The Descent of Alette

Alice Notley

I’ve tried and failed to get into two other Alice Notley books but was handed this one and told to “ignore the quotes,” in reference to how the rhythm is delineated by quotation marks. On my first try, I just couldn’t ignore them, and reading felt like listening to someone talking anxiously and hyperventilating. But on my second try I was able to focus and follow Alette into the depths of decaying subway stations on a mission to destroy the tyrant, a representation of masculine supremacy.

Even though it’s a rather long poem and initially feels daunting, it’s easy to become immersed after a time, since there is physical movement and progression through the four parts, as Alette journeys from the subway through caves into a nocturnal forest until finally reaching the tyrant’s house. As a hero’s journey, there is also a pull of anticipation around the eventual confrontation with the tyrant. I enjoyed the darkness of the imagery and the recurring animal totems, as well as the overall feminist intent, even with its largely second-wave slant.

“In a station” “I saw” “a woman crying” “She stood against”
“the wall” “looking dirty” “& exhausted,” “crying quietly”
“I asked her who she was” “& why” “she was crying” “She
said: ‘I” “am a painter” “I have been trying” “to find”

“a form the tyrant” “doesn’t own—” “something” “he doesn’t
know about” “hasn’t invented, hasn’t” “mastered” “hasn’t
made his own” “in his mind” “Not rectangular,” “not a
sculpture” “Not a thing at all—” “he owns all things,”

“doesn’t he?” “He’s invented” “all the shapes” “I’m afraid he’s”
“invented mine,” “my very own” “body’” (“she was hysterical”)
“‘Did he invent me?” “I want” “to do something like
paint air” “Perhaps” “I even want to” “invent air” “I’ve

painted” “thin transparent” “pieces” “of plastic” “They—”
“the pictures on them—” “always turn” “rectangular,” “circular”
“I once painted” “on a bat’s wings” “I caught a bat” “painted
colors on” “let it loose &” “watched the air change…”

“He owns form,” “doesn’t he?” “The tyrant” “owns form’”