It’s a difficult truth about being a member of a special-status group, a group that has to deal with its identity politics, that you have to make a decision about how to participate in a troubled and often troubling discourse. Not participating is, of course, a decision, and a reaction, whether you like it or not. These decisions don’t always get to be yours; the world you’re born into isn’t one of your making. Sometimes you get to see people who shape these relationships to their demographic categories with a fierceness and grace that subsumes all the doubts, fears about how you’ll fit in and worries about being a threat. These moments, and these people, shine in a way that can reignite the people they come into contact with.

I got to see one such person tonight. I went to see Alice Notley read some of her new work. Notley is a poet with years and volumes of work and praise behind her. She’s well known for her 1996 book The Descent of Alette, which one of her introducers tonight called a kind of feminist epic. Her work is challenging, political and personal, as good poetry is, often speaking with a strong if fractured narrative voice searching for its identity. She’s well respected for being very much a poet, having identified and stuck with her calling.

Notley’s newest book, A Culture of One, published this year by Penguin, is a story of a woman named Marie, living in Southern California, in a town which the poet said is like the one she grew up in. Marie’s life is a collage—as another introducer said tonight, “pieces of narrative and possible narrative.” The excerpts we heard from A Culture of One did well what collage is meant to do—build a whole out of disparate pieces, not just of images, but of pieces of an embattled psychological landscape. My favorite of Marie’s lines: “my mind’s too textured for this crappy story.”

Seeing Notley read was a great energizer, not just in the reminder that there’s good poetry out there to be read and heard, but that there are meaningful things to be said in the conversations we still need to have about gender, among other things. And in any conversation, there’s going to be a lot of crap, but there’s also a good number of people who will speak with clarity and with vitality.


 

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