Alice Notley: from `The Descent of Alette'

In The Descent of Alette, Alice Notley presents a feminist epic, a bold journey into the deeper realms. Alette, the narrator, finds herself underground, deep beneath the city, where spirits and people ride endlessly on subways, not allowed to live in the world above. Traveling deeper and deeper, she is on a journey of continual transformation, encountering a series of figures and undergoing fragmentations and metamorphoses as she seeks to confront the Tyrant and heal the world. Using a new measure, with rhythmic units indicated by quotation marks, Notley has created a "spoken" text, a rich and mesmerizing work of imagination, mystery and power.

The Descent of Alette comprises 148 pages structured in four books. It is most readable and proceeds at tremendous pace. The punctuation is brilliant. The extracts below are intended as a taster. Fred Beake has contributed a brief accompanying essay.


Page 26, from Book 1


"A beautiful" "gaunt woman, a" "birdlike" "dark woman"
"Large tall, erect" "in a white dress a" "long robe"
"Head in profile, cowled head" "& she cradles" "a baby"
"dead baby" "Its spirit," "which seems a grown man," "rises"

"into black" "We are at" "a large, black-ceilinged"
"station" "Has a baby" "or a man died?" "She cradles"
"a dead baby" "But a man has died, he is rising" "into the air"
"It isn't" "isn't night sky up there, it's a black" "black

ceiling" "He will not" "continue" "to rise to" "the sky"
"We are confined below" "confined" "He sinks again" "Stands
on the floor" "while his mother, unseeing" "still cradles"
"the baby" "he once was" "They are near a decaying wall"

"crumbling, full of holes" "Another landscape" "shows beyond it"
"Seems to light up" "to appear to us" "A large, unbounded
space" "full of a throng of" "the Recent Dead" "Spirits,
all spirits" "A forest a city" "of white" "transparent

shimmering" "spirits" "close together" "And one" "one
disengages" "Comes toward the man" "Raises thin arms, has an
open" "dark mouth hole, says," "`Welcome" "to you dead man"
"we cannot rise, as we should" "We cannot pass through"

"the tyrant's world's" "new fabrics" "the materials
of his world" "He has changed" "the chemical" "composition"
"of everything" "but spirit" "but our souls" "but us---"
"We" "who are nature" "when nothing else is," "we are all

trapped below" "We can only go" "down" "farther down---"
"Down" "is now the only way" "to rise" "Come & wait with us"
"wait with us" "to descend'"


Page 137, from Book 4


"`You are vulnerable" "somewhere near here,'" "I said to him"
"If there is blood," "all this blood," "if in this river" "flows your
"there must be flesh" "somewhere...'" "`It has long since" "turned to
concrete," "to brick & steel,' he said" "`I am not vulnerable"

"anywhere'" "His eyes" "tore into mine, but" "there was a glint
"I thought," "of hesi-tancy" "I will find" "that place,' I said &"
"became an" "owl again" "contracting lengthwise," "spreading
"becoming" "wings & eyes---" "such a lightness---" "I felt hardly

"I began to fly" "along the" "bloody river," "corridored river,"
"looking into" "the darkness" "for any trace of" "fleshy softness,"
"fleshy softness"


Page 138, from Book 4


"The tyrant" "pursued me, running," "at first" "as I flew" "I began
slowly," "searching, looking" "Stopped & hovered sometimes" "He lunged
at me" "once or twice" "as I flew low" "But I was quickness," "speed
of thought," "unhinderable reflex" "As I became" "used to my search"

"& speeded up, he" "fell behind" "Then he disappeared" "entirely"
"I had no mind now" "but flew & looked" "My brother's image" "had
"Had vanished" "from my thoughts" "Beneath a lightbulb" "I saw myself"
"on the surface" "of the river:" "unnuanced owl eyes" "amid feathers"

"distorted, shadowy" "in liquid thickness" "Along the river, here &
"people slept" "huddled upright" "or spread out" "on the concrete"
"I saw" "a strangely shaped," "almost potato-" "shaped man," "bald,"
"thick-necked---" "his head was like" "a rounded neck---" "pale,

fleshed," "peeled-looking," "his facial features" "sketchy-seeming"
"He stood chanting" "to himself," "`Am I" "the man the father?" "Am I"
"the man the father?'" "And someone else" "in bandages," "someone
wound with" "strips of white gauze---" "like a mummy---" "wandered up
    & down,"

"up & down this" "heart river---" "a man," "a tall man," "who would
scream or weep" "or cry out" "these words or" "a variant:" "`Where is"
"my body," "my sacred" "body?" "Where is my corpus" "sagrada?...'"
"Cardboard," "bottles, faeces," "unnamed dirt blacknesses" "were

"upon the platform---" "the river" "itself" "was plain," "unlittered,"
"glittered redly," "red, black & silver" "beneath the" "occasional


The Descent of Alette was published by Penguin Books in 1996.
Portions of this work first appeared in Scarlet magazine. It was published, in its entirety, in The Scarlet Cabinet: A Compendium of Books by Alice Notley and Douglas Oliver, Scarlet Editions, 1992.