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The plural of us

Uses and abuses of an ambiguous pronoun

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 brought with it a surge in the use of the first person plural. While most would agree that this tragic, history-changing event must be memorialized, I know I’m not the only one made uncomfortable by the ready invocation of this public We. It seems at once abstract and presumptuous, and it plays to a dangerous human desire: to become part of a crowd, and to define oneself against Them. Does this “we” have any real antecedent for an unbounded, diverse populace? Does it claim to speak for me? Whatever the founders may have meant by “we, the people,” it rings hollow in the arena of contemporary politics and popular journalism. With Tonto, I want to ask: What do you mean we, kemosabe?

The first person plural is an indexical pronoun, dependent on context for meaning, but the boundaries are often unclear even to the speaker. And there’s something not only ambiguous but also incoherent in the pronoun. As Franz Boas warned in 1911, “a true [first person] plural […] is impossible, because there can never be more than one self.” Poetry, though we associate it with “I,” is rather fond of “we,” and not only the intimate “we” of private I/Thou relations. But the best poets are also aware that it’s a shifty and treacherous pronoun.

Surprisingly, poetry, the genre we most identify with private, subjective experiences, is far freer in its use of the first person plural than narrative prose, though there are a few bold examples in fiction, such as Kate Walbert’s Our Kind, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides and, most recently, Justin Torres’ We the Animals, works that suggest a “we” prior to or stronger than the individuating psyche.  But poetry has given much freer rein to the first person plural.  At the same time, the pressures and perils of the pronoun “we” are registered with particular sensitivity in the genre with the most acute linguistic self-consciousness.

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Perhaps because of its historic attachment to the single voice, lyric poetry has maintained a place for the royal “we” though it is pretty much extinct in other discourses. (Shakespeare’s kings use it all the time, of course, but Margaret Thatcher’s “we have become a grandmother” was widely ridiculed, and even the editorial we of the New Yorker’s voice in “Talk of the Town” was always somewhat arch). Poetry continues to find a use for this peculiar nosism that causes an “I” to speak not for the many but as if it were many. In modern poets, the royal we has often been a trope for division or plurality within the self. Shakespeare scholar John Berryman uses it in Dream Songs, for instance, though his Henry has little kingly stature, and the plurality of the self is a matter of fear or schizophrenic confusion more than status, authority or alliance with the divine.

I’m scared a only one thing, which is me,
from othering I don't take nothin’, see,
for any hound dog’s sake.
But this is where I livin’, where I rake
my leaves and cop my promise, this’ where we
cry oursel’s awake

On the other hand, the plurality of the royal we may still suggest the majesty of the imagination, as it did for Emily Dickinson (“We send the wave to find the wave, / An errand so divine”), as it did for Wallace Stevens (in “The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”), and as it still does for Kay Ryan: “I think poetry is aristocratic, an aristocracy for the mind,” she said in an interview. “You have to make yourself worthy of it.” And her poem “the Task We Set Ourself” (note she does not say  “ourselves”) uses the royal we to reflect that struggle:

the answer sewn inside us
that invalidates the test we set ourself
against the boneless angle at our right
and at our left the elf

If the royal “we” pluralizes the self, the group “we” turns many into one, a rhetorical strategy with its own set of advantages and dangers. In America, poetry has been a strong voice for minority experience, the first person plural announcing a unique group identity and a call for inclusion in society, sometimes both at once. “We” has sometimes been racially marked, but at other times deliberately ambiguous. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” can be read as a particular or as a universal address. Claude McKay’s “If we must die,” addressed to “my Kinsmen” and referencing situations that clearly point to the historical violence of a dominant group against a minority, seems less general, more defiant. McKay eschews the personal lyric in this sonnet; “we” is rallied against a “common foe.” Amiri Baraka’s “Our Nation Is Like Ourselves” foregrounds race and critiques individualism in order to test an American ideal of inclusion: an excluded "we” confronts an ideal of “we, the people” that history belies. But solidarity has its dangers as well, especially when the group loses plurality and becomes an undifferentiated block, a kind of collective ego. For Gwendolyn Brooks, the exclusive “we” of the gang induces false confidence and reckless bravado that not only conceals individual fear and vulnerability, but also obstructs individual reason and conscience. She caught the ironies and dangers of the pronoun unforgettably in “We Real Cool”: “We / Lurk late. We / Strike straight.” Brooks calls out the shots in the enjambed end of the line “We” until the prophecy of the pool hall’s name, “The Golden Shovel” is fulfilled: “We / Jazz June. / We / Die soon.” The pronoun in this poem is clearly indexed to “the pool players,” who are digging their early graves.  (They are seven, one for each deadly sin perhaps). Yet any poem projects a meaning beyond its context and the final “we” applies to all mortals in the game of social survival. Clearly Brooks saw poetry as a specific social intervention on behalf of an oppressed group. But she did not embrace group identity in her poetry. Brooks rarely uses the first person plural in her work.  She individuates the people she describes, even when they are types, and this in turn universalizes them. She gives them names — “Sadie and Maud,” “De Witt Williams,” “Mrs. Coley,” “Jeff. Gene. Geronimo. And Bop” — and breaks down groups into persons, even when, “as seen by Disciplines [police].” “There they are [collectively] […] Sores in the city” (Baraka).

While poetry is traditionally protective of the private self and its claims of personal feeling and identity, it has always been a medium for public protest as well. Recent experimental poets such as C.D. Wright (One with Others) and  Juliana Spahr (The Connection of Everyone with Lungs) have broken down this distinction, especially in the wake of 9/11, redefining personhood within a texture of sociality. But most poetry is still posited on an assumption of an “I” existing prior to a “we,” a single voice reaching out to address or speak for invisible listeners.

The inclusive or universal “we,” addressed to humankind, has different perils from the “we” of group identity. For James Merrill, AIDS put new pressure on the glib notion of the global village, a concept arising as much from consumer culture as from universal fellowship. In “Self-Portrait in a Tyvek™ Windbreaker” he cringes at the cheery “wave” of the “smiling as if I should know her” teenager who, “wearing ‘our’ windbreaker, assumes” a kinship of taste and value based on the printed map of “Mother Earth.” What really underlies this “dumb jacket” of the inclusive first person plural? We may live in the chaos of global corporations and commodities, but such incorporation erases rather than grounds our personhood. And any return to nature, to the Darwinian earth, further dehumanizes us. “We?” he asks sardonically, “A few hundred decades of relative / Lucidity glinted-through by minnow schools / Between us and the red genetic muck — ...” It’s hard to find much comfort or community in a “we” so primordial. Merrill’s imagination retreats from the postmodern clutter and the prehistoric muck into the memory of the smaller, more intimate community of prefascist Naples, preserved in the songs of Robert Murolo. Merrill turns at the end of his poem to the one-to-one community of art, an intimate “we” where the self is not lost in the laws of the state or the “wave” of the masses. 

It’s hardly surprising to hear revulsion toward the mass “we” from so elite a poet as Merrill. But Merrill is often channeling Elizabeth Bishop, and one of the many poems by Bishop he alludes to in his “Self-Portrait” is “In the Waiting Room”: “I — we were falling, falling // [...] beneath a big black wave and another and another.” The lines are in response to a transpersonal “cry of pain” that sends the young Elizabeth into vertigo. In the pre-social vulnerability of the body and its constraints in language and culture the poet finds our commonality; but it’s hardly enough to incorporate a “we” as community, or to give it meaning and value. The shattering of the foundations of the ego does not in itself make way for a new grounding of personhood in sociality. “What similarities [...] [hold] us all together 
or made us all just one?” asks Elizabeth Bishop. Her next words are not an answer: “How unlikely.”

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Yet we use the pronoun everyday — there, I’ve done it; it’s impossible to avoid (“Yet I return her wave, like an accomplice” Merrill relents). And we do want to find common ground, to go beyond our atomic experiences and identify shared feelings and values beyond the red genetic muck, whether in local communities or less bounded human experience. Antagonism to the social may be the default position of the lyric, but it has never been the only position. And if poetry is a message in a bottle, it is also, sometimes, a mass mailing. Or is collaboration a better model, since it does not presume to speak for all from the vantage of one, but to forge community in the work of poetry?

The perpetual pursuit of what George Oppen called the “meaning of being numerous” seems to be one of the jobs of literature, and since 9/11 it has had new urgency. In the December 2010 Q&A issue of Poetry magazine, Jane Hirschfield wrote: “I suppose some would say it’s terribly old-fashioned, or terribly arrogant, for a person to use ‘we’ in a poem to speak of ‘us all,’ but it’s a concept I still believe in — that certain experiences are universally and profoundly human, and that one of the possible tasks of poetry is to name or evoke them.” Hirschfield calls us back to an old humanism through the use of a universal “we.” Oren Izenberg’s critical study Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life (2011), proposes a “new humanism” that also returns us to the “ground of social life.” He does not take up poetry’s use of the first person plural pronoun as such, but the idea of “we” formed in poetic experience, in contrast to a poetics of individual experience, is the central principle underlying his analysis of a range of poets from Yeats to Bob Perelman. Indeed, his two kinds of poetry suggest a negative. “Against a poetics of poems that enters deeply into the texture of the experience of persons,” the poets he describes “seek ways to make their poetic thinking yield accounts of personhood that are at once minimal — placing as few restrictions as possible upon the legitimate forms a person can take — and universal — tolerating no exemptions or exclusions. Finally, they will also demand that our concepts of personhood identify something real: not political fictions we could come to inhabit together, or pragmatic ways of speaking we might come to share, but a ground on which the idea of a ‘we’ might stand. This poetry, I argue, is an important site for the articulation of a new humanism: it seeks a reconstructive response to the great crises of social agreement and recognition in the twentieth century.”  That’s a tall order for poetry and it lives more as a project than as an achievement in the work Izenberg analyzes, which may be the point (notice his word “might”), since poetry understood within the “ground of social life” must be a restless, open poetry, embedded in an interactive model of communication.

But the temptation remains not only to enable community through art, but also to identify universal principles of human connection, and this often involves poets in a turn from the “ground of social life” to impersonal dimensions of earth and sky. Inhuman scales and phenomena can create backgrounds to define human experience. In an effort to incorporate a humanist “we” poets of all eras have turned not only to the “red genetic muck," but also to the starry sky above, to discover the moral law within. An alien “it” of the impersonal cosmos rather than an antagonistic “they” of the social realm, incorporates an inclusive human “we.” This strategy informs Tracy Smith’s Life on Mars, which was featured on the PBS Newshour, where essayists often use “we.” In Smith’s “It & Co.” “It” seems to designate what she describes in another poem as “the largeness we cannot see,” a largeness that modern telescopes make palpable, but that drifts off into metaphysics. That invisible “largeness” beyond the boundaries of the human seems to be what helps us form ourselves as a group, helps us become “Us & Co,” the title of the concluding poem of Smith’s volume. Smith seems to use the organizational title less in a spirit of irony than in a spirit of revision, reclaiming it for an uncommoditized ideal of human connection. The title presents more trouble than help, however, in conceiving of “us all” collectively. If “Us” is the whole of humanity caught in the flow of human time, an unbounded, mortal “we,” “Co.” suggests something bound together. If the poem were called “Us, Inc.” we would read it differently, to indicate that “Us” has been incorporated, signed off on, made into a financial and legal body (Viking, Inc.) with clear boundaries. “& Co.” generally follows the name of an individual (e.g. Shakespeare & Co.), suggesting a hierarchical organization. “Co.” designates a firm, an establishment, a house, a concern, or a business. “Company” when unabbreviated suggests something social, as in Stephen Sondheim’s musical by that name. But Smith’s main basis for incorporating “us” seems to be the fleetingness of individual life and its small scale in the universe. The abstractions and metaphors of the poem leave “one” with little sense of what “Us & Co.” really amounts to other than words and vague sentiments.

Tim Donnelly in Cloud Corporation is a lot more suspicious than Tracy Smith of the cosmically incorporated “we” and our ability to escape the atmosphere of commerce. “We” amounts to “a congregation of bodies / united into one immaterial body, a fictive person / around whom the air is blurred with money.” The ambiguities of the subject “we” are multiplied in its range of cases: the objective (us), the reflexive (ourselves), the possessive (our), and the majestic plural (ourself). Donnelly’s brilliant title offers an unredeemed and redeemable image of our collective reality. Living in New York, Oppen’s “city of corporations” that manufactures desire, and living in the internet’s “cloud” that “connects” us by absorbing us into a soulless, all-knowing computation, Donnelly suggests that “we” has taken on a demoralizing, dehumanizing and faceless unreality, a pseudopersonhood. And yet poetry too is a cloud formation, its world is imagination, and its ability to imagine potential community, to give a body to what seems insubstantial is part of its power. So one cloud might provide an antidote to another, if not simple redemption. Like poetry, a cloud seems like fog when you are in it, but seen from a distance a cloud has form and substance. This duality between the debased and the poetic, between an “us” reduced to manufactured desires and an “us” of conscience and aspiration, finds expression throughout Donnelly’s book, perhaps most explicitly in “Claire de Lune.” This villanelle with its repetitive formal unity (its incorporation of words into pattern) enacts an idea of collective self-assessment. The alternating lines establish division within this body that allows the plurality of the first person plural to assert itself, however agonistically. “We revolt ourselves; we disgust and annoy us.” The grammatical strains of the villanelle’s permutations create collective confusion and irony; “we” are in mutiny against our own coercions. “We become like those who seek to destroy us.”  The summation of the villanelle is really a second turn of the screw, however. The self-disgust itself seems to generate the self-destruction when we are not just like the enemy but are becoming the enemy: “We disgust and annoy us / into those we become we who seek to destroy us.” Is there any hope for community in this portrait of hollow, incorporated, evasive, opiated and eviscerated “we,” in this “cat-and-mouse world” of capital? The poet is unique yet part of the group, and this introduces a dialectical element into an otherwise static I/We dichotomy. “Notice the group photo in which I stand / apart from but attached to. I feel I should die if I let myself / be drawn into the center no less than if I just let go.” The strangely hanging preposition “to” where “group” might be the object, reminds us that the group is only abstractly an entity, and has no living “center.”

“We” has always been an ambiguous pronoun in English, as its scope and relation to the addressee can only be interpreted in context. “We” can be royal or communal, universal or parochial, intimate or public, personal or impersonal, inclusive or exclusive, majestic, universal, or corporate. But “we” as an indexical pronoun, is context dependent. It is often hard to disambiguate and readers and listeners often tolerate a large area of confusion or uncertainty about the identity of “we” in a given sentence. But ambiguity is a virtue in poetry if also sometimes a problem. Gertrude Stein preferred pronouns to nouns precisely because they elide the fixities and past conceptions of names, allowing for more open and immediate thought: “pronouns represent some one but they are not its or his name. In not being his or its or her name they already have a greater possibility of being something than if they were as a noun is the name of anything.” In poetry “we” is open ended because poetry is the genre of possibility. Is Bishop underscoring this ambiguity in “The Moose” when she writes: “why do we feel / (we all feel) this sweet / sensation of joy?” Who is included in this “we”? Bishop’s parenthesis both graphically highlights the ambiguity of the pronoun’s inclusion, and gives it extension beyond any clear indexical function in the poem. Poetry depicts small communities but in using the “we” poetry can also metonymically suggest broader ones, so that the sense of the general does not withdraw from the particular into impersonal abstraction. Poetry manages this play of scale without allowing the local “we” to claim any imperial authority or forced consensus.

One thing we can say for certain: “we” includes “I” but is not limited to it. First person plural might better be called first person plus, where the second term of the equation I + X = We needs to be solved. And the equation would also perhaps involve two forms, I + X - hearer = We, or I + X + hearer = We. But insofar as poetry asks us to repeat a speech act, “I” and the hearer become one. Attention to the “we” in poetry causes us to pose many questions, then. Among these are: What conditions allow the poet to speak as if in accord with others? Can the poet construct a “we” that retains multiplicity within its choral force? When does the poem give assent to this claim of collective identity and when does it distance itself? Does the poem point to the “we” as an already established identity, or does it produce this “we” in performance?  Modern poetry often creates a face of we that is volatile in character and number and avoids the mask of a restricted as a universal interest.

How do we profit from this scrutiny of first person plurals? Maybe just in an awareness of the pitfalls of the pronoun — in an imperative to listen to ourselves, or at least to "ourself," and go back to the face to face encounters, even the faceoffs, that are the foundation of any community.  “We” derives from the horizontal, ever-shifting clusters of I/Thou relations. All first person plurals are particular, whether they are inclusive or exclusive. At the same time, poetry’s first person plural, in which the indexical situation is often obscure or ambiguous, suggests how the genre might propose or project community, create a sense of potential in “us” which is not predicated on consensus or the mentality of the crowd.

Poets are intensely aware that language is not just a system of rules, but a community of users, who shape it in their direct and indirect speech acts. Poetry sometimes wants to refer to or speak for a preexisting group, or wants to expose or critique “we” as social performance rather than something natural or given.  But it also often tries to bring into being a particular “we” that has been obstructed in history; hence the appeal of poetry in emerging cultures.  Finally, though, “poetry makes nothing happen,” as Auden said. Its ultimate performance may be abstract; it calls up human feeling without confining it to historical particulars or divisions, perhaps even interrupting these. This “we” is projective, parabolic, and provisional. Poetry can keep the first person in the first person plural, and keep the plural from becoming too incorporated, too singular.

On 'Pitch,' with special reference to 'Hard Copy'

Rachel Blau DuPlessis, September 2011; “Pitch: Drafts 77–95” (2010).
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, September 2011; “Pitch: Drafts 77–95” (2010).

Reading Pitch: Drafts 77–95, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s really possible to traverse Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts project straight through.[1] The way each Draft activates so many inter-texts (within the project & without) seems to suggest that the linear sequence of these poems isn’t the overriding trajectory here, even if we have been reading that axis — those of us following the journal publications of Drafts — following along (if not systematically, at least historically, in roughly chronological order), witnessing the project build to a pitch, as it were, to a critical mass.

Led by either axis of the donor grid, my reading of Drafts usually involves a major physical pileup of texts, including (now) all four books of Drafts, as well as any number of supplemental volumes. But the arrival of Pitch has me tracing another concern, reading poems like “Draft 85: Hard Copy” as also contained, autonomous. So that I’m beginning to approach each separate Draft as a kind of co-incidental text: sharing incident (inciting and incited) but also, in certain cases, strikingly divergent from the organizing principles of donation and sequencing.

For one thing, Pitch announces a plastic edge of the project thus far undocumented by any of the book publications, though not without precedent in Drafts’ use of ideogram and redaction. The excerpt from “Draft 94: Mail Art” (first published in Jacket 37, with a volume of The Collage Poems of Drafts now out from Salt) features black and white scans of DuPlessis’s own collages, offering an exciting navigational supplement to the donor grid. And even without jumping to entirely different media, certain poems here gesture towards a monumentality that I have to read as running concurrent, as a framework, with that grid. Though DuPlessis has plotted each numbered poem on a trajectory — the x and y axes — in Pitch, two long poems comprise almost half of the book (Drafts 85 and 87). Of course, if there is a move towards the monumental in certain poems here, poems like “Draft 93: Romantic Fragment Poem” are becoming minor, reminding us that the fragment or the ruin might be as reliable an index as any for a reading of Drafts.

To get a better sense of one of the un-indexed momentums of Drafts, I’d like here to treat Draft 85 almost exclusively, hoping that even in the context of a review such a narrow focus will be useful, and that, further, it will be clear that the pleasure of reading DuPlessis’s work by reading it through to other texts and contexts isn’t in “getting” the references, but rather in being swept up in a poetics of historical critique. DuPlessis is one of our great literary historians, and the poems in Pitch only further solidify that position.

Written over Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous” — section by section — Draft 85 has so troubled my sense that even two axes are not sufficient scaffolding by which to “map” (so as to traverse) these Drafts that I find myself completely preoccupied. A point of departure, then, from “Draft 85: Hard Copy,” for a (one) reading, in the form of a few lines that might seem — out of context — more ruin than monument: “There is at once too much / and too little / for getting the force of it, the rebuff” (59).

Draft 85 isn’t on the line of 11, yet it borrows the above from a poem on that line, “Draft 49: Turns and Turns, an Interpretation”: “I am not getting the force of it in, // the rebuff, the clarity, in.”[2] This inter-text, not indexed by the donor grid, adds an Objectivist nexus (to borrow a title) to the scaffoldings already articulated in DuPlessis’s grid of Drafts, inasmuch as it sends us to another Draft written over a “major” Objectivist work: Zukofsky’s “Mantis” and “‘Mantis’: an Interpretation.”[3] Certainly something different is at stake for DuPlessis in overwriting Zukofsky, and we might even say that 49 more willingly turns from, even elides, the text and author on which it is modeled. But it would be important to note that, in sending us back to Draft 49, Draft 85 has also drawn a relation to one of DuPlessis’s most complicated assessments of feminist activisms. The “it” that proves so difficult to account for in the shared lines above is (in Draft 49) the ability to articulate an engagement with feminism that is at once contested and sincere: “I was angry   at my sister; who is my sister   we enter a dark chamber” (112).

And though the repetition of text from a previous Draft might constitute a donation akin to those indexed by the donor grid, both 49 and 85 are what I would call “major” Drafts, though they’re not alone, in my reading. I’m fully aware that I’m overstepping here to claim “majorness” for a project that so persistently politicizes (even dismantles) that notion. I also risk the (major) misstep of advancing as “major” only those Drafts mapped on the concerns of DuPlessis’s male predecessors. It would be worth clarifying, then, that 49 and 85 stand out as major precisely because of the directness with which these Drafts politicize authorship and perform a sustained feminist historiography, both of which I take to be central concerns of this project.

Readers might note with curiosity the absence of “clarity” among the concerns enumerated in the text borrowed from 49, once it resurfaces in 85 (the Oppen Draft). More on this.

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“Hard Copy”: the title names both a lyric impulse (written “on” Oppen, that the address was difficult) and a documentary one (the poem takes up the Iraq War, but also torques the discourse of documentary poetics by viewing the problematics of authorial distance through the lens of gender). The title also locates something in the way of accounting for the entire project of Drafts, since the donor grid, while suggesting “pitch content” like a pitch set in musical set theory, does not describe a strictly procedural work, but a series of donations that are, rather, hard won, emergent.

The poem is a calling-back; an exegesis; a midrash; a critique; a modeling; a theft (or a take-back, in the case of the reappropriation of lines Oppen once borrowed from DuPlessis); a lament; a redaction (or not); a numerousness (in Duncan’s sense of the unoriginal poet, H.D.’s palimpsest); a touch (a mourn-touch); an update; a screen or projection from this side of the twentieth century; “what is under the surface / trying to come to light” (Pitch, 42); the (everyday) impenetrable (42–43); or graffiti; even translation; an ambivalently monumental in memoriam (44); a binding — in hard copy — of “us to the damage” (45); an “annunciation” of “states” (“of being (numerous)”) (46); a “joy” (here) “riven / with revulsion” (48) at optimism in the face of the present world; a “recurrence” (48); an “improvement” (48 — see the take-back).
As in the epigraph from Celan’s “Meridian” speech, “The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author stays with it” (42).

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Plays on copying abound in 85, so that I have difficulty not reading passages ostensibly “about” other things as doublings into an exploration of the proprietary side of artistic production. As a gender-inflected question of authorship, whether to “copy” might be why this copying’s “hard.” But then again,

What is the point of pure revulsion? I am beginning
to be very simple, to have very simple thoughts, no
complicated language, therefore; nothing
too subtle. (44)

“Pure revulsion,” read as a demeanor of authorship, is a question of copying, of singularity, even difference, indifference. As if to ask, what is the point of work so singular that it seems abstracted from any context? Or even, as a critical position, what is the point of response so separate, so revolted by, that it moves towards a like abstraction? So the poem turns to a direct reading of Oppen, as an answer to or an extension of the question as to “the point of pure revulsion”:

It’s a question of “among”
shatter of the reflection
“to see them”
and “to know ourselves.” (44)

A question of “among.” So then, here’s reading as reading company, writing as writing company. But lest that formulation sound too accessible, too utopian, here, too, is reading and writing company as impossibly mediated by nation, difference:

The problem is to articulate
any promise of the civic,
without this glint of the apocalyptic. (46)

DuPlessis’s rendering of the treacherous position of writing “among” wars reads like an elided history of women war writers: Sitwell, H.D., an unnamed female correspondent in Iraq, DuPlessis herself (52–53). That this list overwrites Oppen’s firsthand account of a war seems to suggest that history is best written by a chorus of accounts, and that further, listening to (rather than looking at or “seeing”) who/what one lives among is preferable, as a methodology. Thus, to “shatter” the reflective in Oppen’s original formulation (“There are things / We live among and ‘to see them / Is to know ourselves’”)[4] is also to redouble an effort to acknowledge a multiplicity of historians of war, to sanction alternate histories, alternate ways of knowing.

Reading back, “to articulate” is (also) “the problem.” Hard ^to^ copy (these contemporary disasters, into text — hard to justify the cost, hard to do the copying):

A sense of desperate outrage
              anneals the onlookers
              onto the very page
              on which these words are put
 
as fetish substitute for the directness
of rubble. (Pitch, 49)

Still, the poem persistently recovers from despair and advocates against indifference in relation to writing (as, among) disaster:

And the nice life? The poetic vista?
Coziness and connection?
There is no elsewhere.
Even the poem is not elsewhere. (57)

In a “Hard Copy” distance is key, so not distance: there’s no elsewhere, but because of that fact, here’s an elsewhere (i.e. not abstracted from a larger network of sites and contexts, never only here). At a certain point, copying’s no longer the question. In Drafts, all context is co-incidental, inter-(con)textual, as in “Draft 87: Trace Elements”:

This may have happened more than once
and more than here. OOOOOOOOOOOI (90)

*

What humbles me about DuPlessis’s treatment of Oppen’s person and work in this poem (as throughout Drafts) is that the work of mourning a friend and mentor and the work of engaging a politics of authorship are followed out in tandem. Followed out as not mutually exclusive, if not exactly symbiotic, endeavors — in generative proximity.

Say you are neither disloyal nor pilferer.
And sit tight on the icons and rocks of meaning
gathered from the paternal household,
the talismanic counterfoils, even
the fewest and smallest
from the fierce storehouses of articulation
and defensiveness.
You will remake these goods in your own blood. (63)

How to convey the intimacy of this trespass-as-mourning? If Draft 85 performs a take-back, first there was the taken — this, in “Of Being Numerous”:

‘Whether, as the intensity of seeing increases, one’s distance
              from Them, the people, does not also increase’[5]

Again, “distance” is key (in mourning, in discourse, in writing company). The donor grid of Drafts proceeds by repurposing text from previous “donor” Drafts. However, in writing on/over Oppen’s poem, Draft 85 repossesses (variously) the above lines that Oppen borrowed from a 1965 letter from DuPlessis.[6]

As a result, a tradition of inter-textuality is here figured as “not elsewhere” from the pilfering of Iraq: “There is some distance from this to be negotiated / But only if you’re fairly lucky” (Pitch, 52). The reference to “a Pitcher’s duel” doubles as both a characterization of the American occupation of Iraq (as zero-sum), and of the situation of tribute, influence, quotation. Further, that “there is some distance from this to be negotiated” sends us back to Oppen’s consideration of the lines borrowed from DuPlessis, his thinking-through of ‘distance’ throughout “Of Being Numerous.”

It’s amazing to me that 85 would take this turn, would arrive at this confluence — in the notion of “a Pitcher’s duel” — of DuPlessis’s thinking about the war and her thinking about authorship. There is no elsewhere — the two lines of thought collide, or cohabit, in this fact.

*

Walking up and down in it /
walking to and fro in it (60)

I would say that a review would be no place to try and sustain a reading of that collision or cohabitation, but the truth is that even in an extended form — a book, say — Drafts overburdens a reading. We need volumes on Drafts. I understand this critical mass as a field poetics, not so much in terms of a projective relationship to the page, but rather a directional relationship to making meaning. Allusion of course sends us elsewhere, but Drafts presents itself as a text that’s elsewhere, a multidimensional, multi-locational work that must be wandered through.
For a long way around, it might be useful even in a review to compare the sections in Draft 85 to their counterparts in “Of Being Numerous.” For example, section 22 of Oppen’s poem (his call for “Clarity / in the sense of transparence”)[7] here becomes:

If I were to say all this, all at the same time
The way it’s felt,
The page would go black from overprinting. (Pitch, 58)

I read the above as a gloss on DuPlessis’s own use of redaction elsewhere in Drafts (in 87 and 94 of Pitch, for instance). We’re told in the note to Draft 5, that the redactions “are intended to suggest the FBI files of George Oppen.”[8] So that a page gone “black from overprinting” mourns Oppen’s textual body, while extending, elaborating, correcting, and engaging this notion of clarity as silent or transparent. DuPlessis has written quite candidly of being unable to get on board with Oppen’s push for linguistic transparency: “This is because the non-transparency, the historical density of words is more vital to my practice as a poet.”[9] In Pitch, “Draft XC: Excess” tells us that

Excess is the lexicon.
The fullness of the word
refuses to forget. (131)

And then back in Draft 85,

Were I to cry out 
full as a symphony, but in a littler space, 
this intensity of conviction, this witnessing, 
would emphatically signal 
unfinished business. (64–65)

The poem returns here to the question regarding “the intensity of seeing” and of making a “clear” account, while motioning to the “unfinished business” both of mourning and of confronting the disasters of gender in a war zone, in writing histories of wars. For a sustained consideration of these concerns in prose, readers can consult DuPlessis’s contribution to the recent volume, Thinking Poetics: Essays on George Oppen — but here again we’re off to a supplemental text!
Which is to say that the poem risks clarity, risks every misreading, like the double basses in the description of a symphony in section 25:

suddenly left alone,
impossibly high,
impossibly exposed,
impossibly mournful … (60)

The double basses are thus cousins to “the poem” itself in the Celan epigraph — lonely and en route. The poem here posits a radical simultaneity between the singularity of the present work and its indebtedness to that which incites it, pointing up its distance from the text on which it’s shaped and letting out a wail to mourn the distance. DuPlessis’s relationship to Oppen comes to seem both central to her own work, and yet at once incidental, flanked by, overshadowed by other relationships, contexts, and concerns. Response of this magnitude leaves the poem “alone” and “impossibly exposed” where reducible to tribute, because (if thus reduced) the poem risks being construed as “elsewhere” in relation to concerns vital for DuPlessis that seem to cross Oppen’s only marginally (like feminist histories and women’s responses to war in particular). Or the poem is “impossibly exposed” where critique threatens to drown out mourning.
Of course, the poem isn’t thus reducible, but it risks this misreading out of a refusal to mute the multiplicity of threads given voice in 85, the push to say everything “all at the same time, / the way it’s felt.” In writing on/over “Of Being Numerous,” this multivocal page goes “black from overprinting.”

*

It’s difficult now to speak of poetry —[10]
 
It’s hard for me to talk about poetry.[11]

So it becomes clear that wandering through a “Hard Copy” is a treacherous maneuver, even with the donor grid as map, and I think the poem’s aware of this, given the roads, signposts, and signage throughout, which paths lead back through Draft 49, not incidentally; 49 begins:

I was walking through woods   spring-strewn   green sodden
to follow   a spry, disabled woman.   It’s clear   from the tone
a dream   of climbing backward on a trestle   over stressed woods.
History and class   turn up in films   as smudges   on, basically, clothing
but gender appears   in the tinkle of mannerist sincerity   & depression.
I am inside a dream   without cinematic protection.   Intricate, ambivalent
 
walking   or taking a train was it   dark coach   bridge-work
leaving another life behind, the tunnel   the selved-city   too much
geography   too many sites […]. (Pledge, 111)

Drafts 49 and 85 chart the dislocation of finding oneself in the midst of a motion but without a clear sense of the motor that moves you: “walking   or taking a train was it.” I read this dislocation as shared, as characteristic of both the writing and the reading of Drafts: the problem of determining “What is important and what is not / in a real place filled with signs” (Pitch, 65). An obstructed view — whether one seeks a forward motion or not, whether outward or further in — is palpable:

But trying to act
              on this murky path,
overcast wet air, headlines thrown
 
keeps demanding other knowledge. (68–69)

And if the paths are difficult, then there are the poem’s obstinate doors:

Open the door
says a weeper
to a stone room,
do not take the path
of the indifferent. (47)           
 
Lack of a door labeled “door.”
And then the lack was a door. (71)

This last couplet might be a way of figuring Drafts as a field: no single, clear entry, and that lack becomes the way in. So even doors aren’t definitive guides, and in terms of entry points for a reading of Pitch, we might even say “no doors” is decidedly not the problem, but Draft 85 already anticipates this: “I want polyphony / I want excess” (53, emphasis mine). That desire, announced in the very name of DuPlessis’s long poem and performed in the doubling donations of the donor grid, is in part a feminist response to an inheritance from Pound that would have us see excision as the primary inroad to clarity.

Read in the context of a feminist historiography, the couplet above might also suggest that certain impasses become answers for critics and activists, or at least suggest a provisional course of action: that the fact of “no door” provided some direction forward in that movement, some measure of clarity amid “historical density.” In Draft 49, the lack of a door is a wall:

Thus we found   another side to the “wall,”   a space breathtaking of the “we.”
Palpable, it appeared.   “We take   the woman’s side   in everything.”
Throws of chance   in all revolution   enlarge intensities of claim.
In the throes. (Pledge, 112)

As “throws” opens onto “throes” (a pitcher’s duel?), DuPlessis reiterates the provisional nature of doors, of movement — one moves towards action and ends up in thrall. And it bears repeating:

Each single word, each labile letter
opens a mini-world
from particular presence and long implication.
Then they and we, you and I, he, she, and it,
pronominal volunteers
reflect and refract
infinitudes of twirls and networks. (Pitch, 5)

Thus Pitch posits another, a noisier clarity, whose clatter here reaches its apex in the percussive experiment of “Draft 78: Buzz Track” (from which, the above). Part of the work of this project is to insist on polyphonic contexts for reading, to refuse to abandon context on the road to clarity.[12] The “Buzz Track” clarifies:

Similarly
yiou and thwe and wey and hheer
emerge on the pronoun grid
as what we always knew but never before said. (7)

The pronominal play of Draft 78 demonstrates that part of the work of this vocal excess is to prepare a space of being among, to enact “among” as a way of reading, of listening for/as the illegible, so that historical density might become apparent to a reading of history. “Elsewhere,” Anne Carson reminds us that there’s a classical reference point for reading clarity (as gendered) through to vocal excess (as clarity): Sophocles’s description of Echo as “the girl with no door on her mouth.” [13]
 
And then the lack was a door.

*

For this reviewer, to approach Pitch from start to finish might have missed the point of the project: how to review a book that happens all at once, as it were? Where each poem is a complexion of a shared concern, coming into view as a kind of eyetooth, the visibility in Drafts being always partial, at least from the limited vantage point of any one poem. Even if read as monument, this can only be partly true, sometimes true, since Drafts is also a field (sometimes), or even a maze, as John Keene has described it.
 
It “keeps demanding other knowledge.”

 


 

1. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Pitch: Drafts 77–95 (Cambridge: Salt, 2010).

2.  DuPlessis, Drafts: Drafts 39–57, Pledge, with Draft, Unnumbered: Précis (Cambridge: Salt, 2004), 112.

3. DuPlessis also notes Draft 49’s indebtedness to Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette (Pledge, 229).

4. George Oppen, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2003), 163.

5. Ibid., 167.

6. Ibid., 382.

7. Ibid., 175.

8. DuPlessis, Drafts 1–38, Toll (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 269.

9. DuPlessis, “‘Ballad’: On Reading Oppen Once Again,” in Big Bridge 14 (2010).

10. Oppen, New Collected Poems, 180.

11.  DuPlessis, Pitch, 62.

12. DuPlessis has explored just this thread in her work on Beverly Dahlen and Anne Waldman, two poets whose work in the long form keeps company with DuPlessis’s own.

13. Anne Carson, “The Gender of Sound,” in Glass, Irony, and God (New York: New Directions, 1995), 121.

Ghost tracks

Reading the signs in 'Pitch: Drafts 77–95'

Rachel Blau DuPlessis reads at Kelly Writers House, Philadelphia, March 3, 2011.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis reads at Kelly Writers House, Philadelphia, March 3, 2011.

1. “We hope our heart-ribs do not burst.”

Pitch, Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s latest installment of her lifelong project, Drafts, continues, like Freud’s endless analysis, to loop and coil around the here and now, as we stumble through its shadowy portals, nomads and phantoms in this public anatomy of loss, memory and the human web. Writing as a social practice that structures the said and the unsaid, here takes on a particular contour and urgency. The watchfulness, the patience, the forceful witness to “the cry of human entanglement,”[1] as Meredith Quartermain aptly names it, are the binding forces of the poet’s desire “not to take the path of the indifferent” (47). Whether it be the war in Iraq, or the Gulf oil spill, or the various holocausts and historical depredations, the real sticks and drags its webbed feet, tattered remnants, illegible at times like that newspaper page “caught itself stolidly against a barrier / and would not blow away no matter what the wind’s direction” (32). That tangle, web, imbrication are the coordinates of the external world that DuPlessis is intent on gathering, even if it’s with nothing more than “ticks, shards, dots, smudges, soot” (85). It is in the very nature of this long, postmodern Canto to inscribe an ethical grammar with which to inhabit/inherit the earth we stand on, “ghost to mist, spark to fire, spoke to speak / over the scarp and into the night” (76). What the French have called littérature engagée since Sartre and Camus, can be said to be redefined here in the American present, reconstellated with an uncommon lucidity and a haunting vision.


2. “… whenever someone bonged the bell / called ‘Poetry’”

Lest one rush to make an easy amalgam of Drafts and the tradition of engaged writing such as, say, Carolyn Forché’s Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, valiant and indispensable as that project is, bringing Akhmatova, Ritsos, Celan, Lorca, Hikmet et al. to our shores, one must at once pause and reflect before leaping. Let us recall what Edward Said teaches us in The World, the Text, and the Critic: “The point is that texts have ways of existing that even in their most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstance, time, place, and society — in short, they are in the world, and whence, worldly.”[2] What is unique about DuPlessis’s practice of worldliness, in “particulars of shock and numbness”[3] has to with her very pronounced sense of doubt, even despair, at times, about the ultimate efficacy of lyrical language to “talk to the loss” (130), to account for the unbearable, to trace the arc between knot and knife, and yet she can do nothing but write the embedded words. I read this emblematic contradiction as a kind of AC/DC structure wherein one energy flow is directed along a wire, a conductor, a content, while in the other, electrons move back and forth, switching directions, agitating the signifying chain. “Rubble is continually before me. / Silence. The stalled train / blocks the grimy tunnel, its catenary off the current” (29).

The result of such a movement, which is indubitably not just a formal strategy but an ingrained way of thinking about the paradoxical nature of contemporary lyric, accounts for the uncanny sensation that this language produces, at once song and discourse, narrative and silence, dream and psalm. “The book is a mine / of intersections. Margins” (27). This to-and-fro passage, indeed a dialectic, neither marks twenty-first-century poetry as a positivist, a “yes, we can” machine, harnessed for maximum resistance and liberatory potential, nor a disconcerting Adorno-bound avowal of impossibility. And as Zukofsky reminds us in A Test of Poetry, poetry convinces by form rather than by argument;[4] hence, we observe that often with DuPlessis, it is precisely in the middle of putting language into question, of doubting its means of changing this world of “Schande, Malfeasance, Fear” (117), that we come face to face with “the diva diptych of the page” (145), which is the pure jouissance of the signifier. 


3. “Follow, fellow, furrow”

The self-present erotics of the DuPlessian text, where signs like tender buttons leap and veer into each other, per/verse beauts, summons a phonocentric dynamic which says that the lyrical voice, in all of its materiality — “every hairy bit of matter and its sound / noise shed like light upon the littler / noises darkening below the syntax, / such hubbub …” (9) — claims its own necessity, or to put in Barthian terms, “The text of bliss is absolutely intransitive” (52). “As catches, caches / caught …” (2), the characteristic conjugation that opens Pitch might remind us of Celan’s Sprachgitter,[5] insofar as poetic language becomes this inescapable sieve, grid, grille, which filters tones, pitch, tweet “with a go and a blow and a ho-T-ho / and a We and a twee …” (6). In this live mesh, sound pulses; air and light must pass between the bars. But what gets stuck in the grate, too thick to be trace elements, too lost, too rent, too irreducible, inassimilable, strange fleshy parts, “a clump of mud, a smear of dirt with memories” (82)? The judas hole snaps shut. “The page falls away” (29). Unspoken, at fixed intervals above the net, the enormity of the blackout, incalculable. The iteration of the song, insistent and voluptuous in the promiscuity of its phonemes as it might be, nonetheless extends to “the erotics of connection” (65) endlessly shifted, up and down, like broken chords in a musical scale.


4. “Worked with clods and clots, scraps, errors”

If contemporary readers and critics of DuPlessis’s Drafts project all agree on its compelling fold structure, ambitious range and sheer radicality, which consists in allowing the poem to implicate the world and to resist the bureaucratic boundaries stipulating what goes where in verse, on one hand, and then to enact a personal practice coterminous with a moral grammar and a “self-interrogation” (123) on the other, much less is heard about the marked tropism for shard, strip, mote, dot, shim, to name just a few of these minims, half and quarter notes which constitute the distinct music of this oeuvre: “small thin pieces of anything” (35).

This preference is not without recalling the 1960s arte povera movement which brought us sculptures and happenings based on unconventional, everyday materials, rags and mirrors, nails and bedsprings, stones and branches. As if answering Derrida’s question, “Che cos’è la poesia?” Pitch responds, “La poesia povera” (91).[6] Like a Jannis Kounellis piece made of nothing more than a coil of wire and a knife, the work here mobilizes the small, unglamorous mites and flecks, “the shattered bits of former structure” (92), the blackened piping, sooty ends of objects and daily remains of our common experience in an attempt to situate the hidden rips and gaps we slide over, oblivious to the missing letters, blind to the ones without shelter, deaf to the orphaned tune. I’m deliberately bracketing here the omnipresence of trace — “the was of words” — (168), as it would merit a sustained analysis of its own.

The gift of Pitch, “homeless wandering poem” (144), begins with that territory, oh so achingly human, of crumbs and ashes. Here’s the task, as Creeley says in “Heroes,” repeating after Virgil, “hoc opus, hic labor est.”[7] We are to understand that “going into death” (as Aeneas does in Aeneid VIII) is easy, but getting back up from Hades ain’t a piece of cake. The poet’s obvious confidence in the ability of “small powerful things” (78) to be placeholders for the “crimps and folds of loss” (87) lets the rubble zone become a page, an archive we touch dot by dot, line by line, lest we be struck with amnesia and “let the head smolder in its grief” (28). That Pitch’s scope and ethic reach, really, the hugeness of its heart is articulated via this minor regime, these pinholes and tiny bits that open up the abyss, foregrounds its own calculus with the im/possible task of the modern writer.


5) “… foreign selves …”

What is then the rhetoric of the “I” in this text? Beyond the noticeable midrash practice of engaging with the eternal ghosts’ questions, there emerges a wider sense of channeling and translocation that I’m tempted to call djinn poetics. Pitch is a relational text wherein the Bakhitinian sense of dialogization is carried into a whole new paradigm, leveling off the speaker and endowing it with a totally different habitation. The interhuman relationships thus established position the lyric “I” as a construct of reinscription and translation which always entails the other. A quick scan of the notes gestures to the company kept: Cixous, Scholem, Oppen, Rilke, Celan, Benjamin, Welish, Bachmann, Grenier, Coleridge, et al. More than mere citationality, intertext, or palimpsest, the “I” deploys a logic of subjectification which reaches across identities and positions. As Marjorie Welish reminds us, “subjectivity need not be first-person singular.”[8]

Understood in a Deleuzian sense, the self becomes then a threshold, a line of becoming that DuPlessis posits as a fundamental structure of being. One can, here, make a further rapprochement between that entanglement of the social materials, really a kind of quantum Verschrȁnkung, “the cobble of languages” (136), and the inter-subjectivity, a being with in this new linked tenancy.

Such a relational performance can best be read in “Draft 88: X-Posting,” a poem in which DuPlessis ventriloquizes Ingeborg Bachmann, using the language of “Keine Delikatessen” as if her “own.” “I then began trans-interpreting it, transposing it, elaborating, extending, varying it, working homophonically with the German, and creating my variation of it by writing a poem that started with hers and that in large measure tracks her argument in a free variation on Bachmann,” DuPlessis explains in her notes. So when we hear the lines: “I stand before you / foreign and distant, / (although near and constant) / wondering / whether any part of this is worth it” (113), and later on, “Who was that self? It isn’t as if this ‘I’ had gotten nowhere / is it?” (114–15), we indeed track the power of these encounters as a cultural and social bond across languages — a shared poetics which gives the lie to the old notions of the self as separate, private, stable core, to say nothing about the biting ironies of the pronouns. The foreign/native binary loses its habitual explanatory force as the new transcreation introduces an exchange between the two, de facto creating a third set where both are present without canceling each other out: “pensive intersections” (82).

The djinn effect of this method is über palpable in “Draft 89: Interrogation,” a sequel of sorts to “X-Posting.” Staged liked the interrogation of a defendant — the temptation to imagine a scene out of the 2006 film The Lives of Others where the secret police spy on a writer is hard to resist — the text raises the ante on the issue of authorship:

Do you claim to be the author of these terms?
No, this was something beyond authorship.
But you say this isn’t written in your “voice”?

No. It is not, and it is also not not.
So you are lying.

In this case these terms cannot remain absolute. (123)

Accused by the interrogator of having appropriated and abused “her poem,” the writer offers her explanation: “Between the points that shift / when I listens and you speaks / we both wander a third grammar, a tertium quid” (125). In other words, the speaker is both haunted and haunting the text as a way to shatter the normative burden of representing the I that enters the poem: “making an entanglement or a net of entrapment / that the word ‘between’ begins to answer for” (125). This kind of hauntology, to use a concept-metaphor from Derrida’s Specters of Marx, exposes the tenuous nature of the present which is always already contaminated by the figure of the phantom.[9] It is precisely this neither live nor dead ghost that DuPlessis invites in, gives it food and shelter and calls it “between” (125) in order to “gather up our / nothingness and wait inside the unbearable” (126). “ghost tracks / underneath train stations, / where ghost people stand / awaiting embarkation” (30), to my mind could serve as a powerful autorepresentation of the DuPlessian topos.


“The poem
being archive of feelings to come”

If I seem to have been too partial to a reading which privileges conversations with the dead and therefore orients the text toward a past and its specters, I need to reassert the generative power of Pitch, which is built in the very structure of Drafts, i.e. folds, versions, variations, provisional and unfinished that carry their own DNA for future works. The commingling coexistence of temporalities chimes in with the notions of interstice and reinscription that the poet conjugates as “began-begins” (142), “rearticulating time” (20). To work through the “Age of ash” (102), unfathomable, chthonic time, frayed like an old tallith shawl to the yes of tomorrow, draws a new arc in the sky. “Here’s the pitch — / Here’s the argument” (7).

 

 


 

 

1. Rachel DuPlessis, Pitch: Drafts 77–95 (London: Salt, 2010), 60. Subsequent citations given parenthetically.

2. Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 35.

3. Carolyn Forché, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (New York: Norton, 1993), 125.

4. Louis Zukofsky, A Test of Poetry (New York: C. Z. Publications, 1980), 52.

5. Paul Celan, “Sprachgitter,” trans. Michael Hamburger, in The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, ed. J. D. McClatchy (New York: Vintage, 1996), 212–13.

6. Jacques Derrida, “Che cos’è la poesia?” in A Derrida Reader, ed. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 221–37.

7. Robert Creeley, Robert Creeley: Selected Poems: 1945–2005 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 71.

8. Marjorie Welish, “Artist’s Statement,” in Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries, ed. Reginald Sheperd (Denver: Counterpath Press, 2008), 252.

9. See Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994).

Drafts and fragments

Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s (counter-) Poundian project

Rachel Blau DuPlessis reads at Kelly Writers House, Philadelphia, February 5, 20
Rachel Blau DuPlessis reads at Kelly Writers House, Philadelphia, February 5, 2008.

“To say this project [Drafts] was involved with and against Pound from the start is almost tautological”

“I wanted to make an alternate Cantos, a counter-Cantos.

Drafts explicitly positions itself as not-Cantos”

— Rachel Blau DuPlessis[1]

It is among these three epigraphs on Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s ongoing (since 1986) serial poem Drafts, what she calls a “series of interdependent, related, canto-length poems,”[2] that this essay positions itself. “Drafts and Fragments,” of course, both is and is not Poundian, invoking — to state the obvious — the title of Pound’s late book of Cantos, Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX–CXVII. But my title also marks DuPlessis’s Drafts and its relation both to Pound and to fragments. DuPlessis has turned and returned to Pound throughout her career as poet and critic, from her 1970 Columbia dissertation “The Endless Poem” (Pound’s own term, from a letter to Joyce, and what DuPlessis in Blue Studios calls a “predictive rubric” for her own poetry [189]), to a long 1981 essay on George Oppen and Pound, to energized discussions of Pound in The Pink Guitar (1990) and Blue Studios (2006), to — throughout — Drafts.[3] In no way do I mean to suggest an ongoing (and especially not filial) debt to Pound on DuPlessis’s part. But I do mean to suggest a serious ongoing engagement and argument, with Pound as a figure, with his work and with particular aspects of modernism for which DuPlessis reads him as standing. “Reads him as standing”: I should stress that I am considering here a poet-critic’s reading of Pound, and that, like many readings of poets by other poets, it is partial, motivated, self-interested, sometimes tendentious. With gritted-teeth neutrality, DuPlessis begins the endnote to “Draft 61: Pyx” thus: “Ezra Pound has been an essential modernist for Anglo-American poetry, and among the practitioners haunted by his work and his career, I would count myself.”[4] That word “haunted” is carefully chosen. Pound is both foundational and to be moved away from, complexly enabling and an object of resistance, and DuPlessis describes Drafts as “a modulation from the Poundean mytho-informational model as the master genre of [the] long poem to a Creeleyesque or, better, Oppenesque notational, social and secular proposal” [“Considering”] — the term “secular” reminding us of the deliberate absence of anything like “Eleusis” in Drafts.[5]

Complexly related to the shift from the “mytho-informational” to a “notational” model is the (gendered) question of scale. The sheer size of the Cantos, along with Zukofsky’s “A” and Olson’s The Maximus Poems the largest in a century of large poems, is everywhere present as a fact “behind” Drafts, which itself consciously engages “the whole area of cultural ambition, to open up into the largest kind of space, the challenge of scope itself.”[6] Especially to the point for DuPlessis is the creation of “large and encompassing structures with a female signature,”[7] following on female modernist models of ongoing, large-scale production: “Both Dorothy Richardson and Gertrude Stein were doing the same thing: writing a gigantic oeuvre, a mound of oeuvre, to separate themselves definitively from all of the tradition of the novel and … of thinking / writing that went before in order to start a new tradition.”[8] In “Draft XXX: Fosse,” which invokes Pound both in its use of Roman numerals, calling up A Draft of XXX Cantos, and in its use of the Poundian word “fosse,” the underworld site in Canto I of empowered (male) prophetic speech, DuPlessis associates herself with a Poundian tradition via citations from or allusions to George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, Armand Schwerner.[9] But “cunningly” (Odysseus-like) she focuses on their more scaled-down moments: “mimics little words / (flat pebbles), / brings them all to the a / or to the the of ‘be.’”[10] Importantly, in this nuanced negotiation, “little” gets disarticulated from its received association with the feminine by its association with male precursors and contemporaries.[11]

I’ll return later to the question of the “notational,” but initially I want to work with the idea of the fragment. It is connected to three central aspects of DuPlessis’s and Pound’s poetics, three sites at which or ways in which DuPlessis both declares her own poetics and argues with Pound: gender, authority, and reading. There’s a long epistemological, cultural, and literary tradition of coding the fragment female (it’s little, incomplete, etc.), and indeed DuPlessis herself has been a key figure in unpacking that tradition. Her most consistent critique of Pound is a gender critique that foregrounds his promoting “forms of modernist maleness and, more loosely, of poetic genius [that] depend, as subject positions, on proposing and maintaining a dehistoricized, despecified female figure” (Blue Studios, 124). As a central example, DuPlessis analyzes the “work of interpretive erasure” (132) that Pound performs, in “Portrait d’une Femme,” on the feminist writer and activist Florence Farr. Pound’s production of a particular version of modernist maleness “is probably one of his most culturally significant acts within the reception of modernism, as well as its production” (135). DuPlessis has already noted in an earlier essay who is absent from the memory poems of the Pisan Cantos: the “women cultural workers whom Pound knew … The loss, the erasure, the missing.”[12] Pound’s poetics of particularity, that is, fails notably to attend to particular historical women as historical actors (43). While this critique is by now fairly familiar, it is so precisely because of DuPlessis’s work, as well as that of a whole further range of feminist critics, theorists, and writers.

In DuPlessis’s reading — a reading directly relevant to our thinking about the form of Drafts — Pound actually started the Cantos with analogies for the poem’s projected form that were “both more ‘female’ and more popular / populist” (Pink Guitar, 46) than the Cantos later became: the bag of tricks, the rag-bag, the quilt, the circus booth, the spilled catch of fish. As we know, he largely rejected or reworked the ur-Cantos from which these images derive. The goal became mastery, masculine formal authority, so that for Pound, “[major form] began as a ‘rag bag,’ a market mess of spilled fish, but became the form of Analects, of codes, a great man’s law. The Cantos” (9). Fragments and notes became, later in the Cantos, less the basis of form than a measure of the failure of totalization: “Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me. / And I am not a demigod, / I cannot make it cohere.”[13] “Notes” are inadequate to capture the invisible wholeness on which Pound continues to insist: “it coheres all right / even if my notes do not cohere” (797). In other words, for DuPlessis, “Pound is saying that the work failed because its strategies were too feminine” (Pink Guitar, 46–47). To reframe the argument in its baldest form: The Cantos started out as a female poem, became or aspired to become a male one, and finally collapsed in its own originary femaleness, reconceived not as formal potential but as detritus.[14]

If Pound helped invent modernism as the art of the fragment, nevertheless in DuPlessis’s reading his “use of fragment and parataxis became a totalitarian and mystical way of carrying out objectivist poetics (totalitarian — meaning totalizing and authoritative …).” As she continues, Pound “used the fragment to headline affirmative ideas he wished to promulgate,” since he “held he had already investigated and was declaring (establishing) permanent results” (Blue Studios, 189). This position is complicated by arguments such as Christine Froula’s discussion of the enhanced authority paradoxically gained by Pound’s occasional admission of error, and by Charles Bernstein’s insights into how the fractured nature of Pound’s formal choices at every point contradicts the aggressively self-confident rhetoric of his public statements on poetics (and everything else).[15] But the Poundian fragment becomes “totalitarian and mystical,” “authoritative,” in DuPlessis’s reading partly because it’s inadequately investigative, used by Pound under the sign of the luminous detail radiating its self-evident truth. In contrast to the tendency, by the mid–late-1930s, for “Pound’s poetry [to] settle into his own repeating codes,” because “certain values or discoveries are treated as settled,”[16] then, her own title, Drafts, signals “investigation without allegiance” (Blue Studios, 250). In a phrase that echoes through Drafts, one “Can choose to investigate” (Drafts 1–38, 188).

The Cantos begin in a tension between form and ambition, DuPlessis suggests: “If the cantos were to remain personal, quirky, situational, Pound would have to resolve the issue of authority and of claim he made immediately in those ‘pre-Cantos’” (Pink Guitar, 47). That is, he would have to find a way to embrace mess and contingency more consistently, as a method, and locate poetic authority there. Increasingly, however, “Pound was perplexed by, and resistant to, historical fluidity and its demands on praxis. He wanted things settled once and for all” (“Objectivist Poetics,” 134). Via DuPlessis’s own use of the fragment, Drafts counters the masculinist, anti-Semitic obsession with cleanliness, antisepsis, and historical fixity that marks Pound’s darkest years: “Drafts is pleased to be an unclean, female-penned poem filled with jots and tittles and thoroughly contaminated by traces of the Hebraic. Drafts is a poem filled with debris, rot, fragment, corners in which collages of trash collect” (Blue Studios, 250) — “the categories filth / refuse, shit, debris,”[17] Pound’s vision of Hell.

These issues of rhetorical authority that I’ve been circling around are inseparable, for DuPlessis, from the longstanding question of the reader’s relationship to the Cantos’ difficulty, a topic she has addressed at various points in her career. Faced with Poundian difficulty, DuPlessis argues, “the reader is slid to scholiast, to epigone, to apologist” (Pink Guitar, 47) — to student, we might say. In this critique, even while Pound thought he was encouraging scholarship, his most influential and original poetic moves were some of his most disempowering: “By radically decontextualizing sources and erasing syntax, [Pound] created a reader who was perpetually evacuated of ways of knowing and, by being perpetually baffled, was made ignorant” (Blue Studios, 249). The more positive perspective here would see Pound as writing a poem against mastery, except that he exempts himself as author: that is, The Cantos are written against everyone’s mastery but his own, though that eventually fails too. For DuPlessis, the relationship to the reader is embroiled in Pound’s authoritarian rhetoric, involving “the ruthless fantasy that interpretation, discussion, partial understanding, patient unfolding are all contemptible” (250). I think Pound allows for the possibility of the earnestly bumbling lay reader more often than DuPlessis suggests, that his view of reading and readers is less monolithic than she suggests (though certainly miscalculated or misguided much of the time) and that it changes in the course of his career.[18] More to the point here, however, is this question: what is one way for the contemporary writer of the complex serial poem to address the issue of difficulty? One answer: the use of endnotes, not as addendum but as an intrinsic rhetorical feature of the poem’s overall architecture.

DuPlessis has acknowledged Drafts as a bricolage of citations from the beginning, and that citationality is reinforced by the poem’s paratextual apparatus, its endnotes: a total of thirty-four single-spaced pages of notes to the ninety-five-poem sequence so far. “Draft 61: Pyx,” one of the most explicitly counter-Poundian drafts, contains this envoi:

Go, little lines,
singing in my sullen ear;
go, half-baked work
noting, and by the notes begin
a process of greeting.
Of gritting.
Without illusion.
Darkly, I listen. (Torques, 22)

While the imagery of noting and notes here refers to the method and music of Drafts, and to DuPlessis’s main technique for giving texture or “grit” to the work, it also has a third reference: that is, one function of the endnotes is to “begin / a process of greeting” the reader.

DuPlessis’s endnotes make explicit what is implicit in the Poundian project. As Jerome McGann writes,

A poem containing history, written in the twentieth century, means not simply “the tale of the tribe,” but the self-conscious presentation of such a tale. It is therefore a poem which will have already theoretically imagined a critical edition of itself. A twentieth-century poem containing history will have to invent and display, somehow, at least the equivalent of footnotes, bibliography, and other scholarly paraphernalia.[19]

This position accords with DuPlessis’s account of the long poem’s features in a 2008 essay: “often such a text reorganizes the library; it is a poem that deliberately, nobly, even maliciously absorbs and transposes Great Works of the past while adding its own reading list, including itself.”[20] In a note, she adds “not only a text that needs a library, indeed, it is a text that is a library — a text itself indebted to, synthetic of, and burrowing through a pile of archival and literary materials, often ones self-declared as vital.” Drafts is acutely aware of, and ambivalent about, the institutional context of its own production and reception:

So then it was DAWN,
Dawn over the PMLA
bibliography
articles, books, festschriften
shrive me! Father! (Torques, 21)

We know what the “Poundean mytho-informational model” demands of its readers. The “notational” mode of Drafts will not only operate via brief, contingent observations — notations or notes — but will also provide notes to its notes. The porous textual boundary of Drafts bleeds into paratext; radically incomplete, there is always something “next” to it. Endnotes can have a range of rhetorics and purposes, but in Drafts they suggest that authority does not reside solely within the text, that some kind of supplement is both necessary and appropriate. Indeed, a number of these notes foreground their own non-authoritativeness, or the writer’s own learning process: “it is from this article that I first learned about Mass Observation” (Drafts 1–38, 271). A combination of the precise and the casual, the notes resist consistent formatting: they include full citations, partial citations, relative non-citations or bare mentions. At one extreme of punctiliousness we find the following: “The last line is an almost-accurate citation from Bonnie Costello, ‘Planets on Tables: Still Life and War in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens.’ Modernism/Modernity 12.3 (Sept. 2005), 451” (Torques, 137). At the other end of the spectrum: “John Berger, on Picasso,” or “Among other sources, some undergraduate students saying particular things,” or “‘little i’ comes from somewhere I can’t now remember” (Drafts 1–38, 271, 276). We are invited not so much to investigate allusions or something “behind” the text, to pursue sources, as simply to note their existence. The trope of saying a line has a source without knowing what it is points to citationality as a fact of the text rather than actually explaining or locating the citation. On the whole, further investigation will not yield further information or insight. What’s at work, then, is not Poundian allusiveness, with DuPlessis playing Carroll Terrell to her own poem, but an ethics and aesthetics of acknowledgement and dependence on others.[21]

Sulfur

The board of Sulfur in 1988. First row: Jerry Rothenberg; Jed Rasula; Marjorie Perloff. Second row: Clayton Eshleman, editor; Caryl Eshleman; Charles Bernstein; Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Third row: James Clifford; Michael Palmer; Clark Coolidge; Eliot Weinberger; John Yau. Photo by Robert Turney.

Appropriately, if one of the endnotes’ functions is to construct a space of greeting between writer and reader, the notes occasionally offer directions on how to read. The note on “Draft 23: Findings” contains the following explanation of the poem’s procedural construction: “The reader might have already have surmised that each section of this poem both enacts an hour of the day and also refers or alludes to the prior Draft corresponding to its particular number” (Drafts 1–38, 274). The note to Draft 36 gives us that Draft as procedural self-citation: “Draft 36: Cento … is a ‘patchwork’ — a poem in which every line is cited, often from epics. This is a partial cento, built of 99 lines — and that, for its simple allusion to the wrong word, ‘cent,’ or one hundred. Here at least every third line is cited, ‘borrowed’ from my own long poem” (277).

I’ve depended a lot so far on DuPlessis’s own accounts of her project, not inappropriately in the case of this persistently self-descriptive, self-examining, self-questioning poem (“the poem is like a self-gloss mechanism,” as she puts it [“Interview,” 407]). But if, as DuPlessis writes, “I wanted to make an alternate Cantos, a counter-Cantos” (Blue Studios, 250), what does a specific counter-Canto look like? How does it engage with Pound? What I’ll pursue here is less a detailed reading, more what Pound might call a demonstration of method. “Draft 61: Pyx” is one of three poems in the sequence (the others are XXX and 57) in which “Drafts explicitly positions itself as not-Cantos” (278n9). At the same time, it includes numerous citations from the Canti postumi, Massimo Bacigalupo’s edition of outtakes and uncollected drafts of The Cantos.[22] That is, Drafts — or at least this draft — incorporates Pound’s drafts. It’s divided by boldface subheadings, often punning in their fracturing of language and bringing play into sites of Poundian authority and homosociality. The opening section, for instance, features a “lone” female speaker resisting an unspecified “tour [of] his office” led by an “old man” who “tapped his cane, surrounded / by other men / showing the faculty or facility / a faculty for what?” (Torques, 21) — a scene that seems somehow to splice Pound at the Ezuversity or St. Elizabeth’s, with his famous cane and attended by neophytes, with the young DuPlessis’s sense of marginalization in a male-dominated academy. The title of this introductory section? “INTRO DUCE,” but split in half to read as “intro duce” and invoke Mussolini.

The next section, “BEG IN,” returns to notes again, or more specifically to the idea of a “melodic germ,” a very un-Poundian splicing of music and infection just as the self-descriptive “dirty rumbled tune” (25) runs counter to the cleanly precisions of Poundian melopoeia. But DuPlessis acknowledges that “smelling ‘the stench of stale oranges’” (the phrase comes from Canto 14) involves “a touching quotidian / a domestic sensitivity / amid influx of beetles, / broken cloacas, / and meeds of merde” (Torques, 22), a counter-note within the satiric violence and vulgarity of the hell Cantos. DuPlessis uses an aural and typographical tweaking of a Poundian phrase to consider the curve of his career: “Was it hell rot or ‘he’ll rot?’” (22), suggesting the later rot of Pound’s mind and values. And yet in 1945 Pound was still capable of something approaching the fierce incredulity of the hell cantos in a way that speaks to the present: as cited in “Draft 61,” “my mind stretched to the bursting point / with this enormity / with the continuity of the gun-sales” (23).

While DuPlessis and Pound share that quintessential modernist method of making “evidence” and “findings” out of “clutter,” “pilings,” “clippings,” the passage in which DuPlessis lays out this commonality moves in a more Poundian direction in its invocation of the “moon afloat, / silvery eclipses cool down / in luminous cloud-shadow” (23). The seductive rhetoric of Poundian pastoral here invites the question of how to disidentify from the more problematic aspects of his poetics: “How to resist a world-system?” (23). The counter-challenge is “How to get a handle on it / How to keep the rage complex” (23, 25) — something that, one would have to say, Pound tended not to do in, for instance, the obsession with credit and conspiracy reflected in this outtake from the Cantos that DuPlessis quotes: “ledt hoo vill rhun de harmies, / if I can gontroll th gredit” (25). Again, however, it’s a dialectical Pound we have here, the phonetic spelling of the conspiracy theorist next to the vivid imagery of the World War I about which Pound continued to write for years: “greasy flame of dead gas flare // a thick air / and a stifled silence” (25).

DuPlessis talks back to Pound most explicitly as “the extra ‘r’” in his misspelled “Mt. Arrarat” (27). This Jewish woman imagines herself Othered as victims of the Holocaust were, through a process in which Pound actively participated. Thus, like all admirers of Pound, she has had to come to terms with his Fascist politics, and particularly his lack of political self-doubt. As her speaker asks incredulously, “and never halting? never faltering?” (28) This speaker imagines herself as she might be perceived from a hypothetical Poundian perspective, “you stupid nothing r,” “the little tiny Jew / poking a nose somewhere / to find something” (27). The Jew as nosey plague-carrying rodent: “contaminated by traces of the Hebraic” indeed. During World War II Pound wrote, in another outtake cited in Draft 61, “How is it, I said: that the ghosts are so gathered?” These ghosts are simultaneously the impetuous, impotent dead of Canto I, cited a few lines later, the characters populating Pound’s memory, and the dead of the Holocaust: Jerome Rothenberg’s dybukkim, soundless voices, “these Shadows [who] make antiphonal claims // as words that fail” (29) — for in Drafts, to write, to enter language, is to fail.[23] “The page [is] a cavernous echo chamber / of that” (30), capturing the shadows and silence of the dead in an echo chamber antiphonal to that echo chamber of the self from which Pound delivered his Rome broadcasts.

What remains powerful in Pound for DuPlessis? What she calls the “grief and intransigence” (Pink Guitar, 42) of the Pisan Cantos, for one thing. She observes that “over the course of writing a [multigeneric] long poem, one genre can grow in importance (… elegy for Pound in the Pisan Cantos)” (“Considering”), and indeed elegy — the poetics of memory and loss — is one crucial mode in Drafts. For another, “his political rage and despair, and his hyperstimulation, for he is literally overwhelmed, drowned in data, in the storm of history, in the floods of mud, water, in the dangerous pools of the early cantos” (Blue Studios, 247), Malatesta up to his neck in the swamp of Canto IX. For DuPlessis, this is one defining condition of her poetry: a response to “scale far beyond any humanist tempering … the universe, the earth, our history and politics, the sense of the past, and the more febrile sense of the future: in short, plethora, hyper-stimulation, an overwhelmedness to which one responds” (“Considering”), such that “the long poem is a work of mastery in which you submit to your own powerlessness” (Blue Studios, 240). Another explicit not-Canto, “Draft XXX: Fosse,” refers, in one of its many moments of self-description, to “a book of the unraveling voice / incapable and swamped / in the same time as the self” (Drafts 1–38, 188), and for DuPlessis it is that Pound who can still compel: the unraveling voice, incapable, swamped in time, “saturation / beyond catalogue” (20).

Author’s note: Thanks to Harry Gilonis, Tony Lopez, and David Moody for helpful questions and conversation.

 


 

1. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 246, 250, 278n9.

2. Ibid., 211.

3. Regarding “the endless poem,” DuPlessis’s use of the term “endless” in “Draft 76: Work Table with Scale Models” (Torques, Drafts 58–76 [Cambridge: Salt, 2007]) reminds us that her citational methods are far more openly and self-reflexively constructivist than Pound’s: appropriating the mail artist Ray Johnson on appropriation, she writes, “‘My works get made and then chopped up, and then reglued and remade, and then chopped up again, the whole thing is really endless’” (136) — reasserting, at a point of temporary closure, the end of the book, the open-ended nature of the work.

4. DuPlessis, Torques, 138.

5. See also DuPlessis’s remark that “Drafts was involved with Pound from its inception, but as a critical resistance to the impact of the work” (Blue Studios, 250). On one aspect of this resistance, “opposition to the dominance of the Pound-styled editor” (60) and his investment in (historical) cleansing and efficiency, see Joshua Schuster, “Jewish Counterfactualism in Recent American Poetry,” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 27, no. 3 (2009): 58–60. For a discussion of non-Poundian models of serial writing important to DuPlessis — those of Robert Duncan, George Oppen, Beverley Dahlen, and H. D., along with Kurt Schwitters’s collage practice — see Lynn Keller, Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 242–51. As Keller rightly points out, one key aspect of seriality as a compositional method for DuPlessis is that “its aspirations are more modest, more investigative, than the grandly didactic cultural projects of modernist epic” (242) — even as a moment like the citation of Duncan’s “Let this time have its canto” (Torques, 118) allows for a metonymic chain from Pound to Duncan to DuPlessis.

6. Jeanne Heuving, “An Interview with Rachel Blau DuPlessis,” Contemporary Literature 45, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 403.

7. Ibid., 404, my emphasis.

8. Ibid.

9. If the Cantos try to answer their opening “trenchant call across the fosse / to activate / something / is it prophecy? / is it instruction? / is it mourning?” Drafts, itself responding to that trenchancy, will “step across” the fosse in far more contingent fashion, “not as demanded in foundational commandment / … / but just in the course of things / casting oneself to the same winds.” Appropriately for a long poem that is always beginning again, this echo of epic’s inaugurating gesture appears on page 192 of the work’s first volume. (And hearing a pun on “trench,” with its associations of trench warfare, is perhaps not too far-fetched.) The “sludge-filled ditch / where futurists once lay” is indeed “modified from Filippo Marinetti, ‘Futurist Manifesto’” (Torques, 40, 138) in “Draft 64: Forward Slash,” but it is in apposition with the preceding (and opening) quatrain of the poem: “The poem is the fosse / in which to cower / hunching down / by warehouses of power” (40).

10. DuPlessis, Drafts 1–38, Toll (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 188.

11. Readers of Oppen and Zukofsky will recognize the allusions to Oppen’s celebration of “the small nouns” in “Praise” (New Collected Poems, 99) and “the little words that I like so much” (“Interview,” 162), to his sense that “that’s where the mysteries are, in the little words. ‘The’ and ‘and’ are the greatest mysteries of all” (“Poetry and Politics,” 38). Both Oppen and DuPlessis allude to Zukofsky’s statement that “a case can be made out for the poet giving some of his life to the use of the words the and a: both of which are weighted with as much epos and historical destiny as one man can perhaps resolve” (Prepositions +, 10). See George Oppen, New Collected Poems, edited by Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2002), 99; Oppen, interview by L. S. Dembo, Contemporary Literature 10, no. 2 (Spring 1969): 159–77; “Poetry and Politics: A Conversation with George and Mary Oppen,” by Burton Hatlen and Tom Mandel, in George Oppen: Man and Poet, edited by Burton Hatlen (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1981), 23–50; and Louis Zukofsky, Prepositions +: The Collected Critical Essays (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000).

12. DuPlessis, The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (1990; repr., Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 42.

13. Ezra Pound, The Cantos (London: Faber & Faber, 1975), 796.

14. Again without arguing for direct filiation, it seems fair to claim that Drafts is immanent in one aspect of the work of male modernist writers, including Pound, who were “drawn to the burble, the midden, sheer rhythm” (Pink Guitar, 62) — to écriture feminine, a revolutionary poetics that, as DuPlessis points out, did not extend to a rethinking of gender roles.

15. See Christine Froula, To Write Paradise: Style and Error in Pound’s Cantos (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), and Charles Bernstein, A Poetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 121–27. In raising a question about the authoritative / authoritarian in Pound, Bernstein unintentionally offers what can serve as a precise overview of the method of Drafts:

Is cultural megalomania a symptom of being overwhelmed by the incommensurable and intractable autonomy of fragments, that will not submit to a unitary measure, hierarchically predetermined, but which insist on making their own time and space, their own poem: never yielding to the totalizing of the autocratic arbitration of their place but allowing their own whole to come into being, not Coherence on the Pound standard, but a coherence of the displaced — disseminated and desecrated — making a home where it is to be found, where it occurs? (122)

Drafts is more self-conflicted (though not consistently so) than DuPlessis’s prose commentaries in its treatment of Pound.

16. DuPlessis, “Objectivist Poetics and Political Vision: A Study of Oppen and Pound,” in George Oppen: Man and Poet, edited by Burton Hatlen (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1981), 130.

17. DuPlessis, Drafts 39–57, Pledge, with Draft, Unnumbered: Précis (Cambridge: Salt, 2004), 153.

18. I offer a more developed discussion of Pound’s relationship to questions of knowledge, difficulty, readership, and reading in “From Pound to Olson: The Avant-Gardist as Pedagogue,” Journal of Modern Literature 34, no. 1 (Fall 2010): 86–106.

19. Jerome McGann, The Textual Condition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 129.

20. DuPlessis, “Considering the Long Poem: Genre Problems,” Readings: Responses and Reactions to Poetries 4 (October 2009).

21. I am referring to Carroll F. Terrell, A Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound, 2 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980, 1984), still the definitive reference text for Pound’s sources in the Cantos.

22. Ezra Pound, Canti postumi, ed. Massimo Bacigalupo (Milan: Mondadori, 2002).

23. For the reference to dybukkim, see Rothenberg’s poem “Dibbukim (Dibbiks),” in Khurbn and Other Poems (New York: New Directions, 1989), 13–14.

'Drafts' and the epic moment

Rachel Blau DuPlessis's “Drafts 1–38, Toll” (2001); DuPlessis reads Kelly Writer
Rachel Blau DuPlessis's “Drafts 1–38, Toll” (2001); DuPlessis reads at Kelly Writers House, Philadelphia, March 3, 2011.

This is a rewriting of my talk at the Temple symposium on Rachel DuPlessis’s career and writing.[1] Though my announced title, “The Mothers of Us All, and Their Fathers: Drafts and the Epic Tradition,” pointed toward Stein, that was just a placeholder I’d provided months before. Stein is a plausible figure to bring to bear on Drafts: hers is the first proper name to appear in the poem,[2] and no modernist is more specifically anti-patriarchal. Think of “Patriarchal Poetry” or the diatribe against fathers in Everybody’s Autobiography (“Fathers are depressing … father Hitler and father Roosevelt and father Stalin …”), not to mention her final play that my placeholding title quoted, “The Mother of Us All” with its satire on Daniel Webster and John Adams.[3] But Stein is not a major presence in Drafts; and in the event of the talk itself I spoke nary a word on her, instead focusing on the moment of conversation between Rachel[4] and myself when she first confirmed that the poems she was publishing marked the beginning of a Poundian/counter-Poundian project.

For Rachel to have announced that choice makes it a charged moment. Stein would have provided many pleasurably instructive paths, but with Pound the issues are inescapably grave. With Stein one could have reinhabited attractive scenes of writing, say, the long summer where Alice continually drove a cow or two into the view while Stein continually penned Lucy Church Amiably, but with Pound the pleasures, if one wants to call them that, have proven historically prohibitive; and instructive? Not so much. Nevertheless, the power of his poetics remains a compellingly interesting force.

Before the talk I emailed Rachel to check my memory-image:

“Do you remember when I asked you if with Drafts you were going for 100? And, as I remember, you said yes, as if you had decided at that moment? Do you remember that? Is my memory at all accurate? Where were we? Who else was there? Ron? Gil Ott?”

She answered:

“I sure do remember! it was (I am sure) after an Ann Lauterbach reading at Temple … I do believe it was 1993, maybe around November. I have written about that moment in Blue Studios … We were having the readings at 1515 Walnut then (which was then the TUCC space), and it was not the world’s loveliest room. I remember it filled with a blue light from florescent bulbs though this hardly differentiates it from the 222 room, in the Market Street building, except the room at 1515 was smaller. If it was 1993, this is before Jena (I think), so maybe Susan S. was around, maybe Gil …

Here is the passage from Blue Studios:

Somewhere during the exfoliation of Drafts, I think in around 1993, but possibly just after The Trouble with Genius appeared in 1994, Bob Perelman asked, not quite casually, ‘how many of them there would be.’ I hadn’t considered the question consciously, but unconsciously I was ready. So I answered, ‘100, like Pound’s Cantos.’ We both sort of gasped. I am grateful that he asked, because his question … catapulted me into facing my actual ambition. It was the first time I had said the number aloud. Been allowed to say that number. What are the implications of that revealing remark? What stopped it (or maybe not!) from being just sheer bravado, the work of the blurter in me, a stagy, confrontative claim to which I had no claim to which I had no right? Well, to say this project was involved with and against Pound from the start is almost tautological.[5]

My memory, having been jogged by these messages, nevertheless replayed a slightly different version of that moment: I hear myself ask if calling it Drafts means there will be 100 — i.e., are you taking on The Cantos? — to which I hear Rachel answer, Yes, in some sort of wary, confident mix of tone.

I now find the situation of our memories vying to claim the initial public utterance of the names of Pound and The Cantos to be a vaguely Jamesian vignette. But the much more important actor in this moment is of course, Pound. And the real moment of interest is not this snippet of conversation, however inflected, but the emergence of Drafts.

That moment is not yet complete, but when it is, it will of course mark a major fact in anglophone poetic history. One of its entailments will be to effect a reversal of Pound’s power of literary naming. Or, to put it differently, to un-name the Pound era. Near the beginning of the last century, in a tea shop across from the British Museum, Pound named Hilda Doolittle H.D. Imagiste.[6] Near the beginning of this, DuPlessis writes a long poem entitled Drafts that, ultimately, reclaims from Pound that word and gesture, and brings the long poem back into the arena of social, political, and poetic argument.

*

Pound the person was, as he faced the challenge of the long poem, much more anxious than DuPlessis. His “Ur-Cantos” are a well-known expression of this anxiety. A lesser-known instance, from Gaudier-Brzeska, is instructive:

NOTE

I am often asked whether there can be a long imagiste or vorticist poem. The Japanese, who evolved the hokku, evolved also the Noh plays. In the best “Noh” the whole play may consist of one image. I mean it is gathered around one image, enforced by movement and music. I see nothing against a long vorticist poem.

On the other hand, no artist can possibly get a vortex into every poem or picture he does. One would like to do so, but it is beyond one. Certain things seem to demand metrical expression, or expression in a rhythm more agitated than the rhythms acceptable to prose, and these subjects, though they do not contain a vortex, may have some interest, an interest as “criticism of life” or of art. It is natural to express these things, and a vorticist or imagiste writer may be justified in presenting a certain amount of work which is not vorticism or imagisme, just as he might be justified in printing a purely didactic prose article. Unfinished sketches and drawings have a similar interest; they are trials and attempts toward a vortex.[7]

If they precede accomplishments, such anxieties are interesting. (Pound can’t decide whether he will be writing a long poem or a single, all-intensive moment.) But actual beginnings — extant moments — are more interesting than their attendant anxieties. Here is the beginning of Drafts:

The moment is a fraught arena for any poetics. It is always changing and never convenient for the longevity of any of the conjectures of poeticians, and it is where any poetic fact must continually exist.

As Ron Silliman insists in The Alphabet, “The point at which you read each word (the / only point there is), two minds share a larger whole.”

However, if we fetishize the moment (which Silliman doesn’t do) we get Poe’s insistence: “I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, ‘a long poem,’ is simply a flat contradiction in terms.” The poetic measure for Poe is a dilated peak of individual excitement: “I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient.” Thanks to DuPlessis’s work, it now clearly the case that the elevated soul for Poe is gesticulating toward is gendered male, a sad fact of history whose final truth is as follows: that “the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world” (an idea DuPlessis characterizes as “rancid” [Blue Studios, 220]).

Here, even more than Pound, was the gist of the problem. To write Drafts entailed continual struggle: not to be the beautiful object, eternally momentary, i.e., dead.

But if we cannot fetishize the moment we must nevertheless continually face it, which DuPlessis does to attending to each mark, line, syllable in both its fragmented being and via repetition, torqueing, connecting to others making it a poetic fact that is both a matter of a given moment and of a world of long range efforts and effects. The complexity of those multiple trajectories is what gives any momentary feature or gesture its scintillation.

DuPlessis is one of the most efficacious poet-critics of our time. She writes from “Haibun”: “Speaking as a scholar, it’s not so much the belatedly understood influence of H.D. on me but (don’t get me wrong) my influence on H.D. This peculiar position is true of several other feminist critics who wrote on H.D. very early … notably Susan Stanford Friedman, Adelaide Morris, and Alicia Ostriker … We were inventing an H.D. We influenced her work — how it was read, what parts of it were read, why it was interesting. We made it matter for this generation” (Blue Studios, 226). But this example can be extended. DuPlessis has profoundly changed the field of twentieth-/twenty-first-century writing. Her readings have been a fundamental challenge to the prior regime of professed disinterestedness since she writes as a committed feminist. Her criticism is profoundly interesting precisely because of this breach of decorum. Her readings of H.D., of Loy, of Williams, of Creeley, et al. are refreshingly accurate while remaining wide-focused, not in spite of, but because of the ubiquity of gender. It’s as if DuPlessis were reminding us of one of the (social) senses, one that had been systematically crimped.

It’s seems a routine enough assumption that the hyphen in poet-critic means that the person so designated is engaged in some cooperative amalgam of poetry and criticism. And certainly DuPlessis’s criticism is one with the poet’s syllabic zest, otherwise I don’t think we’ve have a piece like “‘HOO HOO HOO’: some episodes in the construction of male whiteness,”[8] where DuPlessis deftly links Lindsay, Stevens, and Eliot all hoo-ing their adventurous forays into the dark. Her term for historically perspicacious close reading, “social philology,” allows her to articulate history in the syllable.

But in a basic way the clarities resultant from DuPlessis’s criticism trouble the poet-critic hyphen. Her criticism shows that she knows, in the greatest detail, just how improper it is for a poet such as she to be writing a long poem, how contra naturam (to use the Poundian fulmination) it is for her to systematically avow scale. Which brings us back to Drafts and Rachel’s announcement of its genre.

It’s not historically accurate to read Bunting into that opening moment of Drafts. But his “On the Fly-Leaf on Pound’s Cantos” seems, if counter-historical juxtapositions be allowed, to comment aptly on the constructive DuPlessis makes out of those Ns.

ON THE FLY-LEAF ON POUND’S CANTOS

There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?
They don’t make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb,
jumbled boulder and weed, pasture and boulder, scree,
et l’on entend, maybe, le refrain joyeux et leger.
Who knows what the ice will have scraped on the rock it is smoothing?

There they are, you will have to go a long way round
if you want to avoid them.
It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps,
fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble![9]

I doubt if I knew this poem very well then — I certainly hadn’t thought about it — and I don’t know that Rachel did. Nevertheless, while it can be construed, from one angle, as a wonderfully generous description of The Cantos, from another, in the description of Pound’s writing as glacial, millennial in its semantics, one can make out the warning signs: Danger! Sublime Ahead! Empathizers, Collectivists, and, especially, Women, Keep Back! This sublime expanse was especially chilly for one such as DuPlessis. If readers of Pound’s epic were fools before the Alps, think how much more foolish, untoward, improper it would be for a woman to actually appear on these Poundian slopes, in work clothes, not waiting for glaciers to carve the meaning into the rock, but carrying her own tools. Quite a breach of modernist epic decorum. Woman, as DuPlessis has made quite clear, was a depersonalized myth for Pound: his “forms of modern maleness … depend, as subject positions, on proposing and maintaining a dehistoricized, despecified female figure (Blue Studios, 124).

One of the most positively unPoundian tools in her toolkit was the notion of “subject position.”

In “Draft 20: Incipit,” she comments:

The beginning was, as these things go,
negation. But
’twas also setting forth of signs to read or tell.
Moonlit refraction by a strange heap
counted on base “N” and on base “Y.”
Yes and no. Both and and. (Toll, 131)

Earlier I said that DuPlessis was truly efficacious. She is changing the conditions in which she is writing. One change is that Pound, while one can read traces of him throughout Drafts, is less and less a shaping force on the writing as the poem accumulates. Not working out of the Poundian subject-position — this is a great gift. DuPlessis’s incessant inventiveness, her interest in inventing via number, her commitment to a poetic and critical commons — these are profoundly beyond Pound. Or, more generously, say that DuPlessis’s work is modifying Pound’s still-exciting obsession that poetry mean something and do something in the world we live in.

 


 

1. “A Celebration of the Poetry and Criticism of Rachel Blau DuPlessis,” Temple University, October 21, 2011.

2. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Drafts 1–38, Toll (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 4.

3. Gertrude Stein, “Patriarchal Poetry,” in Gertrude Stein: 1903–32 (New York: Library of America, 1998); Everybody’s Autobiography (Cambridge: Exact Change, 2003), 136–37; The Mother of Us All (New York: Vintage, 1975).

4. My convention here is to refer to the person I know as “Rachel” and the public poet as “DuPlessis.”

5. DuPlessis, Blue Studios (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 246.

6. H.D., An End to Torment (New York: New Directions, 1979), 18.

7. Ezra Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (New York: New Directions, 1970), 94.

8. In DuPlessis, Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in American Poetry, 1908–1934 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 81–105.

9. Basil Bunting, “On the Fly-Leaf of Pound’s Cantos.