Notes on ‘A red-lined map’: The Descent of Alette

Zoë Skoulding

[#] Watch Alice Notley read “Then we passed through” “another door” “& onto” “an ashen platform”

(Book Four, p132, The Descent of Alette, Penguin, 1996)

The Descent of Alette offers a response to two challenges: firstly, how to speak from inside traditional epic, and secondly, how to think and imagine beyond the structures of masculine authority; I’m interested in how the intersection of these impulses in the writing process realigns relationships between the body and the city. The poem as a whole is often seen as related to the concerns of Second Wave feminism,[1] and a reading of it as narrative reveals how it reaches and tests the limits of that perspective: Alette defeats and kills the tyrant, whose body is the inescapable underground in which she travels, but even by the final page of the poem the possibility of change is no more than a promise, as the city’s inhabitants must continue to live in or on the tyrant’s corpse. They take picks and shovels, and the earth’s surface begins to crack, but it’s clear that they have a long way to go before a new city is created outside the old structures. This would explain Alice Notley’s apparent frustration in her essay ‘Women and Poetry’: ‘In this ridiculous inescapable and tawdry material world we women are allowed now what? To make more of it, more of that, more stuff. But not to remake it. Not to change it from the ground up and walk out onto the earth as if it were its first morning.’[2]

However, the spatial imagery of this poem offers a reconfiguration of relationships between bodies and cities that opens both to more radical change than a brief summary of the narrative would indicate. Alette is a poem about being inside, but it offers no simple view of an alternative outside; here, as for Gilles Deleuze, ‘The outside is not a fixed limit but moving matter animated by peristaltic movements, folds and foldings that altogether make up an inside: they are not something other than the outside, but precisely the inside of an outside.’ Notley explores these movements through the dynamics of the writing process itself, which becomes, for the reader too, a form of thinking in which the body and its perceptions are foregrounded. On p. 132 the speaker encounters a woman on the subway whose appearance echoes the inversions that are typical of the poem:
She wore a ragged blouse” “that was map,” “that was
printed as” “a red-lined map” “ ‘What map is” “on your blouse?’ I asked”
“ ‘Map of” “Map of” “Map of the subway,’ she said” “ ‘But it looks,’ I said,”
“so arterial - ” “the lines so red & thick’ ” “They seemed to thicken”

“as I looked at them” “One line upon her chest” “swelled especially,”
“as she” “began to speak: “ “He said we were” “his lifeblood” “He
said we were” “his heart” “Am I inside” “someone else’s,” “someone
else’s self?” “How can I live?” “How can I live my life?”
The tyrant’s body is the underground, but this passage asserts metonymic as well metaphoric relationships between this and the woman’s body to create multilayered spatial perspectives. The swelling red lines uneasily suggest the body beneath the clothes, and not just the body but the arteries beneath the skin. The map suggests an overview of space from an imagined position outside the underground, but the woman is inside it because she is wearing it, and it is also inside her because it is running in her blood.

If the map initially seems to be a conceptual space or a representation of space,[3] it does not occur to Alette to read the map, or to find out where she is and make a decision about where to go next; she can’t, as she is also inside the body and underground that the map is part of as well as representing. Her movements between one scene and another have the abruptness of dreams; although she is, in narrative terms, taking the active role of an epic hero, she does not take control of space in the way that a map might permit. She enters each scene much as a reader must enter it, through a process of perception and physical orientation: at the top of nearly every page of Alette a new scene is located through prepositions and visual detail; events and scenes unfold in each turning of a page, in this instance: ‘“We passed through” “another door “& onto an ashen platform”’. This evokes an embodied space that is paralleled in the act of reading, as every page becomes a new physical point of view from which a perspective opens in description. The use of quotation marks for metrical scoring makes us doubly aware that in entering the page we are entering a space in which we need to orient ourselves: someone is speaking but the voice is never located. As readers we are wholly inside the language of the poem but there is no framing overview, as quotation might lead us to expect; the quotation marks suggest that the poem is a specific speech event, implying a time, a place, and listeners – these are all present, but outside the poem, and that unknown outside therefore becomes part of the poem. The scoring disrupts the surface of the text so much that it demands to be vocalised by the reader, and the rhythm sounds like a heartbeat or a sob – particularly because of the way in which words and phrases are often repeated to create a highly-charged emotive physicality – yet we are distanced from emotion by the quotation marks that offer a separation from it.

The collective entity of the city as a body is sustained by a rhetoric that is here explored literally through the terms ‘lifeblood’ and ‘heart’. I’m reminded here of Denise Riley’s poem, ‘It Really Is The Heart’, in which ‘The heart does hurt / and that’s no metaphor’,[4] as both images suggest that language moulds emotional, and therefore physical, experience, and that this may be painful. The pulsing lines of blood also suggest the body’s unwilling implication in wider structures, and they echo an earlier point in the poem where the protagonist finds white blood oozing from her hand:
            “ ‘I’ve never” “been to war” “I’ve never” “been allowed”

“to participate” “in the decision to go to war - ’” “I then” “said
aloud,” “Who has done this to me?” “How dare he” “implicate me”
“In such evil?”
The poem registers the relationship between the body and the violence of the city as a political structure. The woman who wears the bloody map cannot detach her body from it, just as collective guilt over war is ultimately manifested in emotional and physical harm to individuals.

The structures of public language are experienced as wounding, and as something that infiltrates the blood and heart from the outside. Conversely, the tyrant’s heart is external to his body: it is at first a piece of blue lapis that the protagonist returns to him at the start of Book Four, to be met with ironic, romantic-comedy charm: ‘“so,” / “Miss Owlfeathers,” “you’re here without” “appointment” “returning / a piece” “of my heart” “to me’”. As well as being outside him, his heart is here detached from its symbolic weight. His whole body also unfolds in multiple planes that flicker between inside and outside, as on p. 129: ‘ “It’s all inside me” “quite literally” / “And outside this building” “is inside me too...” “My thoughts are” / “half-material” “& make a screen in” “the sky” “above the world.”’ The dioramas of tiny painted characters that inhabit the streets and offices of his being are reminiscent of Frank O’Hara’s lines: ‘My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent, / and he carries me quietly, like a gondola through the streets’[5] – an image that Denise Riley describes in terms of ‘clear plastic folders of imagined inner selves, which can then be flipped outward’.[6] On p. 132 the tyrant responds less peacefully to the woman trapped claustrophobically inside his self: he describes his fear of the ‘disorienting’ darkness that rises inside him, but says he cannot change it because it is ‘“My lifeblood, my heart”’; his words are a repetition of the woman quoting him, so that he identifies his ‘inner self’ through a double layer of quoted rhetorical persuasion. This folding of difference into himself is what creates the ‘disorder’ that Alette discovers as his weakness: it creates the possibility for a re-ordering of inside and outside within a state of continuous flux, to which the only possible response is to keep moving, as at the end of this poem: ‘“Look” “a train is coming” / “Let’s get on it,’ he said”’.

Such restlessness is described by Notley in terms of necessary critical alertness: ‘It should be the poet’s business to test, continuously, current assumptions, rather than assume them.’[7] Her testing takes place performatively through the medium of the poem; if, as Elizabeth Grosz suggests, ‘Texts, like concepts, do things, make things, perform connections, bring about new alignments,’[8] The Descent of Alette interrogates and re-imagines the relationship between bodies and the spaces they inhabit.


[1] Glenum.
[2] Notley, Coming After, 169-70.
[3] Lefebvre 38-39.
[4] Riley, Selected Poems, 108.
[5] O’Hara, 252.
[6] Riley, The Words of Selves, 48.
[7] Notley, Coming After, 159.
[8] Grosz, 57.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault, trans. Séan Hand. Minneapolis: University of
Minneapolis Press, 1988.

Glenum, Lara. ‘ “I see” “with my voice”: The Performance of Crisis in
Notley’s The Descent of Alette.’ Jacket no. 25, February 2004.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Architecture from the outside: essays on real and virtual
. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space, trans Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Notley, Alice. Coming after: essays on poetry. University of Michigan Press, 2005.

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

O’Hara, Frank. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. New York: Knopf, 1979.

Riley, Denise. The words of selves: identification, solidarity, irony.
Stanford University Press, 2000.

Riley, Denise. Selected Poems. Reality Street Editions, 2000.

Constellation: Alice Notley
[#] Birkbeck Centre for Poetics
[#] Openned Video Constellation of Readings
[#] Return to “Intercapillary Space” Notley Contents page

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