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  • Byzantine Mind
  • Joyelle McSweeney (bio)
Reason and Other Women. Alice Notley. Chax Press. 192 pages; paper, $21.00.

Back then you weren't afraid. You moved so fast that only little creatures and fetuses could see you moving. Only cockroaches, lice, fetuses.

—Roberto Bolaño

How can the disempowered take power without recapitulating the hierarchies and hegemonies they seek to upend? Can the oppressed change their situation without taking up the ideological weapon, "power," most obviously used to oppress them? Must we seek power? Must we "take" power? What would an alternative to "empowerment" be?

Such are the questions that beset freedom fighters as they try to envision alternatives to the regimes against which they fight. Freedom fighters who use art to envision such alternatives are no less subject to these quandaries. In the case of the writer-as-freedom-fighter, the problem of power pertains to the problem of literary form.

Alice Notley has been struggling for decades to envision new non-sexist, non-oppressive societal structures, a political project proxied in a renovation of epic form. In her breakthrough work Descent of Alette (1992), she inhabits the epic from a feminist perspective, with a female heroine who struggles against a multiform Tyrant, patriarchy in ectoplasmic yet persistently human form. Though Alette eventually vanquishes the Tyrant, his presence in the book is so central to its structure that it's as if the patriarchal structure of epic is working against the erasure of the patriarchal figure by preserving his centrality to the poem. Moreover, the Tyrant in Alette forms one end of an axis, the other end of which is Alette herself. Alette disappears in the final pages of the work, just after the Tyrant does; the ambiguity of her own relationship to the figure of power is a pivotal provocation of the work, a formal and philosophical problem Notley has taken up again and again in variously reconfigured epics over the past few decades.

The shape and dimension of these epics have shifted not only according to Notley's developing sensibility but also in accordance to shifts in global politics. If Alette reflects a shadowy, post-Vietnam underworld, a Regan-administration dystopia of homeless vets, urban decay, the third world colored by monstrous first-world hegemonies, the more recent Alma, or the Dead Women (completed 2003; published 2006), reflects a more dismally contemporary picture, wherein globalism is bought and paid for on the backs of women. In our cultural moment, women's bodies are currency. Women are smuggled in and out of nation-states as sex slaves and domestic workers, or else exposed as the sites on which Fundamentalist and Enlightenment worldviews come to blows, whether over veils in Iran or ultrasounds in Oklahoma. In Alma, or the Dead Women, the multiplication and total degradation of women as implied in the title (one woman is no more or less valuable than a sum of undifferentiated dead women) provides a deathly vista, like the deepest, most lightless parts of the sea in which creatures confect their own improbable means of survival. Here women circulate through the poem with their interchangeable first names, shooting up, turning tricks, cooking, dreaming, generating a radiant, negative bleakness to which no dominant male antagonist can successfully plug in and power up. In Alma, Notley seemed to have finally achieved her vision of a massive, decentralized, hallucinatory black-lit basement epic which, discarding the structural elements of either a quest or a protagonist-antagonist dyad, escapes the glory-seeking hegemonies of epic form while enacting a radical reconsideration of the nature of power and alternatives to power.

Where to go after such a masterpiece? The surprising answer: Byzantium. In her latest work, Reason and Other Women, Notley takes up Byzantium in much the way William Butler Yeats did, as a kind of limit to a thought project, a spatial imaginary which puts the artist-seeker in contact with the Ultimate. In Notley's case, this Ultimate is the mind itself, and her book is both her own efforts to make this journey into the mind ("I wrote myself into a different state of consciousness") and transfer this journey to the reader...


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pp. 19-20
Launched on MUSE
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