The Operating System

4th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: Day 14 :: Managing Editor Lynne DeSilva-Johnson on Alice Notley’s ‘Culture of One’

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Nothing occurs by chance, Marie thinks. Not in my life.
I walk inside a lucent force, and I project it too — No,
she doesn’t think this. She thinks, Nothing’s been an accident,
but there’s no name for what’s in charge. People, being fools,
think they’re in control.” – from “The Chthonic Academy”

If I didn’t resonate so deeply with the lines above, I’d be telling you that my relationship with Alice Notley (or, more accurately, with her 2011 volume, Culture of One) began by happenstance, an impulse grab off the stairs at Book Culture, on a day like any other. I didn’t know Notley’s biography, hadn’t read her other books, as far as I could remember — and/or if I had, they didn’t stick. There’s a lot that doesn’t stick, and a lot that I don’t know, and I’m finally at the place of being fine with that.

Barring lightning striking with another chance happening (Alcalay’s poetics and politics class in graduate school) until a few years ago I hadn’t taken a poetry class since HS. It’s probably why I am able to enjoy it so thoroughly — it hasn’t been overanalyzed to the point of disassociation.

That said, the book was selected in my go-to fashion : I opened Culture of One at random, reading lines out of context, to see if it “clicked” — the poetry equivalent of listening to a few bars off a few songs of an album, to see if you dig the band.

My relationship to the poets I pick up along the way of my life is closer to an experience of the body than anything else: sensory, a guttural response to cadence, word choice, association, theme, and, if I’m lucky, the ineffable combination of these things that gives such a small percentage of the work I read that “….oh….” quality, that longed-for rare moment of real discovery, of happening upon something truly singular.

It’s the child’s found treasure, secret and sly, yet exuberant; the battle of holding close to your chest for safe keeping and trumpeting from the rooftops what you’ve happened upon. Magic.

On that first reading of Culture of One, I may have flushed with excitement in the store. Here was seductive creation, unapologetically itself.

It’s remarkable that I didn’t get lost on the stairs, reading it until being asked to leave… perhaps I wanted to be somewhere more private, leaving stealthily as though getting away with something of great value, unbeknownst to the college students working the checkout.

The rest is not history but an ongoing pleasure, ceaselessly unfolding. Scarcely a day goes by that this book is not in my bag or on my nightstand, on the subway with me, on planes and park benches, for about a year now. Yes – I read it obediently front to back at first, but now it falls like a rune or reading, wherever I need it.

Mercy walks around after a flash flood examining water;
there’s a minnow in that puddle, how did it get there?
On top of a mountain. Everyone. You came into being

the sky proposes glass to the empty promontory. I
stumble, but could I do anything else? Place
my faithful toe in mud. Sudden puddles everywhere
in this wash, and desert willows bloom, pink-lavender.

How could this happen? Going on too long
after eons of beginning, hankering to explain them-
selves, singularly. I am magic, even though
I am sad. …

from “Mudsucking”

I want to say that this genre-refusing work defies explanation, but of course it doesn’t entirely, but I resist doing so because, like the fear of photographs, I worry it might lose its soul. Like so many things I love, my gut-brain-spirit adoration of this thing is the opposite of its evaluative description, existing in spite of rather than because of the labels that place it in our canon of Name-to-understand. My desire for you is that you experience it for yourself, as I did.

What Notley has done here is remarkable. Yes, here in a way is a novel in verse, with characters and recurring themes and events and histories, but so too it is a parable, with non human and non named characters speaking perhaps even louder than those she has fashioned from clay to tell these tales.

This work is kaleidoscopic, prismatic: a broken mirror refracting the light of this blighted condition, reflecting us back to ourselves, as shattered as we are and with as many voices.

It contains, by not attempting to define or hold fast, the infinite (im)possibilities of capturing life and mind in these traumatic yet somehow still beautiful end times.

I Imagine that Rob Breszny, Margaret Atwood, David Lynch, and Tom Robbins could get down with this book, and reading it resonates in waves with the revelations gifted us in their words and images, spaces I’ve inhabited in similar awe and gratitude.

What it does, and what is does for me, is the very best thing poetry (and a poet) can do and be: live as a question. What can the poet be/do? It asks, What can a novel be/do?


What can a world be/do, 
what can a human be/do
what can the spirit be/do?


Unsure as I am to the answer to all these things, surer of this lack of surety than anything I know, that space of questioning is my home, my safe space.

I think frequently of the spiritual advice to remember that you are “in the world, but not of it” and Culture of One can serve as a guidebook to this path of alterity: here is language behaving badly and as such doing the best and most powerful work of language, capturing without strangling, contrasting and challenging, out of order, refusing to be denatured by structure, somehow alingual, questioning narrative and self and other, questioning late bourgeois capital sanity…and its limits.

A connection with this line of questioning, a release from what we tell ourselves and have been told language does and is, what the world does and is, what the body does and is: this is the first real door to freedom of the mind. Which, of course, is not without its harsh realizations, here right alongside where they belong.

This is secretly a very revolutionary book. It’s a prayer, an environmental cry, a philosophical treatise, ultimately a harsh critique of western civilization, and yet a compassionate, nonviolent, humble, even-handed consideration of the folly of all its characters, and all of us by extension.

At its best, at our best, poetry and humanness are here, but not of here: transcending the trappings of this moment, and reminding us that we, and all this, are more.

“Do you believe this stuff or is it a story?
I believe every fucking word, but it is 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 it 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.

This is Marie, thinking, though she wouldn’t use this language;
this is also Eve Love thinking, though she’s young enough
to bang her head against the wall thinking it: Marie would rather
reinvent the world for herself. This is Leroy thinking, who knows
more about lies than anyone. This isn’t Mercy, or Ruby, or
the Satanist girl, or the girls, or their fathers thinking.
The Satanist girl almost things this; but she can’t love
skepticism. It would make her cry. I, I don’t think.
Except as a device. I think thought is a device. To get there.”

“The Book of Lies”


We could not be more thrilled than to let you know that if you’re in New York City, you have not one but two opportunities to see and listen to Alice Notley this week, tonight at CUNY Graduate Center, at 7pm, in conversation with erica kaufman, and tomorrow night, at the Poetry Project, at 8pm, in the Sanctuary of St. Marks Church. I will be there tomorrow! Find me and we can geek out together.

Lynne DeSilva-Johnson is an interdisciplinary creator confused by Adherence to Titles. If forced, she might admit to being a social practice artist, but then might argue you are, too. She works in text, mixed multimedia, bookmaking, construction, printmaking, typography, photography, sound, digital manipulation, performance, and on installations incorporating these in tandem. She has performed/been shown at The Dumbo Arts Festival, Naropa University, Bowery Arts and Science, The NYC Poetry Festival, Eyebeam, Undercurrent Projects, Mellow Pages, The New York Public Library, Page 22, The Poetry Project, Lincoln Center, Industry City Distillery, Holland Tunnel Gallery, Launchpad BK, Space Space, This Must Be The Place, and the Cooper Union, among others.

A frequent collaborator across a wide range of disciplines, and a regular curator of events across the boroughs and beyond, Lynne often serves as a consultant for theatrical and musical performance, visual exhibition, and publication, and in particular on projects integrating digital media, an area of focus since the early 2000’s. She served as an Adjunct Lecturer in English, Architecture, and Anthropology in the CUNY system for a decade, and has also been a teaching artist at various K-12 schools around NYC since 2001. She will serve as dramaturg for an upcoming residency at the Drama League with director Zi Alikhan.

Lynne currently serves as the Creative Director and Managing Editor of THE OPERATING SYSTEM, recently in partnership with CULTUREPUSH. Through the small press arm of The OS, she selects, designs, and edits all publication projects (and original content such like this), and has produced fifteen titles since the press’s inception in 2012, including poetry, flash fiction, and plays. Her previous entries for this series are in tribute to Mina Pam Dick , and Noah Eli Gordon / Anis Mojgani. She has blogged at The Trouble With Bartleby since 2003, is the author of two poetry chapbooks, GROUND and BLOOD ATLAS, and is completing the transmedia collection CLICKBAIT for release in 2015. Find her at @onlywhatican.

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