Materials for a reading of ‘“I stood waiting”’ from The Descent of Alette

Piers Hugill

[#] Watch Alice Notley reading “I stood waiting”


In the preface (or, rather, the extremely long razo) added to the second edition of Il ricordo della Basca in 1963, Antonio Delfini defines his story as “a pastiche that no one understood.” He then warns his readers against the temptation of asking, “Why a Basque woman? Who is she? What does she mean?”

The darkest point in the story is certainly the poem in a foreign language that, like a final seal, closes the trobar clus of the story’s final pages:

Ene izar maitea
ene charmagarria
ichilik zure ikhustera
yten nitzaitu leihora;
koblatzen dudalarik,
zande lokharturik:
gabazko ametsa bezala
ene kantua zaïtzula

That these incomprehensible verses might somehow help to answer the bothersome reader’s questions is suggested by their strategic position at the end of the work. It is also implied by the fact that when the author (consciously alluding to the passage in the Vita nuova in which Dante refers to the epiphany of Beatrice) tells the story, in his razo, of his first encounter with the fifteen-year-old girl “I came to call the Basque woman,” he characterizes her precisely through a reference to her language: she spoke with her brother “in a language of such touching delicacy that when I heard it, my heart seemed to want to put an end to its own beating, leaving things suspended forever in that moment” (p. 92) (A little later, the author seeks to understand the words of the two youths, and he then comes so close to them that he can “almost touch them” [p. 94]. But he can gather only the word “entonces”, Castillian for “at that time,” “which is the very in illo tempore of myth.) The Basque woman appears through the sweetness of an unknown language, and she disappears in the ungraspable murmur of words in a foreign language. Who is the Basque woman? And why is she obstinately characterized by an impenetrable “speaking in tongues”?’

(Giorgio Agamben, ‘An Enigma Concerning the Basque Woman’)


La faccia sua mi parea lunga e grossa
      come la pina di San Pietro a Roma,
      e a sua proporzione eran l’altre ossa;
sì che la ripa, ch’era perizoma
      dal mezzo in giù, ne mostrava ben tanto
      di sopra, che di giungere alla chioma
tre Frison s’averìen dato mal vanto;
      però ch’i’ ne vedea trenta gran palmi
      dal luogo in giù dov’uomo affibbia ‘l manto.
‘Raphèl may amèch zabi almi’
      cominciò a gridar la fiera bocca,
      cui non si convenìa più dolci salmi.
E ‘l duco mio ver lui: ‘Anima sciocca,
      tienti col corno, e con quel ti disfoga
      quand’ira o altra passion ti tocca!
Cercati al collo, e troverai la soga
      che ‘l tien legato, o anima confusa,
      e vedi lui che ‘l gran petto ti doga.’
Poi disse a me: ‘Elli stesso s’accusa;
      questi è Nembròt per lo cui mal coto
      pur un linguaggio nel mondo non s’usa.
Lasciànlo stare e non parliamo a voto;
      chè così è a lui ciascun linguaggio
      come ‘l suo ad altrui, ch’a nullo è noto.’

(Inferno, XXXI, 58-81)

[His face appeared to me to have the length and bulk of Saint Peter’s pine-cone at Rome and the other bones were in proportion, so that the bank, which was an apron to him from the middle down, still showed so much of him above that three Frieslanders would have boasted in vain of reaching his hair; for I saw thirty great spans of him down from the place where a man buckles his cloak.

‘Raphel may amech zabi almi,’ began the savage mouth to cry, for which no sweeter psalms were fit; and my Leader towards him: ‘Stupid soul, keep to thy horn and vent thyself with that when rage or other passion takes thee. Search at thy neck, bewildered soul, and thou shalt find the strap that holds it tied; see how it lies across thy great chest.’ Then he said to me: ‘He is his own accuser. This is Nimrod, through whose wicked device the world is not of one sole speech. Let us leave him there and not talk in vain, for every language is to him as his to others, which is known to none


Of course, speaking to many or speaking to only one person does not presuppose the same relation to speech. In the first case, it must convey a meaning in some way closed, in which the speaking subject converses above all with their own self and with speech. No doubt this kind of meaning is the one that the masculine subject has always privileged.

The feminine subject, on the other hand, takes an interest in the relation between two, in communication between people. This subject is thus confronted with a new task as regards the unfolding of speech. And if the linguist Jakobson was able to detect the prevalence of the phatic function in a speaking between feminine subjects, he then compared it with the language of birds …’

(Luce Irigaray, The Way of Love)


Many birds are receptive to the songs of other species, if they are exposed to them during the critical period, and will produce the alien songs later on. The chaffinch, however, seems much more devoted to its own matters of expression and retains an innate sense of its own tonal quality even if exposed to synthetic sounds … Whenever a territorial assemblage is taken up by a movement that deterritorializes it (whether under so-called natural or artificial conditions), we say that a machine is released. That in fact is the distinction we would like to propose between machine and assemblage: a machine is like a set of cutting edges that insert themselves into the assemblage undergoing deterritorialization, and draw variations and mutations from it …

As a general rule, a machine plugs into the territorial assemblage of a species and opens it to other assemblages, causes it to pass through the interassemblages of that species; for example, the territorial assemblage of a bird species opens onto interassemblages of courtship and gregariousness, moving in the direction of the partner or “socius”. But the machine may also open the territorial assemblage to interspecific assemblages, as in the case of birds that adopt alien songs, and most especially in the case of parasitism.

(Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, ‘1837: On the Refrain’)


4      There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
5      And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
6      And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.

(Genesis 6. 4-6)


In fact every speaking should always remain unique. Man is “a speaking animal” if he creates speech in order to say himself, to say the world, to speak to another … Such should be the task of the human as speaking subject. Not to learn to speak an already existing language and to find in it the means for being sheltered, but to succeed in transforming what happens, from within or from without, into saying.

(Luce Irigaray, The Way of Love)


8      And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth.
9      He was a mighty hunter before the LORD: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD.

(Genesis 10. 5-6)


Poi ch’èi posato un poco il corpo lasso,
      ripresi via per la piaggia diserta,
      sì che ‘l piè fermo sempre era ‘l più basso.
Ed ecco, quasi al cominciar dell’erta,
      una lonza leggiera e presta molto,
      che di pel maculato era coverta;
e non mi si partìa d’innanzi al volto,
      anzi impediva tanto il mio cammino,
      ch’ i‘ fui per ritornar più volte volto.
Temp’era dal principio del mattino,
      e’l sol montava ‘n su con quelle stelle
      ch’eran con lui quando l’amor divino
mosse di prima quelle cose belle;
      sì ch’a bene sperar m’era cagione
      di quella fera alla gaetta pelle
l’ora del tempo e la dolce stagione;
      ma non sì che paura non mi desse
      la vista che m’apparve d’un leone.
Questi parea che contra me venesse
      con la testa’alta e con rabbiosa fame,
      sì che parea che l’aere ne temesse:
ed una lupa, che di tutte brame
      sembiava carca nella sua magrezza,
      e molte genti fè già viver grame.

(Inferno I, 28-51)

[After I had rested my wearied frame for a little I took my way again over the desert slope, keeping always the lower foot firm; and lo, almost at the beginning of the steep, a leopard light and very swift, covered with a spotted hide, and it did not go from before my face but so impeded my way that I turned many times to go back.

The time was the beginning of the morning and the sun was mounting with those stars which were with it when Divine Love first set in motion those fair things, so that the hour of the day and the sweet season moved me to good hope of escape from that beast with the gay skin; but, even so, I was put in fear by the sight of a lion which appeared to me and seemed to be coming against me holding its head high and furious with hunger so that the air seemed in dread of it, and of a she-wolf which appeared in its leanness to be charged with all cravings and which has already made many live in wretchedness


In the Bible, the exemplary hunter is the giant Nemrod, the same one to whom tradition attributes the project of the tower of Babel, whose summit was to touch the sky …

What did Nemrod hunt? And why is the hunt “against God”? If the punishment of Babel was a confusion of languages, it is likely that Nemrod’s hunt had to do with an artificial improvement of the one human language that was to grant reason unlimited power. Dante at least suggests this much when, in characterizing the perfidy of the giants, he speaks of an “instrument of the mind” (argomento della mente)

(Inferno, XXXI, 55).

Is it mere chance that in De vulgari eloquentia Dante also constantly presents his own search for the “illustrious vernacular” in terms of a hunt (“we are hunting down language”) [I, XI, 1]; “what we are hunting for” [I, XV, 8]; “our hunting arms” [I, XVI, 2] and that language is thus assimilated to a ferocious beast, a panther? …

And the hunt is truly a mortal experience whose prey – speech – is a beast that, as Caproni says, “animates and kills” and that, “tame and atrocious,” once again – for what is perhaps the last time – wears the speckled coat of Dante’s panther …

(Giorgio Abamben, ‘The Hunt for Language’)


We played at languages in our house, my parents passed with pleasure and deftness from one language to the other, the two of them, one from French the other from German, jumping through Spanish and English, one with a bit of Arabic and the other with a bit of Hebrew …

That translinguistic and loving sport sheltered me from all obligation or vague desire of obedience …

(Hélène Cixous, Stigmata)


20      Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.
21      In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord.
22      Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.

(I Corinthians 14. 20-22)


The experience of poetic language (that is, of love) is wholly contained in the fracture between an immemorable presence and the necessity of remembering. The language of poetry is not, therefore, a perfect speaking in tongues in which this fracture is healed, just as, despite its tension toward the absolute, human language cannot leap over mediation of meaning and resolve itself without residue in a “speaking in tongues”. The disappearance of the Basque woman is eternal, since she is eternally missing in the languages of men, which bear witness to her in the Babelic discord of their many idioms.

If this is true, then the poem with which the story ends cannot simply be a speaking in tongues, a glossolalia. Rather, it must in some way bear witness to the radical diglossia of the poetic experience. The work of a friend of mine, who is a Basque specialist, confirms this hypothesis. It has shown beyond the shadow of a doubt that, far from constituting a glossolalic invention … the poem is in fact a cobla in pure Basque.

(Giorgio Agamben, ‘An Enigma Concerning the Basque Woman’)

My beloved star,
my enchantress,
in silence to contemplate you
do I approach the window:
when the poem is born on my lips,
stay sleeping;
let my song be to you
like a dream in the night.

Constellation: Alice Notley
[#] Birkbeck Centre for Poetics
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