cover image The Descent of Alette

The Descent of Alette

Alice Notley. Penguin Books, $18 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-14-058764-7

Often considered a second-generation New York School poet, Notley (Closer to Me and Closer...) offers a vividly imagined book-length poem. The work reads like a postmodern, mytho-feminist combination of Dante's Inferno and the Old English Beowulf--from Grendel's point of view, in which the explorer/warrior is female and the monster/devil an evil, charming, sophisticated man called ""the tyrant."" The narrator, Alette, descends into a surreal, subterranean landscape, which is highly charged with metaphysical and sexual symbolism--a grotesque subway system, a series of caves and a darkened forest inhabited by ""the snake"" (a Mother Goddess-like symbol of feminine spiritual energy). She discovers the purpose of her journey is to kill the tyrant, who once nearly succeeded in destroying the snake. Throughout, lines are segmented into phrases with quotation marks, lending a hypnotic rhythm and spoken-word atmosphere, as the book's opening lines suggest: ""one day, I awoke"" ""& found myself on"" ""a subway, endlessly.""/ ""I didn't know"" ""how I'd arrived there or"" ""who I was"" ""exactly."" Notley's raw sensual language and imagery (""fetal flesh,"" ""flower skin"") imbue the transformation of landscape and Alette's own body (she becomes, at one point, part owl) with a startling psychological resonance. (Apr.) FYI: Notley, who now lives in Paris, was once married to the late Ted Berrigan.