Week 10 “The Descent of Alette” by Alice Notley

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The poet Alice Notley, whose work is included in the ModPo syllabus, wrote this epic poem. A female hero replaces the typical male heroic figure undertaking a Quest—a feminist epic, published in 1996.

The epic is set in a multi-layered underground: a subway system in which everyone is trapped, including Alette, a deeper system of a caves that is seemingly infinite, and an even deeper sort of black hole that appears at first to be a lake. All of this is in thrall to the “Tyrant,” a figure of the patriarchy. Alette’s quest is to journey from the subway, through the caves where she has many harrowing experiences, into the void, and back out of it.  Along the way, she meets a decapitated “first mother” and then a “father” figure in the form of an owl.  Both equip her to fight the Tyrant. She, of course, succeeds in the end, and frees the people. Come on, this is a feminist epic!

There’s a cool thing with the names: Alice, Alette, OWL (sounds like AL) and OWLET (sounds like Alette.) Alice Notley’s father, Alice and her brother all had names that started with AL. Alette recalls the death of her brother in the epic, and we know that this is biographical information for Notley.

The epic reads more like prose than poetry, and there is an episode on each page. Notley uses quotation marks to break up the words of her text in an original way. I don’t understand what this is meant to achieve; I find it annoying.  I “read through” the quotation marks in order to make sense of it. Here’s an example of the format.  The entire book is like this:

…”’Both,’ I said” “’But in one way” “he is just” “an old man’” “The man said,” “’You’ve just patted” “the cheek of” ”the man” “you must confront” “& vanquish’” (p. 33)

This aside, I was surprised at the accessibility of this book-length poem. I put off reading it until Week 10 for a reason: procrastination. I’m glad I picked it up and read it, at last.

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