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The Descent of Alette

4.30  ·  Rating Details  ·  660 Ratings  ·  45 Reviews
In "The Descent of Alette," Alice Notley presents a feminist epic, a bold journey into the deeper realms. Alette, the narrator, finds herself underground, deep beneath the city, where spirits and people ride endlessly on subways, not allowed to live in the world above. Traveling deeper and deeper, she is on a journey of continual transformation, encountering a series of fi ...more
Paperback, 160 pages
Published April 1st 1996 by Penguin Books (first published March 1st 1996)
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The Cantos by Ezra PoundThe Waste Land by T.S. EliotThe New World by Frederick TurnerHelen in Egypt by H.D.The Dream Songs by John Berryman
American Epic Poetry
6th out of 23 books — 11 voters
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. MartinAngela's Ashes by Frank McCourtFight Club by Chuck PalahniukThe Green Mile by Stephen KingInto the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Best Books of 1996
186th out of 257 books — 121 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,627)
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May 08, 2008 CA rated it it was amazing
I despise EVERYONE who has given this book LESS than 4 stars! WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH YOU!? Anyway, there is no sliding scale for suffering here, THIS BOOK will HAUNT you long after you've finished reading it, unlike ANY poetry! Alice Notley creates new archetypes, and gives new jobs to old ones. Don't allow anyone to ruin it for you, as most Notley fans can't help themselves but to blab about what and how this book unfolds. Tell them to please be QUIET! Tell them this book is for YOU, as much as ...more
Stephen M
Oct 03, 2011 Stephen M rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry, textbook
This is an admirable novel in lyric. It is endlessly creative, furiously constructed and showcases a mind, hard at work within the confines of the written word. Not to suggest that the written word is inherently limiting but more often than not, I stop myself and say “it is only words. How much can I expect from this?” This question was pushed and squeezed throughout my entire reading.

I came to conclude that writing is much more than just words, despite it only being comprised of only words. Ins
Apr 27, 2016 Leslie added it
I played laser tag for the first time this week. I navigated the strobe lit rooms like a disoriented grandmother, spending half my time dazzled by the alien autopsy disco room and the other half crab walking down ramps to avoid slips and rug burns. This book was a lot like laser tag. The writing was awesome—as surreal / tinseled as the autopsy room. In poems I was inside a subway wending through snake innards. I met a hairy-chested mermaid. The speaker’s genitals detach, reattach and more! Could ...more
Jan 21, 2012 Hanna rated it liked it
The Descent of Alette is a contemporary feminist approach to the traditional monomyth (even following the 17 stages as per Joseph Campbell fairly closely). What makes this myth slightly different (and perhaps relevant) is the female as hero and the man as villain.

Alette is on a journey to defeat the tyrant, who represents the repression and submission of women and refers to himself as comprising all reality. The epic is dripping with metaphors, some more blatant than others, about the evils of
Jacob Wren
Oct 02, 2015 Jacob Wren rated it it was amazing
Alice Notley writes:

"Remember me here,"
"when you can, when" "you want to laugh" "Humor" "is closer" "to the
divine than" "you might think" "The trouble is" "when you're laughing"
"you don't always" "bother with" "anything" "else," "like thinking,"

"like helping"
Sep 22, 2010 Paula rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
Changed. My. Life.
Amanda Martin Sandino
Jan 16, 2012 Amanda Martin Sandino rated it really liked it
In her introduction, Notley explains the quotation marks as both intended to slow the reader down and to distance herself from the character of Alette as storyteller versus protagonist. Yet, this punctuation has a tertiary effect of “air quoting” the text enclosed, suggesting a degree of irony (and sometimes thinly veiled innuendo) in presumably unintended locations. Incidentally, the reader may find herself laughing at points that would otherwise be, well, depressing. Example: “Yes, these woods ...more
Jan 23, 2012 Keith rated it liked it
There is a point on each readthrough of Descent of Alette that I have the urge to draw a map -- the kind of maps we used to draw to help us navigate the dense corridors of the point-and-click computer games we used to copy and recopy onto piles of floppy disks and then play through, as fast as we could, on our parents' monolithic desktop PCs, comparing notes over the phone each afternoon as to how far we'd gotten, just how deeply into the Fireberry Labyrinth we'd explored, how many gems we'd col ...more
Jul 26, 2007 Mitch rated it it was amazing
Visionary narrative. Nothing you ever read by any "post-modern" poet could ever prepare you for this one. Harrowing underworld narrative, filled with foreboding and darkly psychedelic wisdom. I heard Alice read from this before it was published, at the Ear Inn, and elsewhere...I found it utterly riveting. Then, when it came out in book form, I saw the confusing use of quotation marks in the text, and had to re-think how to read it. Not for everyone, probably, but definitely worth the read if you ...more
Jun 20, 2014 Alison rated it liked it
Very, very second wave. Not in a bad way, but it ignores some complications of gender politics (like, when you remove your genitals you have no difference? Really? Come on, Alice Notley) in favor of a bit of gender essentialism and classic second wave inherent masculine/feminine stuff that I'm still a little uncomfortable with. The imagery is great and there's nothing wrong with old-school feminism, but... that's not my school. People who like poetry and allegorical narratives will like this boo ...more
Feb 21, 2012 Cheryl rated it it was amazing
To those who say the quotations are too distracting, annoying, hard to read, get over it and read it. All right, this is demanding, but for me this book clarified Notley's recurring image of the owl found in many of her poems (yeah, motiff). It is an epic poem that compels other "subway poems" to grovel for its affection.
Feb 10, 2008 Nina rated it liked it
Shelves: sarahs-group
I liked the prosody, but the book itself felt tedious and at times sexist (misoandrist?). The first section was my favorite, with its vivid underground imagery. I guess she could have been a fantasy novelist. But in general I prefer Notley's lyric poetry.
Oct 25, 2015 Amy rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry
A highly symbolic, feminist revisioning of the (traditionally male) "epic poem". Notley's use of quotation marks around phrases throughout the entirety of this book-length poem was simultaneously distracting (maddening, in fact) but also a thoughtful, well-integrated aspect of the poem's intent/content. Notley herself explains in an Author's Note that the quotations are meant to make the reader "slow down and silently articulate" the phrases with the stresses that the poet intends, as well as to ...more
"The Descent of Alette" proves to be a difficult book to place, offering both pluses and minuses throughout its pages that manifest themselves both in the style and content. I had my own journey of debating whether I liked the book or didn't as I read it, and after giving it a couple hours to think over I 'd say that 3.5 is a fair rating, seeing as how I enjoyed the book but did have several issues with it.

It's best to admit that I haven't had much experience with this format of poetry, which is
Frankie Brown
Sep 24, 2014 Frankie Brown rated it really liked it
Shelves: feminist-lit
The dreamlike language in The Descent of Alette and the journey of its heroine made reading this a meaningful experience, but I often found myself wishing away the quotation marks. They turned this beautiful art piece into more of an endurance test than it should've been, giving the poem a broken, staccato rhythm (which I'm sure was purposeful). But I think the quotations frequently valued style over language, and took some beauty from it.
"A woman came into" "a car I rode" "about thirty-seven" "
Mar 22, 2013 Erica rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
The book is divided into four books, each of which describe narratively a stage of a journey. In the first book we join our narrator in the subway/underworld, reminiscent of Dante's purgatory or that episode of Dr. Who where everyone is trapped in a tunnel driving around eternally. I absolutely loved the first book - the mythopoetic language, the eerie, atmospheric terror of it, the obviously signified Tyrant (representing war, logic, masculinity, & capitalism, a sort of Orwellian figure of ...more
Bill Tarlin
Jul 20, 2014 Bill Tarlin rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
This is a fully realized shamanic journey. It succeeds in hitting most of the tropes of neo-shamanism without tripping over the cliches and platitudes that cheapen so much of the conversation. This isn't flighty new age nonsense, it's hard core epic poetry. If it were just the series of subway vignettes of the first section it would have been complete as a book of poems, but it also works as a cohesive novel when the heroine descends, transforms and conquers her demon. Notley is never didactic, ...more
Jaredjosephjaredjoseph harveyharveyharveyharvey
"'Who are you?'

"I asked in a" "bubbling" "underwater way" "She answered quite clearly,"
"in a slightly" "childish voice," "'A forgotten" "possibility" "You,"
"you yourself," "don't want my" "hairy chest now" "Your people" "have
divided" "themselves in two:" "have made" "domination" "your principle:"

"why have you done this?'" "'I don't know,' I said," "how it happened"
"What I like of yours" "is your streamlined" "leglessness" "Your human
qualities" "make me sad'"
Feb 09, 2016 John rated it it was ok
Shelves: poetry
I think she did herself and her readers a dis-service with the unnecessary misuse of quotation marks to "slow the reader down." A poet/writer has word choice, punctuation, sentence line break, stanza break, etc. to "slow the writer down". Also it seemed that many of the poems were the same poem rewritten. I am sure that is true of all writers, but she kept reusing the same images/metaphors; cave, tunnel, subway, train, naked, etc. The disservice was that there was some very good, insightful, ori ...more
Feb 18, 2014 P. rated it really liked it
"One you get" "used to the weird" "quotation-marked" "metrical feet," "I found it" "to be fascinating," "though I wasn't" "crazy about" "the ending—" "it seemed" "too simple" "for such a" "complex tale."
Jan 23, 2016 Shanna rated it really liked it
almost every line here was a live wire for this my third time reading it and last time teaching it.
Oct 20, 2014 Kimberly rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
Haunting: a rare book of poetry that you'll think about after you have read it.
Alex Robertson
Sep 25, 2014 Alex Robertson rated it liked it
if you can power through the ultra-mega-bluntness of the first book
Nov 29, 2014 Keight rated it really liked it
I’ve tried and failed to get into two other Alice Notley books but was handed this one and told to “ignore the quotes”… on my second try I was able to focus and follow Alette into the depths of decaying subway stations on a mission to destroy the tyrant, a representation of masculine supremacy. Read more on the booklog
Jozee Becher
Feb 19, 2014 Jozee Becher rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This book messed with my head in the best way possible. Great for book clubs, to read aloud, or just food for thought.
Sep 25, 2014 Rebecca rated it really liked it
3.5 starz
Aug 08, 2011 Lauren rated it it was amazing
This book is insane, and amazing. It's one giant, experimental epic poem in the tradition of the Illiad with Christian and other mythological overtones and a kind of strange, modern spin... The character Alette descends down into the subway to defeat The Father and free the riders on the train. I know a lot of my classmates didn't really enjoy this book, but I think that this is some of my favorite poetry I've ever read.
Oct 15, 2007 Luxagraf rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry, beauty, society
Alice Notley's thoughts on this book: "I love to write long poems, to be utterly involved in a particular poem as a way of living a life." Couldn't have said it better myself. After The Battlefield where the Moon Says I Love You, this is by far my favorite book of poetry. Alice Notley is pure genius and there's some really great reading available on the net.
Sep 28, 2011 sirin rated it it was amazing
reminiscent of anne carson. i only say that because i read carson before i read notley but chronologically it may be the other way around. i love how the book takes place in an urban setting (subways, nyc) but expounds on very mystical feminist themes. there is as much abstraction as necessary. that's all, read her.
Oct 13, 2011 Melissa rated it it was amazing
This sparked great conversation among our reading group -- one friend just couldn't read it. I believed in it deeply; I doubted it. I was amazed and dismayed. I was so full of contradictions, as it is, and that felt new and complex and important. Re-read.
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Alice Notley (born 8 November 1945) is an American poet.

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“ ‘You are your” “Past, Present,” “& Future,’ he said” ” ‘You divide into” “those components” “in this room’ ” ” ‘But I do not have” “components!’ ” “our three voices said,” ” ‘My
secret name—” “Time’s secret name” “is Oneness,” “is One Thing’ ” “As I—the one” “in the middle—spoke,” “the one of us in front—” “who was the Past—” “had already” “finished speaking” “& was awaiting” “his reply” “He said,” ” ‘Don’t we seem” “to experience” “things
somewhat this way?” “There is past, present” :& future’ ” “The Future then cried out,” ” ‘Where is my life?” ‘Where is my life?” “You have stolen” “my life!’ ” “There was a silence” “The man” “reached out &” “pressed a button” “on the cave wall—” “we three united” “into
one again” “while he wrote words on” “a clipboard” “Then he looked up & said,” ” ‘Going forward?” “Going on?” “Death lies ahead, you know’ ” “Any woman” “may already” “be dead,’ ” “I said”
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