her about the dog: “What happened to your white dog, Marie? I don’t have a white dog. But Leroy knows she swallowed it, her soul/ She ate it… Don’t tease me, she says. Please./ She takes her stuff and leaves. Leroy’s afraid he’s had a sick/ train of thought.” The teenage girls are waiting outside the Buy-Rite: “She’s looking at me! one screams;/ her dog’s gonna bite me shrieks another. They make a lot of noise and run away.” Marie is a vessel for “sick trains of thought” for the locals. But her emotional livelihood is with her dogs, in pieces of art she creates, in her eventual creation of a codex, as well as her visions, though her visions often touch on a dark memory she knows to be the cause of the lace-like scars on her body, but she cannot fully remember.

Eventually, those who rotate around Marie come into closer orbit; their stories and experiences become more entangled and violent. Significantly, the women in this book—Marie, Eve Love, Mercy, even the ringleader of the teenagers—re-realize themselves through difficult experiences, emerging with a greater sense of purpose. Marie in particular is striking—she is of her own accord and wields a wild agency: “Marie was run over twice, in the 60s, by army jeeps…they didn’t expect to see her walking by the road, with her/ dogs, so they didn’t see her. They ran over her. Twice./ She got back up”.

Marie’s story is also the narrator’s story; the narrator continually collapses herself with Mercy, Eve Love and Marie: “Marie’s scars are lace—/ and mine are poems”. She spins multiple selves into a convoluted whole. As the entire final poem, “Marie Alone in Meaning,” states, “It means that I make perfect sense.”