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“exquisite emotionality”: A Review of Alice Notley’s Culture of One
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.
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.
Now don’t you want to read the brief middle? You do. Make the jump.