Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Descent Of Alette

Spent the day at work reading Alice Notley's The Descent Of Alette, and having my head turned around. In its strangeness, and the density of which its ideas and insights come, I was reminded of Joy Williams' The Changeling, an all-time favorite. Notley is a poet, and every page works as its own unit, pretty much, conveying some sort of idea, individual to itself. The work itself is an epic, as the narrator starts off inside a subway from which no one ever leaves, then descends into deeper darknesses of caves. Then there is a campsite with a lake of infinite depth to stare into. All this realm is ruled over by a tyrant who it becomes clear the narrator must kill. I do not want to reveal too much, and diminish its power by simplification and summary. Suffice to say that the tyrant's true body is itself the substance of the subway, and that one must descend to the heart of being to bring change to the surface.

The whole thing is told in sets of words set off from each other, measure for measure, in quotation marks. On an initial flipthrough, so many of the phrases seem to be reused that I was thinking of the quotes as meant to mark Burroughs-style cut-ups, the bare elements of phrase. The book hit me very hard, and I felt like it was doing things I was intending to do in this book I'm writing now, which I wanted to climax in some sort of impossible architecture, a series of rooms where the rules are ever changing. The name the narrator is given, Alette at one point, and at another called Miss Owlfeathers, creating the name Alette Owlfeathers, is almost exactly the sort of name I assign my own characters. More importantly, the book does want I want my own writing to do: Symbolically kill tyrants, in this witchy magical way, where the body that makes up the world is restructured phrase for phrase, until the dominant shape of the world is made to bleed out all it runs on.

Reading it I was thinking about a comment offered in some dumb online article where the current drummer for Swans talks about how Steve Reich's Music For 18 Musicians seems to rearrange him, neurologically, with each listen. On the bus ride home I watched this kid solve a Rubik's Cube over and over again, at a speed so fast I could barely register it: Each side would be flat with color for a second and then his gaze would look away for him to shuffle it again anew. These are similar methods, really, of minimalism within sets of formalist constraints. Notley's book, being narrative, and not actually a work of cut-ups, keeps on finding new words, new sensations, to shuffle, rather than melodic phrases, and feels very powerful, in its power to change the reader, but sadly it can not reach beyond her to shift the world at large so easily.

As I write this it is September 11, 2014. Last night the president announced that we will be going to war again, back to bombings. The same place again. Where once there was a war and a failure to rebuild created a new problem, this time, seemingly, there is no intention of rebuilding. The war is endless, against the same places, with the same supposed allies, and the fact that our violence only seeks to radicalize a populace... I imagine a Rubik's Cube in the oval office that George Bush could not solve that Barack Obama inherited and is also unable to solve. Or maybe like at one point in his second term George Bush got frustrated with not being able to solve the puzzle and so stripped off the stickers and rearranged them to feel satisfied. But then he shuffled the grid again, to see if he couldn't solve it for real, and that is what Obama's inherited. There does not seem to be the sense of perspective, of spatial reasoning, to enable either president to solve the puzzle. And the desire to attempt to force it into succumbing to the will, rather than place it aside and focus instead on say, a peg-pyramid, feels deeply childish to me, someone who cannot solve the Cube but can do okay with the pyramid.

For other unrelated reasons, the sky over Baltimore today is filled with Blue Angel planes, flying low, the sound of their engines on this day scaring the piss out the populace. To associate the sounds of planes overhead, meant to be a demonstration of military might, with a threat, is something that the people of the middle east are I'm sure long accustomed to.

I want a reshuffling. At the end of The Ticket That Exploded, Burroughs advocates a cutting up of the tapes of all whose words regurgitate the same message, splicing them into a reel that shows the voice for what it is, "you will hear one ugly voice and see one ugly spirit is made of ugly old prerecordings the more you run the tapes through and cut them up the less power they will have cut the prerecordings into air into thin air" the book ends. At the beginning of this closing chapter Burroughs asserts "what we see is determined to a large extent by what we hear." Notley's image, as Alette looks into the lake and sees all that there is, is to see the air and abyss also as sets of eyes, and what exists inside the body as a light among mirrors. In metaphor I view the relationship of eyes to light as the constituent parts of all things as akin to the protons and electrons that make up an atom.

Running up against the boundaries of what one book can do is that only the reader is changed and not the world at large. An individual on the bus can solve the problems set out for him, created by him, in a way that nation-states cannot.

In other news, most people's iTunes downloaded a new U2 album, as if in callback to the U2 iPod of yesteryear, even as the old iPod was announced as being discontinued. Somehow I avoided this fate by never having updated by iTunes or buying anything from their store. I believe the U2 iPod was launched to coincide as a promotional tool for an album called "How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb."

With our eyes open we go into the darkness that is our home and hopefully we uproot and kill the thing the system that oppresses us.

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