Alta Michael Janson - Essay

Michael Janson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If there is a traditional "value" that is not subverted in [I Am Not a Practicing Angel], it would be hard to find. The great thing about it is that [Alta's] values, while limited, are hard to dispute. In the first place, Alta is a poet of the body, more explicit than Whitman, but similarly sensual…. Alta's poetic is responsive and notational. It affirms the joys and betrayals of the moment, insists on the dignity of impulse and sensation, and refuses, adamantly, to accept sexual and social limitations imposed by conventional morality (which is often equated with conventional bigotry). Successes and failures in love and sex, both hetero- and homosexual, are her obsessive subject…. But all is not loss or frustration. She can be playfully humorous…. And she can be militantly political…. (p. 56)

Alta's belief in the primacy of the sensual body overrides what might be the feminist version of "vulgar marxism." The grim opposition to sexual play and to intellectual playfulness which one often finds among ideologues is unacceptable to her, as in "A Play":

      man & woman
      fully dressed,
      rolling on floor.
      feminist jumps between them
                     "STOP! don't sell out yr sisters!"

The "feminist" here is only one of a crowd of interrupters, but elsewhere Alta also refuses to conform to the aesthetic commands of the movement:

            anyone who tells me what to do
            sounds just like anyone else
            who tells me what to do.

Alta's combination of effusive sensuality and insouciant rebellion makes her book a refreshing, even compulsive, "read." Marge Piercy calls her work as "nourishing as good soup." I can't argue with that. (pp. 56-7)

Michael Janson, "Reviews: 'I Am Not a Practicing Angel'," in Open Places (copyright 1979 Open Places), No. 28, Fall, 1979, pp. 56-7.