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.
Each draft in Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s long poem Drafts can be read as the opening draft, the first one through which you can enter the work. Each draft in the work is autonomous and capable of standing alone but only through a collective reading of Drafts will a reader attain the enormously rich, unquestionably challenging, but inevitably satisfying experience it offers. Drafts is not a linear work, but a spherical one. Think of it as an endlessly unrolling scroll that begins to fold upon itself on a desk. The circularity is made up of the recurrence of its themes, its interrogations, glosses, and commentary; its borrowings, appropriations, and writing through old drafts. Rewriting in the project does not supersede what was written before but enriches it by creating deep layers of sound and imagery that foster a sustained resonance. Begin reading Drafts anywhere then continue forward or back. The continuation only takes you deeper underground to make contact with its many reverberant strands.
Through a detailed reading of two drafts (“82: Hinge” and “15: Little”) this essay attempts to demonstrate that entry into Drafts can occur anywhere and initiate the beginning of a sustained and rewarding engagement with this landmark of contemporary poetry. Every poem in Drafts both leaves and anticipates traces of others. In reading these two drafts I recognize and trace recurrent words and themes. The keywords mark layers of concern as the poem grapples with articulations of the present and its continued struggle with loss and recovery, memory and time. The words include “hinge,” “rubble,” “pebble,” “enormous,” and “it.” The themes include the work site, the pinhole, the book, the worm (as collagist), the mite (as scholar), and trace elements. The methods include (but are by no means limited to) collage, midrash, and nekuia (questioning of the dead).
“The book is a mine / of intersections” opens “Draft 82: Hinge.” “The book” is made up of “margins”; “statements” “spurt and overlap, / link and lack, / subject and answer, / declaration and perversity.” A book of weblike intersections and associations is a likely outcome of work made largely in the mode of collage. “Hinge” is in part a meditation on the act of writing and the dissemination of that writing into the world. It is aware of writing’s potential permanence and also the inevitable threat of its disappearance. From the bound book to sprayed graffiti, writing in many formats is tracked through each of the ten sections of “Hinge.” As a physical object “the book” has a connection to mining that is both metaphor and not metaphor. Mines are underground work sites: inside the earth, under ground surface, under the text or the world as it can be read. “Intersections” imply a complex of passages. “The book” as avatar for Drafts makes “Hinge” into a kind of general statement for Drafts itself. As “Hinge” echoes and parlays earlier images and motifs of the project, as it modifies them in new contexts, it also anticipates later ones by continuing to build upon the groundwork against which those will be read.
The five numbered sections of “Hinge” split into halves (like a hinge) with the first line, sometimes the first two, repeating. In its structure the sections mimic a mechanical hinge made of two wings and a pivot (pin). The wings and any objects mounted to them can be moved and the repeated line(s) serves as pin. The hinge of a bound book allows the cover to swing open. Without it, like a door off its hinges, pages fall from the book. The hinge of a book may also be literal as books were once held together by metal hinges attached across the covers and spines. Hinge is a term of rhetoric that marks the critical point of a debate or marks the turn of a discussion; specific to poetry, particularly as DuPlessis uses it as a literary term in her prose, “hinge” operates on a syntactic level (“syntactic hinge or pivot words”) and influences meaning. The hinging of the sections then suggests a bifurcation of meaning in which starting points, the pin lines, offer an alternative reading in rewritten sections. They are restatements, modified comments; they supplement and complement rather than negate the other half. The wings in effect provide mutual support. The seedling format comes from “Draft 6: Midrush” (the first donor draft “in the line of 6” to “82: Hinge”). Certain stanzas of “Midrush” divide in two parallel stanzas that open to the left and right margins. This occurs four times and each time returns to a single centered stanza.
The pin lines of “Hinge” contain the keywords “book,” “page,” “rubble,” “train,” “carving.” Each section contains acts of reading: book, page, train schedule, covenant, rubble, stories, graffiti, maps, Italian and Greek letters, newspaper, sentences. But there are obstacles. The book is scorched or falling apart, the page is tangled or falling loose from the book, the covenant is broken, the maps half-effaced, the newspaper closed. Commentary to be made on texts like these may be impossible. Indeed, simple reading is impossible. It’s the situation itself that requires comment and the situation seems tenuous. The first identifiable voice (“I”) appears in section 2, distressed: “I don’t know what to do, how to articulate it. / My stepping stippled feet feel cold. / There are clots in my ear from ashen coals” (Pitch, 28). The passage by “a strange train” provides a feeling of growing terror: “The present is dismembered. Undecipherable. The future is paralyzing.” The train ride suggests a dream state, one of terror, and one common to Drafts. The figure seems to be in constant existential despair: “… my life … / was it important? Did it matter? / Who broke these hinges? Who profits / from such resistance to turning” (29).
The pun of a claim progresses from mining (metals, minerals, etc.) to textual inquiry: “Here’s a single page that stakes a claim.” Digging as an intellectual endeavor. Drafts is primarily collage even as little narratives seem to burst from every overlap. The desire to untangle the claims and interplays of pages is strong: “the exposition / Being so complex. / Are you that surprised?” (28). Whose frustration is this: are we witnessing acts of reading in other texts, equally demanding, or does the question mirror our own reaction to the “hole and hold, dead and dread”? Patterns begin to emerge as they do when looking at (or reading) any collage of visual (non-word exclusive) materials. “Hole” and “hold” are repetitions from early drafts: “Draft 12: Diasporas” and also “Draft 14: Conjunctions” (“the hole, again I said hold, / I have in my head”) (Toll, 86, 93). In “Diasporas” they are drawn from a Walter Benjamin text (Toll, 270). The repetitions create an intensely complicated context in which to read this new placement. Intersections on the sides of each hinge (half of each section) recall earlier lines and earlier themes within this draft and as well as across the preceding eighty-two (counting “Draft Unnumbered: Précis”). We recognize trains, work sites, rubble, biblical allusions, and alphabetic characters as significant components of Drafts that have recurring roles, sometimes brief and sometimes extended. They will stretch to the end of the project when it concludes with Draft 114.
Sequentially, “Hinge” follows a draft (“81: Gap”) that chronicles a visit to a concentration camp, possibly Auschwitz. No location name is used in the poem and no note to the draft is offered. A sign in Polish is recorded: “Zakaz Wchadzenia Na Ruiny. / Keep Off the Ruins” (Pitch, 25). Other bits of language (part of the “undecipherable” of the present in “Hinge”) are considered: “This language uses many letters that are underused / In the Anglophone context. / Z and J and W and K. Plus Y. And C.” Where the figure in “82: Hinge” is disoriented and uncertain, the speaker in “81: Gap,” standing among other visitors who “take pictures with digital cameras” experiences anxiety but not despair.
Multiple readings are possible, and different impacts registered when considering “Hinge” and “81: Gap” back to back. Though each poem in Drafts is absolutely autonomous, materials and descriptive episodes easily migrate among one another. Materials for collage are cut up and divided among multiple drafts. It seems to be one of Drafts’ basic principles. Is the “spur-line train stop” (30) a locale used when visiting the historical Auschwitz site or when imagining the arrival of one of its victims? The inclusion of “sgraffito” on the wall says Italy, as does the “ostinato” and the “Acca acca acca” written on the right hand (31). So much context is needed to process “tacit greetings from soldiers” (30) or no context at all is necessary: we hear the soldier’s tacit greeting with what we’ve processed so far.
We may be reading across Drafts 81 and 82 a modified ritual of nekuia where the journey is made by train and hell is the concentration camp. Nekuia is the ancient Greek ritual of questioning the dead. Its best known literary episode is in The Odyssey. In “Hinge” the scorched book itself may be the sacrifice. The questioned is anonymous: a victim, a survivor, a scholar. Someone in despair whose life crisis is recalled in a meditative frame of mind: was my life “important? Did it matter? / Who broke these hinges?” (29). Or, who cared and will care for the work I’ve done? This is not, this doesn’t need to be, the poet save in giving voice to an unnamed person, actual or composite.
In the final section of “Hinge” the sensation of something being finished, an episode coming to its conclusion is palpable. The engraved hands open like books (like hinges). A newspaper page blown about in the wind becomes stuck to a pole, closed, but could be opened “like the palm and psalm of the written” and “be regarded” (32). It becomes a fable of loss that pivots on the word “hope” found in its closing lines, “the open hope of hinge.” There is a plea in “Hinge,” a call for a revaluing of literacy in cultural and textual domains. “The book” is a talisman that can serve as a safeguard against loss, many kinds of loss. By the activation of read sentences a transportive act occurs in which “you arrive nowhere, in order to explore what that ‘nothing’ will generate.” There is — there can be — “hope” but it’s not guaranteed (“sometimes there is not”) and then the effort, the work of poetry, scholarship, or anything transmitted through text is lost.
In part, this gloss on “the book” calls for the abolition of books. The end of the first section calls for doing away with poems, books, honors and “rhetorics dibbling in frill [and] decor” (27). Instead of books there would be “only acts of writing,” “austere and demanding” and “infinitely interpretable.” “Hinge” closes with a demand to read, a demand that these “work sites” be more deftly attended to, and the attentions demanded by them be given more rigor. This is the utopian polemic of a poet and scholar, made from hope. But it’s a hope well versed in the history of its pitfalls. The quote preceding this gloss, DuPlessis notes, is from American composer George Rochberg, himself providing a gloss on a letter by Rilke who despairs that art and theater didn’t prevent the First World War (174). The notion — Rilke’s — is reminiscent of Pound, whose sleep was troubled (satirically) by “The thought of what America would be like / If the Classics had a wide circulation.” But the words — Rochberg’s — “we stand bewildered …” seem somehow to echo Oppen, whose collective “we” in “Of Being Numerous” has a similar portentous sweep: “if it is true we must do these things” and “bewildered / By the shipwreck.” The echo is intensified by appearing in “Draft 85: Hard Copy,” DuPlessis’s writing through “Of Being Numerous” from which she takes the word in “Bewildering what happened” (Pitch, 46).
DuPlessis’s hope for a new kind of book is an indeterminate hope. “The book, the books contain our hopes.” In no way do I read her as saying this or that would be better if people would just read more. Instead a footnote to “Draft 57: Workplace: Nekuia” constructively redirects our attention. DuPlessis’s lines “For the book is never whole / no matter how it fills or why it makes those claims” is a gloss on the footnote, a quote from Zukofsky, to which it is tethered. Zukofsky proposes, perhaps following Mallarmé, that a single but defining book might be an adequate text for world culture, instead of a plethora of many books. As in “Hinge” the perfect-enough book turns out not to be so: “If the full page folds / if another page comes loose as loss, / if corners of things rip.” And in “Draft 76: Work Table with Scale Models” the book, perfect or no, is finally an object for further work:
found paper & thread
undid the book
low hum and rustle, voiceless
out of the fallen leaves of text.
Re-bound the folds with sweet reeds and whiplash
tied polylingual billets, doux ding-a-ling,
And punched andare-ritornare
tickets, there and back,
one for entering the book
one for escaping the book. (Torques, 131)
In its insistence of hope as an element of the written “Hinge” echoes lines from “Draft 60: Rebus”: “I wanted a whirling list of hopes / hopes hopes hopes whole alphabets of H’s” (Torques, 17) and answers it in Italian: “acca acca acca” the Italian letter “H” seen, or read, in the “flesh lines of my palm … read as letters” (Pitch, 31). Other pertinent echoes from all previous drafts become prominent in the din: “The book, the books contain our hopes” (Torques, 73); “The blood comes thru the book” (120). And with increasing volume, the long o sound of “hope” as in “type O blood dotted on the page. / Of openings. Over and over, and of an older hope” (84).
The images and words recalled, echoed, and repeated throughout Drafts have the effect of making multiple readings. A new reading yields a new pattern, an old one modified. The resulting patterns become ever sharper, however provisionally. Why is it important to trace them? As standalone poems the drafts in Drafts can be highly evocative. In its totality this evocative quality is unbelievably rich, creating meanings for the individual reader I am sure not even the author can fully anticipate. Tracing the words and themes illustrate a richness in composition by which layered materials reverberate in each passage. Possibilities for meanings accrue.
The idea of “donor drafts,” of folding the Drafts upon one another after each set of nineteen, means that “Hinge” unfolds “along the line of 6.” The predecessors of “Hinge” are “6: Midrush” (the originator of the line), “25: Segno,” “44: Stretto,” and “63: Dialogue of self and soul.” Drafts 101 and 120 will round it out. Drafts in a certain line will appropriate and recycle words, images, forms, and themes from previous drafts with many variations and modifications. Donor drafts are objects of conscious meditation in beginning a new one. Yet sometimes there is scant resemblance among drafts of a line. The method and extent of loans is not formalized. It is instructive to see what is borrowed as these themes inevitably develop into the strongest patterns and remain the most resilient poetic fibers of the work. From the line of 6 “Hinge” takes biblical allusions. The paired stanzas of “Midrush” and the bifurcated stanzas of “Hinge” are tethered to the story of the Ark and its animals, “cowering / pairs / in a tarred ark” and, again, writing: “pairing the letters / underneath / siting citing / the writing under writing.” (Toll, 33). “Ark” is echoed as pun in both “Stretto” (“to arc the wine,” Pledge, 61) and “Dialogue of self and soul” (“inside some arc,” Torques, 38). No phoneme is too small to register.
Scripture returns in “63: Dialogue of self and soul” with the death of Eli upon learning the ark of covenant has been captured from Israel. “Draft 25: Segno” continues the theme of pairing — “Memory makes twins / from single rocks” — and further encounters, through dreams, with the dead: “The dream-speech of the dead / reverberates, a tunnel of echos” (Toll, 162, 163). Tunnels are found in “44: Stretto”: “the ear opens tunnels / behind itself” (Pledge, 56); they appear again in “63: Dialogue of self and soul”: “We’re caught inside our time, / a tunnel in a cave” (Torques, 38). The questions asked in this draft will be echoed in “Hinge”: “What’s the covenant? / who is propitiated? / who assuaged? who profited?” If we are not reading a gloss on the biblical ark of the covenant, the chest containing the written law as given by God, then the secular covenant of Drafts remains elusive beyond a symbol for the power of the written word. The “covenant of breaking” (Toll, 34) and “scattered tabernacle” (36) are glimpsed again in “Hinge” on the passing train: “The covenant? I understand that it is broken. Look — we have just passed the scattered tabernacle!” (Pitch, 28). Hints of what was desired in a covenant and what now stands as a loss, perhaps permanently, is found in “Draft 74: Wanderer”:
For few have found just covenants that hold.
For here and there are both displayed and crushed.
Should we assume there can be real covenant,
not given, not imposed, not crazed, but struggled
for and wide? Or should that hope be
given out as gone? (Torques, 108)
Covenant in section 24 of “Draft 85: Hard Copy,” whose corresponding section in Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous” reads in part “The covenant is / There shall be peoples,” is pluralized and completely removed from sacred texts:
The covenants that are
To fabricate them as
Humane and secular
And thereby to address
Wrongs of the world, ruthlessness,
Despoiling and injustices:
Is the agenda in front of us. (Pitch, 59)
Whether all previous occurrences of “covenant” in Drafts also respond in part to Oppen’s usage is impossible to determine.
“Draft 44: Stretto” provides phrases that will appear in “Hinge” — “spurt and overlap” and “subject and answer” (Pledge, 55) — and takes others from “25: Segno” —“Similars that materialize / maybe a little / behind the other” (Toll, 162). In “Stretto” the phrases are part of a descriptive passage of paintings, perfectly suitable for reuse in describing “the book,” which will give to “Hinge” its variations of “tangled in the long veil of the page.” For letters the “O” in “Midrush” (handwritten on the page, Toll, 34) is echoed in the “poetic O of moon” in “Dialogue of self and soul” (Torques, 36). In “Hinge” it is subtly employed again as traditional poetic interjection: “O, it would be austere and demanding; o, it would be infinitely interpretable!” (Pitch, 27). The long o in both “open” and “hope” (making it a hinge sound) is also strung throughout this line. With “Was this the hope, or that” (Torques, 39) coming after “paralysis” (meaning inaction or indecision, in both “Dialogue” and “Hinge”), hope gets the final say: the “open hope of hinge” (Pitch, 32).
I have made no mention of those most romantic of poetic images, as repeated and multilayered as the words discussed here: “heart” or “clouds” or “moon.” They each play heavy roles in Drafts. The examples cited here are by no means exhaustive and lie in plain sight. The borrowings of “Hinge” are not limited to its donor drafts. It is not uncommon to see intermingling and appropriation of words and images well off the donor lines. The patterns in Drafts are formalized by a donation system that is outlined in a grid, published in the front matter of Pitch. Practically speaking, it seems likely that the many images and themes occur where they are needed at any particular moment.
To read through Drafts is to take on a heightened awareness of certain words. Each usage may register a shift in meaning or add new meaning. Lapsed attention may be a lost chance for redemption. The word “hinge” maintains a consistent presence throughout Drafts varying in syntactic usage. It first appears in the opening line of “Draft 3: Of”: “Hinge-loss door, lack latch” (Toll, 19). An editorial mark in the margin instructs that this line and 49 others be cut from the poem (19–20). It appears again as a verb “(rude grey nobs of street junk hinge the rough grey ice)” (22) and as a noun rooted with discarded things in a meditation of syntax: “a hinge from word to word a thingk / of what grammatical conjuncture can seem / adequate to ‘of’?” (21). When it appears again (not coincidentally along the “line of 3”) in “Draft 22: Philadelphia Wireman” its contextual uses are similar. It is stretched and adapted to new uses: “Juncted agendas that twine their hinge” and “Grunge things junk things, things singed by light. / HOW hung the hinge from void to word / from word to work” (141). The last line is employed in reiteration toward the end: “Can you tie up Spirit Writing the hinge from void to word to work / on the wadded page randomize the flow of paths” (143). It is also recycled (off the grid lines of official folds) in “Draft 55: Quiptych”: “we shine about, we hinge / … / caught in mid-tunnel … / … among the ark of random things” (Pledge, 183). “Quiptych” begins with a telling epigraph on beauty from the “random gathering of things / insignificant of themselves” by Herakleitos (181), unfolds as a commentary on the methods of collage and finishes as an elegy for “an era of shame.” The connections are as explicit as juxtaposition can make. The larger pattern to see here is the use and reuse of words and themes, and how certain words become tied to ideas, as “hinge” is with junk. Junk is (or can be, should be) reused for art, thereby being redeemed as a valued thing. Meanwhile, “thingk” undergoes a de-hinging or decoupling: “words / as virtual hinges / and how it / survives! foraging like that / thinking / and thinging / of OF” (“Draft 41: Of This,” Pledge, 25).
Other uses of hinge are varied and far spread. Note the proximity to “pivot” in some instances. A pivot is a point at which one may turn on a single spot and move in another direction. Note the language of aerial movement in others: “oscillations,” “swings,” “wing of air.” Sometimes the hinge is linked with sounds — “a visible silence,” “little sounds” — and the ability of hinge to act as a light-source — “light leaking,” “brilliant” “hinges of light.” As the repetition, and variants of it, pile up it’s useful to list them:
being a hinge, constructing oscillations
fracture and hinge
back / hinge pivot inside the space
the door swings on its double-jointed hinge
intricacies that cross our paths, / a hinge, turning outward and inward, like a page
Sound. Hinge. / Wing of air.
light leaking through rents and cracks / through hinges
I wanted lines turning, / in linked gasps, on hinges as if from a visible silence
the obdurate and brilliant hinge
Hinges of light
prefixes all of this, / hinging, half-hung / half-off
which hungers hinge to home
The great hinge allowed only small openings
There are little sounds / swung hinged / in the woods.
As echoes of many drafts are heard throughout “Hinge,” some from “Draft 15: Little” echo loudest. One is the stalled train of “Hinge” which in “Little” was very much in motion, occurring in a dream state or limnal state of consciousness. In “Little” a train is passing “nickname-painted train stops” which triggers a series of disjunctive images:
… jerry-built victrolas,
canoes pulling away sloppily from simple docks
dribble and bonk of paddle,
a particular grab of grasses,
hairy stems of weeds,
and the afikomen so well hidden
plus misunderstood. (Toll, 100)
“Little” shifts with the ease of work built on segmentivity (like a train) to a descriptive recollection of “photographs of the war, / stripes under wire, / shadows scummed or smudged on pavement, / and starved locked rows.” This kind of haunting historical (or not so) imagery is frequent in Drafts, and frequently vague. In “Hinge” a correlative image is not explicitly a photograph though the figures could be easily mistaken for one: “eyes set deep / as refugees / in exile from illusions of another world / as from illusions of transcendence” (Pitch, 28). The “illusions” delineate one group from a certain kind of horror yet the alternative horrors remain just as real. “Little” participates in the intellectual autobiography (the title of Draft 29) that makes up a major component of Drafts. The images early in the poem may be necessarily vague childhood memories. The vagueness underscores not-quite-old-enough to understand memories of the war and postwar era. Not the war but photographs of it and of its victims with whom you learn at some point you have something in common. But the afikomen represents a tradition that a child actually participates in, a totem of heritage, meaning there should be less confusion around it.
“Little” has a narrative structure (beginning, middle, and end) uncommon in Drafts. The first line of “Little” is ambiguous and may be read as a continuation of the title. Instead of beginning “More than that is hard to say” the text progresses directly from the title (or, what can be read following a colon, the subtitle): “Little / More than that is hard to say.” Whether there is more than that, or little more than that, is hard to say. I read “Little” as a testament to a kind of political and artistic awakening, one whose beginnings arise from a deep sense of being unable to speak to things and especially to it. The theme of not being able to say much, not being able to write poetry, or talk about poetry and other subjects runs deep in Drafts. (See below.) But here this blankness is either a device or the mere admission of blockage has effectively unblocked the writing. The list of images that follow evoke childhood, a kind of misty half-remembrance or before-the-war montage of memory fragments recalled without “mourning” or “pleasure.” As a talisman of the poet’s Judaism the afikomen of childhood holidays speaks to a complicated heritage by being well-hidden (so well-hidden it could not be found?) and misunderstood. Then an awareness of war through photographs showing concentrations camps (“stripes under wire” and “starved locked rows”) that cannot fail to affect those who see it, and feel complicated even further. The knowledge that one is safe from immediate terrors doesn’t help to ease those complications. Life goes on, life is good, but life is strange. In the midst of peace and plenty come orders to “Take cover!” under the desk as “cowering shapes” (101). The turn comes, the hinge of the narrative, in a new awareness, an awakening: “From that point, those points, on, / the trace or shard, the thing / come passing darkly cross me / in the tunnel dirt of time / was mine” (101–102). Tripping across the word “it” (“I was part of all that it”), not even capitalized, easy to underestimate its significance, waiting for a grammatical gap to be filled: “I was part of all that it, / a lucky nothing / not in the way of particular harm, / half witness half witless” (100). “It” is born or made manifest in the consciousness, something to live with and negotiate. Was it knowledge of the Holocaust? Was it the threat of annihilation courtesy of the Cold War? Yes, yes. “It” was these things and more. “It” is the signifier of enormous things in Drafts, vast and wicked: “multiplied,” “engulfing,” “excessive.”
“Little” is about loss and recovery: lost memories, lost lore, lost history. It involves the anxiety of not recovering them, or not recovering them in a way that can be used, a resignation to having only fragments, a confrontation of being “part of all that it” and a resolve to no longer be “a lucky nothing” and break the pattern of anxiety or guilt of being “half witness half witless.” The experience of “it” needs to be made valuable somehow, and one needs to manufacture its own redemption. The layered self-description of this passage is particularly brutal considering the self is still a child: a nothing, half witless, a “dot — a little / yod or yid” (100). “Little” is heard again, superimposed as an individual person in the shadow of staggering world events. Yod: the tenth and smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet; yid: derogatory name for a Jew. What, in retrospect, was she expected to know? One suspects the idea of it is on the folded newspaper page trapped by wind against a pole in “Draft 82: Hinge.”
The word “little” appears again three more times before the poem closes, twice to modify “mite,” a parasite that inhabits books, and once to describe a new stance or path of action in the resistance of “it.” Against “it,” against all the terror and despair to be found in “Hinge” and all throughout Drafts there is hope.
“It” like X that marks the spot, that is, the spots,
an ever wily while, a wilderness of hope.
The spot of almost hopeless hope.
Can barely credit it.
Thus my voice is empty, but I speak and sing
only of this.
that rise, tides of sentiment, the little
stuff agglutinating in time, debris
I sing. (102)
In “Hinge,” where attention shifts from book and page suddenly to “I’ve jumped on a strange train,” so in “Little” do rapid pivots occur. Trains (always the same train?) are visible at times in Drafts in many modes. They run as ordinary transportation for commuters who can write as they ride (Toll, 44). “Draft 4: In” depicts the train as a metaphor of composition sequence (segmentivity) and also, by way of a fine pun, dream sequence “the tension of making a strange train. The run thru the / bi-lingual. Now a very long tunnel totally unexpected” (27). Similarly in “Draft 34: “To push thru the deep dream station / and still miss the train, / to tear up the stairs for the dream el / running ever / never to catch it” because the train is gone (237). The spur-line stop in “Hinge” is seen also in “Draft 49: Turns and Turns, an Interpretation”: “Dark tunnel of an unusual train of thought. / Deeper and deeper (so long ago) into the neglected train station” (Pledge, 111). The train provides two sources of anxiety: when trying to make a train it is missed, or might be; when on the train the stop is missed, or might be. Also while on the train (in Drafts 4 and 49) an additional dilemma is repeated, “Have no idea what stop I am.” In their commingled dream states like those evoked in “Little” and “Hinge” it is tempting to read too much literariness (not to mention amateur psychology) into things. H.D. dreamed of trains too: “Last night, I had my old train-nightmare. I am going somewhere vaguely undefined; … [I am] lost somewhere, on some dangerous way, down some steps. … There are so many associations with trains.”
The train fades from “Little” and the woods (“the exile woods”) appear. In “Hinge” the formulation is “carrying [my heart] carefully into the woods.” In “Little” the woods are where the mite appears, a small but powerful figure. The mite appears early in Drafts as a self-identified thing, an identity-vehicle for the work done inside of books. Its size and virtual invisibility speak to the identity of a “dot – a little / yod” as well as the importance of “little / stuff agglutinating.” While the scholar-mite will testify in “Little” it is busy being born in “Draft 4: In”: “I am inside, / am a mite in the letter / a traveller thru are. the senses of dark holes tunneling grainy paper” (Toll, 27). This is an image that will split into many sustained directions in Drafts. The poet working, literally, inside the book. The mite as scholar, the size of and digging at the level of, a single letter (r), tunneling into pages, or elsewhere entering a text through pinholes. Digging and planting: “I began writing into the poems / I put words deep into the poems / As into a tunnel” (Pitch, 62). The mite is the tiny mark on the page, a dot, except this dot is on the move. The mite tunnels within books (“a mine of intersections”), exists on the edges and margins, an intellectual delver retrieving words, a worker bringing things to and from the surface: “What I made, I want to see: / bits and mites, codes and clots, / darts of lacerated clarity” (Pledge, 185–186).
Where the mite is engaged in textual scholarship, her companion the worm is more of a collagist. That they collaborate is beyond doubt. The name bookworm is common but actual worms in books belong to antiquity (like the metal hinges that once bound them). The book mite is a pscocid, a contemporary found in all libraries and homes. Worms dig in the ground, are segmented things essential to the success of composting and the health of soil, but in Drafts they enjoy the same status of mites as a worker engaged (from “Hinge”) in “the intelligence of textual scholarship” (Pitch, 29). From “Draft 42: Epistles”: “I can worm it out / with specific engorgements of words / and my inventions do rupture” (Pledge, 38). In another context — the fosse — time is the worm, whose action “worms out / its readable shard” or what lies buried (Toll, 189). The worm in “Draft 35: Verso” sees text as a meal, a symbiotic relationship between the collagist and its material, and a worksite that is verbally dense and complex in its imagery as “verse” plays off “vers,” the French word for worm.
a half-worm, lucent pink in grey
stoppen in its track
sidling juice: vers
o worm towards verse
Turn the page.
A verso puts one page
upon the next
thickening the compost of the text. (243)
And another: “My words are here among the layered pages / inside quickly moving time / intricate knobs with ‘wormholes’” (Torques, 10). Wormhole also may suggest a topological feature of space-time, a shortcut through time and space that is a useful analogy in considering collage works.
Wormhole echoes pinhole, a “needle-thin penpoint pushed into the page / a hole” (Toll, 49). The pin or needle disfigures the text and scars it in the attempt to mend it. The needle of “Hinge” belongs to the bookbinder and surgeon. What cannot be repaired is lost and becomes a shard, a fragment. A pinhole as a portal for mites. Time (found in “Little” and “Hinge”), bits, the small, the broken, the buried (in tunnels, in books, in the garden), and the voices speak through objects catalogued in the latter half of “Draft 11: Schwa”: in which “I quiver in my pinhole time / where bits of voice are buried / in broken, unrecoverable objects” (80). Another compilation helps illustrate:
How any thing ever holds together / homing to the pinhole!
Opening the yod that goes with this space / the book is awake // enters a tiny point
the pinhole chance / generating just that wonder / of human shadow over the
after years of poking along the long wall, / this declared that I had found the
pinhole / and had entered it
The pinhole gleams
how to reach the pinhole.
A pinhole is a source of light in Drafts: “A pinhole / a limpid blur from the light / shimmering through it” (Toll, 49); “Pinhole Specks of light in labyrinthine misery” (Torques, 109); “a pinhole light blur” (Pledge, 188); “pinholes of the void. Like stars” (Pledge, 200); and “these pinholes, these spots of light” which in “Draft 85: Hard Copy” (Pitch, 50) borrows from Oppen’s “A spot of light on the curb.” “Hard Copy” is a conversation with Oppen, making the pinhole a portal for light and for speaking to the dead. It occurs elsewhere in Drafts: “Person a pinhole through which / this death pound, opened, roars” (Torques, 54) as we see in examining the nekuia.
The idea of the worksite is preeminent in Drafts. “Draft 16: Title” begins with a description of an art installation, itself a worksite, where the artist has modified and mounted ledgers “pulled from the abandoned worksite” (Toll, 103). The phrase is echoed in “Draft 85: Hard Copy,” a lament for “so many abandoned worksites,” in a gloss on the vocation of poetry (Pitch, 61). Abandoned worksites from which working materials may be culled are the companion sites and companion works to Drafts. DuPlessis writes that she “think[s] of Schwitters perpetually” as a model (Blue Studios, 214). His collages and Merzbau share an affinity with her poems, as does Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project in Detroit. The Heidelberg Project is a collage of abandoned things arranged on the surfaces of abandoned houses. It appears in “Draft XXX: Fosse.” The raw, recycled materials of these works possess a strong bond with Drafts in that they create new perceptions by “imbedding shards and symbols onto one plane,” a reference to David Smith’s “Home of the Welder” in “Draft 38: Georgics and Shadow” (Toll, 265).
Part self-interview, “Draft 29: Intellectual Autobiography” lifts queries from the language of a grant application. It describes the author’s worksite. Asked about methods, the author replies: “Leaves torn from old notebooks / and mildewed subscription blanks establishing / on the cut-off margins of newspapers” (Toll, 183). Shards and bits are a natural fit with collage and in a larger pattern also with endless commentary: “Propose a work, the work, a work of enormous dailiness, vagrant / responses inside the grief of a century” (Toll, 186).
From a collage worksite of shards and bits it is an easy step to the larger materials of worksite rubble and debris, equivocal as sources with any “odd books, [with] broken bindings” (46). We begin with the girder, what DuPlessis calls in a note to “Draft 24: Gap” the “objectivist talisman” (274). The word “debris” is specific to Drafts, while “girder” is an appropriation. “Rubble,” however, DuPlessis makes her own, despite its mite-extracted origins through the self-conscious quoting of Charles Reznikoff. “The girder amid, within, among, above / over, on as if” suggests both a multi-directional twist of the original line, a play on the possibilities for misquoting it (as Oppen misquoted it), and new syntactic hinges for use in creating modified images from its unshakable self (159). But while the prepositions pivot along lines of possibility the girder, of course, remains itself.
The grafting of “rubble” onto “girder” is significant. Reznikoff’s original lines, part 69 of “Jerusalem the Golden,” reads “Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies / a girder, still itself among the rubbish.” George Oppen quotes it often but inexactly, and consistently misremembers “rubble” for “rubbish.” Oppen cites the image many times as a kind life-saving talisman, a crucial poetic image that sustained him during a nightmarish time in a foxhole. In a 1958 letter to his daughter, speaking of Reznikoff, he writes: “And he noticed in one of those filthy vacant lots ‘a girder, still itself among the rubble.’” In a 1959 letter to his half-sister, he quotes it without alteration or error. In letters in 1965 and 1966 (one of them to the author of Drafts) it is firmly the formulation he has made his own: “the girder, still itself among the rubble.” And in a 1981 interview George and Mary Oppen testify together to the importance of the image. Oppen says, “Quoting Rezy, too, ‘We wanted to be ourselves among the rubble’ which held us half in and half out of political doings. And that line to me is one of the most powerful lines in poetry.” Mary Oppen interjects, “The girder …” and George Oppen continues: “‘The girder still itself among the rubble’ and we recite that line over and over to ourselves — and we meant ourselves to be among the rubble — and it was rubble or it was very close to rubble.” As a preface to the second volume of Reznikoff’s Collected Poems Oppen contributed this statement:
the girder, still itself / among the rubble
That line of Reznikoff’s and the poem of which it is a part, and line upon line of his perfect poems have been with me for the forty-eight years since I first came upon them. If we had no other poetry I think we could nevertheless live by virtue of these poems, these lives, these small precise these overwhelming gentle iron lines and images of all that is and our love and pride and our small life which is immeasurable as these lines which are still themselves among the rubble.
Rubble in Drafts is the debris of culture, the data and material of cultural criticism. A standing girder post-demolition is a temporary trace of the structure it once supported, and no doubt it too will soon fall to the wrecking ball and be swept away with the rest of the rubble/rubbish. It may be found again as part of a landfill hundreds of miles away. But concrete is not carved marble, and so, who will care? Perhaps it ends as part of a jetty serving to keep the primordial waves from (further) erasing a beach. That last removal can be read as accomplished in the very next Draft: “one girder of smoke, / hovering, still, over rubble also of smoke” (Toll, 165). The concern with rubble, a preoccupation, is tied up with the critique and interrogation Drafts undertakes. Rubble is a name for remnants and traces of things once above that designation.
There is “rubble of failure” and the “rubble of loss” (Pledge, 197, 116). The rubble of Drafts is more than heaps of bricks and plaster. Are “rubble” and “debris” the same? There is the rubble of a worksite to be read, collected, and understood: “This is not simply the world as such / but a world stained with other times // the riddle of rubble” (Torques, 19) and there is “Rubble Unread” (85). What does it add up to? What can it amount to? “Is this // rubble accountable?” (Toll, 78). “Some things, broken down to rubble / need to be broken further” (Pledge, 140) and “translate compulsions of rubble / into the directness of rubble” (Pledge, 81). In “Hard Copy” there is “the directness / of rubble” (Pitch, 49), and in “Hinge” the rubble is (twice) “continually before me” (29).
DuPlessis seizes on the misquote when that objectivist talisman is directly referenced by using “rubble” not “rubbish” and so makes the work, if not the image, her own. Bricks and plaster are only a piece of the rubble that concerns Drafts. So when she makes use of it in “Draft 74: Wanderer” by quoting “So from the rubbish gathered up a stone” from Wordsworth the nod in that gesture, I feel, is toward Reznikoff. She modifies the quote in the next line: “Then from the rubble gathered up a stone” (Torques, 115). The poem continues with an exposition on collages and collage making: “began a rubble wall. / Random pieces placed in counter-poise” ending with “Voices of the dead give speeches on these principles of physics” (116). From Pitch:
the girder amid, between, among, above
the rubble under, on, from, next to, within (82).
Amid, between, among, etc., the rubble is an occasion of material survival found among the cycles of creation and destruction. The shards and bits are so much more than language. They are broken saucers, odd bits of pottery found parallel to the “hungry books / words / related to the torn debris” (Toll, 81). They are personal materials that once belonged to actual persons, economically recycled like the embroidered handkerchief (“random finds / some dead man’s debris”) picked up at a thrift shop (88). They are flowers pressed into dictionaries “long / ago by sentimental ladies” (69). They are the works of the Philadelphia Wireman, made from trash (rubbish) and left outside for trash pickup (after the artist’s presumed death) when they were discovered (273). They are the debris of the Heidelberg Project, and the debris of centuries past, worming out into the present, into our lives in a location as common as a backyard garden:
Always another little something —
a broken saucer flower fleck
unremarkable wedge, except its timing
working itself loose in the rain
thru the mum patch
some glittery sharp a-flat the wet wide shade.
The house was built on a dump. (37)
Another illustrative instance is the nineteenth-century pottery works in a Philadelphia neighborhood unearthed (read: civic palimpsest) for new construction or a new park. The former industrial worksite becomes a temporary worksite of casual gleaners collecting souvenirs from the past before the machines return to continue their work. The bits and shards are now preserved through personal possession by the place of honor given them. These are things “you have made survive for now / by keeping it where you are, / and so the trace can cause happiness” (Pitch, 95). They become in a sense flowers pressed in a dictionary. Not everything can survive, even for a little while, despite the intentions of those doing the dropping. “Draft 17: Unnamed” cites the observer who does not pick up the “dozens of notes and addresses // tossed away / moments before their deaths” of Holocaust victims (Toll, 110). The act could have been critical somehow, and its omission remains a source of regret. The “trace elements” of Drafts delineated elegantly and thoughtfully in a draft of that title are crucial to the memory that “folds over itself / making residue when you least expect it to” (Pitch, 87). Part of the “theory of debris” of Drafts is that these traces “agglutinat[e] in time” and
function like poetry made
by standing where you are
patiently watching and listening,
patience for the layers
in things & words
in systems & syntaxes
waiting for the twist or quirk to coalesce
and signify and turn and disappear (97).
Another recurring worksite is the fosse, a word linked to Pound possibly even more than “draft” (see Blue Studios, 250, on the appropriation of “draft” from Pound). Pound opens The Cantos by rewriting the episode of Odysseus summoning shades that he might question Tiresias: “Dark blood flowed in the fosse.” Nekuia is the ritual of speaking to the dead but no such dramatic scenes of sheep sacrifice are recreated in Drafts. The dead are present as early as “Midrush” (“Wraithes of poets …”) through acts of reading the work they left behind: “The poem is the fosse / in which to cower” (Torques, 40). (Another keyword operating slyly but powerfully within the work; cower: from animals on the ark to children under desks, a different context here which modifies the previous uses.) The nekuia of “Midrush” foreshadows later ones:
my eyescreen tearing their insistent
writing was speaking here was
saying words but,
befit a shady station,
sere swallowed up within the
and all the words
dizzy with tears
passed away again. (Toll, 35)
What shade is summoned when DuPlessis writes, “Can visit him dead / bask in his anger and the dirty light / of poetry” (192)? “What rears and spurts and thickens / in the fosse?” asks “Draft 13: Haibun” (107). “[P]erson a pinhole through which / this death pound, opened, roars” echoes “Draft 67: Spirit Ditties” (Torques, 54). The encounters are focused on texts and memory, memory of people, and the words they wrote. The texts retain a power to speak directly to us as if the person who created it were actually in the room:
What visits us announcing where we are?
Who speaks; who writes?
The dead. (Torques, 15–16)
“This is the place I work” begins “Draft 57: Workplace: Nekuia,” “a pinhole light blur” (Pledge, 188). In the next numbered draft (skipping the unnumbered draft, “Précis”) “a student jumped from a window / of my workplace / a few tense days before the newest war” (Torques, 2). It is tempting to think of the student as Elpenor, the young comrade of Odysseus, who fell drunk to his death from Circe’s roof. The notes to “Draft 58: In Situ” dispel any such literary notion but when such things happen one is bound to hear the approaching “high-pitched twist / of sirens” (3).
Elpenor wants Odysseus to retrieve his body for burial and use his oar as a marker. Aside: oars and rowing have a curious role in Drafts: “skeletons that move their bony oars / and pump through the sky” (13); “Who was carrying oars? And why?” (Torques, 84); and the “dribble and bonk of paddle” in “Little.” Odysseus was compelled to find Tiresias in order to find his way back to Ithaca. Epics of loss and memory are undertaken in the same desire to find home. The fosse of Drafts is wherever the “wraithes of poets” and other interlocutors are found, in books, in words that one bores into, in trace elements or debris of whatever can be found, read, or heard. “Speak from the site / as if you were already dead” (Toll, 94). “Plan: a nekuia based on digression” (Pitch, 12). The nekuia undertaken with Oppen in “Draft 85: Hard Copy” is upended by the dialogue running against the traditional current. The ghost is being not interviewed but informed: it is saying this is what’s going on today. “Hard Copy” has forty numbered sections that match and correlate to the numbered sections of Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous.” A gloss on the nekuia is directed at the encounter,
… the vagueness
from which the now vague dead imaginarily
from the outside.
From the other side.
We no longer encounter them
in good conscience. (Pitch, 44)
For all the interrogating of Adorno’s writing that “Draft 52: Midrash” does, and for all the commentary the poem makes on what is almost a cliché regarding postwar poetry — that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” — the many doubts and justifications of poetry in Drafts has much in common with Adorno but rejects his statement at face value. Why is poetry “barbaric” and not painting, sculpture, cinema, etc. (Pledge, 142)? “Midrash” may well be Drafts’ most rigorous and in-depth example of midrash (commentary and gloss) going far beyond bits, shards, and fragments. There is a connection, however oblique, among Oppen’s “Difficult now to speak of poetry” found in section 27 of “Of Being Numerous,” DuPlessis’s similar and numerous formulations throughout Drafts, and a separate writing of Adorno’s. In lectures given in 1965–66, the same time “Of Being Numerous” was beginning to take shape, Adorno provides a midrash on the aspects of difficulty and hesitancy found in the poetics of both Oppen and DuPlessis:
I do not have even the slightest intention of suggesting that reflections on freedom might provide any scope at all for evading a confrontation with such experiences, that is to say, with everything that Auschwitz represents. I believe that every thought that fails to measure itself against such experiences is simply worthless, irrelevant and utterly trivial. A human being who is not mindful at every moment of the potential for extreme horror at the present time must be so bemused by the veil of ideology that he might just as well stop thinking at all. However, this very situation and reflection upon the facts that are at issue forces us into a radical process of interrogation that leaves far behind us such naïve questions as ‘Are you responsible or not responsible?’ Freedom in the sense of moral responsibility can only exist in a free society.
Nearly any excerpt from DuPlessis’s “Midrash” would appropriately complement Adorno’s text. The following, for comparison, is a little more than halfway in:
the visceral undertow
of enormous unstoppable
powerlessness, not to speak of humiliations
scarifications expropriations permanent marks
self-disgust, as if you had been declared guilty,
plus ‘‘murder locations’’ all across the nations
In ‘‘forests, streets and squares, synagogues, gravel pits’’
Where are the words that would say this?
They are gross and vague, literal and flat, condensed and imploded.
“Auschwitz” is both metonymy and metaphor—no? Nu?
Therefore—to write poetry thinking you had words for
anything at all, after these particular policies and practices
is ridiculous—hard to approach the right nuance,
is inadequate, a misapplication of understanding,
self-congratulatory, narcissistic, overweening,
prettifying, or could even say
“barbaric.” It was a word chosen for rage.
But it, like any word, is a one-penny gesture
thrown into firestorms
beyond the page. (Pledge, 149–50)
Drafts invites an acute sensitivity to individual words. You keep an eye open for “mite” or its pun (might) in a usage or context that may offer a new sensibility or new meaning in the poem. A fresh articulation of “it,” perhaps in ways the author didn’t intend, presages a new register of hope. The repeated and varied use of words give a freshness to themes and also provide opportunities to deepen one’s own richly contextualized reading. The end of “Draft 81: Gap” leaves the reader with an image of so many pebbles on gravestones “it looked like the graves were piled with rubble” (Pitch, 26). In this cultural act of empathy with the dead the stones left behind give the appearance of unkemptness in what should be a sacred location. A multitude of images preceding this one in Drafts pulsate with the reading of it. Those pebbles say “we” remember and do so in the company of these similarly placed (and similarly anonymous) other pebbles, a de facto collective effort of memorializing. The pebble as marker debuts earlier in Drafts with a similar placement of “two midsized pebbles” in an unrelated location (Toll, 262).
Pebbles are a minor force in Drafts. Like tiny rubble, tiny traces, they appear everywhere if you have the attention to spot them and, as it were, pick them up. To be sure they surround the girder, busted free from all that plaster and brick. “Draft XXX: Fosse” is rife with pebbles, and a recollection of Hansel and Gretel. “The smallest pebbles” and “shiny pebbles” and “pebbled lines” lead back to “the book” covered in pebbles that precipitate its erosion (187–88). Disturbed pebbles are evidence on a path, a trace that someone (two children?) passed by, in “Draft 32: Renga” “Someone / Crossing thru this micro-space / Loosened the trail pebbles” (207), and later, differently, “pebbles fallen on a scree / or crumbs of bread upon a trail” (Pitch, 90). The foreshadowing in “81: Gap” and also in “Draft 69: Sentences” sees “the sentient / pebbles left on graves are hapless / markers of my in-strangement” (Torques, 72).
The seemingly inconsequential presence of something so small (yet considering the impact of the yod, dot, mite, smudge, blur, etc., nothing little can ever be inconsequential) makes for an interesting comparison with the strong presence of its gargantuan opposite. “Enormous” and “enormity” (adjective and noun) are the looming presences over all things “little” in the context of loss and lost things. They take sides with “it” throughout the work. A fine example of word ownership by a poet, “enormous” is found among the earliest drafts. Some contexts recall Pound, as in “the enormous tragedy of the dream” (Cantos, 439). One usage is a quote from Pound: “My mind stretched to the bursting point / with this enormity” (Torques, 23). Other instances recall Wordsworth, twice through quotation: “amid the depth / of those enormities” from The Prelude (Torques, 115, 142) and “a puff enormous, silver / edge of rain” (109).
They are present as shadows when “enormous” ideas occur. That is, when one’s attention is jarred by it not appearing where it might have. Two examples: “Thought is frightened / for it can’t think anywhere near the size of what has happened” (Pledge, 56) and “injustice, rage despair / large amid the subjects” (Torques, 12). How I wish she had said “enormous”! Used mostly to describe size, to say something is really big, the pervasiveness of “enormous” throughout Drafts led me to investigate other definitions, where I was reminded (if in fact I knew before) that its historical uses apply to divergences from standards. Enormous things are “unfettered by rules … mostly in the bad sense … monstrous, shocking.” Applied to people: “excessively wicked, flagitious, outrageous.” An enormity deviates from moral and legal codes; they are crimes, “gross and monstrous offence[s]” (Oxford English Dictionary). Out of awe then for the gravity of it, and realizing that some uses just mean “really big,” I offer this quotation collage:
enormities of / key-shaped air enormous slant enormous emptiness an enormous amount of webbing a rocking enormity the enormities // of which one must, / if speaking, // speak across enormous scrolls his enormous X a work of enormous dailiness a point and an enormity // of nothing Enormousness of universe, and enormity of what has happened Given these enormities énormément de langues qui s’oublient the enormous periphrastic effort a backdrop of enormous / emptiness enormous curiosity this / turned / enormous those enormous encompassing Turns enormous unstoppable / powerlessness enormousness and enormity enormous waves constructed from enormous loss Some who mean enormous will say enormity enormous, chryselephantine against an enormous emptiness desire, enormity, care enormous fastballs the enormities / that they might suffer enormous depths of daily anything pipeline to the enormity of fact enormous historical crimes The implication of this gesture was enormous.
The implication of “enormous” and “enormity” in Drafts, the manifestations of their wicked presences (for a good lot of them) is the dark and ever-present “it.” “It” is the title of the first Draft, and the underpinning force against which the poem pits its energetic resistance. In an interview with CAConrad, DuPlessis explains this pronoun that in “Little” she was unwittingly a part of: “I don’t write to express myself. I write to examine ‘it.’ There is a lot of ‘it’ out there.” Find “it” throughout and then attempt to read “it” anywhere in Drafts again without feeling oversensitized to its nuances? Hard to do. And best done by the Drafts themselves. “It lists, it tilts — The it of all of it” (Torques, 30). DuPlessis is eloquent on the subject — its roles and origins — in her prose, but the poems emphasize the allusive, the traces of “it,” leaving a reader to think poetically about “it” and ultimately gain more by lingering in the evocative essence “it” distills. Multiplied, engulfing, excessive.
The words I chose to look at here are just a few choices among hundreds. There are many tangles and strands to follow. It is instructive to do, and it’s also fun. Time could be traced in Drafts — its relationship to astronomy, time as that “wristlet litmus π” (from “Little”) which gets lost over and over in Drafts. More words that have powerful capabilities of evoking complex responses could be looked at: “pitch” and “mist,” to name two. “Pitch” appears thirteen times with nearly as many usages in the book titled Pitch. “Mist” and its pun, “missed,” is another foundational word with many uses and meanings. What is the role of “apples” in Drafts? What is the role of clouds? And finally, curiously or maybe plain as day, the appearance of bread throughout, going backward: the bread recipe that “had got so stained with flour and oil // that the page looks edible” (Pitch, 37); “The letters are yeast / kneaded into an unregenerate bread” (Torques, 86); “to articulate the bread page” (Toll, 97); and “oil stains on the bread page” (Toll, 47).
1. Midrash is defined by DuPlessis in one instance as “doubled and redoubled commentary, poetry with its own gloss built in.” See Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 210.
13. “Draft 21: Cardinals” (Toll, 139); “Draft 24: Gap” (Toll, 158); “Draft 28: Facing Pages” (Toll, 175); “Draft 33: Deixis” (Toll, 225); “Draft 33: Deixis” (Toll, 229); “Draft 38: Georgics and Shadow” (Toll, 266); “Draft 47: Printed Matter” (Pledge, 79); “Draft 49: Turns & Turns, an Interpretation” (Pledge, 117); “Draft 56: Bildungsgedicht with Apple” (Pledge, 187); “Draft 60: Rebus” (Torques, 17); “Draft 61: Pyx” (Torques, 26); “Draft LXX: Lexicon” (Torques, 83); “Draft 71: Headlines, with Spoils” (Torques, 91); “Draft 78: Buzz Track” (Pitch, 5).
15. “Draft LXX: Lexicon” (Torques, 78); “Draft 32: Renga” (Toll, 199); “Draft 32: Renga” (Toll, 204); “Draft, unnumbered: Précis” (Pledge, 198); “Draft, unnumbered: Précis” (Pledge, 199); “Draft 39: Split” (Pledge, 8).
24. See, for example, “Impossible to write a poem” (Torques, 70) which is an odd opening (like “Little” with its “hard to say”) for a powerfully lucid and forceful poem like “Draft 69: Sentences.” The impossibility is overcome. The difficulty and impossibility are gestures. Midway through “Sentences”: “Impossible not to write” and, similarly, “cannot not speak. O poetry / — again and again no more poetry” (Toll, 120). Section 27 of “Hard Copy” is a gloss on why it is difficult for her to speak of poetry, responding to Oppen’s opening of his section 27: “It is difficult now to speak of poetry —” (Oppen, New Collected Poems, 180).
27. “Draft 2: She” (Toll, 13); “Draft 3: Of” (Toll, 20); “Draft 8: The” (Toll, 46); “Draft 12: Diasporas” (Toll, 86); “Draft 15: Little” (Toll, 100); “Draft 19: Working Conditions” (Toll, 121); “Draft 23: Findings” (Toll, 147); “Draft 23: Findings” (Toll, 150); “Draft 29: Intellectual Autobiography” (Toll, 186); “Draft 32: Renga” (Toll, 208); “Draft 33: Deixis” (Toll, 235); “Draft 38: Georgics and Shadow” (Toll, 266); “Draft 42: Epistles” (Pledge, 40); “Draft 44: Stretto” (Pledge, 57); “Draft 46: Edge” (Pledge, 76); “Draft 49: Turns & Turns, an Interpretation” (Pledge, 111); “Draft 49: Turns & Turns, an Interpretation” (Pledge, 115); “Draft 49: Turns & Turns, an Interpretation” (Pledge, 125); “Draft 52: Midrash” (Pledge, 149); “Draft, unnumbered: Précis” (Pledge, 210); “Draft LXX: Lexicon” (Torques, 78); “Draft 73: Vertigo” (Torques, 102); “Draft 75: Doggerel” (Torques, 122); “Draft 78: Buzz Track” (Pitch, 7); “Draft 84: Juncture” (Pitch, 37); “Draft 84: Juncture” (Pitch, 37); “Draft 85: Hard Copy” (Pitch, 52); “Draft 85: Hard Copy” (Pitch, 66); “Draft 86: Scarpbook” (Pitch, 73); “Draft 87: Trace Elements” (Pitch, 96); “Draft 87: Trace Elements” (Pitch, 101); “Draft 91: Proverbs” (Pitch, 137).
28. See the four essays making up the section “Migrated Into” in Blue Studios for starters. Also, see DuPlessis’s essay on Beverly Dahlen’s writing, “‘While These Letters Were A-Reading,’” in The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (New York: Routledge, 1990), 116–17.
1. The drafts
Since 1985, Rachel Blau DuPlessis has been publishing a series of 114 poems which together form a single long poem entitled Drafts. There are five full volumes to date. Of this project, DuPlessis writes, “There is no narrative, no plot outline, and in terms of seriality (building an argument inferentially, by leaps and movement) — the poem works only in the most general way.” Critics have called DuPlessis’s Drafts “massive” and “endless,” although this sense of them has been somewhat attenuated since she announced a numerical end to the project now in sight. DuPlessis uses this extensive and recursive long poem as an apparatus to find new ways to understand the dynamics of daily and social life in the context of global relations.
The poems catalogue one woman’s lived experience in a way that offers an expansive understanding of what might constitute one woman and what might constitute her physical, intellectual, emotional, and political realities, realities that the reader can perceive as both unique and shared. Drafts offers an account of the speaker’s complex subject positions and through them, we are offered the opportunity to consider our own. Drafts represents a material, and immaterial, life in such a way that we are forced to encounter it not just as mere representation, a place for identification, but as an ethical and phenomenological practice wherein issues of human autonomy and agency are experienced. The poem’s real contribution, though, is how — through the time that she demands we spend with this long project, through the experience of time the formal attributes of the poem create, and in the way she manipulates our understanding of the place of the individual in history — Drafts shifts our understanding of the relationships of time, history, and agency. I will argue that the poem opens a space, or rather a time, that lets us conceive a slowdown to the speedup of capitalism that robs us of the possibilities of agency outside of moments of crisis.
2. Take your time
Drafts is based on a rhetoric of provisionality, and DuPlessis describes the ethical conditions of her work as being characterized by a “messianic deferral” expressed through the “feeling of the unknowable and the unreachable” enacted by the poems as “versions of something that can never really be completed, never fully be found, never totally be articulated.” And yet, the poems are deeply concerned with articulating the possibilities of a politics of change and the potential for individual or collective agency. Which is not to say that the poems have a hopeful view of the world or these possibilities. Often in her explorations of the Holocaust, the work of Adorno, the limits of language, the disastrous “news of the day” — all topics she returns to repeatedly — the speaker seems overcome by despair. Yet while each individual poem may seem stuck in the frustrations of powerlessness, the project as a whole offers something else, something with more potential. The fact that she returns to write another poem, to offer us another, and yet another, attempt to understand, allows us to stay in the moment of seeking longer and longer. Drafts defers conclusions and solutions, but it does not defer their seeking. One effect of her repeated returns is that it allows the present to take a long, slow time before it is relegated to the category of the historical.
This extension of the present is amplified in multiple ways, one of which is her explicit investigation of our relationship to history. In “Draft 85: Hard Copy,” from Pitch, an example that is echoed in many other drafts, DuPlessis writes, “17 May 1986 Or whenever ‘now’ is.” We might read this statement as a bleak assertion that by deferring solutions, we don’t move on, we make no progress. And, in fact, when I Googled this date, the first hit told me that the Los Angeles Times headline for May 17, 1986, was “Chernobyl toll rises to 13” while that day’s headline was: “Japan Nuclear Crisis.” But this passage in the poem can also be read as a reminder that this moment is like that moment, is a significant return, that there is something to be learned and used from the doubling. The next two lines in the poem read: “Enough to look at here / For the rest of a lifetime.” One date that will take time to contemplate. One day turns into another, turns into a life. We must take our time with this, the poem implores. And, in fact, the epigraph to the poem, from Celan, tells us: “The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author stays with it.” DuPlessis stays with this poem for a lifetime and the poem asks us to do the same.
Often, in the poems, you can see an anxiety that we will speed past what is real and past the possibility of an ethical life because of the way capitalism requires our surrender to rapidity. In “Draft 27: Athwart,” Toll, DuPlessis reminds us:
is meant to prevent
feeling much, even any, of this.
It sutures us to things
we will buy
whatever, straight thru time
and never look at shame.
“Straight thru time / and never look at shame.” DuPlessis’s work asks us to stop shooting or slipping “straight thru time.” It aims to slow us down. Long enough to look at shame, long enough to acknowledge our complicity with the exploitations she charts, and long enough to do something about it, to use our time.
3. Suspended animation and politically engaged aesthetics
But what happens when we use our time not in activist engagement, but in contemplation? What happens when we use our time to read a long work like this one? What happens when we succumb not to the lure of speed, but to the lure of suspension from speed?
Robert Mitchell’s recent PMLA essay “Suspended Animation, Slow Time, and the Poetics of the Trance” bears directly on this issue. Here, in his consideration of Keats and Shelley, he writes:
A politically engaged aesthetics must do more than awaken a population frozen in automaticity; it must also seek to produce suspensions in those who are already too animated. Suspension, in this sense, empowers their differential capacities of sensation, which in turn makes possible new forms and objects of willing … Keats and Shelley’s poetics seek to produce the future by attuning readers to the rhythms of slow time.
This is one of the central effects of DuPlessis’s work as well, although I find myself wanting to write my own version of that last sentence of Mitchell’s. I have an added term. My sentence reads, “DuPlessis’s poetics seek to produce the future by attuning readers to the rhythms of the slow time of history.”
Mitchell’s article traces two different responses to questions of animation and agency in Romanticism:
Authors such as Coleridge saw suspended animation as a dangerous condition, and they employed the concept to describe a loss of subjective autonomy produced by the distractions of modernity. Authors such as John Keats and the Shelleys, by contrast … [saw suspended animation] as a potentially desirable state that could regulate the otherwise swift and automatic animations of modern life. Where Coleridge feared suspended animation, seeing in it only a narcosis of the will, Keats and the Shelleys aimed at a poetics of trance, deploying literary form as a technology that could vitalize readers’ will and understanding by suspending animation.
As in Keats and Shelley, DuPlessis’s work “deploys literary form as a technology that could vitalize readers’ will and understanding by suspending animation,” but, unlike theirs, her mode of suspension is not that of the sustained trance, but instead a periodic suspension that is repeatedly punctuated by interruptions that serve as injunctions to return to a renewed and reconceived animation. Hers is not the slow time of semiconscious reverie, or anaesthesis (etymologically without sensation), as her text shuttles back and forth between suspension and its critique, between contemplation and action.
Still, the danger of losing the reader to “too much,” to “too long,” haunts the Drafts. First, the accretions of DuPlessis’s archive of memories participates in the conundrum of any archive, that is, the piling up of unique examples inevitably becomes so massive that it risks working against itself, risks, as “Draft 27: Athwart” says, “A lost specificity / not documentary, not song / but a wall.” And it is true that this wall of words we encounter in book after book of poems might easily be seen as an impediment to our reading. Another danger to her project is the sheer time it takes to read. Time lost. Time taken away from the animations of lived life and political engagement that DuPlessis seeks to both represents and provoke. Time spent in the trance of reading — a trance that DuPlessis heightens at times with moments of lyric rhythmicality. Time that might be seen as allied with the “narcosis of the will” Coleridge feared. But DuPlessis’s text persistently works against both he impediment of “too much” and the narcosis of “too long.”
Drafts breaks into the monolithic with its striking, often playful, heterogeneity. Formally, DuPlessis does this through a number of devices including the multiple entry points each new beginning offers, the informal welcome of naming the poems “drafts,” the inclusion of the occasional doodle, image, or glyph, and the myriad ways she invites multiple modes of reading — bouncing across open field pages filled with gaps and irregular line breaks, or stumbling across blackened redacted lines that literally bar the poem from sonorous propulsion (as in “Draft 68: Threshold”), in numerical order, or leapfrogging from one “donor draft,” as she calls them, to the donee (a sidenote here: the poems are, she says, “folded” over one another with each poem donating bits of language to another).
To get anywhere, to resist complicity,
XXXXXXXXXXXX how to touch
XXXXXXXXXXXXXX long and wide XXXXXXX
longer and wider, wilder, meaner and more bereft
XXXXX haunted. XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
As Patrick Pritchett writes in his review of Drafts 1–38, Toll in Jacket 22, “DuPlessis’s notion of the fold recalls Deleuze’s comment that the challenge for the fold is how to multiply itself to infinity.”
Another technique of refocusing our attention, or of awakening us from the reverie of reading, is her placement of text that demands we read it in more than one way. This can be seen in “Draft 27: Athwart” at the passage where the gaps, line breaks and quotation marks force a kind of double enjambment:
The social world they said “drained
Is writing the bringing of justice? from the work” after
Is just light the “conventional
Justice? icons of the 30’s”
And you can see it again in the columns of “Draft 66: Scroll” where we have to read both down and across the columns:
|down and remember
little museums of the commonplace
incorporating clutter evidence
|to Resist Monoculture with
in which someone awaits
A number of the poems also feature the disruptive appearance of prose passages that break the trance of verse, and almost all of the poems are linked to extended endnotes that force us to shuttle back and forth in the book, in and out of the poems. These endnotes, of course, at first present themselves as merely paratextual, secondary by virtue of their placement and posing as the recognizable authority markers of referential discourse. But the notes are central to the poems, to DuPlessis’s inquiry and to the analyses that take place within the text’s bifurcated realms and in the dialogue between the realms.
When we turn from formal attributes toward content (although the distinction is not always clear in this work) DuPlessis returns us time and again to moments where we encounter the tension between suspension and activation, between suspension and political agency, considerations that are at once made possible by the lost time of reading and simultaneously challenge us not to loose too much more. Our contemplative time is always punctuated by reminders of something like the vita activa and its demands. Poem after poem asks us to consider the interruption of suspended time by specific historical events and by Alain Badiou’s vital notion of “the event.” As in the passage from “Draft 27: Athwart” where DuPlessis writes:
There was a time
up thru November 10
wherein the tree
Just was, its oakish life
one storm and
one thud. It’s the work of a moment,
Something live from the winds
That empties “is”
Of its simplicities
and pours “it” as libation on the ground.
It’s the “work of a moment.” A moment in which “is” — the ongoing being, the living, the flow of time and history — is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a subject, the “it” poured as libation on the ground. The event as the place where the axes of horizontal and vertical intersect. The moment that makes visible the horizon of history. The place where it unfolds and in that unfolding offers us the chance to become subjects precisely when we “pledge ourselves to sustain a continuity of thought and action” (as Peter Dews described Badiou’s arriving subject) when we heed Badiou’s call to “do all that you can to persevere in that which exceeds your perseverance. Persevere in the interruption.” DuPlessis’s Drafts “persevere in the interruption” and offer us an experience and understanding of time that keep us both focused on and participants in the contradictions of contemplation and action in a manner that doesn’t allow for any simple, political suspension. The poems unfold a new time, an interruption in which we can persevere.
1. See Carlos Soto Román’s Elective Affinities blog.
The redactive prosodies of Rachel Blau DuPlessis
“Inside art, poetry would succeed — perhaps — in withdrawing from art; it would exit art within art. Thus we must think, in art’s greatest intimacy and as this intimacy itself, of a sort of spacing or hiatus. A secret gaping. Perhaps intimacy — the ‘heart’ of the same — is always such a gaping, as the possibility for the same to be itself and to join within itself to itself; the pure — empty — articulation of the same. And perhaps for art (the Unheimliche), this intimate gaping would be precisely what ceaselessly ‘estranges’ the strangeness of art (of the strange): precisely the caesura of art, the spasm — furtive, hardly felt — of the strange. In which case poetry would not be, in art-outside-of-art, the flaw or the failing of art, of language: let us say, silence. But rather the pain of art (of language). Hence the aggravation of the catastrophe, which is, strictly speaking, a revolt …” — Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Poetry as Experience
“Ash, we were saying, annihilates or threatens to annihilate even the possibility of bearing witness to annihilation.” — Jacques Derrida, Sovereignties in Question
Working through George Oppen’s various calls for clarity, Patrick Pritchett arrives at a discussion of the caesura: “It’s as if the only way for Oppen to write clarity is through these sharp incisions of white space. […] Clarity becomes a kind of invisible ideogram, a para-notational blank space, a scission cutting into the material body of the poem. […] Clarity, finally, is not what can appear through means of the orthographical sign alone, but only as and from the pauses within the overall shape of the poem, the white caesuras of its metrical breaks.” I’d like to explore how this material caesura has been revisited and extended since Oppen, particularly in writing that seeks to politicize clarity by framing the problem in the context(s) of difference. Broadly speaking, legibility is a near central, often excessive demand in navigating any discourse, but the problematic of ‘the clear and the obscure’ or ‘the legible and the illegible’ might also be situated more narrowly within a poetics of the document, where confronting that demand involves developing strategies for understanding what it might mean to go on record, materially, and for engaging that record.
I’m concerned, then, not with erasure, but disfigurement: by redaction I mean to call to mind a forcible collision whereby the visible and vocable edges of a text contract. In this collision, the redacted remains apparent — even as redaction occludes, it mars material. More than erasure, redaction is how a discourse tends its own limits, since the out-of-bounds must remain visible as such whenever the lines of permissible speech are drawn. But to adopt redaction as a tool of lyric work is to bring the noise — to welcome refuse and to allow debris to collect along the road to clarity, as a kind of clarity. So what I’m calling redaction engages a material practice even at the expense of legibility.
One way Rachel Blau DuPlessis has responded to Oppen is by positing occlusion as an inroad to clarity. I want to consider her work as a renewal of Oppen’s call through the overwriting, overprinting, and redaction of his ‘white caesura.’ In Pritchett’s terms, a white caesura isn’t the silence of a poetic voice, or the falling silent of speech or song — it instead re-members a history gone silent, pointing up the always visible occlusions in the record when the historical person was silenced. An embodied gap in the historical record, this notion of a material caesura opens the door for other ways of writing clarity, inviting in particular a response to “transparence” as the vehicle (in Oppen’s “Clarity in the sense of transparence”).
DuPlessis overwrites Oppen’s call and intervenes precisely at the question of obscurity in art, as if to say that we haven’t reached the limit of lyric work if we rest in a view of the illegible as a threat to clarity. In a poem that deploys as much redacted as unobscured text — an effort to approximate war’s syntax — DuPlessis frames the practice as lament: “Such sorrow obliterates statement.” I understand her work as exploring strategies for arriving, via a material practice, at that caesura of revolt named by Lacoue-Labarthe in the epigraph above: a critical space of “exit[ing] art within art,” a space of mourning-as-resistance. Her redactive gestures eventually disfigure rhetoric and exit discourse — so to give it a start.
Notes and redactions: Describing some edges
The lengthy notes accompanying most sections of Drafts perform a rigorous transparency regarding the source materials and engagements that went into the poem’s composition. They take up citational practice as a problem, and reading the notes as a gender-inflected gloss on the poetics of appropriation would not be far afield. But it’s also worth pointing out from the beginning (if one can begin at the beginning with Drafts — and perhaps one really shouldn’t) that occlusion is as much the modus operandi of the notes as exegesis or citation.
An early example can be found in the following elliptical note for Draft 1: “There is also a buried statement by Paul Celan.” (The statement remains buried in the note.) Much later — if reading Drafts according to the linear sequence of the y axis — a note for Draft 39 clarifies: “‘No sandpoems’ as in Draft 1, from Paul Celan.” DuPlessis has written that, from the outset of the project, she adopted Celan’s dictum for guidance in “how to write […] some austere, deliberative, materialist, awe-struck art in segmented language.” Though it might seem like minutiae to begin by parsing the notes to the poems, the delayed disclosure suggests that even the critical apparatus of the notes attempts to work out a material practice, perhaps even with an eye toward Oppen’s notion that “To write poetry is […] to control ‘the sequence of disclosure.’” That “No sandpoems” is “buried” — both in the poem and the notes for Draft 1 — is a pun that points up the material nature of the citational system at play here.
If DuPlessis’s sensibility in Drafts is shaped in part on midrash, then this occlusion itself might function as gloss. The Draft 1 note is unforthcoming, offering attribution and immediately withdrawing it. As a dictum, “No sandpoems” calls (impossibly) for work commensurate with the disasters to which it responds, but I would argue that the burial of Celan’s statement in DuPlessis’s early citation seems to further qualify his demand: no immaterial work. That is, one should strive after a commensurate work, but particularly through understanding that one’s materials are uniquely capable of registering disaster’s persistent trace, including the white ‘space’ of the page, including even a critical apparatus. Further, if the practice is material, if a material’s in play, no erasure’s ever complete. (From an ecological perspective, even our beaches can absorb a permanent mark.)
So, almost immediately, the apparatus refuses full disclosure, so to lament a historical foreclosure on so much immaterial, unremarkable detail strewn in the wake of events. As if to suggest that, in the absence of “a past become citable in all its moments,” citation buckles, or becomes at least suspect, and that, holding one’s tongue under the weight of such a messianic reevaluation of writing history, one might via occlusion produce at least a draft. Even to declare “No sandpoems,” if only as program, is beside the point, immaterial. Better simply to do it, to put it in play — to keep a material in play — as Celan does by the end of his poem. Thus, the Draft 1 note declares a burial and performs it in the same gesture, marking in the process the material residue of Celan’s work and dictum, as against (or as inseparable from) the shifting sands of ‘mere’ citation or commentary.
Before considering DuPlessis’s deployment of the literal redactions from Oppen’s FBI file as a similar kind of burial, it would be worthwhile to weigh the significance of the fact that this earlier redaction — “No sandpoems” — is her rendering of the opening line of a poem that ends: “Deepinsnow, / Eepinno, / I-i-o.” A snow burial of the word “Deepinsnow,” “I-i-o” is a “white caesura” wherein the poem concretizes its lament by disfiguring its own lexicon, muting the semantic content but also foregrounding a sonic value (virtually illegible noise). DuPlessis has explored a similar becoming-silent in Oppen through a reading of Adorno: “As close as one gets to ‘stopping’ writing (something Oppen, of course, did, a silence generated and supported variously, a sociocultural act), that temptation and its complex overcoming ‘expresses negatively’ (in Adorno’s terms) ‘the impulse that animates committed literature.’” Redaction is a material trace of that impulse where, in an attempt to ‘write’ silence, the poem must somehow move to render it legible.
In fact, at stake in the entire line of 1 (thus far) is a test of reiterated silence that deploys multiple, simultaneous silences or silencings. And this is in some ways where DuPlessis’s response to Oppen’s call for clarity really takes shape: as opposed to a “transparent” or quiet silence, here is a poly-vocal arrangement of silence, where the trace, the evanescent, the redacted are “[called] to account,” even in muteness and occlusion. Here is a noisier clarity that picks up its own station at the same time as it lets in the static ghosts of other channels, previous broadcasts. This clarity “Will verb; will Verb verb” — will silence silence:
Silence, silence, silence
was, this was, the implicit subject was
The lines from Draft 1 above gloss Oppen’s “Clarity in the sense of silence” and announce a concurrent direction for thinking through what constitutes the immaterial in the lyric: many silences (many different silencings) must be in play simultaneously, must be recognized, named, performed, reiterated. This is integral to the methodology of Drafts and bound up in the notion of the written draft as the organizing principle. The provisional nature of drafting is adopted as a compositional strategy, so that the project offers itself as a critique of the monumental work’s authority. But redaction further qualifies the methodology, since the draft is exactly where “the page would go black from overprinting,” where excess would be separated from essence and rendered mute. In DuPlessis’s work, however, the draft doesn’t generate refuse along a trajectory towards an ideal form (the clear, the monumental) — but instead activates a gendered space of the lyric that contests Pound’s principle of condensare as little more than ‘trimming the fat’ (a friend calls this a demand for the “anorexic lyric”).
As much as Oppen, then, it seems Beverly Dahlen’s on the other end of the line in Drafts, since the question of what’s beside the point or immaterial is exactly the point. DuPlessis writes of her early “desire for poetry so great that it [stops] poetry, and [her] inchoate quarrel with gender narratives in the lyric.” To reiterate, she writes of being driven by both pursuits at once. In Dahlen’s work, DuPlessis locates this other model for tracing a political edge of material practice: “Dahlen’s A Reading is an articulation between lyric (the force moving) and documentary (record without judgment). And something else, this palimpsest where language (and thus social registers and discourses) constantly overwrites and whispers the otherness of half-seen, shadowy words. An ‘it,’ a space half-entered.” As a methodology, “it” is thus a kind of redaction that shatters “the binary distinction between text and space” to create a poetry of “voided markings, marked void.”
This reading of Dahlen’s work is useful in situating redaction as close as possible to a part of speech (and thus, to legibility), if only to clarify the difficulty of establishing it as a linguistic act. If it can occupy a legible space in a lexicon, it must do so pronominally, for the closest it comes to articulation is the “space half-entered” that DuPlessis finds in Dahlen’s “it.” The line of 1 extends a consideration of “it,” a pronominal thread announced in the subtitles to the Drafts in that line (“It,” “Incipit,” “Split,” “In Situ,” and “Pitch Content”) — and contains as well a Draft dedicated to Dahlen herself (Draft 39). So “it” (the line of 1) calls on a community, positioning Drafts in proximity to other projects — specifically a feminist intervention in the long poem — and, like Dahlen in DuPlessis’s reading, “it” does so as a means of “preparing in the most banal way to say everything possible.”
I want to claim that, if we read them as lexical, the redactions in Drafts would seem to occupy the space of pronominal address, saying roughly (though they’re not speaking) “you” and “we” — perhaps also, eventually, “yiou and thwe and wey and hheer” — only, that is, if we insist on extrapolating from them a semantic content. When they make their first appearance in Draft 5, redactions are meant to approximate Oppen’s FBI file, and by the time they’re deployed in Draft 68, they’re part of a syntax of war: “As the war returns; / its syntax recurs.” So, they arrive out of a confluence of the private and the historical—figured in DuPlessis’s personal and critical relationship with Oppen (the inarticulable you of redaction as pronominal address in Draft 5) — and they “recur” as part of a question (our question) about how to wrest a writing of history from the grip of the ideologies and apparatuses that run it through.
However, even if address is there, somewhere back of the blacked out passages, it’s important to note that redaction is primarily a textual event: that, rather than capitulating to a troublesome tradition of apostrophic lyric address, DuPlessis engages the redacted text (the official document, the lyric poem) as a disaster site where historical trauma can be examined in situ. Redaction inserts the distance of textuality into even ostensibly personal poems (like Draft 5 or Draft 99, written after Robin Blaser’s death), but it also mourns the distance. Draft 5 begins in redaction, which is first figured as a behavior of the photographic record:
A man within a day
estranged in light […]
Then, in running columns of text that quickly bleed into one another — interrupting and doubling the sentences — the physical properties of redaction take on roughly the shape of a flag, but with an organic texture:
enamel a “modern” kind of minimal
mural: indelible black rectangles […]
A photo of the near dead, a flag, a “Strange […] enamel”: the funereal, corpse-like qualities of redacted texts seem to be highlighted from the outset. Confronted with such a textual corpus, one is forced to wonder, “who coded the deletions,” and to confront a reading of history as a material encounter, so that, asking such a question, one maneuvers (impossibly) to interrogate the immovable and impersonal apparatus of the state. To engage institutional redactions, the poem deploys its own, inviting some complicity with that state as it selects what can and can’t be divulged, and in what order. This strange flag threatens to collapse the machinations of poetry into those of state, since whoever “coded the deletions” controlled the sequence of disclosure. The blackouts also seem to mourn Oppen’s textual body, or mourn the passing of his physical body textually, by obliterating the present text, by taking in obliteration as a horizon, even as a textual mark or event (thus rendering it legible).
I’m tempted to read the practice through DuPlessis’s own gloss on Adorno’s claim that poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. Thinking through Adorno in “Draft 52: Midrash,” DuPlessis first revisits the visual arrest of the redacted text as matter, corpus:
“I am put in this place.”
Personal pronouns are moot. Eye only.
Poetry constructed of enormity:
mounds — of faces, limbs, shoes, rags.
Later, DuPlessis interprets Adorno’s unrelenting claim as self-disfigurement:
It is an act of mourning
to cut off
what is important to him —
poetry — 
Again, I’m tempted to see a similar self-immolation in DuPlessis’s approach to redaction, but I want to resist overemphasizing the destructive nature of that gesture (and the bodily nature of texts), since redaction is also — as in Draft 68 — a generative critical tool. In the unnumbered Draft (“Précis”), DuPlessis ‘reads’ all the poems on the front end of the project (1–57), and her complicated account there of Draft 5 — where mourning is palpable, if ‘hidden’ — bears mention here:
= Hidden elegy, the dark lines.
Blackening out of specific records.
The dark inside of unopened present (unopened parent).
Death with everything but regret left inarticulate.
A burned page. Laden ink and tar
across the heavy surface
weighted with obscurity.
The bleak inside of transport.
Dread of the future packed in convoy.
Small recoveries within effacement.
Train across the dark, beclouded country.
Night sky in which some milky lights
are sometimes evident but sometimes
whited out by haze of powerful cities.
Folded into a working definition of redaction in this gloss are the following: redaction as the inside (of present, of parent, of transport), as death itself or the inarticulate, as “a burned page,” as “ink and tar,” as “dread of the future,” as night. What’s more, any words visible in the midst of redaction are devastatingly described as “Small recoveries within effacement,” a sentence that threatens blithely to level all of Drafts. A few lines prior, this assessment of what remains is literally a death sentence: “Death with everything but regret left inarticulate.” So, almost all of Drafts gets despairingly reduced to a series of small recoveries or to little more than articulated regret. Only a handful of the poems thus far contain redacted text (Drafts 5, 52, 68, 87, and 99), and of these, only 5, 68, and 99 make extensive use of redaction. But the concerns bodied forth in that practice are pervasive, and precedents abound in DuPlessis’s long poem.
In some fundamental way, we must look at redaction, confront it visually (as “Poetry constructed of enormity”), and as such it interrupts a reading, but the visual or plastic edge of Drafts is everywhere in evidence. To my mind, there are two important contexts for understanding redaction as a visual practice in Drafts: first, there are the written characters, scrawl, and drawings of Drafts (in 1, 6, 7, 23, and 73). These figures take up Pound’s ideograms, reminding us of the direct engagement with his Cantos in these poems, but the black boxes in Draft 5 also gesture towards the visual arts, finding a specific corollary in, for example, Anselm Kiefer’s black books. DuPlessis has described the poem’s methodology as collage: “this work pressed / down unfinished overwritten refolded.” In the collage poem “Draft 94: Mail Art,” the visual gains a striking primacy, and the arrival of an entire book of The Collage Poems of Drafts suggests that much more work will need to be done to understand this late exit — from within the poem — to another medium entirely. I’ll return to this shortly, though a full treatment will be beyond the scope of the present essay.
Equally important in contextualizing redaction as prosody is the preponderance of abbreviation and contraction in Drafts. DuPlessis makes use of standard abbreviation and grammatical contraction, but as often she torques both practices, so that, for example, “memory” becomes “m-m-ry” and “power” becomes first “pwer,” and then “pwr.” Rather than a proper grammatical contraction, what gets occluded in “Did not yet strike with full intent” refracts and doubles: “Dd nt, or strk.” Then, somewhere between abbreviation and strikethrough, there’s “No writing. Nothing there but / – – lessness,” and in tandem with the first appearance of redaction in Draft 5, there’s also “‘J–w.’” These are only a few illustrations, but the gesture’s pervasive. In exploring strategies for thwarting standard grammatical contraction, DuPlessis situates syntax itself as a site of the trace, a concept so central to her project that it’s treated at length in the longest Draft (number 87, “Trace Elements”).
I would argue that what we read in DuPlessis’s use of redaction isn’t the disappeared but the contracted, the still visible illegible. Though it contains no literal redaction, Draft 85 is written over Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous”—section for section—and in it DuPlessis offers a direct account of redaction as prosody: “If I were to say all this, all at the same time / The way it’s felt, / The page would go black from overprinting, / An unreadable un-negotiable plenitude.” In Draft 99, redaction is (again) illegible excess: “This marks the urge to put everything in. This is it / XXXXXXXXXXXX.” In fact, Drafts often approaches just this type of contraction, where an overabundance of text begins to crowd into the page, and frequently the poem works its own margin, incorporating marginal annotation (as in Draft 68) as well as multiple running columns of text (as in Draft 66). So that we might see the literal redactions as part of the apparatus, an extension of these other formal features — as the resolution of, for example, the ‘stacked’ textual variants in a poem like Draft 2, where the leading (the space between lines of text) drops out to propose “hurl,” “hole,” and “hurt” as simultaneously completing the phrase, “for I am afraid to [ ____ ] it too much.” As a resolution, then, we might say that redaction doesn’t choose among alternatives. It occludes, but does so by way of excess, by including everything “all at the same time.”
And this contraction-redaction may be the only way to gloss a poem that’s already been so thoroughly glossed: Draft 49 includes both “Turns” and a reading of “Turns” (“Turns: An Interpretation”), and the unnumbered Draft also circles back on 49. Though the system of donations in Drafts often behaves a bit like annotation, the direct treatment of 49 (in the addendum to 49 and in “Unnumbered: Précis”) is perhaps unprecedented in this poem. It makes sense, then, that the next Draft after 49 in the line of 11 is riddled with blacked out passages, having arrived at a contracted view of so much gloss. Redaction might be the most literal embodiment of what’s happening in the incessant donations of Drafts: one might imagine that the poem, were it to continue on indefinitely, would eventually resolve into a sequence of black monoliths. The exit to the visual arts late in the poem begins to make a new kind of sense, inasmuch as it’s a palpable way to read the poem anew — by plasticizing it, cutting it off from poetry.
“Draft 68: Threshold” — the third ‘take’ on “Turns” — is a contraction of “Turns.” As Ron Silliman has usefully noted, in Draft 49, “what gets effaced is nothing less than the role & contribution of women.” This, Silliman posits, is due to the formal modeling of 49: while the engagement with Zukofsky’s “Mantis” and “Mantis: An Interpretation” is voiced in DuPlessis’s title, the poem’s nod to Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette remains unvoiced outside of the notes to the poem, since the debt to Notley is primarily legible in the form of the frequent use of caesura, which remains (roughly) silent. This silencing, this occlusion, is part of the poem’s great elegy, yet here again in “Turns,” caesura performs such radical effacement by approaching the material.
It’s important to bear in mind that “Turns” and “Threshold” are on the same itinerary, since the former explores — explicitly, at length — a contested relationship to feminisms that the latter virtually buries. But the everything-in redaction of 68 isn’t unvoiced; it instead becomes a wail of many silencings. The deep lament of “Turns” resurfaces immediately in “Threshold” — “This what you wanted / When you said you wanted ‘more’?” — only to be occluded by the blackouts, cut short in comparison to how it’s sustained in “Turns.” Redaction here is sorrow heaped on itself: “Such sorrow obliterates statement.”
Thus obliterated, statement itself takes shape, becoming object:
The page is slowly turning black
XXX words XXXXXXXXXX XXX.
And reading, drafting, critique, poetics, historiography — the central pursuits of Drafts, all variously strategies for “slowly turning black […] words” — resolve into simultaneously funereal and activist gestures. The threshold is a threshold of touching:
To get anywhere, to resist complicity,
XXXXXXXXXXXX how to touch
XXXXXXXXXXXXXX long and wide XXXXXXX
longer and wider, wilder, meaner and more bereft
XXXXX haunted. XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
So, not the question of how to mourn touch (as aporia), and not how not to touch (“resist complicity”) — but how to mourn-touch, how to say it “the way it’s felt.” This, for me, is the question at the heart of DuPlessis’s use of redaction.
A note for Draft 68 appends the following from Edouard Glissant: “It can happen that the [literary] work is not written for someone, but to dismantle the complex mechanism of frustration and the infinite forms of oppression.” The desire to find some pronominal address back of redaction might only be an effort to translate something that doesn’t need translating, since redaction as prosody already begins to come clear. As mark, as material, redaction obscures, positing an ‘other’ side to the text (as in Draft 94: “If there were holes cut in this page / (not impossible) / what would be the word groups / underneath?”). The pronoun’s its cousin, but redaction is parts (all parts) not part of speech. As syntax, it contracts, even beyond recognition. And when sound — when sounded — redaction wails.
1. Patrick Pritchett, “Clarity, or Late Modernism (A Photological Midrash),” paragraphs 11–12.
2. DuPlessis’s account of Oppen in the context of the work of Paul Celan and Walter Benjamin draws out, as a reading of clarity, his reference to “black verse,” a pun that would certainly be apropos here. See her essay “‘Uncannily in the Open’: In Light of Oppen,” in Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006).
15. The blacked-out passages are somewhat performative, so that we might see them as enacting drafts in Drafts. In this sense they’re similar to a strikethrough, where text remains legible in spite of being ‘crossed out.’ There may only be a handful of examples of words stricken through in Drafts, to date. In Draft 3, a bracket in the left-hand margin extends for roughly half of the poem, with a marginal note indicating that the bracketed text should be “CUT” (Toll, 19), which again might be seen as a kind of scripting. I think it would be a mistake to see redaction as no more than an instance of Drafts ‘replicating’ drafts, but the performative should not be entirely disregarded.
39. DuPlessis, “Draft 99: Intransitive,” Jacket 38 (2009).
41. Ron Silliman, Silliman’s Blog. Silliman made a series of posts on the publication of Torques: Drafts 58–76 that included a discussion of Draft 68, all of which can be accessed in the archives to his blog.
A story that all readers of Drafts know well: in 1982, almost twelve hundred sculptures were discovered by trash collectors in a Philadelphia alley. The subsequent search for the artist who produced these pieces was unsuccessful. The working theory is that the artist had died and the pieces were discarded by those left behind — a family member, a friend, perhaps a landlord. The artist was dubbed the “Philadelphia Wireman,” assumed to be a man due to the physical strength necessary to work with the resistant found materials: “a wire armature or exoskeleton firmly binds a bricolage of found objects, including plastic, glass, food packaging, umbrella parts, tape, rubber, batteries, pens, leather, reflectors, nuts and bolts, nails, foil, coins, toys, watches, eyeglasses, tools, and jewelry.” Additionally, the demographic of the neighborhood, coupled with the apparent influence of African figural aesthetics on the sculptures, leads critics to believe that the artist was African American.
The Philadelphia Wireman is one of the many figures woven into Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts, a shadow artist who embodies so many of the poem’s aesthetic and sociopolitical concerns. He was a shaper of “ordinary stuff,” “scratch, gum, mite, dust: travelling the range of signs. / Grunge things, junk things, things singed by light” — an art of anonymous transformation, a quoter and citer, a collagist with an acute sense of how the forces of the body intersect with the material pressure of inert matter and cultural signs. He toiled for what must have been decades on his craft, and left behind a massive body of work. And yet, in contrast to our received notions of artistic ambition, the work does not memorialize. It was mere chance, after all, that kept the work from becoming scrap once again.
The Wireman’s sculptures are also an apt representation of the life poem. His work reflects the dialectic between ongoing artistic effort and the subsequent accumulation of that process. Large and small, art and accident, form and medium/mediation — these always come together in the life poem. What changes from poet to poet is the attitude toward that interplay. All embrace it, as they must. The work takes over, and they cannot help but keep writing. But we can also detect degrees of resistance, a counterpressure, different inhabitations of the work.
In some cases, we find a monument to the writing’s own excess. The Maximus Poems, published posthumously in its oversized folio form, sits on my bookshelf. It is the most valuable text I own, now out of print, a gift from family members. I am inordinately fond of it. I could also use it as a weapon, should the need arise. Olson appears on the front cover, again a large photograph designed to accentuate the work’s concern with size, space, projection of a post-human historical consciousness. Less physically impressive, perhaps, my tattered paperback New Directions copy of The Cantos, its black binding recognizable to any student of modernist poetry and poetics. Together, these texts can’t help but suggest one element of the life poem: its hulking presence in the world and imagination, its often insane ambition, its fortification against time.
Ironically, of course, the monumental aspect of the life poem actually arises from its opposite: its inherent vulnerability, the constant sense that it is on the verge of falling apart. An impossible art form. It is this exchange between impossibility and force that, to my mind, makes these works both interesting and important. They test both the nature of composition (the possibility of form) as well as the limits of distribution and exchange (the prospects of reading). The life poem asks us what can be written, and what can be read.
A few shelves over is my collection of Drafts: Toll, Drafts, Torques, Pitch. Undoubtedly, these texts could be, and I suspect will be, collated into an equally impressive single volume. But, somewhat different from the case of Olson and Pound, Drafts has been composed during a time of unprecedented transformation in textual distribution. It is one of the preeminent examples of the life poem in the digital age, a time when, as Kenneth Goldsmith has recently written, “[faced] with an unprecedented amount of available digital text, writing needs to redefine itself to adapt to the new environment of textual abundance.” Although the life poem, more than many literary practices, anticipates textual abundance, Drafts seeks to realize those anticipations. In many respects, DuPlessis’s work has evolved alongside the digital revolution; “Draft 1: It” was composed in the 1980s, over a decade before the first Google search. The work has adapted itself to that new environment and, most importantly, interrogated it. The results are exploratory and yet forceful, contemporary and yet untimely. Almost anonymous, like the sculptures of the Philadelphia Wireman, Drafts produces messages that call out of and into the network: “who circulated zigzag workings filled zeros. / WHO DID the work?”
To write a life poem in the network, to write the digital life poem, is to loosen one’s hold on the monument in order to embrace a new textual ontology. Text, after all, is now a verb, not merely a noun.
A somewhat exceptional Draft offers an interesting illustration of the digital life poem’s transformed mediation. “Draft 94: Mail Art” is more radically pictorial than most of the work, although DuPlessis’s poetics has been avowedly visual from the very beginning. The different versions of “Mail Art,” when read side-by-side, stage dynamics unique to the digital world. And I believe that the poem is best read in this way, seen as multiple to achieve its many effects. In other words, the poem divides itself, cites itself, like all of DuPlessis’s work, but it uses the exchange between the digital and analog to produce this commentary.
When read in its original digital form, published in Jacket 37, the collage of “Mail Art” shimmers, particularly if your computer screen is of sufficient size. The ephemera of an imagined international snail mail is overwritten, tonally pitched, scribed and erased. Most importantly, digital reproduction, here, becomes an irreplaceable tool for the artwork’s transmission. The substance and heft of the material is visible in the texture of the physical artifacts. Compare this digital publication to its second version, in Pitch. Here, the colors are lost; the sense of the work as a multidimensional creation, flattened. The stamps and postmarks less visible, both of which are central to the concept of the piece. Strangely, then, the analog, in this case, becomes somewhat impoverished next to the digital, exactly the opposite of what those of us who often succumb to analog-nostalgia (like myself) would expect.
We could say, then, that in print the poem is subjected to a more fragile mediation. Why undergo this loss? To take its place in another moment, a different dialogue, for one. Drafts has structured itself as a process of ongoing revision, as its readers know, in which each textual element becomes meaningful in several directions at once. “Mail Art,” when placed within a volume of Drafts, calls to, and is responded by, “Draft 75: Doggerel,” “Draft 56: Bildungsgedicht with Apple,” “Draft 37: Praedelle, “Draft 18: Traduction,” the structure of the fold that DuPlessis has used to grid the work. But it also echoes, less directly, the found art and lost sender of the Philadelphia Wireman; it puns, to my ear, the play between virtual and analogue in “Draft 85: Hard Copy” (also originally published digitally); as a mail art project, it clearly is a link in the chain of communication between “Draft 42: Epistle, Studios,” and “Draft 80: Envoi.”
In Jacket, the work took place in a different exchange, within a localized network that included entries as unexpected as Jennifer Moxley, Jack Spicer, Oulipo, Rosmarie Waldrop, Seamus Heaney (a flurry of postings on that one), Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, on and on. More significantly, like the many other recent Drafts first published on the web, “Mail Art” participated in any number of lines of unanticipated connectivity. In the network, the work can be linked, referenced, copied and pasted, rapidly and unexpectedly transformed from one moment of transmission to the next, intercepted or encountered by a reader who knows nothing of Drafts as a whole. When read through this context, Pitch becomes simply another transmission, discrete from other, future moments in the (re)publication of the work. Because the text was “limited to black and white presentation,” DuPlessis writes in her note, the work in the book is “a selected Mail Art” (Pitch, 146). The book, in other words, becomes only a link in the digital life poem’s network.
In this sense, Drafts is always sent. And sending is risky business, a fact that champions of the network sometimes overlook. Consider the opening text from “Mail Art”:
anything — envelopes
according to the weight of insouciance (Pitch, 147)
The mail as propriety, in its proprietary, official capacity, appears in this mini-catalogue of “anything.” Sealed, stamped, paid for, approved, sent off under the proper authorities. And can we not help but hear in this passage an attempt to reclaim the transgressive roots of collage, to remind us that the now most ubiquitous practice of the avant-garde called into question the control over letters that ownership and authorship under bourgeois copyright implied? Your deed to your letters, author, gives you the right to publish them, and yet, paradoxically, as soon as you publish those words they are no longer entirely yours. They are then vulnerable, not simply to the approved responses of reviewers, peers, other authors, the press, but also to tearing and remaking, the cutting and pasting, of the Dadaist and vandal.
The mail, in this sense, acutely stages the dangers of publication: you send your letters out into the world, and you do not know into whose hands, entirely, they will fall. No one has theoretically analyzed this quite like Jacques Derrida. The Post Card:
Of course I felt, at the second I was writing, that this letter, like all the others, was intercepted even before any hands could be put on it, any accidental interception — for example, by the woman postal clerk, the rival of your childhood. All the precautions in the world are taken in vain, you can register your envois with a return receipt, crypt them, seal them, multiply coverings and envelopes, at the limit not even send your letter, still, in advance, it is intercepted. It falls into anyone’s hands, a poor post card, it ends up in the display case of a provincial bookseller. … Once intercepted — a second suffices — the message no longer has any chance of reaching any determinable person, in any (determinable) place whatever.
Derrida’s fearful, obsessive letter writer confronts the inherent fragility of the text, and the structurally inevitable failure to arrive that accompanies any sent message. Despite Derrida’s relentless critique of presence and the ego, The Post Card plays with the feelings of anxiety that comes when you realize that the letters you send are not, never will be, your own. Today, awash in Wikileaks and social media, that feeling may strike us as inescapably romantic. But we often can’t help but feel it.
Drafts confronts not simply the reality of threatened circulation but also the subjectivities the post produces. “Mail Art,” in its opening page, takes those supposed illicit hands into the compositional process. The type is notated by hand — the text is not the “original” but the original annotated, the letter defaced or displaced or corrected. The letter not under erasure but under the pen, or, in the world of the digital, under the keystroke of another, of many others that we cannot know or anticipate. Where Derrida’s post cards fear theft and misplacement, the networked text can expect to be converted, resaved, reformatted, pasted, X-posted. Even more than the post card, permeable and multiple uncontrolled circulation is the condition of the digital life poem’s existence.
Under certain signs, poetic form has been represented as the anti–post card, the nontransmittable or untranslatable. “The poem should not mean / But be.” “The Heresy of Paraphrase.” The life poem rewrites this regime, by seeking to incorporate the accident of the post card into its form. Instead of writing to resist translation, the life poem writes as a transmission, and, by doing so, it tests formal potential and the ways of subjectivity that sending produces. Drafts is nothing if not formally precise, an ongoing dialogue between poetic traditions and practices. We feel language being shaped, torqued, as we read Drafts, even as the demands of the life poem never allow that shaping to come to a final resting place.
In this sense, the poem stages the tension of making form, of forming language poetically, in the world of multiple languages, infinite signs, and global networks. In my mind, the effort to make something new adds to the vulnerability of the digital poetic exchange. There is no doubt that the responses to Goldsmith’s “new environment of textual abundance” are as varied as the environment itself. Goldsmith’s own conceptual poetics represents one form of response, what we could call the procedural or what he calls the “uncreative.” Another response might be detected in David Shields’s recent manifesto Reality Hunger, which takes up some of Goldsmith’s concerns but in a significantly different way:
All new works will be born digital, and they will flow into the library as you might add more words to a long story. In the clash between the conventions of the books and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail. On this screen, now visible to a billion people, the technology of search will transform isolated books into the universal library of all human knowledge …. We all need to begin figuring out how to tell a story for the cell phone.
Where Goldsmith frames, shifting the focus from artistic creation to the artistic mediation of information, Shields samples, adding to that library screen with tiny flashes, transformations, new mash-ups. Goldsmith’s Day is decidedly not composed for the cell phone, while Reality Hunger wants to abandon citation entirely. Not entirely new, of course: “What matter who’s speaking?”
Neither conceptualism nor “reality-based art” (Shields’s term) adequately describes the following lines:
“12 hours per day for a pittance, living
“12 to a room, working
“in fenced-in factory complexes,”
nailed to the sewing,
chained to the fabrications.
Who controls these junctures?
who prices these conjunctions?
who mines the evisceration?
Another walks beside me, not an illusion.
Revenant, tell me if you know
what land am I? and you?
The newspapers become the source for this work, copied and quoted, as in Day. In this particular case, the 2001 story reports on factory labor conditions in China. The poetic response, however, is not content with mere framing. The questioning lines test various possibilities not only of description but also communication and authority, acknowledging both disorientation and anxiety. In a global marketplace, the ghostly other who weaves our clothes and assembles our cars is decidedly not an illusion. Thus, the speaker is literally haunted by the report, unable to adequately account for the situation, turning the interpretation over to that other in the hopes of a response.
In lines such as these, Drafts does seek to write something new, to say something singular, forging a temporary poetic authority, but in such a way that the realities of the digital world, with all of its material pressures and disorientating virtuality, is brought to terms. The digital life poem bares its own vulnerability, turns this into a central concern of the work, but simultaneously crafts resilience and seeks to offer that counterpressure to the world. The results are always engaged with other voices, always in a process of formation that never ossifies into monumental form. Between poetic form and digital mediation, the poem seems to suggest, is where a language of communication could emerge, however humble and temporary.
This poetics, fragile yet resistant, contestatory yet haunted, is, for me, one of the ways DuPlessis extends and transforms George Oppen. Drafts can be read as an effort to develop not simply a “language of New York,” but a language of the network. Oppen’s life and poetry was a constant struggle to assert the articulation and exchange of singular selves and voices in a world of numerousness. The paradox is that for both DuPlessis and Oppen this articulation is always a citation, a borrowing and a giving. Hence the struggle, the drama of a poetry and a self tentatively exploring the conditions of linguistic existence, venturing into the virtual where another citation is inevitable, for better or worse.
Like the Wireman’s sculptures, cast into the alley, Drafts desires the anonymous revenant to pick them up in some as yet unknown future network, to speak back to the challenge of the material by acknowledging the pressure of the crafting hands.
1. For more general information, see the brief biography posted by the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery.
3. Pound’s concern for the book as an art form, including deluxe editions illustrated by his wife, is usefully examined in Olga Nikolova, “Ezra Pound’s Cantos De Luxe,” Modernism/Modernity 15, no. 1 (2008): 155–77.
4. From the preface to Against Expression.
5. Drafts 1-38, Toll (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 142. I wonder if “almost anonymous” could be the contemporary correlate of nineteenth-century ennui or twentieth-century angst, a characteristic sentiment of what Zadie Smith has dubbed “people 2.0” (“Generation Why?,” New York Review of Books, November 25, 2010)? The paradox of our unprecedented power over information, our access to it and power of manipulation, our connectivity and communicability, on the one hand, and our exposure, permeability, fragility on the other. I am one node in a network of billions, but you can find me on Facebook.
6. Pitch: Drafts 77–95 (London: Salt, 2010), 146–65. Reproduction in the book form, the book being the traditional conclusion of the literary art work in the age of print, the book bound, bought, sold, collected, reviewed, signed. The books climbing the library shelves, swarming, a fact that bothers William Carlos Williams to no end in the third section of Paterson. I recognize the irony to then call the publication of Pitch a reproduction, for isn’t this the end to which the original text was striving — is not the telos of the life poem that ambitious monument? Not for the life poem in the digital world. Monuments are, after all, for the past.
8. I may appear to be making far too much of a decision that was undoubtedly prompted by the exigencies of publishing and economics. But those accidental and inescapable realities are exactly the point. In the digital life poem, every publication is a selection, every gesture subject to endless reframings and new articulations precisely because the definition of publication is so rapidly changing.
9. Jacques Derrida, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 51. The obsessiveness over phallic certainty in this text by Derrida, with its subsequent anxiety over origins and arrivals, crosses in the mail with Drafts’ interrogation of patriarchal post cards.
12. George Oppen, “Of Being Numerous,” Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 2003), 84. Another moment of mail art: “Of Being Numerous” contains anonymous, but willingly acknowledged, quotations from DuPlessis’s letters to Oppen.