Each month, Poetry magazine posts a “Reading List,” in which contributors to the current issue share some books that held their interest. In the May installment, Laura Kasischke offers a rave review of Alice Notley’s masterful, book-length poem, The Descent of Alette (1996).
This caught my eye both because the praise for Notley’s powerful feminist epic is so strong (and warranted), and because Kasischke may not leap immediately to mind as a member of “The Tribe of Alice,” which simply underscores how wide-ranging Notley’s influence has been. Here is Kasischke on Notley:
This winter I had the pleasure, not for the first time, of teaching The Descent of Alette and finding myself once again in Alice Notley’s terrifying underworld of subway passengers, spirits, witnesses to the Tyrant on a journey narrated by the disembodied voice of our guide, Alette. Like Alette, when I read this book, it is as if “one day, I awoke” “& found myself on” “a subway, endlessly.”/ “I didn’t know” “how I’d arrived there or” “who I was” “exactly.” This is both epic poetry and hypnotism. There’s really nothing that has been written in my lifetime that intrigues me, mystifies me, calls me back to it with such force as this poem. I find myself unable to read it as often as I would because I find it radioactive, dangerous, addictive, all-consuming. There are a lot of books on my nightstand and books on my shelf that I return to weekly, or monthly, but The Descent of Alette isn’t one of them. It’s a book I save for sharing, or to which I return when I need to be reminded of what it is to read something with so much gravity that it requires a total surrender.
If you’re interested in hearing more about The Descent of Alette, check out this wonderful recent conversation between the poet Rachel Zucker and Notley herself, which is part of Zucker’s terrific podcast series called Commonplace. Zucker explains just how life-changing that particular book was for her, and the two discuss it at length in illuminating ways. (For another post in which Zucker pays tribute to Notley’s influence as well, see here).