The opening of the 21st century has been marked by a series of cultural self-realizations. Most notably: that our material culture has irrevocably altered the planet in ways we still can’t imagine or quantify, and that our socioeconomic culture is—and always has been—built upon the oppression and marginalization of countless people. Not to say that these are new problems, only that they’ve attained wider and more mainstream attention in recent years. It’s worth bearing all of this in mind when encountering Alice Notley’s Culture of One.
Midway through the book, multiple characters—each in their own way—consider the question: “What is a culture?” And, while this is a question of perennial import, the ideas that follow are even more illuminating:
It’s an enormous detailed lie lived in, wrought beliefs,
a loving fabrication. What’s good about it? Nothing.
It keeps you going, but it institutionalizes inequality, killing,
and forced worship of questionable deities; it always presumes
an absolute… (74)
It’s this tangle of realizations—all wrapped up with the environmental and social impact of the cultures we’ve made—that bears the meatier question of who and what a particular set of cultural practices justifies. Indeed, what these practices normalize to the point of near invisibility.
The characters in Culture of One—‘tormented rock star,’ Eve Love; pathological liar (read: mythmaker), Leroy; and Marie, the book’s central character who lives in a trash dump on the outskirts of town—all inhabit the margins in one way or another.
Eve Love, embodying the grand narrative of the troubled artist who “shoots heroin of course,” steps outside that role when she decides she has to “get rid of most of [her] dough” based on post-rehab “telepathy’grams” from Marie (134-35). Leroy is the great mythmaker whose compulsive lying serves to recapitulate and deepen everyone’s misunderstandings of Marie; the explanatory framework attendant to cultural alterity. His exclusion is a more sober one, created through an eventual inability to lie:
When I was a liar I was king. People afraid of me;
I stopped being able to lie, because Ruby’s death
wasn’t a lie…
There’s nothing worth being
a part of… (124)
Here mythmaking creates fear and power—a dynamic reflecting the numerous compounded falsehoods at the heart of the political and economic life of this country.
And at the center of everything is Marie—the only one who seems at peace with her exile. In fact, seems unable to imagine anything else. And this may be the reason for her 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, there
…………….aren’t often petals out here. (29)
Marie is “building this culture out of will / and language and garbage” to prescribe, and continually redefine her own engagement with the world, knowing full well that the dominant culture, of which she’s chosen to take leave, is an unconscionable mess:
…Marie says carefully. I don’t want
to close this world in. This codex. A fortune-teller
told me I’d never be satisfied by any country, any culture,
and program in this world. On this planet. (101)
And this is only a handful of the characters in Culture of One; a litany of cultural outliers, which also includes the protean goddess, Mercy, and the Satanist girls who continually torment Marie and burn down her home. Each of them is unsatisfied by all the programs in this world; in “this far from credible cosmos.”
But, unlike Marie, the rest of them lack their own cultural (con)text; lack the ability to wrest some semblance of autonomy from a discordant and atomizing culture that excoriates acts of genuine expression. A culture of consumptive self-interment:
We’ve sold our planet’s endowment, as well as our species’
inheritance—Keep doing it! Convert the dance of grace into
excrement. The whole planet, an amalgam of magnificent
selloffs: the purchases you’ve adored, used up in an instant, all
your investments converted into sludge spread over the passive
Culture is a collection of trash. But not just that: our material culture is predicated upon constant consumption; the perpetual creation of new trash. So there’s a necessary refusal in Marie’s building her singular civilization of our refuse. Her codex is an important statement regarding the palimpsest of cultural production: that the ‘new’ is not built from whole cloth, and that the materially new need not be continually recreated.
But those unable to find peace in the dump, those who lack the means to create their own codex, are left to struggle under all that weight. And here, then, is the empathetic heart of Notley’s book: a salient poetic expression of the psychic toll such a culture takes on those who are left on the margins. Against whom acts of mental, emotional, and physical violence are committed daily with relative impunity. In fact, often without any acknowledgement whatsoever.
So culture can only exist as a rift; necessitates the exclusion of those who can’t or choose not to share or participate. But therein lies the benefit of a culture built of refuse; burned and re-burned, mythologized, despised, and misunderstood: the necessity of its continual reinvention. If all culture is inherently exclusive, then an unsettled culture, one which continually examines its own assumptions and those of adjacent social orders, seems the only solution. This is counter to programmatic thinking, absolutist thinking; thinking as an act of violence. Which is the kind of thinking that defines the world of these characters—a world that is very much akin to our own. It is also the kind of thinking that poetry—at its best, as it is here and in all of Notley’s writing—works to undermine.
As Leslie Scalapino has noted, “Culture is a transformative composite separate from individuals.” But to imagine a conscious culture, one that can be built of individual wills being collectively motivated, is to imagine a way to:
Sing the egg back into the shell. [to know that] It can be a different kind of egg.
Join us for our 35th Anniversary Gala featuring Alice Notley on Friday, November 13, 2015.
Alice Notley has become one of America’s greatest living poets. Author of over 25 books, she has long written in narrative and epic and genre-bending modes to discover new ways to explore the nature of the self and the social and cultural importance of disobedience. The artist Rudy Burckhardt once wrote that Notley may be “our present-day Homer.”
Michael Wendt is Program Coordinator at Woodland Pattern Book Center, where he also co-edits the WP blog and the tinder | tender chapbook series. Michael lives in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood with his wife and son.