Why, in experimental poetry, is there so often intelligent vocabulary, an undercarriage of informal (as opposed to formless) form, and a first person pronoun with a bar through it? What’s become of the warm I, I, I of Stein, the paternal queries of Stevens? Today, even the interiorities of Seidel or Lauterbach sound personable –friendly! – compared to the disembodied authority – is this the voice of God or of a CEO? Or are they merely resisting the wash of subjective sonorities, i.e. Garrison Keillor’s poems o’ the day?
Fragmentation of self reads as a source of pride or of agonized reflection. Doesn’t that line capture the passive voice of today’s poet? For decades, women and others condemned to a localized ghetto – the socio-economic untouchables – struggled to define and assert an I, lacking as they did an authoritative white male identity that assumed the First Person unquestioningly. Now it seems women refrain from asserting a self to abjure an Olds-ian or Kenyon-esque emotionalism (read feminine hysteria). Or as Alice Notley puts it in her new collection, Culture of One: “Me. I’m not very real. I worked at that: I can’t stand/ the fiction of living.” (13)
Culture of One channels the voices of Mercy (the Virtue personified); Marie, a French-born homeless woman camped in an American desert town; her friend, Leroy; his dead wife, Ruby; Eve Love, Marie’s meth-addicted daughter; a cruel teenage girl who names her Doberman Satan; and the poet herself, writing the poem in Paris. Notley identifies with the lost – with those who love and lose what they love. Hers is a diction of tenderness, of fragmented invention and memory.
In Alice Notley’s imagined town, a nest of amateur Satanists, petty miscreants, and supernaturalists are making mischief. The poet interjects herself into the action, commenting on her own motives and on the characters’ virtues and vices. She draws the reader’s attention to acts of compassion, cruelty and violence. She throws into the mix jesters, boulevards, and poets named Rousseau. Notley’s Arizona (from the Spanish for “arid zone”) is a cacophony of perspectives although the multiplicity of voices exposes Notley’s inability to create individualized voices. Rocker Eve Love ruminates in the same tones as her genteel vagrant mom, and Marie and Mercy and Leroy – except for occasional lapses – sound just like the poet languishing in Paris. A Culture of One should be, in the anthropological sense, a distinct language, cuisine, and habitat. In these poems, despite the various perspectives, there are no regional accents. Just a poet, ventriloquizing. And who is she?
I’m my own poet. You don’t need a poet; you don’t need
Anything but a big store. You don’t even need yourselves. And
That’s fine. I guess there wasn’t anyone to write to. I
Did it for the universe of ghosts; half coyote, half motel. (106)
Meanwhile, the would-be Satanists, teenaged Bacchae, kill in a madness of erotic violence -- and the poet comments: “everyone’s such a hack ritualist.” (39)
Notley’s heroines are Marie, the woman, and the concept of Marie as la sainte mere le Dieu, the sainted mother of God; and Mercy, an old woman of Dieu wandering in the desert, who asks: “What if I am the primal quality by myself – that which/ exists before time; because once in time the being/ splits, errs, in relation to the other, in the eyes/ of the other; and so, one of the two needs forgiveness” (122). From Paris, Notley imagines Marie, scarred emotionally and physically by an earlier tragedy, beleaguered by mean girls, and finally, bedeviled literally to death. What disposition this story serves – or the randomly inserted autobiographical anecdotes -- remains mysterious. What does it all mean? The poet refuses to say. Go ask Leroy at the Buy Rite. He’ll ask his dead wife.
Elena Rivera’s first full-length collection, The Perforated Map, begins with a quote by Lorine Niedecker: “In us an impulse tests/ the unknown.” The reader should then ask, what impulse prompted these poems? They are not impulsive -- rather considered, respectful, rich in quoted antecedents: Yourcenair, Douglass, Weill, James, Oppen – powerful voices of particular times and places – while the poet’s time and place remains uncertain. We look for clues in “Ars Poetica”:
I am drawn to explore aspects,
Features of the seen/heard,
Which limp still catch light,
Colors, twigs of hope…
The soundless features of today
Of today holds
Unwittingly the lineament
Returns the words home,
Opens hinges. (13-14)
The impulse is a medical museum of hands, sinews, and lineaments, and the poem is an “effigy” -- the uninhabited representation of body. Perhaps impulse becomes “this large/Bittersweet/ pull” (11) toward exploration, the “hinge” of perspective “(Hesitant at first then filled with aphorisms.)“ (69)
A celebrated translator, her brief biography notes that Rivera was born in Mexico and raised in France, and yet, despite or because of English being her second or third language, her lines are supra-conscious of the fluidity of English. You hear powerful vowels, a range of assonance. Perhaps the “o’s” in “Disturbances in the Ocean of Air” are letters of hunger and surprise or hurt:
Did my thoughts choose this commotion?
I wanted to compose under the overpass
So as not to hear the roar of the city. (15)
The alliteration acts as push pins perforating the “map” of sinuousness, adding muscular contrast and friction. That’s just on the aural level. Visually, Rivera interweaves the words of Douglass, Yourcenair, et al, into poems that read as the interior landscapes of the “I” – a crosscut prospective, subjective and empathetic:
My destiny brought me here,
bought me a scrap, two shames,
one island behind brute sheaf.
I land in red language scarves,
silk scraps on a fractured lens
of a subdued design. (78)
As these poems repeat vocabulary, they become Piranesi architectures. The book’s four sections, each named “The Perforated Map,” repeat individual poems verbatim, presumably changed or charged by what has transpired before; in its end is this book’s beginning. Colors abound, and jewels; do they represent virtues as birthstones represent loyalty, devotion, and accommodation? Do tacks marking places visited perforate Rivera’s map? Are these emotional destinations places of the heart, places conquered or dreamed of? What of these references to slavery, addiction, junkies and the other “perforations” of the modern world? Riviera’s I, echoing Poe, Plath, and Shakespeare as well as her personal canon, tells a tale of a “culture” departing. Her poems, like Notley’s, become signposts marking “Words [that] are changed by refraction.” (18)
And I? – that’s just another change of course.