Inverting the middle
Turning points in 'Drafts'
Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts is a bona fide difficult poem. The book is one of struggles, specifically as it redrafts modernism to address feminism, but also as it provokes a dialogue writ large between poetry and itself. Throughout its formidable one-hundred-plus sections, the poem encompasses the historical, personal, aesthetical, and ethical, and it is pitched in a spectrum of modes, though most notably in the interrogative. As such, we are prompted to ask our own questions, and the first may simply be: How does one read an avant-garde epic like Drafts? One approach is to begin at the beginning and to forge ahead. But another path that I have found, musing on the conventions of the epic itself, is to start in the middle.
It’s revealing that the rough midpoint of Drafts offers a through-line that spans much of the poem’s copious scope. “Drafts 49” is subtitled “Turns & Turns, an Interpretation,” and indeed the section provides a kind of turning point. But DuPlessis is explicit, and “Drafts 49” does not simply lead us to a big shift in the poem. Rather it points to its own revision as a series of pivots that are variously literal, meta, and subversively monumental. Ultimately what DuPlessis deems as turns and turns becomes the ethical grist that generates the poem as a continuous work site. In “Draft 58: In Situ,” she writes:
This was to be a beginning,
a simple beginning, in situ,
that is, in the middle, here.
An impossible task
Since all words dismember into invention.
For in (or by) the act of starting (staring, stating)
something else takes shape.
could It be otherwise?
Shifts of it, makeshift, light shafts.
Shadows fall, split.
Sequences of looming
shimmer dark and dun.
casts fates in strange outcomes, hard to own.
Two shadows blown
is one way of hinting it.
The above stanza is indicative of the poem overall, as one move immediately triggers several more. DuPlessis’s acknowledgement that “something else takes shape” is also a concession that the poet is not out to master her shape-shifting discourse, but is allowing the poem to take its own shape. She writes: “Whatever happens / casts fates in strange outcomes, hard to own.” Still, it is worth noting that the form here echoes the three-line stanza of William Carlos Williams’s “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.” The use of this stanzaic triad contributes to yet another iteration of the numerous back and forth exchanges that simultaneously occur throughout the poem.
And so it is that like many demanding and rewarding texts, the more we read Drafts the more we learn how to read it. DuPlessis writes:
The first sentence teaches you to read; the second sentence tracks the surface. Third and you’re gone; then you arrive nowhere in order to explore what that “nothing” will generate. Suppose you cannot turn back? Suppose there is no return? Then it is the poem, claiming nonetheless the interlock and open hope of hinge. For it will sometimes say there is a pivot. Yet sometimes there is not.
Here DuPlessis offers another version of the double shift and release, which she formulates as “the interlock and open hope of hinge.” Again, to quote from the opening section of “Draft 82,” the constant struggles “that seem dialectical” are foregrounded. As elsewhere, the terms of the poem are couched along ethical lines and have explicit formal ramifications. DuPlessis writes:
“We stand bewildered before our own destiny …” Perhaps there
should be no more poems, only acts of writing. There would be no
more books, but transfer points; no finished pages, simply work sites.
Here’s a single tangled page that stakes a claim.
Its interplays of hole and hold, of dead and dread
Seem dialectical, yet operate in a struggle
Whose tip-top, top-you term I can’t supply.
Part of the driving force of the poem is that DuPlessis is, by necessity, on the offense in the poetic conversations. These are not polite give-and-take exchanges among DuPlessis and Pound, Eliot, H.D., and Williams, among others, but they are always pointed. Early in the Objectivist-charged section of “Draft 3: Of” that begins with the lines: “Hinge-loss door, lack latch / ice-ribbed, straws, wad / T-top conglomerate, gritty glass / smash, street-glacier moraine.” DuPlessis sets the tone — she writes:
Thick, this smashed bottle green
On glaciated street ice, grey octopus.
Things are the
Diecast power stick in your craw?
Well, fuck off.
Here sound and sense is and are sharply fused in ever-finer “juncted points” of language. In “Draft 32: Renga,” she writes:
Opening the yod that goes with this space
the book is awake
enters a tiny point.
The counter-counter points continue — DuPlessis writes:
In time, the infinite,
comes down; it’s
holds the point.
Points are held and yield, and then held again; fractured glosses expose and make more incisive glosses. The point is that nothing is glossed over. We see this most powerfully in “Draft 52: Midrash,” which is one of the most highly charged sections in the poem. It begins with an extended quote from Theodor Adorno, parts of which are the much-quoted lines: “Cultural criticism find itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.” In section 8 of “Draft 52,” there is a moment of double push back. Here DuPlessis directly engages the ethical problem of poetic turns. She writes:
Therefore no poetry. You cannot get off this hook
with lyrics trading in transcendence and turn.
Early in “Draft 52” the syntax exposes that even the work of pointing is vexed. She writes:
and face What Is, that it is, that this
happened. As such. The finger points —
troubling toll through sentiment —
at unspeakable untellable yod,
wood, leather, fabric, organic char, ash of ash, then
also there is the tiredness
of pursing anything
DuPlessis’s vigilance to invert turning point builds a centrifugal momentum. Again, in “Drafts 49” the most personal/political/ethical/poetic aspects are fused and re-fused to continue the poem’s bounding charge:
I was angry at my sister: who is my sister we enter a dark chamber.
Wild horses dragged between us lacunae of embattled twinships.
Noveremember, decemb— manifesto after manifesto. What somber depths
and quick decisions what exclamations leaping, there were many
driving fast inside the array and we turned, we turned the wheel!
Intensely restless, gleeful, restless, I am not getting the force of it in,
the rebuff, the clarity, in. “Women’s liberation members demand full
for the once frail sex” said Newsweek. “Once frail” — a nice turn.
Someone is photographed holding a sign. She is sneeringly “ugly”
a fact we recognize and are proud that some can garner that level of
Or they said this “feminism” is polemical — or “we knew it already
it is not such a big revelation no particular surprise Ho hum.”
I listened to “I couldn’t get it through her head!”
I heard someone say he need more time alone
than his wife Why? “Because she takes tranquilizers.”
The instruction to “record the ordinary.” The ordinary!
scare are these words out! it was ordinary as mythic and then real again.
Conflictual overald turned compasses to spin.
And the path of the poem continues to swirl:
I turn page upon page look for “diagnosis” for “justice”
in the scintillating swirl and snarl of mixed paths and junctures.
There is rupture and there is rhetoric, but the questions continue, and they are not rhetorical:
“Who” turned upon the question of who (in any case) was “the invisible.”
We each flooded with the rips and tears, the tides of multiple women
plus there was the refusal ever again to be “a woman.” I am darting
needling, thru the febrile network of definitions. Feel polemical kinship
with many positions. Who is “We” if “I” is split? What is your class
overview? “Which men is it that women want to be equal to?
“Draft 49,” which is an approximate middle of the poem, ends not on shift, but emphatically. It is fitting that the final turn in this section is no to turn at all.
here it is this staggering life where dreams insist it’s they
make something known before we know it. Do not turn away.
Here the consciousness of the poem is front and center, at least for the moment. Still, DuPlessis’s injunction not to turn only dramatizes the ethical awareness that overrides the overall poem. Ultimately, Drafts is driven by the knowledge that “being” is a process of continual “transfer points” rather than a fixed position. But even moving points need to secure their place for a time, and it is that dialectical exchange, which is the work of the poem, one that continues.