The Descent of Alette
The poetry of reality - according to the poems of such celebrated writers as Robert Hass, Philip Levine, and Sharon Olds - is a lucent, burnished prose. Encounters with the everyday, pitched toward a moment of wonder, offer readers escape from the vulgar insistencies of "the media," as the poet is ravished by small miracles.
Alice Notley - whose new book is the kind of major poetic achievement that comes along once in a generation - doesn't settle for prosaic annotation of the quotidian. Like the cosmologies of Blake and Dante or archaic creation lore, The Descent of Alette is a fully embodied universe, with its own terrain and history, and a narrative that flows with the inexorable gravity of myth. By refusing to surrender the incantatory power of the word to evangelists and ad men, Notley has invoked a portion of "the great language in which the universe itself is written" (as poet Robert Duncan wrote), and dared to dream the world new.
Alette recounts the quest of its narrator through a forbidding, precisely rendered landscape. As Dante stumbled onto a trail through Hell in the middle of a dark wood, Alette begins her odyssey in the depths of a modern subway. Alette's cunning measure is deployed as a sequence of phrases in quotation marks, like a fabric of tattered reports, blurring demarcations between subject and subject:
"One day, I awoke" "& found myself on" "a subway, endlessly" "I didn't know" "how I'd arrived there or" "who I was" "exactly" ...
What may first strike the reader as a typographical gimmick quickly becomes part of the poem's force, as the reader is drawn through the dank caverns of Notley's subterranean "world of souls" on a dire mission: the assassination of a charismatic and seemingly omnipotent tyrant, in whose name the subway dwellers are imprisoned underground.
The quotation marks syncopate the poem's vernacular phrasing, filling the role of line breaks in traditional printed verse. The poem becomes a voice, or braid of voices, speaking the tale of Alette's journey aloud in the reader's head, rather than a stream of data for the eyes. As Alette discovers her strength and name in the course of fulfilling her destiny, the tentative, halting phrases push forward with greater urgency and sureness.
Notley calls Alette a "female epic," and part of the poem's power is that it recounts a classic hero's journey to annihilate the source of the world's woe, but from the perspective of a heroine.
Like the "politics" of a dream, however, the politics of Alette are absorbed into the creatures of its prolific imagination: a ghost-tribe herding masked phantoms across a ravaged landscape; a hairy-chested mermaid who speaks to Alette of "forgotten possibility"; the boyish tyrant, arrogantly exhibiting his power over the puppet legislatures of the Earth; the brutalized, headless figure of the Great Mother; and a counseling owl who becomes Alette's necessary ally.
With more breadth and nuance of tone - from coy humor to the syntax of revelation - than most poets manage in a career, Alette is a personal breakthrough that raises the stakes for contemporary poetry. Notley has restored poetry to its primordial role as the catalyst of transformative vision, alchemizing from her own depths an original measure that speaks of both this historical moment and of the timeless origins of consciousness.
By Steve Silberman
The Descent of Alette
155 pp.; US$14.95
Penguin Books USA
375 Hudson Street
New York, NY 10014
Document URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/notley-review.html
Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:27:53 EDT