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A Feminist Divine Comedy?,
This review is from: The Descent of Alette (Penguin Poets) (Paperback)
Let me start with this: The Descent of Alette is difficult to read at first. Notley "puts quotation marks around" "groups of words" "in lines" "that can be off-putting." Note that I'm not quoting from the book there, just giving an example of what the book's text appears like. This forces us to read more slowly, taking in each line a few words at a time. What appears to be awkward is in fact a great solution to the speed-reading most of us do these days. That being said, it's troublesome for the first few poems, less so after that, virtually invisible by the end of the first section.
When talking about this book, I immediately compare it to Dante's Divine Comedy, and I commonly see others do the same (see an earlier review here on Amazon.com). Exchange Hell for a subway, and you've basically got it: an underground realm ruled over by a Tyrant, poor souls being tortured, though in this case there is no indication that they have done anything to deserve it. Notley's language might not be quite as beautiful/harsh as Dante's, but her images stand with anything he created. After introducing two characters on a subway, a woman and her baby, both on fire, Notley writes:
"another woman" "in uniform" "from above ground"
"entered" "the train" "She was fireproof" "she wore 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")
After surviving the horrors of the subway, Alette goes even deeper underground, passing through a series of psychological challenges that at times seem straight out of Freud, at times out of Classical mythology, at times out of collective dreams. Throughout it all, we learn more and more about Alette, who is not just a "hero" who goes through the motions necessary to the plot, but who considers and stumbles and is confused and learns.
The third section of the book is a rebirth, wherein Alette finds a source for a stronger power than the Tyrant's, and it is distinctly feminist in its nature. I need to note here for those who react to feminism in a knee-jerk way: Notley's feminism is not a militant feminism, though it requires brief "military" action on Alette's part. Men are helpful in the story, have purpose besides being the bad guy. If anything, what Notley attacks in the form of the Tyrant is the idea of a corrupt masculinity, a kind of Big Brother who would easily stand as an antagonist in any number of 20th/21st century literary works. Alette's feminism is the discovery of her place in the world, and that place is not slaving away mindlessly for the Tyrant, not acting as just a womb or pair of hands or pretty face. It's a nuanced message, despite the epic (and therefore presumably black-and-white) nature of the whole book.
The fourth section is the showdown with the Tyrant, a great deal of philosophizing, and an ending that I actually find more satisfying than that of Paradiso. I won't spoil it here, but it just works extremely well in conjunction with the themes of Descent as a whole.
If you want to be challenged, if you want to think deep thoughts, if you want surreality and magic, pick up The Descent of Alette. For even more interesting reading from the author and her partner, you could also turn to The Scarlet Cabinet, which contains but actually predates the on-its-own publication of Descent.