Alette in the Subway

Caroline Bergvall

The poetic journey of Alice Notley's Descent of Alette (1992) is a book-length ride in a crowded, awful, grimy subway car. The fact that the car changes into a lake, or a forest, or a river or a tyrant or any other initiatory obstacle on her route will seem familiar to many London tube riders. Most urban dwellers’ daily commute is spent in the bowels of our cities, in sweaty and overcrowded conditions, being stared down by irritated passengers, pushed about by over-assertive passengers, hoping for light at the end of the tunnel whenever the train suffers electrical breakdown. Likewise, her narrator “I” encounters strange and violent scenes, gets taken through to other caves or stations, meets primordial animals that growl or assist her, experiences the release of moistures, wet substances all around her, sees lights flashing in the dark, and chooses to die rather than stay down here one minute longer.

Notley turns our daily grind into an extreme form of commuter hell, an angry and phantasmagoric feminist epic poem that carries the reader from personal subjection to liberation, death underneath, to life on the streets above. It recalls Monique Wittig’s earlier Les Guerilleres (1972) in archetypal characters and epic actions. But where the latter has long left the city and enjoys instead the collective, euphoric and utopian reinventions enabled by the powerfully liberatory modes of seventies radical feminist aesthetics, Notley's singular and lost Alette is part of a more isolated and disenfranchised late-80s feminism. She is besieged and surrounded by hungry souls, stuck on the train, caught in the tracks. The work articules the horrors and phantasms that organise and alienate the characters from one another, each of them caught up in gender-biased and hierarchical trappings.

In this individualised, alienated quest, Alette is Dantesque in mood as well as in scope and form. The work follows a mystical trajectory, from dark to light, from gendered/human death to new flesh/soul, its narrative insistence is on depicting, circle after circle, station after station, a series of tests and states of dejection and abject humiliations, before the swim across the river brings a slow scrambling up to new senses. It can’t be a coincidence that the opening lines are spun so close to Dante’s own: "One day I awoke" "& found myself on" "a subway, endlessly". The quotation marks or speech marks that interrupt, intercept all her lines and turn them into non-grammatical clusters of phrases remain the work’s most exciting formal feature. As she remarks, they "measure the poem". They also remind us that the epic form is always a quotational universe. A mythic poesis is a reprised narrative. And our bodies of course are quotations too.

One can find it difficult to relate to the detail of Notley’s mythic universe, yet feel relieved and paradoxically cheered to engage with the feminist poetics and anger cooking in this work. Especially at a time when so much feminist-inspired work in all artforms has been stored into cultural memory and forcibly relieved from active state of play; and when conservative forces from all political directions repeatedly use religious models to disqualify the continued validity of feminist exploration and progressive gender politics.

In November 2007, I was invited to take part in a Dante celebration at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York, along with the poet-translator Robert Pinsky and others. It was called “Hell: from Dante to Today”. Apart from being invited to read my own piece, “VIA (48 Dante translations)”, I was asked to put together a small selection of writings that were nods to Dante and seemed particularly relevant depictions of contemporary hell. This was an arduous task. Hell is the condition of much of late twentieth century’s literature.

I chose the opening page of Notley’s Descent of Alette. I read from Juan Goytisolo’s Spanish-Arab Quarantine. A paragraph from Helene Cixous’ meditation on death, walking and literature in Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Ingeborg Bachmann’s poem “Estrangement” from the collected volume in English Darkness Spoken. A few pages from Pierre Guyotat’s graphic depiction of the horrors of the Algerian war under French rule, Eden Eden Eden. I had also contacted the artist Tom Phillips, who generously granted me permission to use five images from his dark, tumultuous and amazing Inferno illustrations. These were projected behind me as I read the various pieces.

Caroline Bergvall, London, August 2008

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


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