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Lara Glenum

‘I see’ ‘with my voice’:

The Performance of Crisis in Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette

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This piece is 2,100 words or about five printed pages long.

Not the least of Alice Notley’s acute dilemmas in writing The Descent of Alette is an extreme crisis of form: the crisis of how to take on what Notley deems to be a pervasively masculine discourse — the epic — and execute a poem in a way that the content is not co-opted into a series of masculine gestures and signifiers.

In an interview, Notley explicitly states that one of her primary goals in writing an epic is to take the form away from men.[1] As a Second Wave feminist — at least at the time of the writing of Alette — Notley sees all cultural forms as necessarily inscribed with one gender or the other; thus Notley not only views the epic as lying squarely in the province of masculine privilege but, in itself, as an inherently masculine form. While I take issue with these stances, for the moment I propose to take Notley on her own terms, since I believe her Second Wave ethics lead her to experience a genuine crisis of form which, in turn, generates the radical, highly performative text of Alette.

The essential question for Notley is thus, as Susan McCabe puts it, ‘Can form and embodiment, snugly in the province of masculine privilege, be remapped along lines other than the phallic?’[2] While Notley does, in some sense, settle on a series of tactics to radically disrupt epic form, she more or less decides, quite brilliantly, to perform the crisis.

The goal of Alette’s heroic quest is to destroy ‘the tyrant’ — the embodiment of masculine hegemony — who not only controls the world but whose body actually constitutes the world. The tyrant says repeatedly, ‘‘I keep telling you’ ‘I keep telling you:’ ‘all’ ‘exists in me.’’ Early in the book, Alette enters the tyrant’s private library only to find:

                                                “...shelves” “of books” “all the books there
were:” “The books were decayed matter,” “black & moldy” “Came apart”
“in my hands” “All the books were” “black rot” “Were like mummies”
“More body of” “the tyrant” “It is all his body” “The world is” “his mummy”

As there is no outside to the epic form, so there is no outside to the tyrant’s body, landing Alette squarely in a crisis of action that explicitly mirrors Notley’s own crisis of form. For the reader, the marvel lies in watching these two crises — Notley’s and Alette’s — assist one another in their mutual quest. Together, they fuel what Page DuBois calls ‘an allegorical, utopian call for tyrannicide in the name of postcapitalist, postpatriarchal future.’[3]

The most overt serial disruption of epic form lies in Notley’s aggressive use of oddly deployed quotation marks. What is remarkable about Notley’s use of these quotation marks is its polyvalence, its ability to command a multitude of gestures at once. Perhaps most importantly, Notley’s quotation marks work much like Emily Dickinson’s dashes: they stagger language in a way that makes the text appear as though it issues from a highly compressed, oracular consciousness. This gesture makes the text into something ‘like a fabric of tattered reports,’ for which Alette is the disembodied receiver.[4]
The quotation marks also impart a tentative quality to the language as though, having at her disposal only the linguistic relics of a patriarchal hegemony, the language Alette uses is entirely provisional. Notley also frequently isolates a single word — ‘achievement,’ ‘order’ or ‘enlightenment’ — in such a way that the quotation marks cast a spurious light on the authoritarian claims that a given word attempts to make for itself. In a related manner, the quotation marks are at times used euphemistically, disclosing language’s tendency, similar to that of dreams, to hide things even as it is disclosing them, particularly when it comes to the signification of sexuality and gender. Ultimately, perhaps, Notley’s use of quotation marks ‘returns poetry to breath, to the oral,’ which allows the epic re-entry into its truest form in which it is sung and performed.[5]
Another tactic Notley deploys in order to perform her crisis of form is what Gertrude Stein famously calls ‘repetition with difference’: the use of repeated phrases that evolve, through a series of minimalist alterations, away from sameness into difference. Notley uses this tactic as a method of linguistic accretion that allows the language to remain imprecise, disrupting the teleology of English grammar with its highly regulated, standardized word order. This method of accretion allows for clarification, modification and revision in a way that resembles the linguistic awkwardness of someone struggling to recount a dream, as in the scene of the woman and child  on the subway who are ‘‘both on fire, continuously’’:

“another woman” “in uniform” “from above ground”
“entered” “the train” “She was fireproof” “she was gloves, & she”
“took” “the baby” “took the baby” “away from the”
“mother” “Extracted” “the burning baby” “From the fire” “they

made together” “But the baby” “still burned”
(“But not yours” “It didn’t happen” “to you”)
“We don’t know yet” “if it will” “stop burning,”
“said the uniformed” “woman” “The burning woman” “was crying”

“she made a form” “in her mind” “an imaginary” “form” “to
settle” “in her arms where” “the baby” “had been” “We saw
her fiery arms” “cradle the air” “She cradled air” (“They take your
children” “away” “if you”re on fire”)

“In the air that” “she cradled” “it seemed to us there” “floated”
“a flower-like” “a red flower” “its petals” “curling flames”
“She cradled” “seemed to cradle” “the burning flower of” “herself gone”
“her life” (“She saw” “whatever she saw, but what we saw” “was that flower”)

Essential to this ‘repetition with difference’ is a near absence of punctuation other than the quotation mark, an absence which is only vaguely mitigated by the sporadic use of capitalization.

Just as Notley seeks to subvert the teleology of language at the level of the sentence, so she seeks to dismantle what she deems to be the larger teleological drive of the epic by using what she calls ‘a pattern of near inaction,’ which she models on the ancient Sumerian epic, The Descent of Inana, an epic populated almost exclusively by female deities. Rather than construct a monumental, memorializing narrative, Notley uses a model of interlocking, cthonian cells — subway stations, caves, rooms in the tyrant’s House — to produce a series of lyric poems whose narrative focus is, paradoxically, on ‘stopped time.’[6] The cellular imagism also highlights the radical dislocation experienced by all the subterranean inhabitants in Alette and by Alette herself, who can only move from one prison-like cell to another. Subversively, though, each prison cell is also a secret den of initiation, preparing Alette for her task of destroying the tyrant.

At one point, one underworld shade tells Alette that the tyrant ‘‘owns’ ‘the Enlightenment,’’ that is to say, he owns Form and Light and Order. As a result, Notley must resort to their obverse — dreams, darkness, the anti-rational — as building materials for her epic. Elsewhere, another shade tells Alette:

“His great failure — “ “the tyrant’s failure — “& yours, too?” she
said,” “is to think that” “achievement” “must be evident,”
“in the light” — “The black gems spoke now” “They were purple-black”

“amethysts” “among them” “small purple lights — “ “What you make”
“is nothing” “unless its dark” “Darker than this” “And in the dark”
“in the great dark” “What do you mean?” “In the dark” “Made
in the dark” “Reflecting darkness,” “Only darkness”

Early in the text, Alette comments, ‘‘Down here it is’ ‘a more desperate’ / ‘decay,’ ‘as if’ ‘rich emotion,’ ‘pain,’ ‘could still transform us’ ‘despite him.’’ ‘Dream,’ Notley states in an interview, ‘is the ocean into which all twentieth century forms are being dumped... The final dissolution [of Western forms/ culture] & rebirth is taking place in darkness: & what will be born probably hasn’t been seen yet, because no one has walked into the dark & stayed awhile. To break & recombine language is nothing. To break and recombine reality, as dream always does do, might be something.’[7]

It is no wonder, then, that Alette’s transformation into a meta-human creature capable of offing the tyrant is thoroughly bound up in the identification with a totemic animal, the Owl, from whom Alette receives both a beak and a deadly talon. In Native American tradition, an initiate into the realm of meta-human powers experiences a series of dreams in which a totemic animal announces its claim on the initiate, thus investing him or her with that creature’s non-human attributes and capabilities. The Owl, whom Alette repeatedly, though tentatively, identifies with her father, claims to have originally been an ordinary man. In Alette’s world, though, an ordinary man is as damaged as women by the hegemony of the masculine. The man who became the Owl, however, was liberated by death into ‘‘an ecstasy’ ‘of finding’ ‘another way’ / ‘of being,’’ a way of living outside of human definitions of gender and the allegedly masculine impulse to dominate.

An obvious problem with Notley’s use of the owl motif is its failure to recognize that the stark division between the sexes and even the will to power exists as brutally in the animal world as it does in the human. Other instances of Notley’s imagery, such as the headless Mother, fall into similar categorical fallacies, but the sheer pyrotechnics of Notley’s intense imagism and her delightful, at times self-mocking ludism keep even a reader who is likely to be alienated by her Second Wave feminist ethics deeply engrossed in the text.

Alongside the Owl, the other animal motif significant Alette’s performance of crisis is the Snake. Clearly, in a post-Freudian age, the snake is the most overt symbol of the phallic, of the will to a decidedly masculinist power. The snake is also a key figure in the Adam and Eve story, which first began to circulate around 900 B.C.E. in the court of Solomon. According to archaeological record, the snake was a common symbol in the ancient Near East among numerous agricultural communities who were matriarchal and worshipped female deities. In some sects, sacred women lived in the temples and routinely had indiscriminate sex with male devotees.

Various theories have been advanced as to whether this was a form of ritualized prostitution or whether these women actually were, in fact, high priestesses.[8] Regardless, it seems the ancient Hebrews, who were a nomadic, herding people, appeared to have had frequent trouble keeping their men out of these temples, in which, by succumbing to the temptations of these women ‘they simultaneously accepted the female deity — her fruit, her sexuality and, most important, the resulting matrilineal identity for any children...’[9] It is widely speculated that Eve, the ‘God-defying seductress,’ was a warning to all Hebrew men to stay away from the sacred women of the temples.

Among the ancient Near Eastern peoples who worshipped female deities, the snake, as it later was in ancient Greece, was kept on hand in sacred shrines and groves so that its venom could be extracted and ingested in miniscule amounts to induce a trance-like state, the state presumed  necessary for oracular divination. Thus, for Notley’s purposes, the snake is not only emblematic of the ancient matriarchy but of female prophecy, of the oracular, which in crafting the story of Alette, is Notley’s primary task.

In Alette, the gargantuan, decrepit snake is female and claims that her body once constituted the material world until the tyrant, envious, displaced her, establishing the male body as the normative ground of all existence. In book two, Alette is commanded to walk into the mouth of the oversized snake, to walk ‘‘among its / ‘moist parts’ ‘on through into’ ‘her body’s’ ‘long dark corridor’ / ‘Her bones were silver,’ ‘barely visible’ ‘Made a soft noise’ ‘like / wind chimes.’’ Alette then comes across a small alcove with the head of a man ‘‘quite alive’’:

“Stop!” he said” “You can’t make me” “stop,” I said” “But you’re
inside me!” “His voice grew louder” “This snake is female,” “I
answered” “Then inside us” “He grinned at me” “Now worship me,”
“I am a great man!” “Sorry,” I said,” “I can’t worship” “anything”

Here, the struggle for the privilege to inscribe cultural symbols as either feminine or as masculine — indeed the privilege to inscribe symbols with meaning at all — is cast in a ludic, absurdist light. Yet the absurd has its roots in a radical, even violent, dislocation from perceived reality; beneath it stretches a terrifying abyss. The stakes in Alette’s performative crisis thus remain devastatingly high.


[1]    Kim.

[2]    McCabe, 279.

[3]    DuBois.

[4]    Silberman.

[5]    Dubois, 94.

[6]    Ibid, 89.

[7]    McCabe, 279.

[8]    Bataille remarks that these women, who were ‘in touch with sacred things, in surroundings themselves sacred, had a sacredness comparable to that of priests.’

[9]    Stone, 221.

Works Cited

Bataille, Georges. Erotism. Trans. Mary Dalwood. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986.

DuBois, Page. ‘‘An Especially Peculiar Undertaking’: Alice Notley’s Epic.’ Difference 12.2, (2001): 86-97.

Stefans, Brian Kim. ‘Brian Kim Stefans Interviews Alice Notley.’ Jacket 15 (2001). 16 July 2001.

McCabe, Susan. ‘Alice Notley’s Epic Entry: An Ecstasy of Finding Another Way of Being.’ The Antioch Review 56 (1998): 273–280.

Notley, Alice. The Descent of Alette. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

Silberman, Steve. ‘Modern Inferno.’ HotWired (1996). 13 June 1996.

Stone, Merlin. When God Was a Woman. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Lara Glenum’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Denver Quarterly, Fence, Black Warrior Review, 3rd Bed and La Petite Zine, among others. She is an assistant editor for Verse, to which she also contributes reviews.

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