The history of the longpoem and 'The Collage Poems of Drafts'
I first encountered Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts when the first two sections appeared in Leland Hickman’s journal Temblor 5, an issue in which I had an essay on the evolution of the sentence in George Oppen’s poetry. I had known DuPlessis’s work at that point for maybe ten years and had met her on several occasions. In 1984, Rae Armantrout & I had traveled down from New York City to read at Temple at Rachel’s behest. Rachel had had a poem, “Afterimage,” a piece I now read as an anticipation of Drafts, in Temblor 4. And soon I started to find other numbers turn up in small press journals. I still have a rather crumpled issue of Abacus 44 from August 1989, a photocopied newsletter that devoted its entire issue to “Draft #8: The and Draft #9: Page.” Two years after that, Peter Ganick, who edited Abacus, brought out the first separate volume, entitled Drafts, from his Potes & Poets Press.
If I had paid closer attention at that point, I would have noted that the book’s title page actually uses another name: Drafts 3–14, although neither the table of contents nor the titles of individual poems themselves show numbers, save for “X: Letters,” Rachel’s first use of the alphabet form, albeit in the mode of the typewriter (and now computer) QWERTY keyboard. If I had paid even closer attention, I would have noted that the poems were numbered in the volume’s end notes and that the cover of this edition is a small collage by DuPlessis herself (see below), composed for the most part of torn scraps of paper with words — DATE, IM, PLACE read three in the same font titled sideways, JOURN reads another likewise tilted, plus along the top just enough of the upper portion of letters to make out Inside Message in very small type, and along the left at the bottom, not far from an upside down handwritten R, the droll line: Words inside are printed in black. DuPlessis’s engagement with words as visual markers as well as semantic ones dates back to the very beginning. If I’d thought to look back to find the missing first two Drafts, I might have noted the handwritten Ns & Ys. As it is, the Potes & Poets Drafts starts with “Of,” whose first seven stanzas are bracketed together by a line down the left margin that is marked, sideways & to the left of the margin, CUT.
Cover of Drafts, 1991.
But, as I said, I didn’t notice most of these things. What I did see was the inescapable fact that Rachel Blau DuPlessis had begun a longpoem.
The longpoem is the apotheosis of the modernist literary project. Modernism’s long march through the genres saw its aesthetic perspective demonstrate the impossibility of normative fiction in the work of such various practitioners as Joyce, Beckett, & Stein, and to tear down the fourth wall of drama in Brecht so as to mount a theatre of dreamscape in Beckett, leaving both forms to carry on (Call that going? Call that on?) only insofar as their practitioners were prepared to concede the underlying debasement of the project — why, in fact, so-called genre fiction has fared so much better than its literary cousin over the past several decades.
The longpoem presumes anything but the debasement of poetry. Or at least of the poetic principle. While the epic poetical project has antecedents as far back as the Odyssey or the epic of Gilgamesh, and as recent as the writing of Blake, Whitman or Bob Browning, the form as we know it today coalesces with the composition of Pound’s Cantos, “the Alps” as Basil Bunting once characterized the project. Pound’s “great ball of crystal” proved the template against which such iconic works as William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, Louis Zukofsky’s “A,” Charles Olson’s Maximus & Robert Duncan’s Passages all measured themselves. Whenever other longish projects of the modernist period have been brought into the discussion — I’m thinking here for example of H.D.’s Trilogy, though The Anathemata by David Jones might also make my point — The Cantos invariably has never been far from the surface of conversation.
The modernist longpoem thus can be viewed in some pretty specific formal terms — it extends one of the three great poetic innovations of the nineteenth century (free verse, dramatic monologue, the prose poem) by giving free verse something big to do, usually — and Pound’s influence here is palpable — by extending strategies of line & stanza that embody the visual impact of the typewriter onto the language of the poem. Plus it generally invokes history as its discursive horizon. This is not necessarily all that the longpoem can do — Zukofsky invokes the domestic, particularly once his son Paul is born in 1943, fifteen years after the start of “A.”
Zukofsky also, and this is crucial, recasts the part:whole relationship between individual sections and the overall arc of the project itself, shifting away from the in media res surface quality favored by Pound (or for that matter Joyce in Finnegans Wake), traceable all the way back to Horace’s definition, circa 13 BC, of the ideal epic poet. I used to read this evolution as a break, beginning with “A”-7, especially given the degree to which “A”-1–6 can be read as a single aesthetic & thematic sweep, one that is notably punctuated with Zukofsky’s publication of “A”-7 (“Horses: who will do it?”) as his contribution to the 1931 Objectivist issue of Poetry that he himself edited. I think now that this reading is too simplistic & has as much to do with how I first consumed “A”-1–6 deeply, as the core content of an independent study course I had with Robert Grenier in Berkeley around 1970. Today, I see this rupture between what I might term early & late Zukofsky (or perhaps modern & postmodern LZ) not all at once but over a period of twenty-one years during which Zukofsky’s production wasn’t so much Barely & Widely as it was fits & starts that left him having completed the first dozen passages before setting the project aside for another decade. He picked it up again in 1960, producing nine sections in eight years, adding some 246 pages to the 261 that had taken him twenty-three years earlier on. In these sections, the individual section is quite distinct from any overall surface, the transition is largely complete even if the poem was not. In 1967, Zukofsky set it down again for another three years before picking it up & adding what I still think of as the twin towers of twentieth-century verse, “A”-22 & -23. These passages were composed, it is worth noting, after Celia Zukofsky contributed her arrangement of “A”-24.
“A” is a useful counterpoint to any consideration of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts, not merely because it’s a text I can presume many of the people in this room will have read, or because Zukofsky & DuPlessis share a roughly parallel sense of the longpoem as embodying a (broadly defined) progressive political view of American history, or because they each had a charged, even essential relationship to the poet George Oppen, though in fact all of these are true statements, but rather because Zukofsky at least partly is aware of the degree to which he and his project manifest the crisis of the longpoem that is at the heart of its composition, a consciousness that DuPlessis likewise displays, nowhere better than in the collage poems of Drafts.
Triangulate, for a minute, Olson’s Maximus Poems. Maximus certainly demonstrates the degree to which the Poundian template is the legitimating kernel for the American longpoem. Its great innovation is Maximus himself, with John Berryman’s Henry in Dream Songs or old Prufrock & Mauberly in their eponymous poems at the dawn of modernism, one of a small set of instances of dramatic monologue in the twentieth century that go beyond what is already at least implicit, say, in Browning. Maximus is also the first of the longpoems to attempt to proceed without anything like a firm numbering system. Like The Cantos, however, it’s a text that starts strong & ends wispy, unraveling as it goes, dissolving into palimpsests, ending, as someone once predicted, not with a bang but a whimper.
While I’m not unsympathetic to readings of these works that externalize their struggles with completion, turning them into philosophic life challenges, how possibly to get the Splenda to cohere, it’s irresponsible not to recognize that both Pound & Olson were personally compromised by health challenges, one with mental illness, the other with an addiction to alcohol, that left each without the resources necessary to hold the great ball of crystal high.
Zukofsky, on the other hand, who is never taken seriously by Olson, who is treated condescendingly (at best) by Pound, accomplishes what they cannot. He lives to see “A” complete, and in fact the first published edition of the work as a whole appears in 1978, the year he dies. By then, Zukofsky had already moved on, completing the subsequent 80 Flowers, sketching out further projects, such as 90 Trees & the presumed 101 Dalmatians.
Fits & starts, then, proves capable of achieving what slow & steady did not, at least when leavened with paranoid schizophrenia, as in Pound’s case, or by the quest to see just how much booze it takes to poison a 6’8” frame in Olson’s. Zukofsky may have had his quirks, a germophobe who nonetheless smoked steadily. It would be easy — too easy in fact — to read into either of these contradictory details about LZ a proclivity toward obsessive behavior, since what does not seem in any way obsessive is constructing a longpoem over a forty-six-year period that includes, in five significant chunks, 1931 through 1934, 1941 through 1947, 1952 through 1959, 1961 through 1962, & 1968 & ’69, nineteen years in which Zukofsky — at least if one believes his own annotations — did not work on the project. Put another way, Zukofsky spent over forty-five percent of the forty-six years composing “A” functionally idle, at least with regard to this project.
The table below offers a crude sketch of the timeline of production for “A.”
Pages per year in the production of “A” by Louis & Celia Zukofsky.
I’m not particularly a size queen — I think it’s conceivable to write a longpoem that is no longer than a sonnet, given the right conditions — and my own experience with The Alphabet was hardly without its own ups & downs. Not writing at times can prove every bit as productive as writing. But presented graphically as an activity, the question that comes immediately to mind is what makes us think that “A” is a poem, at least in the sense of being a continuous integrated work of textual art? It’s at this point that readers could be expected to invoke formal & thematic elements — the phrase “a poem containing a life” can’t be that far from hand — all the way down to the handy rubric of so many creative writing classes: because he says it is.
I’m perfectly content to accept all of the above, even if I note, thematically thinking, that the Stalinist aesthete of “A”-1–6 is a far cry from the liberal Democrat mourning the assassination of JFK in the poem’s final sections, let alone the obsessively proud papa of all the later preening over Paul’s work with the violin.
It’s right about this point that other longpoems, at least within the Poundian tradition, tend to run aground.
Paterson was completed, but then Williams picked it up again, only to sputter out post-stroke.
Paul Blackburn thought to call his endless project Journals, and it unquestionably contains much of his most mature writing, but then he died too soon in September 1971 to know if he would have handled the challenges he was posing himself with such an anti-aesthetic title, or even if he saw it as a single poetic work, rather than as a series of sketches that might later be “finished” into poems.
Robert Duncan merged Passages into the ongoing suite of books that started with The Opening of the Field, although Passages itself didn’t begin until the second volume, Roots and Branches.
When, in a 1974 issue of Maps devoted to Duncan, I noted that neither Passages nor The Structures of Rime, Duncan’s prose poem sequence that has started with the first volume, had ever had books of their own, Duncan penned in the margin of a copy of my piece that “Structures and Passages belong to the books in which they appear!” I wasn’t suggesting that they didn’t, but Duncan’s resistance to separating either out as a distinct text raises in its own fashion the same issue posed by the long blanks in Zukofsky’s timeline. What makes us think that this is a poem? Passages 20 after all is also titled Structure of Rime XXVI. Zukofsky at least offers a clear divide between “A” and the relative snippets of his short poems, the notable exception being “A”-16, which is only four words long, configured into two two-word stanzas or lines half a page apart.
Duncan takes a different tact, consciously blurring borders, continuing both of his sequences into his fifteen-year hiatus from publication, numbering each series up until the moment when both are interrupted by three shorter suites: “The Moly Suite” for Thom Gunn, “Seventeenth Century Suite,” and “Dante Études.” Even though Duncan returns to both sequences in his final book, Ground Work II: In the Dark, he abandons numbering altogether, clustering ten of the twelve Passages identified in that book into a sequence entitled Regulators, followed immediately by The Structure of Rime: Of the Five Songs. I read this to mean that the introduction to the songs is a part of Rime, tho not necessarily any of the “songs” that follow. These in turn are followed by one final unnumbered Passages.
If we look at “A,” if we look at Passages, the question of what constitutes a longpoem, particularly in terms of its boundaries, all but hits us over the head. What makes “A” one poem instead of, say, six — especially once Zukofsky decided to move away from the continuous allover surface of the Poundian project as such — is precisely because Zukofsky says it is, and his saying so sets Occam’s razor to cut in a particular direction. With the possible exception of the open wound that is “A”-24, about which, as previously noted, more anon, the complaints one hears of “A,” hermeticism &/or difficulty, are not of the same order as “it fails to cohere.” In Duncan’s case, one might argue quite the opposite: it refuses to cohere. Or, more to the point (& one element that Duncan’s woven work has in common with DuPlessis’s two collage sequences), one would better phrase it thus: it refuses to obey.
The lyric, to accentuate the contrast, is the poem with boundaries. We know going in that we’re in for forteen lines, for seventeen syllables, whatever it might be. You can see to the end of the poem the instant you turn the page. There is a limit to the amount of mischief one can get into in such circumstances, and a lot of the most exciting work in the short form over the past century & one-half, from Dickinson to Spicer, Armantrout & Grenier, to Bernadette Mayer & Lee Ann Brown, has been one of seeing just how far one might up the ante on that.
If at its core the lyric is the poem as object, not simply the well-wrought urn but one best suited to an end table or mantelpiece, the longpoem is everything the lyric is not — or at least so it at first appears. The problem of the longpoem is precisely one of finding/defining its boundaries. Where is the end of the continent, the ocean, of space or time? You can see why the longpoem is so attractive, say, to someone like Olson. It’s an ideal form for thinking through questions of the frontier. These are, not coincidentally, also cosmological questions: where does the universe end? What stops it? What lies beyond? How do we reach past all that is the case?
It is the challenge presented by all these questions that I believe is the inherent attraction of the longpoem. These issues are what separate, so to speak, the makers from the fakers here. This, for instance, is how the longpoem differentiates itself from the extended lyric, say Berryman’s Dream Songs. If the longpoem were architecture, it might represent an attempt to construct a building taller than any in Doha or Kuala Lumpur, albeit perhaps one that owed as much to the aesthetics of Antoni Gaudi or the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia. The extended lyric, in contrast, is Levittown, or Chesterbrook, or Columbia, Maryland, that potentially infinite suburb with a minimal number of floor plans ready for occupancy now. There is a song by my old neighbor Malvina Reynolds that captures the spirit of the lyric perfectly. It’s titled Little Boxes.
My image of skyscrapers in that last paragraph can and should be read as phallic. If The Cantos are “the Alps,” the contemporary longpoem has long since moved on to the Himalayas. This means almost by definition that the longpoem has largely been a male, if not overtly masculinist form. Of the writers working in the form prior to 1980, the one woman usually mentioned is Hilda Doolittle, who has the unique pedigree of having, at least for one important moment in her career, Ezra Pound as sponsor & promoter. Trilogy, however, is a work of less than 180 pages & three years’ labor. It is no more a longpoem than Briggflatts, a poem that may have taken Basil Bunting a long time to get to, but not to write. In both cases, these are important works that should be read in terms of their specifics, not to bolster a category that might be stronger if they were somehow gerrymandered in.
None of the straight male poets identified here with the first two generations of the longpoem have good feminist records vis-à-vis their relations with women, from Floss to Frances Boldereff. Not that the practitioners of lyric delight did much — or even any — better. But this lines up quite predictably with the idea of the longpoem as a quest. Which is why, looking at the poets of my own generation, it is so intriguing to see that three of the most important longpoems of my era are Beverly Dahlen’s A Reading, Anne Waldman’s The Iovis Trilogy and Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts.
DuPlessis’s debt to the Poundian template is no secret. Her title Drafts, which comes from the first volume of The Cantos, insists on the comparison. Her use of subtitles or title variations for each of the volumes after the first —
Drafts 15–XXX, The Fold
Drafts 1–38, Toll
Drafts 39–57, Pledge, with Draft, Unnumbered: Précis
Torques / Drafts 58–76
Pitch: Drafts 77–95
(tentatively) Surge: Drafts 96–114
— invoke Pound’s own use of variations: The Pisan Cantos; Section: Rock-Drill; Thrones. When we consider just how radically the values that DuPlessis promotes in her writing — and her life — differ from those of Pound, the foregrounding of this comparison, much more openly than we find in either Waldman or Dahlen, is worth noting. Waldman is nonetheless quite assertive in her own framing of Iovis and one might — especially if one were a compulsive categorizer — line up longpoems by those who do make aggressive claims — DuPlessis & Waldman as well as Olson & Pound — versus those who deliberately downplay this — Dahlen & Blackburn — versus those who toy with having it both ways — Duncan’s Passages, Ronald Johnson’s ARK, perhaps even Zukofsky’s “A.” DuPlessis’s own description of Anne Waldman might, with a little tweaking for influences, well apply to DuPlessis herself:
Anne Waldman’s work in poetry exists at the intersection of activist passion, gender critique and wariness, and long poem ambitions. She is at root inspired by an Olsonic ambition to speak the whole social fabric as an incantatory, analytic cantor in shamanic voice. She is someone who can inhabit her own culture and play among a multiple of global sites with Blakean transformative lust. She calls us to account whenever she takes the witness stand … 
But if the successful completion of the longpoem is, in essence, the literary equivalent of scaling Everest, the evidence of Pound, Olson & Duncan, just for starters, suggests that the experience is more often quite like that grimmer side of Himalayan mountaineering, the 200-plus adventurers whose frozen corpses litter Everest’s slopes.
I know that all of this rests on a series of presumptions, and that these presumptions can be rethought, modified, challenged. Bob Perelman, in The Trouble with Genius, argues that
SPLENDOUR and COHERENCE are, of course, important in Pound’s work as expressions of his desire to produce (total)itarian illumination.
In fact, this is an argument — and I read Drafts as an argument — for just such challenges. But I also think that these presumptions are inscribed — etched — within the Poundian template and that it is the Poundian template & all that it implies that is at issue. The poem containing history, containing a life, proposing itself as prepared to take on, to incorporate whatever the world sends its way, invariably breaks down along that very frontier. It is fascinating to think of what enters into the poem, not as new information, but rather as contamination — what is it about each of these poems that when something enters in that is in any way unanticipated, it sends them careening out of control, acting as an entropy principle for Olson or Pound, causing great gaps in “A” not to mention that most lurid — because most capricious & arbitrary — of conclusions, “A”-24.
Let’s consider “A”-24. I’m sure that Bob Perelman, who has organized and participated in performances of this aural collage, could describe it with much greater precision than I’m about to here. It was, to go by the timeline as given by LZ, cobbled together by Celia after her husband completed work on Rudens, itself a suspicious interloper into the scheme of “A,” the lone section penned by Louis after 14 that does not begin with — function as a part of — An, the latter movement of “A.” Zukofsky’s translation of Plautus’s play either was or was not a part of “A,” but at least it was composed at the end of Zukofsky’s four-year burst of activity in the mid-1960s.
“A”-24 was presented to Zukofsky as L.Z. Masque & incorporates five parallel lines that blend, awkwardly at best, into a choral montage, spoken & never sung, of Zukofsky’s own writing over a backdrop of Handel’s harpsichord pieces. Only one of four lines of text comes from “A,” the others derived from his critical writing, drama & fiction. It is Zukofsky himself who decides to position the masque as “A”-24, & then to fill in the gaps with “A”-22 & 23, both of which adhere to the convention of An, each beginning with that preposition.
But imagine for a moment what “A” would be without that “magic” Homeric requirement of the number twenty-four. If Rudens, the twin towers & L.Z. Masque are separate projects, then “A” as a poem is a very different work of art. It is, for one thing, more completely a poem, less battered & invaded by the drama of Plautus or Handel’s harpsichord. It’s quieter, ultimately, ending on the brief response to a performance by Paul at twenty. Musically this all works quite well, and musically is exactly what motivated Zukofsky to put that section of An, written in 1963, in the twentieth position before going on to compose “A”-14, 15, 18, or 19.
Once one begins down this road, any number of options becomes possible, even plausible. Imagine, for example, the poem created if L.Z. Masque is dropped, 80 Flowers is inserted as “A”-22 & the twin towers are each pushed back one position. Again, a much more unified overall experience. But — not unlike Robert Duncan furiously taking exception to my suggestions for Passages & The Structure of Rime — not what Zukofsky was seeking.
There is a distinction here to be drawn between that which is outside the initial purview of the work that can be incorporated easily into it. Rudens is a conceivable example, although it might also be an instance of the second type of invasion into the work, which L.Z. Masque most definitely represents, that which enters in without anticipation. Pound in The Cantos sought to bring in material from outside, from beyond the normal range of the typically poetic, first with economics and with other languages, especially Chinese ideograms. What he did not anticipate was that the archetypal poet of the typewriter would be thrown into a wire cage in the mud at Pisa & forced to write by hand literally on toilet paper. Yet The Pisan Cantos are the best thing he ever wrote.
The Russian Formalists were the first to note that literature — indeed, art in general — had an element of imperialism to it: it seeks always to expand what might be possible to include, that the work of art be better able to engage the world as we find it. But for writers of the longpoem, this divides into two or three separate categories:
The world as we found it, as we began writing
The world as we invited it in, incorporating new materials
The world as it forced itself upon us
The longer the longpoem, as time congealed labor, the greater the opportunity for all three categories of materials to enter in.
It is here that I think we can begin reading “Draft 94: Mail Art” and its companion, “Draft CX: Primer.” DuPlessis not only invokes Pound in her poem’s title, she makes it inescapably clear at the outset that she is willing to put herself up against all comparisons. “Draft 1: It” begins with two single capital letters, each punctuated by a period so that they might be read as abbreviations or as sentences. That each is “N” echoes, maybe even puns the Zukofskian An. This is followed immediately by a pair of hand-drawn capital Ns, interlocked, one larger than the other, giving an effect of a mountain range (the Alps?). This in turn is followed by a section divider, a pair of equal signs, which may or may not be a wink in the direction of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine & my own cohort of writers. You might also, if you were inclined as I, see in that first peak of the larger N an echo there of an A, not just a further hint of the Zukofskian An, but of the idea of an Alpha Bet, the Roman written character as a medium for poetry perhaps not as divorced from the natural world as we might imagine.
The graphic — which is to say the written, the printed, the scrawled — is a persistent theme in Drafts. Each of the first eight Drafts is in some way altered or invaded by this “extra-linguistic” information, such as we’ve just seen:
Draft 2, She: words typed in pairs or threes not quite on top of one another. Often the words alter one another just enough for us to hear them as alternate readings: stains/stairs, rise/rinse, better/bitter. The section dividers in 2 are a pair of carets — ^^ — with a period between them one line lower, not quite a Kilroy-was-here echo of a face.
Draft 3, Of: As noted above, the long bracket along the left margin with the sideways all-caps command: CUT.
Draft 4, In: A significant portion of the text in the last third of this four-page poem are suddenly in boldface. Even more than the overtyping of Draft 2, this text feels like what DuPlessis in that earlier section called a “Shadow under word.”
Draft 5, Gap: Blocks of text literally blackened out, rather in the manner of my FBI files, redacted.
Draft 6, Midrush: A single crudely scrawled — and incomplete — circle in the middle of a passage that alludes to the rings of smoke sent her way by
Wraithes of poets, Oppen and oddly
renew their open engagement with me
my eyescreen tearing their insistent
writing was speaking here was
saying words but,
befit a shady station,
were swallowed up within the
and all the words
dizzy with tears
passed again away.
I hear here not merely the Hassidic Midrash but the rush of a literal fraternity, the younger woman at risk in a den of men. Nor can I read that scrawled O or this passage without thinking of Elsa Dorfman’s iconic photographs of Zukofsky smoking.
Draft 7, Me: The old hieroglyphic eye one associates with Olson & Ed Sanders.
Draft 8, The: Lines and stanzas, mostly starting to the right half of the page, that appear in 5½-point roman type.
The first section that doesn’t have some sort of graphic intervention turns out to be Draft 9: Page, which in turn is followed by Draft X: Letters, the first to use a Roman numeral (Draft XXX, again alluding to Pound, will likewise), and the first of Drafts’ alphabet sections.
Once you begin to see just how much of Drafts engages the act of the mark upon paper, upon papyrus, upon canvas, the question — not at all unlike Robert Grenier’s quest to identify that moment in cognition when the word “pops” into consciousness — of the edge of legibility, of articulation turns up everywhere. The very next Draft after Letters is Schwa:
The “unsaid” is a shifting boundary
resisting even itself.
Something, the half-sayable,
goes speechless. Or it can’t
what is, and
that it is,
is ə Inside
…… an offhand
sound, a howe or swallowed
shallow. Sayable Sign
of the un-.
The opening couple of Draft 15: Little, a title right from Zukofsky:
More than that is hard to say.
I am drawing a blank.
Or of Draft 19: Working Conditions:
This kind of speaking
doubles the unspeakable.
Or the opening of Draft XXX: Fosse:
Imagine a book, a little book,
whose words are covered
one by one
with the smallest pebbles —
fossils imprinted, shale splinters,
slag and gnarls from fossick,
cheap sweepings arrayed,
a road of morse lines
step by step
down the page.
It looks like poetry, runs along depths
on the surface, slugs
of a text that is lost;
the instruction it offers
The words and their syntax
not to nothing
(for the lover of pebbles)
but to an irradiating splayed out
it can only be
+ It could say erosion of the book.
Somewhere between the composition of Draft XXX & 38: Georgics and Shadow, DuPlessis appears to have come upon the most idiosyncratic of its many dimensions, a grid of nineteen such that the poem could be said to cycle through stages, or that sections might be read horizontally as well as vertically, somewhat akin to Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch. Thus Draft XXX: Fosse — I presume that the title refers at least as much to the town in the Pyrenees as it does to the choreographer — is on the same line as Schwa, and that this description of an artist’s book by Ann Hamilton speaks not just to the erosion of the book, but of the speakable as well.
This is to say that I don’t think that the grid was there in the beginning, but that its presence has been active from a certain moment forward, not unlike Zukofsky’s shift from “A” to An. Exactly what that moment is, I don’t know. There is an investigation worth the effort, I believe, in looking at how individual works relate one to the next horizontally as well as vertically, especially differentiating between the first two passes through the grid and the next four. One strategy for this reading would be to start along the spine, the so-called line of five, Drafts 5, 24, 43, 62, 81 & 100.
Mail Art & Primer enter into Drafts in the fifth and sixth passes through the cycle of nineteen, but not at the same moment. They add one element, color, that is not reproducible in most editions of poetry and we’re exceptionally fortunate that the Pew Foundation made a publication grant available for a volume that was able to produce both in full color. But it makes me wonder precisely what dimensions we might come up against should Drafts continue through seventh, eighth or even nineteen passes through the rule of nineteen.
For this is exactly where Drafts diverges from The Cantos, Maximus or “A” — their conceptions of bringing everything into the poem is predicated on maintaining an anticipatory cohesion throughout the work, something neither Pound or Olson could maintain & that Zukofsky achieved only by changing the rules & accepting compromises as he went forward. Drafts has been built from the beginning at exploring precisely not just the frontier of literature but of literacy itself, spoken, written, thought. And it has done so from the very first letters of the poem.
Mail Art is a cycle of thirty-eight (19x2) collages/visual poems that invoke the Fluxus-era phenomenon whose best known practitioner was Ray Johnson. While Fluxus had a strong — sometimes overwhelming — air of nostalgia for the work of Dada some four decades earlier, mail art rather uniquely was a genre rooted in the 1960s. Whereas a urinal in a museum always foregrounds the museum — its content is its context — mail art often (tho not always) went through the post, meaning that institutional constraints as to size & even content came into play. What mail art took from the history of photography was not so much the image — it looked to the collage of Cubism more for that, combined with an iconography & humor it shared with Pop Art — but the size of the snapshot, and especially the postcard. Mail art could not have existed in an era in which postcards did not exist — it required them to have arrived at a certain pervasive decadence that simply did not exist until after the Second World War.
The very first thing one notices, reading DuPlessis’s Mail Art, is that very little of this could ever go through the mail directly. Mail Art is not mail art, at least not directly. Rather, it is a series of collages that incorporate language, and that invoke art history through allusion to Ray Johnson et al. In her introduction, DuPlessis rightly characterizes them as “collages and poems.”
It is worth noting here that Mail Art falls on the line of eighteen, where the initial poem is Traduction, the task not so much of the translator as the translated. 37: Praedelle, a term that appears exactly zero times on the entire Internet, a poem that largely follows an ABCB rhyme scheme, and which includes the fabulous stanza
So I loaded the riffs
with terrific zaum
Itched thru the night
wandered the Raum
in which the German term for space forces me retroactively to hear the first person singular in Itched, not to mention the riffs in terrific.
Bildungsgedicht with Apple, Drafts 56, is that relatively rare Draft that actually includes prose. It includes some of the most direct aesthetic statements in the entire longpoem:
This poem is not you. Except as if you are
yourself in doubt. The poem is doubt itself made evident …
nothing I say can give the feel of it.
No words, no verbs, no sentences.
75 is, to my mind, the bravest & most “out there” of all the Drafts to date, in some ways even more than the collage poems, since it is Doggerel, perhaps the most literal of all DuPlessis’s titles.
So I’ll just rattle on with grotesque textuality
straining the leash of your vexed liberality,
pretending a wide-eyed, cute subjectivity,
oblivious to badness — and to my proclivity.
Doggerel, both big & small d, in some ways poses the challenge at the heart of flarf better than flarf itself does. Flarf is traditionally — if one can already speak of flarf as a tradition — about the expansion of what is possible in poetry through writing deliberately awful poetry using found materials. Yet what is outside the pale at one moment is well within a moment later. Michael Magee’s use of Internet descriptions of Angie Dickinson poured into the molds of Emily Dickinson’s verse in My Angie Dickinson was shocking when it first appeared in journals or (especially) when Zasterle brought it out in 2007. But in a world in which Vanessa Place tells her students at Naropa to bring back a transcribed page of something from the “real world” with no framing, no modification save the transcription itself, and to do this same assignment every single day of a week’s workshop, Magee’s brilliant aestheticism seems to be just that: aesthetic for the sake of aesthetic.
Doggerel, precisely because it’s bad already inside the circle of the literary, is a bad that can stay bad, even as it says important things. Its excess stays excessive in a way that Angie Dickson’s does not & that excess is the actual content of the poem.
In just this way, Mail Art feels more tentative than Primer. It includes, as in the thirty-sixth of its thirty-eight pieces, some of the most direct and important writing in Drafts:
Contrast this sense of the boundary between the legitimate & the un-scene, ur-new in DuPlessis with these lines from the second of Jack Spicer’s poems for Poetry Chicago:
Pieces of the past arising out of the rubble. Which evokes Eliot and
then evokes Suspicion. Ghosts all of them. Doers of no
The past around us is deeper than. (Spicer)
Primer, on the other hand, lies on the line of fifteen, whose antecedents include Little, Recto, Eclogues, Nanifesto & Proverbs. These earlier sections often have to do with smallness, with heritage, even youth. Eclogues is dedicated to Rachel’s daughter Koré Simone DuPlessis — fifteen is likewise the line that most thoroughly explores what tradition means to a secular Jew. Unlike Mail Art, the writing in Primer — and it’s there if you look — doesn’t exist alongside the visual so much as it emerges through it, often quite marginal. Primer is yet another alphabet and the section M here —
— is as much about line & shape as it is any normally linguistic quality, even as it argues (persuasively to my eye) for the linguistic dimension of the line, even as it curls, even should it be wool thread. The section L immediately preceding this is an old shopping list with handwritten items crossed out, save for the circled word check plus three small slips of paper — they look like Chinese fortune cookies that read: Such a lot to do, thus / longen folk to goon / on pilgrimages.
It is in this sense, right at the edge of the written, of writing, that I take the collage poems to be in many ways the sections closest to being a core thematic statement for the whole of Drafts. I am not kidding in the slightest when I say that I think that M could be the topic sentence for the entire project. Unlike much that today calls itself asemic writing, DuPlessis demonstrates/explores that such marks upon paper are never without meaning.
In many ways, Rachel Blau DuPlessis has always struck me as being the antithesis of my late good friend Hannah Weiner. Hannah was a realist in an irrational world. Rachel is a rationalist — there is hardly a surrealist phrase in her corpus — who is completely committed to exploring that razor edge where language becomes something else, whatever that may be. Drafts in this sense may be the first anti-teleological longpoem. Where Pound & Olson & even I think Duncan began their work with some sense of where they were headed, so much so that each project wrecked upon the rock shore of the unanticipated, where Zukofsky’s attempt proves more successful only at the cost of some extraordinary convolutions/concessions in its final four sections, DuPlessis’s Drafts begins more with questions than answers, literally in Draft 1 chasing a bird in the bush, sensing that the right answers need to be further questions.
September 30–October 21, 2011
Buffalo and Paoli
6. My test, to echo Zukofsky’s paraphrase of Marx, is time congealed labor. With current levels of technology, it requires very little effort to produce a work that is merely lengthy. But one can imagine, without too much difficulty, someone like the Ponge of Notebook of the Pine Woods continuing the effort to construct a perfect sonnet beyond the months he was required to hide out from the Nazis.
8. See Robert Duncan, “Robert Duncan’s notes on Ron Silliman’s “Opening,’” Jacket2 (December 2011); and Ron Silliman, “Opening,” Maps (1974): 72–80.
11. Dates given in Ground Work II suggest that only the book’s final poem, “After a Long Illness,” may have been composed after the first volume of Ground Work and that Duncan may have written no verse during the last six or seven years of his life, save that one piece. Not with a bang, but a whimper.
13. DuPlessis, Drafts 15–XXX, The Fold (Berkeley, CA: Potes and Poets, 1997); Drafts 1–38, Toll (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001); Drafts 39–57, Pledge, With Draft, Unnumbered: Précis (Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2004); Torques / Drafts 58–76 (Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2007); Pitch: Drafts 77–95 (Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2010).
14. DuPlessis, “Anne Waldman: Standing Corporeally in One’s Time,” Jacket 27 (2005).
16. One could perform a reading of Drafts built out of the nature of each piece’s choice of section dividers, that mute & arbitrary symbol that is revealed by DuPlessis to be completely articulate. See DuPlessis, “Draft 1: It” and “Draft 2: She,” Temblor 5 (1987): 22–33.
18. I have a theory on this, that the early publication of Drafts 15–XXX, The Fold makes evident that the grid of nineteen was not yet in play when that volume came out in 1997, even tho its constituent or orienting element — the repetition of the fifth poem in each column or iteration of the sequence having the identical title of Gap — had begun. Clearly when DuPlessis came to this the third time in Draft 43, the grid was inescapable.
What follows is the text of a talk presented in honor of Jerome Rothenberg on the occasion of his 80th birthday, at an event held at CUNY Graduate Center in New York, on December 9, 2011.
If you were looking one way for new Americans in 1960, they would of course be found in Allen’s The New American Poetry. But there was another way. Jerome Rothenberg’s first book, New Young German Poets, published by City Lights in 1959, introduced American readers to a postfascist antifascist avant-garde that successfully “oppose[ed] the inherited dead world with a modern visionary language,” crucially among them, Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann. Jerry’s translations 51 years ago of Celan’s “Night of the Word” and of Bachmann’s “Psalm” offer themselves to us now as illuminating discernible influences on the poems of Jerry’s own first published book of poems, the Hawk’s Well Press White Sun Black Sun (1960). It’s not just Bachmann’s “Psalm” but Rothenberg’s first poems too that (in her words as Jerry rendered them) are inscribed “in the afterbirth of our terror.” “Seeing Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, San Francisco 1959,” a White Sun Black Sun poem, figures the speaker as Jerry’s very first burning babe: “I am the child in the furnace.” And: “We love and we die in dark rooms.” This was a real new American poetry if we were able to discern its specific cold-war-era Euro-American context, its remnant derivation from a modernism that had had its language robbed, its mother tongue cut off in its mouth — drawn from a Celanesque long fifteen-year night of the word, 1945 to 1960, at the dawn after which American poetry too must itself show “the scar of time / open[ed] up” — to quote Jerry’s Celan as a direct anticipation of what I take to be Jerry’s greatest contribution: that in unsuccessful societies, it becomes impossible for language to change commensurately, and a common language breaks down, and we no longer understand each other. “This breakdown,” he later writes, “is first articulated by a poet,” by “the poet see[ing] the breakdown in communication as a condition of health, as an opening-up of a closed world.” Or as Jerry’s Jandl gets to lament in a much later poem about European fascism and artists: “Ka Ka the only music left us.”
So why embrace modernism in particular in 1960? Not primarily because “supreme Yiddish surrealist vaudeville” can and would become in the 1960s and early 1970s one of the efficacious heretical counter-styles, though certainly in Poland 1931 such a mode helped carry the message — but because modernism after 1945 becomes a way of reckoning specifically with “the anti-modernism of the Nazi genocide of European intellectuals” (“Vienna Blood”) and so, as Jerry quotes Dennis Tedlock, “To tell these words is to happen the beginning again.” Or, through dada or alternatively through ancient sacred technicians, to enact “reversals in the history of language.” In Jerry’s “Holy Words of Tristan Tzara” we read that “logic is a complication – logic is always wrong!” but then at the same time we are reminded of the question: “How can a moral person live in an immoral world?” — a question, posed as such, in which the immorality is described in a language long and widely accepted as making sense; and we come to know that it is a question posed not by Tzara or Jandl or Schwitters, but by Mordecai Anielewicz, that barely postadolescent burning babe. Auschwitz, Jerry has written, is “an enormity that had robbed language of the power to meaningfully respond, had thus created a crisis of expression, for which a poetics must be devised if we were to rise, again, beyond the level of the scream or of a silence more terrible than any scream.”
So if you put together Jerome Rothenberg's very first impulses toward archaic materials, manifested in White Sun Black Sun and New Young German Poets as (after total destruction) “telling words as a way of happening the beginning again” — as new burning-babe baby words (DA DA – KA KA) post-scream; and merge that tendency with the “supreme Yiddish surrealist vaudeville” as a means of Oral Torah, where “stabilization of the text would hinder and destroy the infintely moving, unfolding element within it” — that is to say, if you put those two tendencies together, you get the remarkable convergence of modernism and radicalism — of Euro-modernism and American radicalism — that we celebrate tonight.
The real revolution is tragic. “The Real Revolution is Tragic.” It’s the title of a poem in that very first book, White Sun Black Sun. On the night of the poem, the poet “face[s]…my secret America,” asking: “Why are the eyes of it burning”? Here was, and is, the new American poet calling for “the real revolution” of the word “in the days without hope, in the years that are falling.”
I was thirty-three years old when Emma was born. I had been friends with her parents, Charles and Susan, for more than five years.
When Emma got to be about three or four we became friends in our own right. We simply liked each other a lot. I had never had children of my own / so that undoubtedly played some part. But the reality is that I felt some kind of kinship between us that went beyond any of the available clichés / even those of friendship.
When I would go to their apartment at 464 Amsterdam Avenue for a visit / perhaps prior to having dinner there / perhaps just to occupy and to enjoy a part of the afternoon / Emma would invariably (and as soon as it were possible (ok / before (before) it were really decently possible (socially speaking))) take my left hand in her right hand and lead me into her small bedroom.
And that (then) is what it was all about. Emma had her own space / but it was Emma’s space. Already / by the age of three / Emma had contrived a room of her own — and she may well have been conscious of having (done) that (of owning that) before she began showing it to me (I don’t know).
The walls were a matte white color / not at all bright / and there was room also for a small chest of three or four drawers. Already / in that tiny room / were all of those things that Emma would become (really (really) really become). From my first visit onwards the walls were covered with images cut from magazines. I don’t know where she got those pictures / but she got a lot of them. Most of them were of people — it didn’t seem to matter whether they were well known or not / but it was tacitly apparent that it certainly did (did (that it certainly did)) matter to Emma what they looked like / and what they were wearing / and (although their organization on the wall defied easy categorization) also (I think) how they went together. I have a sense of wildness / not only of the collage as a whole / but of the individual pieces of image that fed into that collage and came out of it as something else — the parts created the whole so that it could transform the parts / and in that way there was a unity of form and material that was unassailable. It was easy to tell that this organization of her most intimate physical space constituted a large portion of her confidence.
Emma’s confidence was her identity. I don’t mean to suggest / or to try to convince you / that that was all that there was to her — but I believe that it was that confidence that made all other aspects of her personality (all other aspects of what she was) cohere. And I will say that it was completely formed / and completely in evidence / from the time during which I first knew her.
The collage of images on the walls changed considerably from visit to visit — I can’t say in what way / I hadn’t trained myself to see that — but I could see that different parts of the space were covered / that some pieces of paper had been unstuck and others stuck. In this sense it would probably be more accurate to speak of a montage (the motion supplied by the viewer’s eyes / the looking) than of a collage — the latter term seems adequate to something that someone makes on a smallish piece of paper / but Emma’s project was so manifestly much larger than that. I couldn’t (for that matter) determine how such a small person had gotten those pictures all the way up toward the top of the walls — some seem in recollection to have been growing up from the walls and onto the ceiling / making of it the bottom of the fish tank one would be in when lying in bed. If we accept this suggestion that the considerable changes in lexicon over time made of the work more a montage than a collage / we can see the project as having been akin to the making of a film / but one (certainly) in which the people (the persons) were foregrounded as both actors (and / in that way / over time) as the actions also. People were the actions that occupied her mind / and the space beyond her mind that was also her mind.
It was hard not to see that space / more-or-less-white and more full of than cluttered with images / as the inside of the skull in which Emma lived (in which she had chosen to live / and which she had made to live within). So that she herself was the mind in the skull of her room (a room of her own). It is tempting to think what it might have been like for her to be in bed and to be going to sleep in that room / to be going to sleep inside the extensive precincts of her own mind — and where else? / where else indeed? / except that in her case that mind was so made to be seen (seen (so made to be seen)) / and except that in her case that mind was so made to be lived within. I doubt that Emma ever experienced the kind of tranquility before repose that I’ve suggested — she was far too active (always) for that / she was that always active mind. I doubt very much that she experienced the difference between dream and waking that gives the rest of us occasional pause — if your mind is always external to yourself / something that you live in (in (that you live in (in))) / then it doesn’t much matter what goes on in it as long as it is productive of the active generation and continuous regeneration of that space in which that mind has chosen to reside (in which that mind has chosen to live that life).
And / in the back on the right / pushed almost against the foot of the bed / and itself white (or once white) as well — the small chest of drawers. The home of Emma’s wardrobe / the exoskeleton of its being / that other (analogous) way in which the mind manifested the mind to itself. The fact that wardrobe-within-seeing-mind shared space with images-of-things (of people (people (of people))) seen also within (and spilling into) that space — here also was already the work that she would always make — people / in-clothing / in-space / seen (and pictured) in the seeing mind / as (as) mind (as mind seeing mind). What she saw she saw always face-to-face.
When her brother Felix got a little older I more than once settled down to a game of chess with him when I got there / but it never lasted beyond a few moves — Emma needed to have her world seen / and (perhaps) to have it be seen that her mind and her world were in no way (and in no part) separate (or separable). Again / the tugs on the hand / giving way quickly to laughter mixed with willing acquiescence — her mood was always impossible to refuse. How would you say no to someone who is saying to you — Come with me / I want to show you my mind / I love it / and I know you will too? How would you say no to an artist (who is saying all of that to you)? / especially with you yourself being some sort of one of them too?
Emma seemed most always to be a pure immanence of enthusiasm.
When Emma was perhaps nine or ten / my lover and I visited Charles and Susan / and Emma and Felix / where they had rented an upstate house for some part of their summer vacation. When we arrived Emma was playing part of the time in-and-around an inflatable wading pool. As soon as we had alighted from our car / before we had sat down in the yard with our hosts / midway through greetings — Emma took me by the hand and led me into the house (entirely strange to me) / and up to the second floor / to see the current version of where-she-lived. Here there were a few toys in place of the collaged walls / but for some reason (was there a reason?) the usual had to be repeated even though if in its present incarnation it couldn’t offer much more than the form of what we usually experienced. Perhaps to Emma it was the form of the occasion that mattered (most) / but somehow I don’t think that that’s quite it — it seems more likely to me that in the absence of the absolute-unity-of-form-with-content that this experience offered her at home (and me) / she would accept (in this instance) a formal reminder that that other experience was available (that it could (could (that it could)) be had / again).
Alan Davies in 1990, around the time he first met Emma Bee Bernstein (© Laurie Leber).
We stayed overnight / had a good dinner together / lots of friendship and talk. And after a great breakfast at the local diner (with its Ollie North T-shirts for sale) we left for home.
Charles has from-time-to-time-over-the-years reminded me of something that happened at a poetry reading that I gave at the Ear Inn. Emma was perhaps five or six at the time. After I had given my reading Emma turned to Charles and said — I think I understand Alan Davies.
She evidently said this in seeming earnestness / and it was doubtless in response to what I had just read. So it was a considered and a serious response.
Perhaps it offers (at least) a clue to our friendship / begun already a couple of years earlier. She did (did (she did)) understand me / and I did (did (I did)) understand her.
The last time I saw Emma was at a Segue reading at the Bowery Poetry Club in the winter of 2008. I was co-curating the series for a couple of months / and standing in the back of the room / when Charles approached me and said — There’s Emma … with some of her friends … Why don’t you go and say hi to her? — at the same time pointing out the several people sitting around a table near the stage. I felt under just enough additional pressure with needing to make sure the reading went moderately smoothly / that I didn’t take his suggestion. While introducing one of the two readers / I saw Emma sitting quietly with her friends / and had time only to note that she looked as though she were charged-with-energy / while at the same time I saw that there was darkness around her eyes.
It is usually the birth of a child that begins to put parents-who-so-choose in the role of the stage mother and/or the stage father. In this case / the opposite of that has happened — it is the death of Emma that has motivated Charles and Susan to do everything within their power to promote the artistic works that Emma produced within her relatively short life.
I don’t remember (the adolescent) Emma ever being still / at rest. Normally we think of even a moving object as moving between two points / at each of which there is some form of stillness — we know that the perpetual motion machine is a fancy and not a reality / we’ve been taught to expect even the-universe-as-a-whole to slow down. Counter that / we’re told that children are the greatest athletes / and with that comes the expectation of at least considerable (considerable) motion. But Emma never (never) stopped — I never saw her not-moving.
Here there is a realization that contains the kernel of a contradiction — the still photographer slows down completely (completely) what it is she captures (captures) on her film / and even objects in motion (Muybridge) are stilled so that they can be apprehended (apprehended) as such. This plausibly-unexpected shift in Emma’s being (in Emma’s being Emma to Emma) is punctuated by the fact that for a good many of her photographs it was she who sat (who “sat”) for herself.
A collage or a montage would differ from other kinds of sensible statement in the sense that (or in the extent to which) it is composed of pieces that have been intentionally (and intently) prefigured for that purpose. In this way it would resemble (it might most resemble) those of the plastic arts the making of which is preceded by the making of the-materials-of-which. Most artists work with materials which they bring to hand for that purpose / but they do not for the most part actually make those individual things which are then to be the materials of their constructions — Emma’s constructions made it seem that she did.
It seems probable to me that having this as the origin of her senses of the ways of making things / would then influence Emma in the way that she went about making her photographs. And it is certain that this way of prefiguring her most immediate world about her (the room where she lived (as a child)) would then devolve into her ways of presenting her photographs to the world — in such a way that the photographs become the elements of the collage/montage / and a wall is found (somewhere) for their mingling and elucidation.
Emma Bee Bernstein, Senior thesis show, installation shot, University of Chicago, June 2007.
We all have ways of externalizing what we are where we live. We bring home to our own hole in the coral those things that make us feel at (at (that make us feel at)) home. For me those things are mostly books and CDs and clothing. For most of us they are objects that we get elsewhere and transport to where we live. This is an indication of the extent to which we are not bounded by our bodies / the extent to which we not only live but are (are (not only live but are)) beyond our constantly-changing skin.
What has been unique in Emma’s case is not only the extent to which she was aware of this as a child / not only the extent to which as a child she participated in this externalization-of-self (this externalization as (as) self) — but the fact that her choice of imagery-as-extension-of-self prefigured her career as an artist. The images were images of humans / and in this way too we could already see the intensity of vision (of self (self) of self-vision) / of self-visioning / that marked her attention to the emotional details of her life. This particular sort of externalization is reflective — it shows the visioner seeing back at herself (as a self / as a choice of selves) / and that too is unique — the self that is externalized (as living (living) as living-place (space)) is the self looking back (in guises) at the self that is externalizing itself / there / where it (most) lives.
Now / Emma is not here.
At times like these it is by managing our grief that we live. Otherwise.
Is it worth mentioning that / at-times-like-these / are endless?
* * *
The notes that follow were made with specific reference to a show of Emma Bee Bernstein’s portraits / at the Janet Kurnatowski gallery / in Greenpoint / in the spring of 2011 / curated by Phong Bui and Linnea Kniaz.
The photographs were not titled by Emma. Titles were added by her family / for the purpose of identification.
I’m getting really fond of the room in spite of the wall-paper. Perhaps because of the wall-paper.
— Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1899)
Emma photographed herself and friends of her own age / women in their early twenties. The women are not smiling — this does not mean that the atmosphere is one of dour contemplation — but something is being asserted that is staid and solid — it is that they are who they are / that that is that / and that nothing will change that (except change-itself?). Most of the photographs are frontal / some showing the subject in a landscape or room / some from the waist up (none closer). The subject is always alone — even when the portrait is of two women / they are alone. [ at right: Self-portrait with yellow wall (2007)]
Except for you (of course) / you the viewer.
Are you / then / the subject?
Frequently the costume of the subject (a dress or a nightgown) blends in (in some marked deliberate way) with the background. In “Self-portrait with yellow wall” Emma wears a dress with a paisley print that features yellow — even the cigarette hanging from her hand has been made yellow by the preponderance of yellow light — her golden shoes reflect yellow. Emma herself is backed into a vibrant yellow corner.
(from left): Jill against the brown door (2006), Marianna and floral wallpaper (2006), and Antonia in clown suit (2006).
Flowered dresses frequently find themselves in a-yard-of-flowers. Marianna wears a flowered gown against flowered wallpaper. Jill wears brown when photographed against a brown door. Antonia wears a blue clown suit (which manages to look not-at-all-clownish) in a blue room. Anat wears a dress with autumnal colors / when seen against a groundscape of fallen leaves / and a background that also somehow contrives to be largely brown.
This kind of placement makes a number of statements. The figure is a figure in a ground of which it is naturally (if not exactly seamlessly) a part. The figure is as-if-produced-by-the-ground against which it is seen. In nature / this kind of coloring-matching-its-surroundings is known as camouflage — and that is (in part) what it has to be seen as here — the women / while posing / to be photographed / are at-the-same-time hiding (they are blending in) — and this structure (a motif) is a contrivance of the photographer herself / of Emma. [at left: Anat, Autumn reflection (2006)]
There is a striking photograph entitled “Self-portrait in red rose dress in green garden” / in which Emma becomes a red blossom among blossoming plants.
Self-portrait in red rose dress in green garden (2007)
The general mood is staid / a mood that sometimes verges on the solemn. No one told these subjects to “Say cheese.” They are addressing us / where we are. Where are we?
The fact that some of the women are photographed wearing nightgowns or bathrobes lends a momentary instance-of-the-casual to what is being photographed / to what-is-being-shown. But this is deceptive — none of the photographs appear to have been taken impromptu / everyone is busy being very-much-who-they-are (who-they-are-seen-to-be (who-they-are-made-to-be-seen-to-be)). This means that each instance of each individual is an instance of integrity (of meaning-meaning-itself).
What we choose to put with what / is a statement about who we are. Emma knew this / as she placed her friends in land- and room-scapes that she knew would help define them.
Those photographed do not (in this sense) stand out — they are very much a-part-of-the-photographic-rectangle / they do not stand out from it — the plane is relatively flat. In this / the photographs resemble snapshots / a-thing-taken-on-the-run.
But this lives in-a-kind-of-tension with the certainty we have that each photo has been posed.
What does it mean that the photographic images have been staged / contrived / that they are not in-that-sense candid? Candor is what we look for from another person / one of those things we most value in someone. But here what-is-candid is not the photograph-as-object — what stands in (instead) for candor / is the solidity of the subjects / their outward-staring-look / and the feeling that it-is-that which they are about-to-speak (such that it is that about-to (about-to) that is candid / in these instances).
There is a kind of sadness about the-stillness-of-the-perceptions / the-women-perceiving-out-to-the-photographer / the-view-(and-the-viewer)-perceiving-in-to-the-women. The looker-at-a-wall-mounted-photograph stands (roughly) in-the-space-the-photographer-inhabited — in that way / the view (the viewer) obliterates the photographer / makes her be out-of-the-way / so that the-view-(the-viewer)-can-essay-(assay)-the-view. This is particularly-the-case when the subject of the photograph is a (another) human subject / on some levels an equal to the viewer. So that then there are three of us — the photographer most absent / because not seen (not-there) — the subject of the photograph / absent as-living-body / but still seen — and the viewer / present / but absent insofar as not being a part of that permanent-instance-of-the-once-photographed. Is anything really there / after all?
This kind of mirroring / is mirrored in some of the photos. “Jill with Art Nouveau print and mirror” [(2007), shown at right] shows Jill in an easy chair / wrapped in a green towel / with a mirror on her lap (she is looking at it) / and with an Art Nouveau poster wrapped in plastic occupying-the-lower-left-part-of-the-frame — there is a-window-streaming-full-of-light behind-and-above her. The poster is of a young woman / which Jill then mirrors — at the same time we know that she is undergoing-a-kind-of-mirroring in the open lens (that word leaps-to-mind) of the mirror into which she gazes. Where / in this instance / are we? — in a more uncommon relationship to the photograph than otherwise / not only because of the presence of the mirror / but because it is a source of light / and (in-that-way) can be seen to see / because light is the-substance-of-seeing (it makes seeing possible — it makes the-taking-of-photographs possible — it mediates between us (the viewer) and the-thing-seen (in this case a photograph (its subject seen because of-light — the-taking-of-it made possible by light — the viewing of it likewise))).
There are mirrors in other of the photographs. It is hard to say which mimics which / the mirror the photograph? / or the photograph the mirror? I suppose the answer to that question inevitably takes us into the realm of narrative. [We might mention the book Girldrive / co-made with her friend Nona Willis Aronowitz / and for which Emma made photographs of many women. The book is about young feminism.]
There is a photograph taken by a window (a-kind-of-absent-(or-potential)-mirror) [at left: Jill with glass (2006)].
And there is a photograph / “Gabi and Antonia on couch” / in which a large heavily-framed painted portrait (wall-hung) divides the two sitters / each of whom leans-away-from the painting in-a-different-direction / so that the painting separates them / while (at-the-same-time) the two brown-haired-women wear identical nightgowns / and share the same posture although in-mirror-image. It is interesting that the-top-half-or-so-of-the-painting is not included in the photograph / but there is still enough (just-enough) to let us know that it is a painting of a person. The women’s clothing and their posture twins the two sitters — the painting separates them / holding them apart. Is this a statement about the meaning (the function) of art? If it is / it says that in-some-way art divides the person / but that in-doing-so it still leaves her intact as divided instance of that-one-self. Perhaps art splits us off from our self / while (at-the-same-time) bringing us face to face with (with (face to face with)) that-self — but the question then remains / is the-self-to-which-it-returns-us the whole self (before the confrontation of the-work-of-art) / or the divided self (after that confrontation)?
Gabi and Antonia on couch (2006).
Emma also made some strained self-portraits / all featuring partial nudity. In one Emma reclines in a contorted posture — she has just added the fourth lipsticked-kiss to her own leg / which has been bent toward her mouth — but these kisses look like nothing-so-much-as-wounds.
Self-portrait licking knee (2006-2007).
In one / lying down on the floor / Emma has written I WANT U across the lower part of her naked ribcage — her posture / and the-look-on-her-face / says that-isn’t-so. And in another / also lying-down-on-the-floor / the word HUSBAND has been written on a piece of paper that hides her breasts — she has a cigarette in her mouth. In both of these photographs her skirt has been pushed up / exposing part of her pantied crotch above knee-high-socks — the sign feels like a weight / an insolent burden.
These photographs / and there are others that are not-unlike-them / resonate with the one called “Self-portrait crouching with plaster wall.” Emma crouches / her bodice is partly exposed to the viewer / as are her black-nylon-clad legs / she has a long cigarillo between her lips / and her arms are bent behind her back. We are looking down on her — she is looking up to (?) / at / us. It is the classic posture of the submissive — further / it is a photograph of a submissive who does not speak (because-of / and signified-by / the cigarillo-between-her-lips). She looks up / mascara or other makeup lending a look of fear to her demeanor — a red band binds her hair. Reaching out from-each-side-of-her-head there are patches of wall-damage that look like either the molting antlers of an elk or moose / or the frayed wings of an angel. [at right: Self-portrait crouching with plaster wall (2006)]
In a way / the desperation expressed in these particular photographs makes them the most hopeful. In the feminist context that Emma espoused (in the way that she lived / in the things that she made) / they represent that point of rupture with what-is-otherwise-culturally-acceptable / but what to Emma was so manifestly unacceptable — they enact a scream (of rage / not terror) / and out-of-that-scream (if anything exact can be articulated there) / the word NO!
In the overall context of Emma’s work / the photographs of two-women-shown-together are reassuring — and the fact that the photographs which are not self-portraits are of her friends / reminds us that friendship is to be valued / that it stands for something-in-this-world (regardless the social and psychological ambience).
The rawness of some of the self-portraits is also offset by (balanced-by) such a photograph as “Self-portrait in pink bathrobe” / where her right arm resting-on-a-rod-holding-pure-white-fringed-towels becomes the wing of an angel / about to take flight.
from left: Self-portrait in pink bathroom (2006), Marianna with chandelier (2006).
Or / “Marianna with chandelier” shows the subject looking-up-at and reaching-toward a bright chandelier that takes up slightly more than the top half of the photo — clearly (and I mean that literally) / she is about to transcend (if not to ascend) / and the-fact-that-she-is-about-to-transcend is made more manifest by the fact that-we-know-not-from-what(-from-what).
The photographs leave me feeling taken-aback — backed into the wall behind me / which I am not aware of as-image / but that never-the-less prevents me from being other-than-where-I-am (e.g. (alternatively) out-there).
Five people have entered the gallery — they’re moving slowly about / and talking — but it is the young women in the photographs on the-gallery-walls that are alive (alive (that are alive)).
Why is this?
It is because they have come here to be (and to-remain) who-they-are. While those few people in the gallery (myself included) are temporary phenomena (at most)
And what does it mean / later / now / that these photographs / that these women / are all-together (in-this-room)? It is a kind of litany really / a statement about friendship that is slow-and-steadied / numerous instances of that one thing (a-young-woman’s-way-of-looking-(of-appearing)-when-being- in-the-world).
The photographs / in-the-room / communicate with-one-another. The subjects / the young women / look outward / at us / and do not communicate (with-each-other) — but (still) there is perhaps something being whispered from-photo-to-photo / and that something has-something-to-do-with-the-meaning-of-life / with why we value it / with what it might (it might) be for.
Seeing the photographs grouped on the walls / the relative strength or weakness of the figure relative to (with) the ground / varies. These variations represent (they stand-in-for) the range of emotions that the women are being said to feel — and / the range of their-relative-nearness-to-or-distance-from-the-world. It is not that they (the women) are in-or-out-of-focus — it is (rather) they that are focusing (they are the-focusing) / and (in-this- way) they focus us (in-and-relative-to-that-world (their-world) and (as conscious viewers) to our-own-world (the one we inhabit / as viewers / viewing)).
The focal point of Emma’s camera is a woman’s face. Her body. Her being.
Photographer / photographed — face to face.
9Feb10 / 25Apr11
Early modern social lyric
Published in 1905, when Jules Romains was twenty years old, “Poetry and Unanimous Feelings” launches one of his dominant themes: “unanimous,” or, as will be seen, “unanimistic” feelings. He will expand on the theme (theme-assemblage, really) over a lifetime, in poems, novels, plays, essays. To name, today, his articulation of the social and the aesthetic is a bit like trying to name a constellation’s mythological shape. The terms composing the constellation come from various discourses and have distinctly differentiated meanings and references: the crowd, sociality, the social, class, lumpen, group, mass, multitude, people, folk, gathering, audience, community, public, commune.… Connections between them can be made into more than one configuration. To favor one or even two would be to risk missing the fabled synonymy unifying them all. Is that Monoceros the unicorn in the sky there? A shape does emerge out of this heterogeneity when the terms are juxtaposed by one opposing phrase: nineteenth-century individual lyrical expression. Romains’s “doctrine” (as detractors called it) intended to unzip “the individual” into the social relations that compose it.
Crowds against death!
I repeat, it’s time.
Romains considered a momentous twentieth-century discovery to be that society constitutes the individual through collectivities — a discovery on the order of nature to that of the eighteenth century. Evidently, Romains likes to make lucid statements out of generalities (centuries); to continue in this spirit, his premise in this respect is a neoclassical one, that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The whole in fact is so much greater than its parts that Romains coined a word for it, unanimism, and unanimism is optimistic about a quality perceived in group behavior, unanimity. Every group acquires, consciously or not, a contingent but determinate identity which he calls its specific unanim.
It will be a group of profound things welding together at once, a crescendo of ideas, each spontaneous and all of them moving in the same direction, like the spectacular rise of smoke that city factories deploy at the same hour.
But unlike Imagisme, Unanimisme suggests that a whole is expressible not through particulars (the natural object is not quite the adequate symbol, as Pound said it was; ideas are not “in” things, as Williams hoped they were; the universal is not “in” the concrete, as USAmerican particularists — philosophers, poets, theorists, etc. — have variously argued); instead, like an ur-Poundian ideogrammic method, a whole emerges from relations between things, beings, ideas, effects equally.
An early US review characterized Romains’s unanimism as producing “sociological poetry.” More recently, Rosalind Williams conceives of unanimism to be a “poetics of urban systems” of la vie sociale. A “system,” she says, may be comprised of interconnecting (of no longer dichomotized) organic and machinic relations in any environment, such as a street corner that today might consist of electric lights, oil spots, closed-circuit TVs, intersecting roadways, litter, dog poop, crows, storefronts, weeds, automobiles, sewer hole, iPods, and pedestrians. A unanim will show degrees of collective self-consciousness and institutional stability: poetry reading, coffee shop, cultural or political event, company, church, army, city, nation state. Romains writes that “unanims are more unstable, more supple, more capable of metamorphoses, of intermixing, of birth, of death than are our invariable and rigid selves.” The writer’s task is to help create unanims, and group consciousness about existing unanims.
Romains’s booklength poem La vie unanime (1908) creates out of Paris a unanim with an “immortal fluency” its citizens can become aware of and help to articulate:
The city knows its dead are transmissions.
People, tonight, dying in it
simply render, by painful starts
what little they’ve captured of its immortal fluency.
They’ve grasped it as best they could in the knots
of their laryngeal systems; but tonight, they let go.
While they moan, young bodies go electric
with the vibration made by bodies underground.
The dead and the dying are also able to participate in raising collective awareness of the unanimistic vibe.
Unanimism holds a special place in Jean-Michel Rabaté’s argument to historicize globalization through turn-of-the-century imperialisms, the rise of finance capital, and the First World War. Rabaté suggests that unanimism was just as significant to early modernism as was futurism and cubism, and that in French modernist avant-gardes it polarized Apollinaire (for whom the avant-garde must focus solely on the medium of expression) and Romains (for whom the avant-garde also has a role of shocking into awareness). Romains’s widespread influence in European early modernist art, music, and literature is taken up also by Christopher Butler, while still others have examined specific unanimistic effects on texts by Joyce (the “wandering rocks” section in Ulysses), Woolf (The Waves), Pound (who acknowledged Romains’s effort to reinvent Greek epic chorus structure), Toomer (Cane), Waldo Frank (City Block), and Québec poet Jean Aubert Loranger (Les atmosphères), and on paintings by cubists, including Leger and Gleizes, and Italian futurists, including Boccioni (including his technical manifesto) and Carrà, among others. Critics have yet to consider the unanimism at play in other literary texts, such as Melvin B. Tolson’s midcentury Libretto for the Republic of Liberia. Romains’s mythological shape may also be broadly discerned in a constellation of contemporary texts that address social structures and collective identity, such as Renee Gladman’s The Activist, Carla Harryman’s The Gardener of Stars, Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation, Allen Fisher’s “crowd-out” texts, as well as in Teresa Brennan’s theory of the psychic transmission of affects, Hardt and Negri’s “social flesh” of “the multitude,” among numerous other theorists branching off from the group-consciousness-think of Freud and Durkheim (whom Romains called the Descartes of unaninism). In popular culture, the French film Delicatessen (1991) might be said to create an apartment building unanim. One unanimistic technique the film uses is a montage of scenes that repeats a rhythm unwittingly orchestrated by the squeaky bedsprings of a love-making couple: in back-and-forth movements of a worker roller-painting a ceiling, in a cello student practicing scales to a metronome, in a tenant manually pumping a bicycle tire, in a woman beating out carpet dust with a paddle, in fingers’ rapid movements with knitting needles.
Paradoxically, Romains wasn’t interested in creating a purely literary school or movement, not least one focused on technological novelty and analogy (to telephone, to radio, to airplane, to machine gun, etc.). By 1911–12, unanimism supporter Georges Duhamel could comment easily that literary schools were being founded every week. While Romains certainly wrote about unanimism as a rallying rubric for French writers of his generation, and was loosely associated with the Abbaye de Créteil group who were experimenting with communal living in order to write and to publish (their first publication was Romains’s La vie unanime), the very nature of unanimism would seem to prevent it becoming a strictly literary endeavour controlled by one platform or by one individual or group. Instead of another manifesto, Romains wanted to articulate all the new forms of social relation in modern city life. In a sense, this included the manifesto itself as a phenomenon. A manifesto, political or aesthetic, is often a performative claim made upon group consciousness (usually a manifesto has more than one signatory). The manifesto is a “crowd” mode of rhetorical address whose goal is to change another crowd-composition to which the status quo has become habituated. Romains takes self-referentially performative aspects of manifesto form and turns them into unanimism’s content: collective identity itself, group formation as such. Romain wanted to create group consciousness and to make others aware of what they were already collectively doing unconsciously, incidentally, expressly.
But to what end, unanims? Unanims must by definition also include socially conservative and reactionary group expressions — those that might emerge from nationalist chauvinism as much as from anti-statism, and so on. The extent to which Romains’s theory and writing could constructively respond to the politics of groups seems limited. Unlike Eliot’s oeuvre — think Prufrock — Romains’s expresses an optimism about socially complex, modern city living. But like Pound (with whom, incidentally, he shares birth and death years, 1885–1972), the crises of the 1930s bring out another side to Romains’s theory. Even as PEN president, Romains’s unanimism racializes European identity as white, in what might be called a spirit of “goodwill racism” (goodwill is key to his conception of unanims as the title of his twenty-seven-volume novel, Les hommes de bonne volonté, makes plain). Without Pound’s enduring emotion in The Cantos of trolling paranoid vituperativeness and literary haughtiness, which repels (and paradoxically shields) his reader from the worst of his text, Romains’s teacherly tone of disarmingly intimate sincerity in the poetry book L’homme blanc (1937) is all the more discomfitting. Aimé Césaire buries (“buries” is his figure) unanimism by noting how in the 1950 French edition of Salsette découvre l’Amérique Romains’s use of a unanimistic technique — that of repeated implication-by-association in order to form a whole — oppresses.
Certainly at other times Romains was aware of the “destructiveness of the crowd,” to use Canetti’s key phrase. During the Great War Romains wrote Europe, a booklength poem lamenting the destructive powers of unanims (army; nation; hero) gone awry — and predictably his response is to appeal to an even larger unanim than that of warring nation-states, indefensible (as Césaire would call it) Europe. The poem’s closing two lines — quoted above — appear groundlessly hopeful in the context of the poem.
To not only articulate a unanim, but talk one down — the witch camps in rural northern Ghana (what are the poets in Ghana doing these days?) — or talk one up — the use of a repeated proceduralism that “unanimizes” a semantic field’s disparate references (something poets in Canada and the US are doing these days) — that is the groundless hope. We are all the martyr Ibrahim Qashoush.
1. Translations mine throughout essay. My translation of Romains’s manifesto appears in the “Manifestos Now!” issue (guest editor Brian Ganter) of The Capilano Review 3, no. 13 (Winter 2011): 46–48. Romains’s “Les sentiments unanimes et la poésie” first appeared in Le Penseur 4 (April 1905): 121–24. Reprinted in Claude Martin’s Correspondance: André Gide — Jules Romains (Paris: Flammarion, 1976), 152–54, and in Bonner Mitchell’s critical edition of selected French manifestos, Les manifestes littéraires de la belle époque, 1866–1914: Anthologie critique (Paris: Seghers, 1966), 81–86.
3. Romains is cited in Rosalind Williams, “Jules Romains, Unanimisme, and the Poetics of Urban Systems,” in Literature and Technology, Research in Technology Studies, vol. 5, ed. Mark L. Greenberg and Lance Schachterle (London: Associated University Presses, 1992), 193–94.
4. Jules Romains, “L’unanimisme et Paul Adam,” Revue littéraire de Paris et de Champagne 2, no. 42 (September 1906): 284.
5. Allan Antliff details the influence of Romains’s “sociological poetry” on the Modern School movement in the U.S., in “Interpellating Modernity: Cubism and ‘La vie unanime’ in America,” in American Modernism Across the Arts, ed. Jay Bochner and Justin D. Edwards (New York: Peter Lang, 1999), 53–72.
6. Jules Romains, “La chevelure inextricable,” in Revue littéraire de Paris et de Champagne 2, no. 43 (October 1906), 352–53.
8. Jean-Michael Rabaté, 1913: The Cradle of Modernism (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007); Christopher Butler, Early Modernism: Literature, Music, and Painting in Europe, 1900–1916 (Oxford UP, 1994); Renee Gladman, The Activist (San Francisco, CA: Krupskaya, 2003); Carla Harryman, The Gardener of Stars (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2001; Juliana Spahr, The Transformation (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2007); Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004). For an introduction to poet-artist Allen Fisher on “decoherence and crowd-out,” see the newsletter and supplement for PhillyTalks 19: Allen Fisher and Karen Mac Cormack (17 October 2001), with responses by Marjorie Welish, Matt Hart, Rob Holloway, housed at Slought Foundation Online.
9. Romains’s essay in Mitchell’s Les manifestes littéraires de la belle époque, 1866–1914: Anthologie critique (see note 1) is productively sandwiched between symbolist, futurist, socialist, humanist, “naturist,” classicist, and other manifestos published in France. Unanimisme is absent, however, from Mary Ann Caws’s international anthology even as it is three times the size of Mitchell’s, Manifesto: A Century of Isms (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001). Unanimisme’s absence might speak to its questionable relationship to the idea of literary language as such — and therefore to the polarization between Apollinaire and Romains that Rabaté conceives as structuring French early modernism. “The limitation of Romains’ work, as of a deal of Browning’s,” Pound writes, “is that, having once understood it, one may not need or care to re-read it. This restriction applies also in a wholly different way to [Keats’s] “Endymion” [… and …] applies to all poetry that is not implicit in its own medium, that is, which is not indissolubly bound in with the actual words, word music, the fineness and firmness of the actual writing, as in Villon […].” See Pound, Instigations (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920), 74.
12. Like Pound as well, Romains developed an over-inflated sense of his own social importance: in, for instance, the essays of Seven Mysteries of Europe (1940), he narrates himself into imagined key moments of European history before the Second World War, as advisor to French politicians and as a diplomat of peace. In fact, Romains supported the Munich Pact. Aimé Césaire lambastes Romains’s Salsette découvre l’Amérique in Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham, intr. Robin D. G. Kelley (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 51.