Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s response to Oppen
“Whether as the intensity of seeing increases, one’s distance from Them, the people, does not also increase” — Rachel Blau DuPlessis to George Oppen
George Oppen was an important friend and instigation for Rachel Blau DuPlessis at the start of her career as a poet-critic and has remained a presence throughout. Their relationship was mutually productive both despite and because of their difference in age, gender, and as DuPlessis’s career progressed, her intertwining scholarly, critical, and political commitments. He offers an admiring, brief comment on the back jacket of her first book of poetry, a visit to the Oppen archive just after his death is among the several events that she has cited as launching Drafts, her work in seriality and collage that stands as a major and ongoing contribution to the long poem tradition, and acts of citation and dedication continue throughout the work. During the same period in which DuPlessis was writing what she would come to conceive of as the first “half” of her long poem and the experimental essays she would collect in The Pink Guitar, she edited both The Selected Letters of George Oppen and, with Peter Quartermain, The Objectivist Nexus. Beginning with his response to an early piece of her dissertation on Pound and Williams, Oppen’s letters to DuPlessis reveal him to be the rigorous mentor he was to several younger poets of the moment. However, one significant feature of their correspondence distinguishes it from most of the other younger poets to whom Oppen was then writing: the way in which letters to her function as a site for working out his response to the New Left and the relationship of that response to his poetics. They would directly discuss the intersection between poetry and politics in the late 1960s, but in October 1965 it is the subtext of another unique aspect of their friendship: the fact that just two months into it he sends her the poem that would become “Of Being Numerous,” and, while rejecting most of her queries, includes the question I cite as my epigraph prominently in the finished product.
In February 2006, in the midst of a lifetime of personal and poetic connection to Oppen, DuPlessis returns most directly to “Of Being Numerous” in “Draft 85: Hard Copy,” a poem which is, in her words, “mapped loosely on, thinks about, and responds to” Oppen’s poem. In returning to her initially restrained inquiry into Oppen’s stance with respect to social collectivity, DuPlessis sharpens it and, in so doing, begins what might be a reorientation of her own. This turn, which might be called a torque towards the political, marks a crucial juncture for her long poem. Over the now twenty years and five volumes of its production, Drafts has absorbed a range of sociopolitical issues and events — most obsessively the Holocaust and gender inequity. I have argued elsewhere that Drafts’ accumulation of and commentary upon on the materio-linguistic fragments of modern catastrophe represents DuPlessis’s unique version of Walter Benjamin’s tarrying among the ruins of culture in order to uncover their “messianic” potential, the historical materialist process of “brush[ing] history against the grain (“Little Words”). Through procedures like layered deictic gestures, randomized repetition, and what DuPlessis calls the “fold,” Drafts creates the conditions for poetic language to produce and reproduce itself, letting go of certain elements of authorial control. The considerations informing these practices are multiple — from a desire to dismantle muse and hero figures, to a recognition that even the smallest signifying element may bear witness to provisional truth, and that, therefore, “to show,” in Benjamin’s terms, rather than “to say” is the most humane approach. As Walter Kalaidjian puts it: “DuPlessis grants a certain autonomy of expression to the ‘anguage’ she witnesses in her verse” with the belief that “the revolutionary moment of Benjamin’s ‘material historicism’ happens neither in the social solidarity of a ‘polis’ nor in some saving ideological narrative of heroism and progress” but instead in the “truth” of language’s “symbolic procedures.”
But even as DuPlessis continues to theorize the validity of this practice, and while the very structure of Drafts is hardwired against any singular trajectory, the last page of Torques summons the poem to radical change: “Clear the table! Break this allegiance! … Begin! / Here! And Here!” The “intransigent response” DuPlessis demands in “Hard Copy” — the title itself suggestive of a new directness — is the only response, she suggests, to the “error after error” of modernity as it builds towards a kind of catastrophic apogee. Early in the poem, she asks, “Were there other times like this— / over and beyond the bearable?” While acknowledging that the question is “callow,” she also says it is “heartfelt” and goes on to confront the evidence accumulating quite literally at her doorstep. It “surely seems a bloody time,” she writes, with a sense of understatement, “where / someone is murdered down South 23rd St., / drugs, deals, rage, guns, / and then / the shame of War … / cabal of manipulation and / devious complicity.” The answer to the initial question is apparently “no,” but the poem is going to continue, “demanding other — unknown, strengths.” She asks, “What is the point of pure revulsion? I am beginning / to be very simple, to have very simple thoughts, no / complicated language” she writes. “Hard Copy” is by no means “simple,” but in it, Drafts, which has built itself into a reverberative archive of traumatic witness, turns toward political judgment and action.
And this is why “Hard Copy,” written at the moment when the costs of the Iraq War were poised to exceed Vietnam, faces Oppen and “Of Being Numerous” so directly. DuPlessis’s critical reassessment of what Oppen called, in “The Mind’s Own Place,” the poet’s “political non-availability” marks an important moment in Drafts as a long poem that would, as DuPlessis puts it, “offer the force of an intervention.” In section 37 of “Hard Copy,” DuPlessis cites lines from both her first book of poetry, and from section 37 of “Of Being Numerous” which itself glosses lines from Discrete Series, Oppen’s first book of poetry. Both poets view their early work from a distance of about thirty years, questioning their efforts “‘to see / what was really going on.’” Oppen appears ambivalent, both about his decision to open Discrete Series with the Henry James character Maude Blessingbourne, in an attempt to see with her into a new century’s clarity, and about whether witness can yield anything in the contemporary moment. Against argument and action, which the poem suggests are guilty of “thickening the air / … with myth,” the section ends with the vague affirmation that the act of seeing the materials — “motes, an iron mesh, links” — is still “relevant.”
Writing what she has called a “midrash” on their accumulated language, DuPlessis creates a meeting place for, “what could then be written,” as “then” points to the locus of constant change — 1934, 1968, 1980, 2007. While the page thickens with citation, it becomes curiously, correspondingly clear. Drawing from the title of one of the “donor drafts” of “Hard Copy,” the act of “facing pages” in this instance produces not just a “coruscation” — a word whose vagaries she considers in that draft — but a fiery blast, the explosion of direct combat. As her text engages Oppen’s retrospect on his own, DuPlessis whirls round to confront what’s happening right now: “One nano-second later and / a snarl of light that crashed to the floor binds one / to the terrors of historical time,” she writes, “That’s what awe is, that’s what fear. / Demanding an intransigent response / To the knife and its addictive power.” Where Oppen’s consideration of the act of seeing still finds in it a primary if limited ground on which to stand, DuPlessis’s poem cannot contain itself to a discussion of first principles — the extratextual world comes crashing in and “binds” her to respond; there is no choice.
The experience of binding, the reality of the knife — DuPlessis is here presenting the echoes of the binding of Isaac, in the ongoing war of human sacrifice conducted along the thin line between faith and secular ethics. She has recently called this story “the most startling, repeated, vital,” biblical text in Drafts as a whole, a negative moment in her sense of “creolized Jewishness.” Here, it recalls most immediately Oppen’s modified citation, in section 16 of “Of Being Numerous,” of a fragment from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Oppen’s section begins, “‘… he who will not work shall not eat,” and concludes, “and only he who unsheathes his knife shall be given / Isaac again. He who will not work shall not eat … / but he who will work shall give birth to his own father.” His identification with the value of “work” opens his text to a surprising endorsement of “unsheathing his knife” as an act of sincerity, grounded in the “vertical consciousness of oneself and one’s god.” This stance becomes especially clear when we read section 16 as a rejoinder to section 15’s ventriloquizing of the concern with being or doing “good” that Oppen disparagingly associated with women poets: “‘… find every hair / Of my belly, I am good (or I am bad), / find me.’” Work, or more specifically the solitary “workman,” is cited as a strongly positive way to “speak of poetry,” in section 27, further sharpening the gender distinctions that emerge in the interchange between 15 and 16.
“There is trouble in the desert,” DuPlessis writes in her section 16, “trouble in the lineage,” meaning at once her Jewish lineage and her patrilineage in Oppen. Part of the problem and likely part of the allure of Abrahamic allegory is its stark singularity: “they are all male singletons,” she writes, “one A, one I and one One / (undercounting various brothers / who do not matter in the tally; nor enumerating most sisters, though they certainly existed).” For DuPlessis, the resolution of Judaism’s founding narrative is radically inadequate because of this singularity; it needs to be reread from the perspective of the absent Ishmael, the unnamed sisters. Even as “regime of human sacrifice / was declared theologically finished,” she writes, it is clearly not “politically and ideologically finished,” because of the value it gives to what the poem elsewhere calls, referring to Bush and Cheney, “single Illumination,” and “mono-Ocular blind-sided Vision.” In section 9 of her poem, we find the knife “readied / for another human sacrifice” in this “this time and place.”
Section 9 is, of course, the site of DuPlessis’s original entrance into “Of Being Numerous,” and in “Hard Copy,” she treats this looking glass moment with a mixture of self-deprecation and seriousness: “And in this space a birth of enigma / to which one owes one’s own enigma,” she writes, in the space Oppen allotted her fragmented question. But the question she goes on to ask reflects her accumulated sense that the “distance from Them, the people” has increased, with dangerous effects: “What art for this recurrence?” In the word “recurrence” I read DuPlessis’s torque on Oppen’s “occurrence” — a value term, linked in his thought to “experience as it presents itself on its own terms” and positioned prominently in the opening section of “Of Being Numerous” as a figure for human relations as at once “true” and “impenetrable”: “Occurrence, a part / Of an infinite series.” Maintained over the “time that has passed — almost forty years” between the two poems, this stance, DuPlessis seems to suggest, may be partially culpable for the “grief after grief, / error after error, profit after profit,” the history of violent recurrence. At the very least, for her, right now, it is inadequate: “as if the sheer clarity of pointing / the dialectical oscillate of meditation / could ever illuminate this time and place.”
Clearly what I’ve read as DuPlessis’s critical Jewish response to Oppen is also a critical gender response. The Abrahamic gift of “giving birth to one’s own father” is but one site in “Of Being Numerous” where masculinity and a valued, austere singularity become possible in reaction to feminized figures of less rigorously considered human connection. As John Lowney has noted, female and feminized figures become a primary focus in the latter sections of the poem, though Oppen tends to position them as either beautiful objects of vision — “the perfect tendons / Under the skin” — or “assuming the burden of blindness.” The long poem presses towards its conclusion through these images, beginning with section 29’s address to “my daughter, my daughter … / I have a daughter / But no child,” and ending, ambivalently, in the voice of Walt Whitman contemplating the statue of freedom atop the Capitol dome, in a letter written during the time he spent in Washington as a quasi-nurse tending to Civil War wounded. Of the final sections of the poem, 34 probes issues of gender most deeply, reviving intratextually many of the “competing propositions” that I’ve been arguing Oppen kept in play both on and off the poetic page in the decade of his reemergence.
The section begins, “Like the wind in the trees and the bells / Of the procession.” Like section 9, this opening cites the writing of a young woman, however here the words are incorporated without quotation marks. Until Lowney’s chapter, DuPlessis remained the only reader to address the fact that these lines come from a woman named Jo Pacheno, in a brief note to a 1966 Oppen letter to John Crawford in which Oppen discusses “the problem of the ‘I’ in feminine poetry,” and the question of Pacheno’s future as a poet. The letter summons Sappho and Emily Dickinson as the only women writers capable of achieving “some sense of the distances and the realities around the ‘I’” that Oppen associates with “the chance of poetry.” In “Of Being Numerous,” Pacheno’s “procession” opens onto a catalogue of “beautiful particulars.” Encompassing the natural (“the earth / children and the grass”) as well as the urban (“the papers blown about the sidewalks”), these specific details are at once a site of value and limitation. Given the liberty of Oppen’s multidirectional line breaks, we read “Among the beautiful particulars … // ‘… a Female Will to hide the most evident God / Under a covert.’” Lowney has suggested that the prophetic stance of this couplet from William Blake’s Jerusalem appears “disjunctive” with respect to the opening nine lines of the section, which he describes as an homage to the “immanentist poetics” of Reznikoff’s “urban pastoral.” But if the juxtaposition seems sudden, it isn’t surprising, as it recapitulates the double positioning of women as both mute representatives of a valued object world and powerful agents of the “regime of right thinking” that would “veil” that world’s truths [this is the argument that the longer version of this essay develops extensively with respect to Oppen’s poetry, prose, and letters]. In the compressed logic of this passage, the feminized “particulars” (in the form of Blake’s Vala) themselves block access to “infiniteness,” or what Oppen calls in the letters, “vertical consciousness.” When section 34 resumes after the Blake quote, it underscores, rather than contradicts it. For whatever the social etiology of the “burden of blindness” women “assume” (and the poem leaves their choice in this matter an open question), they remain “intruders,” associated with “life” and the relationships of dependency that stem from it, as against “the most evident God.”
There are six more sections of “Of Being Numerous,” and the fact that the last three revolve around the figure of a genderless “Nurse” and appear to embrace the “knowledge” gleaned from “touch” and “care” does much to complicate the value system Oppen established around these terms and the people he associated with them. The poem may very well remain, as DuPlessis has recently said, “perfectly unstable.” But if even this is the case, its reception is riddled with gender gaps, and her section 34 of “Hard Copy” seeks to fill them. Where he launches his section with the uncited “voice” of a woman would-be poet, she constructs hers entirely of dedications, beginning, “To mothers who cannot / protect their young?” She inhabits his heroic/romantic figure of “the young women // Carrying life / Unaided in their arms” from the inside, investing her “mothers” with a canny double consciousness: “They probably know / impotent despairs, / expressed as resignation / but surfacing in little sleights of hand, candy,” she writes. This passage subverts the precursor image in “Of Being Numerous,” giving the lie to the debilitating sweetness of yet another iteration of the “Lady Poet … the Domestic Poet, the poet of the happy ending,” against whom Oppen would establish his “purity,” his “clarity in the sense of silence.” Though it is clearly intended to question the nature of the “courage” that Oppen attributes to his “young women,” we might also read the central stanza of DuPlessis’s section 34 as a dedication her younger self and, more distantly, to Denise Levertov (whose relationship to Oppen as a figure of a feminized, abjected political sphere the longer version of this essay traces):
To girls asked to filter the universe
by the poets who evoke their beneficence?
what will protect them
from the enormities
that they might suffer in their skirts and veils
while staged on the buffer zone they
are imagined to constitute?
If there are answers to the above question, they lie in the “fierce storehouses of articulation” that, as her career builds, sharply distinguish the “mesh” of DuPlessis’s writing from Oppen’s “clarity in the sense of silence,” even as she works to establish his poetic reputation and position him literary historically (“Hard Copy”). Occupying multiple positions in the nexus of “participation, production, and reception over time” is another answer — multitasking as feminist strategy.
This essay is excerpted and adapted from a longer piece entitled “‘That We Can Somehow Add Each to Each Other?’: George Oppen between Denise Levertov and Rachel Blau DuPlessis,” which appears in Contemporary Literature 51, no. 4 (Winter 2010).
1. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, letter to George Oppen, 1965, in The Selected Letters of George Oppen, ed. DuPlessis (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), 390. Cited in Oppen, “Of Being Numerous,” New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2002, 167.
3. The small press Potes and Poets published up through Draft XXX before Wesleyan University Press brought out its first volume, which republished the thirty drafts along with an additional eight to produce what is commonly taken to be the first volume, Drafts 1–38, Toll (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001).
4. After the nineteenth draft, DuPlessis established a grid method of composition whereby each new poem emerges in part out of the language, ideas, images, etc. of its “donor draft” nineteen poems prior to it. DuPlessis discusses “the fold” in depth in “Inside the Middle of a Long Poem,” in Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 242–43.
6. DuPlessis, Drafts 58–76, Torques (Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2007), 136. In an essay on Oppen, DuPlessis analyzes his formation of the line and the “combinatoire” of materials he achieves across line breaks in terms of Benjaminian allegory (Blue Studios, 196). The essay begins “in memoir” with an account of Oppen’s early editing of her work, and announces that “in a certain light everything I write is set against his uncompromising sign” (186).
7. DuPlessis describes the “midrashic” element of her poetics in a number of essays, including, most recently and fully, “Midrashic Sensibilities: Secular Judaism and Radical Poetics (A Personal Essay in Several Chapters),” in Secular Judaism and Radical Poetics, ed. Stephen Paul Miller and Daniel Morris (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010), 199–224.
8. “Drafts” that work through this story include “Draft 25: Segno,” “Draft 32: Renga,” “Draft 34: Recto,” and, most significantly prior to “Draft 85,” “Draft 52: Midrash” (in Drafts 39–57, Pledge [Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2004]).
9. Commenting on the “find me” section in a 1965 letter to Diane Wakoski, Oppen writes, “it seems to me still the pitfall that has trapped every woman poet who has written in English: I am good (or I am bad); find me” (Selected Letters, 110; noted in New Collected Poems, 384). Nevertheless, Oppen admired Wakoski personally and poetically.
10. Oppen’s Kierkegaard citation has for the most part eluded critics. Zack Finch offers one of the most extensive analyses to date in a recent essay about Oppen, Whitman, and violence. Introducing an interesting sexual waver into the gender terms with which we’ve been working, Finch claims that the citation “addresses both Abraham — ‘he who unsheathes his knife’ — and Isaac, who ‘shall give birth to his own father.’ Isaac’s suffering is really just as unthinkable as Abraham’s. Through an act of Levinasian forgiveness in the face of originary persecution, Isaac manages to give birth to his father, to renew the father’s life. … For the labor of giving birth, as an act of being penetrated from within, is both a temporary wounding and a sacrifice one typically considers to be an act of love. In giving this maternal work to a man, Oppen opens himself to the ordeal of a penetration which he actively chooses.” Finch, “‘I am / of that people the grass / blades touch’: Walt Whitman and the Aesthetics of Curiosity in George Oppen’s Critique of Violence,” Jacket 36. In my reading, the fragment Oppen takes from Kierkegaard seems focused solely through Abraham’s perspective, and the poet’s identification, to the extent there is one, is, I’d argue, with him.
12. Oppen, New Collected Poems, 181, 188. Several recent essays have discussed the stakes of Oppen’s Whitman citation, including Izenberg, Lowney, and Finch. Lowney reads Whitman’s status as a “nurse” as “perhaps the most conventional representation of female valor,” and suggests that it is on these antimasculinist terms that the poem means to end (225).
13. Oppen, Selected Letters, 137, 392n18. Davidson doesn’t mention this citation in his notes to the poem in the New Collected. Lowney reads Oppen’s appropriation of Pacheno as validating “female vision” (224).
October 21, 2010: An invitation and a beginning
It’s kismet. When I left the Poetry/Rare Books Collection a few days ago, Jim gifted me with a signed broadside of Rachel’s poem “Some Codas,” illustrated with a detail from Duncan’s drawing for the cover of his Fragments of a Disorderd Devotion. And now — upon returning home after a month in Duncan’s archives at Buffalo and Berkeley — I have received Patrick Pritchett’s invitation to write about Rachel’s work. She was the first to give me permission to do much: to read Duncan, unafraid of other’s scorn for his romanticism and, yes, effete poetics (“He’s just a shrill queen. I guess that’s why I don’t like his work,” another mentor had admitted); to embrace the possibility of becoming a “poet-critic” (though the institution too often squashes my double claim, robbing me of time for the first); to know that thinking poetry is living with it, in the totality of language and on the page; to recognize, and challenge, the religiosity of minority identification through the mechanism of the word (though without trusting entirely in what Jolas had called “the revolution of the word”); to experiment out of necessity as demanded by the poetic or even the critical project at hand, not out of faddishness. These were her lessons first. My study of Duncan over the years (fast coming on “decades”) has underscored them, emphasizing their relevance not just for me but also for the art, generally.
So the task is simple: to write in the spirit of Duncan’s notebook studies (of Olson, Levertov, Eigner, Dorn, Dickey — Dickey?!?! —, Blake, Dante, Whitehead, Boehme, Cassirer); of his daybooks on the War Trilogy in the second section of the H.D. Book; of End to Torment, H.D.’s own memoir of her life in poetry with Pound; of Oppen’s and Creeley’s daybooks, to which I keep returning; of the openness and opening and process so important to both of us. And so, I will write my own étude (a favorite word Duncan used to describe his studies) of Rachel’s work. For many reasons, I must keep it personal: not out of overfamiliarity or lack of respect, but for reasons quite the opposite. More than any other poet, critic, or teacher, Rachel has directly shaped my intellectual and artistic consciousness, my author-ity. But she also was one of the few who have modeled, more by example than by explicit instruction, the degree to which personhood exists in tension with subjectivity, personality alternating with impersonality. I will refer to her as she sometimes signs herself, after another: RBD.
As I reread some of her Drafts, this process will be a testing ground for ideas I keep butting up against ideas she, in one way or another, set into motion — set me into motion after — years ago. Process is a procès, as Deleuze and Guattari would say; productive and politicized thinking really is shadowed by a trial, a series of experiments working toward a judgment. RBD would appreciate that duality, she the lover of what she called “shadow words” in the seminars I took with her. [January 15, 2011: Or, as she puts it in “Draft 35: Verso,” “shadow things inside behind the said.”] It’s fitting that I use the essay form to conduct these proceedings. I have repeatedly told my own graduate students the now perhaps apocryphal story of when she sat me down — in 2000 or 2001, sometime before I finished that trial called dissertating — to tell me I would always have a hard time writing books. “You are a processual writer,” she diagnosed. Correctly. “You are a writer of essays.” A bewildering observation, especially for a fledgling academic whose career has depended on producing more books read by fewer people, to satisfy administrative fetishists and bean counters. I am writing yet another now. In contrast, my own poetic “career” has been marked by a near-refusal to publish because, as Lynne once joked with me, there are too many “novels (here, read: poetry volumes) of inexperience.” Stevens is my standard. (NB: Harmonium was published when he was forty. I have two more years. One more, by the time this appears.) RBD’s warning may have flummoxed me back then, but now I understand better. She truly appreciates — and models — the spirit behind the word essay. “These are works of ‘reading’ — for essays are acts of writing-as-reading. Acts of trying out, as the French root essayer says.” She doesn’t say as much here, but she knows that that “trying out” is also a putting on trial. There’s judging in testing. Not just a judgment of the subject about which one is writing, but also a judgment — sometimes mixed, always shifting — about what one is writing, that is about writing itself.
Alongside RBD, I want to consider two others who are cornerstones for her work, as well as mine: Duncan and Oppen. Patrick says my plan is to read her between her “Objectivist and Projectivist modalities.” I want to see it less academically, more as a vocation. Better: as a testing ground, a field of experiment. Oppen and Duncan will enter this study only peripherally, in-forming (as Duncan would put it) my reading, just enough to track developments in RBD’s writing. She herself does not distinguish absolutely between objectivism and projectivism. Take, for instance, her characterization of Oppen’s work as “a kind of ontological arousal to thinking itself — not to knowledge as such but to the way thought feels emotionally and morally and processually in time.” That is to say, she, too, sees this “objectivist” as a process thinker, one who works in time through the medium of thinking, of consciousness. Much of what I’m working through now in my own work on Duncan has to do precisely with this idea of consciousness and process as constitutive of his imaginative and visionary mode of projective verse or, more accurately put, field poetics. So, indeed, these two shared predecessors’ examples, poetics, do converge. At the point of consciousness.
Of course, there are differences between Oppen and Duncan. The former gives us the immediacy of word, not as object but as “it”: poem as discrete series; ephemera and phenomenon; a standing still to contemplate; Heidegger’s notion of art as supplying an opening in the pause, “The art work opens up in its own way the Being of beings. This opening up, i.e., this disconcealing, i.e., the truth of beings, happens in the work. In the art work, the truth of what is has set itself to work. Art is truth setting itself to work.” The latter appropriates this philosophical argot of What Is. Rather than a prophetic revelation breaching reality or reaching out to readers through objects and things, though, he sees it as the field itself: the open series; the unfolding of perceptions and consciousness; a continually grasping at one’s physical and linguistic environs to make them known, to make them meaningful, or simply just to make them; Whitehead’s idea of experience and environment as recursive, mutually affecting one another and thus impelling process: “Also in our experience, we essentially arise out of our bodies which are the stubborn facts of the immediate relevant past. We are also carried on by our immediate past of personal experience; we finish a sentence because we have begun it. The sentence may embody a new thought, never phrased before, or an old one rephrased with verbal novelty. There need be no well-worn association between the sounds of the earlier and the later words. But it remains remorselessly true, that we finish a sentence because we have begun it. We are governed by stubborn fact.” Oppen and Duncan conceive of action differently, but they share the similar idea that action is being, the poetic act makes existence articulate. For them, such a notion of action is the extent of the poetic event. Whether meaning comes staccato, moment by moment, or all in a flow, whether it emerges from the field or constitutes the field itself, is irrelevant. Such distinctions are based on rather minor differences for poets and philosophers and academics to quibble over. There is a place and time for that. What matters most here, in these reflections on RBD, though, is the common ground Oppen and Duncan share: that action and being are rooted in meaning.
Can meaning be the bottom line, though? Both Oppen and Duncan are stumped, stupefied, silenced by one common “problem”: politics. If poetry is meaning, if the poem is the event of Life and of Life’s Language voicing itself meaningfully, can politics play a role in poetry? Is politics part of Life (with a capital “L”)? Or, does introducing the political into the poem render existence into merely existentialism (of an angsty order)? Does politics reduce the poem to the effluvia of the person? That is the conclusion both Oppen and Duncan resist. Sometimes that resistance leads only to stoppages. Best-case scenario: writer’s block (viz. Duncan’s major freeze, the year-long stoppage when writing “Passages 26, The Soldiers,” 1964–1965; along with other, shorter moments of writer’s block … most occurring when he was lecturing for universities, a political as well as poetic lecture circuit, and working on poetics essays and his H.D. Book, whose political undercurrents have not yet received sufficient attention). Worst-case scenario: the poet stubbornly refuses to let politics enter the poem, is hounded by apparatuses of the state (including the FBI), is driven into exile, and falls silent (viz. Oppen, 1934–1958). Either kind of stoppage results from the poet’s obedience to the pressures of a patriarchal “Thou Shalt Not,” from perhaps his own unacknowledged belief that poetry is pure of the taint of the polis, an unrecognized acceptance of Plato’s decree of the poet as exiled from the Republic or Lenin’s decree exiling the poet from the Party. To lend such prohibitions any credence, though, would stop me — from writing, from thinking, from trying to answer in my own way Heidegger’s famous question: What are poets for?
My critical point of departure is this, then: though RBD herself is a product (and shaper) of second-wave feminism, for which “the personal is political,” she has devoted her work to avoiding the reduction of either politics or poetry to the personal, to personality. As she puts it in her essay “f-words,” “positionality, not personality is central.” It is an argument she has long maintained. Just note her response almost two decades earlier in “Sub Rrosa” (1987/1989) to the second-wave–style assertion that “To read as a woman is to rupture this expected practice [i.e., of all women having been acculturated to read like men].” As she goes on to wonder, “But to read as what woman? A woman? Is that phrase generic or specific? […] It seems amazing even to imagine one, but to imagine hundreds is gratifying. So I read as one imagining others.” This stress on the imagination, on imagining herself not just as an Other (Rimbaud’s “I is an Other”) but as many others (the lower case “o” is more appropriate, I remember her cautioning me early on), is the route by which politics enters the field of Rachel’s poetics. Or, in the least, it is the means by which she attempts to make a place for politics in poetry, in making the Being of Oppen and Duncan more becoming, more multiple, more extensive.
Such becoming does not just occur in the nomadic sense of endless flows or a perpetual shedding of one’s skins. One must stop, too. Not all subject positions can be imagined, let alone assumed. And every position one finds one’s self in is a location, a stopping-ground. Even Deleuze and Guattari write about those nodal points breaking up the lines of flight, where one engages meaning and sense, so as to start off again on a new tack. When RBD stops, and knows she is stopping, she is processing/procès-ing the situation. She produces the possibility for this stop-and-go, by formally crossbreeding Oppen’s silent seriousness (discrete series, measured and marked by silences) and Duncan’s open duplicity (open series, garrulous and riming with double meanings). The result: her continuous poem, Drafts. Let’s not give “it” or “What Is” the last word, she implicitly proposes. Let’s see if “it” can talk itself out of a bag — over and over. In this way, her poem doesn’t have just one opening. (Does any body?) Instead, language is compelled to speak, repeatedly. The poem as a process of drafting opens multiple shifting possible political or politicized spaces she and I, one of her readers, can inhabit. We don’t have to make a political space sui generis; we don’t have to assert our personality. Rather, spaces open and we migrate into them to fill, to occupy, them. Such political aims are double-edged swords, though: in any poetry, politics often becomes an egoistic staking of claims. Invested in a search of places to occupy we imitate the modality of imperialism and neoliberalism. With all these openings, then, her poem-in-draft also gets mighty drafty. Who can say, then, if this space of political possibility is at all habitable?
Intermittently, I’ll test these waters. Getting my feet wet, as they say, from the start of Drafts. One day at a time.
October 25, 2010: Close listening
Of the closed pages, tightly closed, packed against each other
Exposes the new day,
The narrow, frightening light
Before a sunrise.
— George Oppen, “Of Being Numerous”
It’s troubling — this image of a book as the embodiment of openness in closure. Not just shut, rather “tightly closed.” Suffocating, claustrophobic. Yet, possibility — slim, like Oppen’s own volumes before they were collected, yet still disturbing — is glimpsed in a sliver of light escaping from the closed book. Not that the light originates in the book. The preposition — of — has the utmost importance, as most of the “simple” words do for Oppen.
Moments like this are what attract me to whatever political possibilities poetry has. The derision I’ve heard from friends and colleagues and readers, even a few of the smarter and more cynical students, about my audacity for believing not just that poetry has value but that hope does, too. These critics also find unthinkable one of my articles of faith: that poetry’s value owes to the fact that it’s a vehicle of hope. A mode of transport. True, my attitude is romantic. Yet, if both poetry and hope are worthless: why read?
Forget the old question, Why write? Why read?
Clearly, few people are reading. I’m not concerned with statistics, which actually show that more people are buying, maybe even reading, books in different forms, whether digital books or “P-books” as librarians now call the heavy old print things, according to Nick. What I am most concerned with is RBD’s concern, too: not just reading, but really reading. Paying attention. [February 24, 2011: How did this not occur to me then? A closeness to remedy closure. A close reading that, in attending a text, is a form of opening, of undoing the claustrophobic closure and of letting loose the hope Oppen imagines in his tightly shut book.] These two related faculties — reading, attending — bring Oppen and Duncan into conversation. Both demonstrate an incredible care for what’s there, object or word … even phoneme. And that’s where the lesson, or the hope, lies. Listening closely to Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous,” though, we rediscover that hope is actually strange and unsettling. My boldness only lies there — in knowing (not believing) that good reading is close listening: aud — the morpheme from the Latin for “bold” is at the root of both audacious and audible. If a poem were not bold, it could not be heard.
There are ways to smother boldness, though. Overcooked cuisine. Stewed poetics. That new world is almost (important qualifier) shut up, tight. To hear it, we must be on the lookout. Reading as synaesthesia, then: where vision must aid audition.
Back to Oppen’s simple preposition — of. It begins, and proliferates throughout, “Of Being Numerous.” Of often appears at the beginning of his lines. It is a hinge or a connective tissue, easing us through his enjambments and carrying us along. Through the title, it even carries us from this world and onto the world of the page, connecting both. Yet, it also announces a breach. The definition of an ideal numerousness starts here, with the titular of. Each appearance of the preposition at the head of a short line turns that line into a fragmentary proposition which, in its very lightness, bears ontological weight: “Of an infinite series”; “Of the mineral fact”; “Of anything that happens”; “Of the singular” … to cite but a few. Continuity and breaking: the discrete series’ definitive quality. One might see it as the space of interruption, an eventful space in Badiou’s sense. That would make sense, for there is room for Oppen’s series in the work of a philosopher who derives his ontological, ethical, and political work out of set theory. For Badiou, the event is the site where a militant ethics irrupts, intruding upon the logic of the established set; and in its demanding the militant’s fidelity, it heralds a political shift. This metapolitical event is not only unpopular but also dark, apocalyptic, signaling an endtimes shift in the world-as-we-know-it. In many ways, there is a consistency between the idea of the mathematical philosopher and the vision of the poet who cites the mathematics. However, Badiou does not see an event as multiple. It is utterly singular. It sets into motion a singular truth-procedure. In addition, for him, as I understand him, there is but one set, one monotonous reality, interrupted by the event.
So, despite their mathematical affinities, there is a major difference. Oppen’s world is a series, not a set. There seems more room for multiple singularities and events, for multiplicities, more than what Badiou allows for. The poet proposes that the singularity is the individual herself; to some extent she determines the meaning of of, rather than must be faithful to a meaning coming from the eventful irruption. (I’ve always felt that, despite his CPUSA membership and activism, Oppen was more of an anarchist. More like Rukeyser, an anarchist communist or anarchist socialist since the advent of the Popular Front. So different from a Maoist May ’68-er like Badiou.) And that meaning can change, thus multiplies. If this of is a space, it cannot unilaterally demand our fidelity (too much like “fealty”) or make its claims on us. The space is not the One. That is, after all, the trouble with the nation-state, with the cityscape, with any authentic or exclusionary set:
We are not coeval
With a locality
But we imagine others are,
We encounter them.
If that locality is an event, we believe we “encounter” it and those who belong to it. (Thus is the rhetoric of the imagination of extremist jihad and of mainstream Western/US imperialism.) But if this event, this “locality,” moves and shifts individually with those who experience it, then the possibility is always multiplying, opening up, over and over again.
RBD attends to Oppen’s tricky preposition and proposition early in her Drafts and she — like him before her — tries to make the word of do so much. Mostly, though, she rejects his ontological register. For RBD, of is a more material matter than even when Oppen gives it substance by setting amidst these prepositional phrases a simple date — “‘1875’” — a date that is actually set in stone, the date marker on the Brooklyn Bridge’s Manhattan Tower. Here historicity and materiality enter the poem, both monumental and grounded (via the reader’s understanding that the significance of this date) and adrift (yet another signifier, a detail on the page). RBD, in contrast, tries to give the word of even more of a material existence, and does so by pushing it beyond its possessive denotation. In Drafts, of is a synecdoche for the space of the objectivist’s city, the silent placeholder of the inviting thing-in-itself. But this space is not for resting in; rather, she’s gotta keep on walking.
A silent space (I
walk here) populous.
RBD’s is an ambulatory of, then, able to be detached from signification overly determined by possessive relations. In this walkabout, though, she’s not looking for a vision. Or, at least, I don’t think she should be. (She herself doesn’t rule out that possibility.) It would be more exact to say that she’s trying to put reality into motion.
So, RBD’s of, as a spatial entity, has more of a materiality to it than Oppen’s; yet, curiously, it floats about more than his does because she refuses it to be a sign of attachment, possession, even objectification. His of is embodied as a sort of stone-seizing Excalibur, mid-river outside Brooklyn, native to both him and her; thus, his of comes to be more One though it’s outside — while inside — city limits, between the boroughs where they grew up and where my husband and I now sometimes live. Yet, although her of is not possessive, its placeholding function anchors it. RBD is akin to Mme Bovary, then, or, Walter Benjamin. She is our flâneuse, strolling the arcades. She anticipates this move, too, with her essayistic wandering through, and wondering about, the prose units she dubs “arcades” in “Blue Studio: Gender Arcades.” This is her open letter response to Barbara’s questions, which themselves seem to originate in a concern that echoes Heidegger, with a crucial distortion: What is a feminist for? In “Draft 3: Of” (Toll), RBD names this topology the feminist poet surveys and wanders the “langdscape” (20). It’s a too-awkward pun I can’t wrap my mouth around. But she’s not window shopping. She belongs to this space, is of it; yet, in keeping with the dual properties of this preposition, she is also disconnected from, and set adrift in, this language-scape which cannot possess or make any claim upon her (or her upon it).
Hard to get home; but this is, this travelling
The streets the malls a homey homeless home
ahung with things. (21)
For some reason, I cringe at how this “home” degenerates in its proliferation (“homey homeless home”), now awkwardly reattached to the “things” of consumer capitalism. The placelessness of this exile in late capitalism is hopelessly grounded, attached to relations of possession by the very space of of, the preposition that set her free.
Ironically, then, the poem’s political hope, as announced here, is in opening spaces that always foreclose opening, in trying to move beyond but keeping tied to, in relation, to the socius we wish to escape. If only we could cut the fucking cord! But RBD knows, her Drafts signal upfront, that it’s not as easy as that. For the opening pages of “Draft 3: Of” is bracketed off, and running vertical in the left margin is one word: “Cut” (19). Yet, she can’t (or won’t?) make that excision. They still are on the page before us. An abandoned edit, though the desire to enact it is still signaled. It’s not the content that matters — it is that these lines are of this poem, just as she is of the land of malls and city streets that both beckon to and disgust her with their unrelenting commercialism. Commodities all “ahung” in plain view, a perversion calling to mind a pornographic “The Night Before Christmas.” (What if it weren’t “stockings” that “were hung by the chimney with care …”? What if something else, something signaling a sizeable endowment, were hung in those windows? As if our Mme. Bovary were strolling past Christopher Street’s sex shops …) That “ahung” (ahem) also has me keeping an ear out for the ache, or perhaps the tsking chk, that seems to be needed to be articulated here, to make this ahung an Achtung: Attention! This hurts! Or, Paying attention hurts!
Navigating this “langdscape” entails recognizing the doubled and duplicitous nature of language, the only tool at our disposal. Our ofs can connect us and set us free. But they also tie us to that from which we would be free, especially when our ofs bring us back to our hankering for possession (and possessives). Which side we land on depends on how we attend to the language. Is this cause for lamenting? For mourning the loss of political possibility? For scorning those who dare to hope? Nah. It’s simply realistic. Funny word to describe a poet, huh?
November 2, 2010: “Between what and what” … or is it just “what”?
But there is an aspect of that realism RBD herself doesn’t attend to. For, despite herself, her work tends to forget the dual nature of of, transposing it. That is, the specificity of the word to signal connection and disconnection often goes unheeded, and instead RBD forces poetry to signify liminally. Her sense of the “blue” — that space of hope in contending with the painful particulars of the situation one finds oneself in — is interstitial. When writing of the specific kind of realism (“urrealism”) of the poets under whose sign she thinks and writes — Niedecker, Guest, Oppen — RBD notes that they work “between vision and the real, between a spiritual dimension and a material(ist) one — a between that one might imagine as unstable, constantly under construction, difficult to sustain.” However, putting that mode of engaging reality, that modality of realism, in some interstitial “between” space is not an urrealism but a kind of irrealism or an unrealism that risks or aspires for transcendence. Well, it’s transcendent insofar as moving in this between is proposed as a means of moving beyond limits. As RBD writes in “Draft 18: Traduction”:
dans le passage
et de l’autre
à l’outre […]
The strangeness and stranger of the language one inhabits or seeks out (l’autre) serves as the passage (significantly, a Duncan word — the Duncan of the open series Passages) to the outside (l’outre), with which otherness rhymes — phonemically and meaningfully.
This outside is related to her concerns with a particular kind of materialism, as modeled by Adorno. RBD is fond of quoting him. “How many times can I cite Adorno!” Some of that fondness comes from a desire to write poetry, an activity she finds, as a cultural Jew, freighted with a particular difficulty and responsibility. She embarks on this writing sensitive to, but challenging of, Adorno’s belief that poetry is forever impossible after the Holocaust: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.” But Adorno specifically judged lyric to be impossible, and, if we want to be sticklers, he actually judged all lyric, at least since the advent of late modernity and the rise of capitalism, to always be impossible. This is true because modern lyric, in a capitalist age, before Auschwitz and long after, is always already social. “My thesis is that the lyric work is always the subjective expression of a social antagonism,” and “A collective undercurrent provides the foundation for all lyric poetry.” RBD is not exactly writing lyric, but, then again — this is partly what Oppen and Duncan bequest her — she’s not exactly not not writing lyric, either. She’s aware of the subjective mediation — personal, yet also collective — that stands in the way of aspiration of “the highest lyric works” in which the subject recedes and “language itself acquires a voice.” Whether it is factually correct or not is immaterial for my understanding of the poem. I have begun to date for myself the advent of Drafts with the following statement from “Otherhow,” an essay first drafted in 1985, the year before the date RBD attributes to the first Drafts’ composition:
(No more poems, no more lyrics. Do I find I cannot sustain the lyric; it is no longer. Propose somehow a work, the work, a work, the work, a work otherhow of enormous dailiness and crossing. All the “tickets” and the writing. Poems “like” essays: situated, breathless, passionate, multiple, critical. A work of entering into the social force of language, the daily work done everywhere with language, the little flyer fallen to the ground, the corner of a comic, a murder, burning cars, the pouring of realization like a squall green amber squall rain; kiss Schwitters and begin)
Drafts does not abandon lyric, not as RBD announces that intent here; but the poem does stay true to the spirit of this pronouncement, it does register the impossibility of an idealized “pure” lyric. “Kiss Schwitters and begin.” Hers is a feminist poetic version of Schwitters’s merzhaus. Hers is an assemblage forming a household built out of love, out of detritus, out of the unnoticed and quotidian. And, as the poem comes to deal with it more and more as the first volume, Toll, progresses, it is a poetic structure also constructed out of the forgotten and the silenced. Such an assimilation is the responsibility of the writer: “who can be witness / after the eclipse of witness // cannot not speak.” RBD’s thinking about the materiality of (lyric) poetry — a materiality that intervenes in the disappearance of the subject (both the author’s self and history’s “others”) and of letting language just speak of its own accord, “a work of entering into the social force of language” — anchors her critical work, too. She even gives it a name — social philology — and uses that concept as the matrix through which to explore gender, race, and religious culture in modernism.
This kind of materialism — I’m fond of it, too, but let’s call it what it really is: immanence. Adorno does not give up his Hegel. (For that matter, neither does Benjamin, whom RBD’s also fond of referencing.) This is more than an academic, genealogic point. And it’s more than the residua of Marxism, Adorno as merely a continuation of a historical materialist tradition of standing Hegel on his head. For the Frankfurt School, especially for Adorno and Benjamin, metaphysics must inflect materialism … especially when it comes to art. Lyric poetry might be impossible, but we still long for language to have its own say, to pronounce itself, no matter how barbaric or irresponsible such a wish is because it causes us to willfully turn away from social justice and human depravity and criminality. Art lies to us insofar as it encourages this wish. But that is a necessary lie, Adorno reflects (he calls the lie art’s autonomy), since it is under this cover that it ushers in a World Spirit, supplies the truth whereby discourses and systems are disrupted, transformed, re-formed. What is more, the lie about art’s embodiment of ahistorical truth lets its historical (dialectical) content serve as the very substance whereby truth enters the scene, disrupting us and the systems or orders to which we belong. Thus, art lays bare — calls into question — the logics of a regime of truth, as Rancière would put it, by showing us what we’ve forgotten. We must then be faithful to the truth that emerges there, Badiou would say — and so, in our fidelity to the vision it embodies, art becomes political.
But Rancière helps us see the limits of immanence à la Adorno or Benjamin or of the event à la Badiou (for his event is no immanence of truth-content but is a truly disruptive procedure): truth exists only in regimes. To believe there is an irruption or irruptive emergence, an intrusion of truth, via art is to believe that art is a portal through which a monistic truth can affect all parts of our experience. It is to conflate the work of art with the work of politics, thereby erasing the fact that the art and the politics are both struggles, but they are only analogous struggles. That is Rancière’s useful reminder. Politics may elucidate art, and vice versa. But they are not the same. The two are and should be related. But it is a risky business to conflate them. RBD’s “between” is a between-times — between now and future, social pain and political redemption. One might think the between is a placeholder, marking a space or a gap between two like but not identical terms. But if the between is a space of immanence, the space through which the truth enters and thus transforms the poetic and the social worlds, it actually risks a dangerous conflation.
I wish I had my copy of Aesthetic Theory here with me now. (The danger of writing at a remove from most of one’s library for weeks at a time …) At one point, if I remember it correctly, Adorno tries to talk himself out of the immanence corner. To say that art presents the structures of difference from which we (in reading or viewing the aesthetic text) glean difference, possibility, hope. Thus, it is materialist. But how did that structure get there? Adorno (after Marx) says it is the World Spirit. And this is when my Marxist students get angry with me, because I reply: “Nonsense. That’s not materialism. That’s religion.” That is, that’s Marxism-in-spite-of-Marx. That is, you were taught to believe the World Spirit is materialist when it’s stood on its head. It’s not. It’s still monistic, the stuff of theology. Reality pluralizes. If we are to believe that there is a materialism in this scenario, this stuff of immanent vision already has to have been there, was already real, was part of the structure of the life lived. And this is where the supposedly odious “metaphysics” of a William James or Whitehead or Dewey — Duncan’s chief influences, my pragmatists — pop up. Those structures already were part of the fabric of organic and social life itself. Artists, not art — makers, not the made — bring those sites of difference into the realm of their art. Through that art, they come into the fields (plural) of readers’ consciousness. Whitehead’s word, the one to which Duncan gravitates: the difference is apprehended, and thus folded — a concept RBD gravitates to — into consciousness, and thus changing reality which is recursively constituted by subjects and objects that work on one another, through material interaction and through the participation of ideas — offering up data, receiving and processing data, re-visioning the word through the data, the newly re-visioned world sending forth new data, ad finitum. Rarely is any exchange a major change. Miniscule, but not insignificant. The process demands a constant working and reworking, a seeing and re-seeing. In an important but forgotten essay, Duncan, writing of Woolf’s aesthetic politics, beautifully calls it “an alchemy of in-formation.” (RBD would appreciate his thinking through Woolf. But his Woolf is the author of Three Guineas and hers is, primarily, the author of A Room of One’s Own.)
When we’re so much of that slowly transforming field of consciousness, we can’t be between here and there, now and future, pain and utopia. We just are. The future seeds the present, as does the past. We just work the ground.
As my mentor, RBD instilled in me my suspicion of rhetoric. Now I tell my students simply this: Every poem fails, and that is why they all are generous gifts. For their failures open opportunities for our thinking. She may say she’s working on a beyond in between, but that’s only because she’s invested in seeing her poetics and politics as similarly invested in using that between to get outside. That is to say, her project is still one of liberation. I’m just as much Foucault’s pupil as hers, though. Freedom need not be, in fact never can be, liberation. Foucault addresses this when speaking not about the second-wave feminism with which RBD was allied but instead about its sister movement, the movement that made my thought — indeed, my very life — possible: the American Gay Liberation movement. It’s no exaggeration to say “my life.” If it were not for the GLF, the GAA (the Gay Activists Alliance), or later Queer Nation and ACT UP and GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis), or any number of post-Stonewall movements and organizations, I surely would be dead by now, another statistic of a self-loathing gay suicide, a hunted down faggot loathed by the world, or another victim of the Plague. Yet, I also recognize politics’ limits. I do not believe in liberation or the thought of any outside, even if it is only an enclosed outside between two defined spaces. (Philosophy, like poetry and politics, does come down to an article of faith. The will to believe — William James here — depends on what we can believe, on what’s observed, studied, experienced.)
I must see where in Drafts RBD’s thought betrays itself, goes against the logic of the outside/between, against the poem’s implicit romance of liberation in its romance of the between. That is where the politics of poetry is complemented by an ethics, the substrate of the political where collectivism meets individualism. In Drafts, one (liberation) is more conscious and declared and formulated, and the other (freedom) less conscious (not necessarily un-) and so more inchoate and grasping (a word culled from Duncan’s notebooks, when he was trying to make Olson speak to Whitehead, to make “apprehending” a physical and conscious affair).
December 7, 2010: Pause
In these last few days, I’ve returned to Drafts. Just in time to accompany RBD as she, too, returns to what she had already written so as to execute her folds. A confession, though: It’s difficult to sustain the concentration needed to attend the poem closely. I realized today that in length alone the four published volumes are longer than Pound’s Cantos. Excluding notes, though, they’re approximately the same: 800 pages. I am starting to suspect that I won’t read through the entire poem for this essay. My pages quickly (relatively speaking) fill up. At least whatever I produce here will be a beginning, a way of breaking the ice by asking uncomfortable questions and by demonstrating deep appreciations. But I’ve also been moving too slowly through the poem. In part, the work demands it, but I am also too distracted by my other studies — my chapters on Duncan for the anarchism book, my reading of Riding and Jolas (my present, nearly inexplicable obsessions — a few months ago it was Dahlberg). The questions these studies force are similar to what I’ve been asking about RBD’s between, though. Given her disdain for “pure poetry,” just how much is Riding’s conception of poetry actually a divorce from sociality, a metaphysical celebration? Even her post-poetic telling is rooted in sociality somehow — if for no other reason than the fact that strives for a critique of the masculine, in all forms of discourse and social being? Is Duncan’s construction of a space between prophecy and objectivism a metaphysic or an attempt to ground visionary experience? Is RBD’s between an unconscious opening from a social field onto a metaphysical other, or visionary, field? Similar, but different.
December 20, 2010: “the ethics of poetry being that fold”
For some time — a few weeks, a month perhaps — I’ve been going over the last half of Toll to make sense of my notes in and about that portion of the first thirty-eight Drafts. What promising possibility lies behind, or obscured by, RBD’s problematic between? Reviewing my marginalia, I have found that my scribbles note my distance from, and critique of, “the game,” as I keep referring to it. Those instances are contrasted with my jottings and notes about “connection” or simply “here” — about those moments in the poem I am most drawn to because there and then I do not feel the need to perform as critic. Instead, I can just be RBD’s reader. “The game” is her self-conscious play, where the method is not only laid bare but also part of the poem’s polemic. Frankly, “the game” is where I get bored: it’s all so intellectual, self-reflexive. Boredom is not necessarily bad: it is a condition of the postmodern, or at least of my experience of the postmodern. It is where my intellect gets carried away, in both senses of the phrase.
There is something about boredom in how Barthes discusses the text of bliss, which so often resembles what RBD’s Drafts are after. “Bliss is unspeakable, inter-dicted.” It arises from the between places, and it depends — much like Drafts does — on a kind of shadowy haunting: “The text needs its shadow; this shadow is a bit of ideology, a bit of representation, a bit of subject: ghosts, pockets, traces, necessary clouds: subversion must produce its own chiaroscuro.” Unlike the text of pleasure, to which it is related, interchangeable though not synonymous, the blissful text is asocial, struggling with its sociality. It only traffics in and produces traces of the social — making the quotidian the material with which it works, thus pulling them into the shadows and the shadows into plain view. How like RBD’s “shadow things inside behind the said”!
This kind of postmodern text is the product of an avant-garde attitude, of a gaming that, in the end — at least for me — results in a kind of boredom, of an awareness that I’m being carried along by something else. This is its own kind of pleasure (rather: bliss or ecstasy, ek-stasis, standing beside one’s self so that the intellect can play freely). RBD engages her readers and calls upon us to recognize when this game is happening: “To pass beyond words / yet construct linkage, s meaning, s in unspoken space” (197 [sic]). But in the end it’s just aburrido. The real pleasure is had by the writer, when she is exerting her agency and engaging the language consciously. We, the readers, are left with the linguistic bliss. RBD’s the only one who can go “beyond words.” It seems that earlier I underestimated the degree to which she sets aside her authorial agency, the personhood of our experiences of writing. Here, I’m aware just how much the social traces are manipulated, and I am called upon to witness the performance. It’s not exactly authoritarian: there is no overt polemic or didacticism here. Still, all I, as reader, am left with after she’s had her full of play with meaning are the words themselves. The detritus, the leftovers of her game.
Let’s push this Barthes connection a bit more. The text of bliss “may well be, once the image-reservoir of speech is abolished, neuter.” And the neuter is a category with which Barthes would struggle for the rest of his days, particularly after his mother’s death a few years later. Losing her made him revaluate bliss. His mourning produced a condition he described as “painful availability: I am vigilant, expectant, awaiting the onset of a ‘sense of life.’” In lectures written soon thereafter when he was still in mourning, his concept of the neuter in the diaries would transform into a theory of the neutral, of subjectivity between action and passion. (Despite the slight change of name, though, Barthes is not immured to the gendered condition — or lack thereof — of this subjective attitude.) For him, the neutral becomes a means of dealing with living, with surviving. “Neutral: would look for a right relation to the present, attentive and not arrogant. Recall that Taoism = art of being in the world: deals with the present.” In moving from neuter to neutral, Barthes is merely moving along the spectrum connecting bliss and mourning. They are not dissimilar. Both attend death: one (neutral) the death of the author, the other (neuter) the death of the mother. And both attempt to put one into relation with the present, which is, in the end, an impossible condition to articulate.
In those aforementioned moments where I noted “connection” or “here” in the margins of my copy of Toll are those moments where I came closest to empathizing with that moment of neutrality. And those are the moments when RBD stops; that is, those are the places where the game stops. Instead of self-consciously playing, those are the instances where she mourns. Or, perhaps she is just resting. (May she rest in peace.) After all, she does resist the characterization of her work as elegizing (“It is not elegy / though elegy seems the nearest category of genre / raising stars, strewing flowers ….” ). Instead, she is working, as she insists in the aptly titled “Draft 19: Working Conditions”:
The condition of work being struggle in time.
And with these random findings. (124)
Or later in the same canto:
This is the work
This is the work
form as experienced
struggle, over the mark.
And over the effacement[.] (128–29)
This category of “work” is very important for me, as it is for her. But for RBD it has a doubled significance, and for me it has only one. Her first: The significance of the game, of construction, of putting her will into it. Her second (and my only): The craft that we go about, more often blindly than not. Struggling not with the materials (“the mark”) but over the void that those materials open out upon (“the effacement”).
And it is in the second sense — call it mourning, call it work, call it what you will — that she stops trying to go beyond, stops being so postmodern, and instead is caught up in the neutrality — and the neuter — of the writing. As she writes in “Draft 33: Deixis,” in my opinion the keystone of Toll:
is how to make poetry
constructed of It. (231)
And that “It” — capitalized — she borrows from our Duncan, our man who stressed so much the blindness of our craft. (For Oppen, I think, it would be less of a capital affair. Being, even when it’s eventful, is so much more common for him.) In a curious footnote nearby, Rachel points us to a passage from Duncan’s “The Self in Postmodern Poetry” that marks “it” as “The play of first person, second person, third person, of masculine and feminine and neuter[.]” The feminist who gravitates to a voice wherein gender is not so much called into question as it is … lost. Or perhaps it is irrelevant? This neuter, this neutral of writing, is simple the ineffable present making Itself heard, if only for just a moment. “I would want to argue that it speaks in and through the now, perhaps just as it flicks into the then,” she writes in another note (Toll, 232n20). She’s not doing the speaking in these moments. The game ends so It can speak:
speak out of the it
speak out It.
Let It speak
Make it know and no. Now.
Make It (what) Knew. (230–31)
And when the game ends, so does the postmodernism. Pound creeps in (Make it new), inflected by Duncan (who only could make it old). Never a postmodernist (remember that is Olson’s neologism), Duncan thought himself merely a belated modernist. “I am far from that scene — far, indeed, it seems from [sic] me, from that scene — from being part of the New Poetry — for it has always been my imagination to be or take my allegiance from the Old.” But producing that knowledge via derivations of how It’s found in what’s around requires some surrender of agency. One must give It priority over one’s self: “Let It speak.”
Rachel marries (yes, a gendered term and, in my experience, a heteronormative one, too; I have wed, but in the eyes of the state I’m not married) that tentative and mourning permission of working in a neutral condition, conscious of what one has lost and what others have lost (including their lives), with the more active gaming and joyful self-consciousness of willfully enacting a procedure. And that procedure is? The fold. It is a measured selection, a correspondence between drafts to bring “the out-there” to “the over-here,” so as to produce an “ethical indistinction / between out-there and over-here.” This comes about through a deictic procedure, an indexical matter of compiling and pointing. But I believe RBD’s description of the fold’s ethical nature is misleading, giving all the credit to the game that alienates me (let’s be honest), the game engaged only for her (or any post-modernist’s) pleasure: “making deixis the process of the between” (234). This folding helps me articulate the problem of the figure of the between. Rather than putting the between into process, folding, as RBD executes that procedure, is a coming into an ineffable and undiscoverable space. (The cross-gendering in my figure of coming into virgin territory, of penetrating a labial fold, is not to be overlooked.) That is to say, in folding, I don’t think she ever really points at It. It’s no definite object, and It’s not between her and her object or between me and mine (or between her and me, for that matter). No amount of pointing will ever suffice. Poetry can only wave its hands about to gesture at the general proximity of that in where It resides. Or poetry walks up to the hole and looks on it. Not able to see in. Just the surface.
But poetry also knows that there is an in there. Folding, or RBD’s game, is crucial for bringing her readers’ there here, into/onto the page. We may get carried away by the game, but the game also helps us know that It is so and that It is in there. And this understanding brings that there a bit more here. It makes that there more properly of here (to return to an earlier thread in my reading, to Oppen’s preposition). And so Drafts is not just a game of folding, rendering language into a new sculptural form as if writing were an exercise in intellectual origami. Rather, Drafts is also a poem of familiarities and intimacies, a process of bringing close what we’ve forgotten or held at bay. That process is trying at times, and it involves passing judgment: but mostly on our selves.
What Barthes knows, and what RBD knows, too, is we don’t just mourn the other that is lost. We work so as to mourn the loss of some part of ourselves that we had found in that other, over there. Barthes on mourning his mother: “Suffering is a form of egotism. I speak only of myself. I am not talking about her, saying what she was, making an overwhelming portrait[.]” Working through that loss of some part of our selves, working to excavate where we are in the work, is not just the underlying motivation for the ethics of the fold, as RBD announces: “Thus. To be so. In is.” Perhaps it is also the first step in making ourselves worthy, or of healing our selves, so that we — both the writer, who mourns, as well as the reader, who perhaps recognizes herself as that displaced subject whose lost-ness and distance of there-ness the author mourns — can be prepared for a politics.
Perhaps I’ve had it all wrong all along, and have failed to recognize the space from which I write. Perhaps the political nature of poetry owes not to its utopic vision, its serving as a vehicle for hope and for the possibility of joy. Perhaps the politics of the art does, after all, owe to the poem’s capacity to mourn, to provide us an opportunity, a preparation, and a companionship as we work through losses, injuries, even injustices. Writing from a queer position within the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the heterosexist and homophobic violence exacted upon those perceived as exhibiting gender and sexual difference, I should have been able to recognize it as such. Many who share a similar subject-position have noted that loss has been an appealing, if not the necessary, premise for a politics, especially for queer subjects. I, clinging stubbornly to hope, have militated against others’ presentation of this conclusion as the only possibility. In the end, perhaps loss is where ethics intersects with politics, where hope becomes more realistic and grounded in the present. After all, having lost something, anything, is a precondition for hoping that a change may one day come. And that change attends our working and reworking the conditions with which we are presented, in the company of those with whom we share our efforts.
I think it is time to draw this record of my thinking about and my reading of RBD to an end. Reading Drafts, I have not found any ready or ultimate answers to the question of the political in RBD’s poetry, let alone “all” poetry. But it has all been a process to come to this point, then: I can now think of politics as, at least in part, a condition of mourning — of objects, of others, of unknowns, of our selves — and a condition of mourning a work or the work (working through the grief, the loss, the fracture of self, the self-displacement to make us present to our selves). Always at a loss, we remain open, persons in process. There still is a promise, then. But that eye to the future is matched with a responsibility not just to the past, but also to the fragility of the present, the tenuousness, even the mortality, of presence. Openness — a facet of what I have long thought of as “passion” or “vulnerability” — is the very principle wherein a poetic politics and a poetic ethics can intersect. Having worked with RBD to come to this articulation, I am now prepared to draw this opening of Drafts to a close.
It is hard to know why
this site is so implacable
but it is, clearly it is.
post-face: March 26, 2011
Talisman: Tattoo 2 (Cariye Hamamı, v.2: When the lyric fabric deteriorates …)
… and recalling the dead skin men sloughed
off: it, too, this sooth, this law, born of song,
in book shut tight, sweat
and unyielding devotion
bleeding now then
forever on the margins
of this runic caftan
in the gridwork between
circumscribed Solomonic stars
where the Sultan’s breasts
would have streamed milk
had he sense enough
to mark textiles
with Tiresias’s semi-
June–September 2010; February–March 2011
1. Eugène Jolas, “Proclamation (‘Revolution of the Word,’ June 1929),” in Eugène Jolas: Critical Writings, 1924–1951, ed. Klaus H. Kiefer and Rainer Rumold (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1929), 111–14.
2. See H.D., End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound, ed. Norman Holmes Pearson and Michael King (New York: New Directions, 1979); Robert Creeley, A Day Book (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972); George Oppen, Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers, ed. Stephen Cope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
3. January 15, 2011: Familiarity in my reading might be thought to introduce asymmetrical gender dynamics, male author daring to address female subject too intimately. Returning to the essay, I have struggled with this issue, but have decided to leave it as is. [February 24, 2011: After a month of further reflection, I have decided to change it. Yet, it is important to both our projects, our mutual investment in the politics of writing gender and sexual difference, that some trace of this genuine struggle be left, as a kind of imprimatura (distinct from imprimatur), an underlying base (as in painting) upon which the rest is set. Not a palimpsest, for I do not wish to erase it by adding another layer. Any address of politics in Rachel’s work must begin with intimacy. And it is curious, and significant, that I have been so concerned with exactly this question of how to relate the intimacy of our intellectual bond and her mentorship, both rather queer. — ek] The word “Rachel” need not be problematic [February 24, 2011: … but it is — ek]: my relationship with her — as writer, critic, thinker, creator — has always been mediated by queer intimacies and familiarities. Moreover those intimacies have been inflected by our mutual self-consciousness about the conflicting simultaneity of normative and queer tendencies of each of our gender roles. I have toyed with the idea of translating each instance into “RBD” — but that is too heavy-handed. [February 24, 2011: Alas, it is not. — ek] “This will not be my RBD Book,” I keep joking (protesting?) to myself. Yet, in some ways, it is, at least insofar as this essay develops a reading and a writing that nakedly sorts out my own poetics through a mentor’s work, a queer male writer looking toward a female and feminist precedent. When fitting, the names of others will remain as I know them — as intimates —, though most are public figures, writers and academics of note. These friends, in my day-to-day living rather than in my role as institutional reader, have influenced my reading and thinking about Rachel’s work, at this time.
4. January 17, 2011: When analyzing Kafka’s fictions, Deleuze and Guattari note that the Czech treats desire as a force tied to writing connecting the literary page to the social world and transforming the subject so that she can test boundaries, to pursue justice instead of the law: “Writing for Kafka, the primacy of writing, signifies only one thing: not a form of literature alone, the enunciation forms a unity with desire, beyond laws, states, regimes. Yet the enunciation always historical, political, and social. A micropolitics, a politics of desire that questions all situations.” See Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (1975), trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 42. Later: “One’s goal is to transform what is still only a method (procédé) in the social field into a procedure as an infinite virtual movement that at the extreme invokes the machinic assemblage of the trial (process) as a reality that is on its way and already there. The whole of this operation is to be called a Process, one that is precisely interminable” (48; Deleuze and Guattari’s emphases). My theoretic understanding of process is an amalgam of process philosophy (à la Whitehead) and the assortment of thinkers and writers he influenced, Olson and Duncan and their poetic heirs as well as Deleuze and his philosophic ones.
6. February 24, 2011: It is somewhat disingenuous to represent this decision not to actively pursue publication of my poetry as an autonomous one. As a tenure-line professor, RBD herself had experienced an institutional resistance to the writing of (feminist) poetry and, worse, (feminist) poetic essays. Though the case has not been as extreme with me, and though I had received encouragement before tenure from Lynne, Pierre, Don, and others to ignore the institutional hierarchy to pursue my “real work,” it is still difficult as an academic to wear two hats. And even though I now have tenure, my own unstable institution has rendered this safeguard to intellectual or creative (not just “academic”) freedom nearly meaningless by announcing a decision to “deactivate” five humanities programs, thereby eliminating the positions of many tenured faculty, some world-renowned and several recognized and awarded by the same university in recent years as “distinguished” teaching or research faculty. Often now I feel vulnerable, committed as I am to the teaching of poetry, of creative thinking and philosophy, of issues related to our common humanity. Poetry continues to be a dangerous business, though it offers little by way of a material social revolution: its practitioners are usually the ones who suffer the most danger.
8. Ibid., 195. The printed version of this same lecture on Oppen also includes a footnote where RBD explicitly notes the intersection of objectivism and projectivism: “This is the point — poems tracking the graph of thought — at which a ‘projective’ poetics as in Olson, Creeley, and, differently, Duncan and Blaser meet the ‘objectivist’ tendency” (273n10).
9. January 17, 2011: One-half of my book in progress on anarchism and modernism (tentatively titled Life, Love, and War) is devoted to a revaluation of the shifting anarchist politics underlying Duncan’s process poetics between 1945 and 1970. The other half deals with the anarchist pacifism of Patchen and Rukeyser, as read through a collection of concepts related to political or politicized visionary poetics.
12. January 17, 2011: Oppen: “And actualness in prosody, it is the purpose of prosody and its achievement, the instant of meaning, the achievement of meaning and presence, the sequence of disclosure which comes from everywhere, life-styles, angers, rebellions — I am not apolitical, and it is possible to mock poetry, it is certainly possible to mock poetry just as there are times when one is sick of himself, but eventually, I think, there is no hope for us but in meaning” (“Statement on Poetics,” in Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers, 49; Oppen’s emphasis). Duncan: “The end of masterpieces … the beginning of testimony. Having their mastery obedient to the play of forms that makes a path between what is in the language and what is in their lives. In this light that has something to do with all flowering things together, a free association of living things then — for my longing moves beyond governments to a cooperation; that may have seeds of being in free verse or free thought, or in that other free association where Freud led me to remember their lives, admitting into the light of the acknowledged and then of meaning what had been sins and guilts, heresies, shames and wounds” (“Ideas of the Meaning of Form” (1961), in A Selected Prose, ed. Robert J. Bertholf [New York: New Directions, 1995], 24, Duncan’s ellipsis).
13. March 26, 2011: Heidegger’s question was first asked by Hölderlin, and it is a question concerned with the intersection of a romantic commitment with what the German poet had saw as the “destitute” condition of an emerging modernity that devalues romanticism. See Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” 91–142.
16. December 10, 2010: Careless readers often miss the fact that reterritorialization is inevitable in Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy of nomadism and romance of deterritorialization. It can’t be more explicit than where they write in Anti-Oedipus (1972), “In short, there is no deterritorialization of the flows of schizophrenic desire that is not accompanied by global or local reterritorializations, reterritorializations that always reconstitute shores of representation. […] Our loves are complexes of deterritorialization and reterritorialization” (Anti-Oedipus, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983], 316).
18. January 17, 2011: “[…] the sincerity of the I and the we, it is a tremendous drama, the things that common words say, the words “and” and “but” and “is” and “before” and “after.” Our true faith is said in the simple words, for we cannot escape them — for meaning is the instant of meaning — and this means that we write to find what we believe and what we do not believe […]” (Oppen, “Statement on Poetics,” 49).
19. January 25, 2011: Jeffrey tells me that the publishing world is now concerned that people are just accumulating e-books, like so many unheard MP3s, rather than reading them. Now, as a culture, we are increasingly engaged in an electronic version of hoarding. Perhaps it is just a less cumbersome and space-demanding version of the sort of hoarding I, and so many other “book lovers,” already are guilty of.
20. January 16, 2011: It turns out that Oppen would not have appreciated this thought about audacity. A curious note I just found in RBD’s selection of Oppen’s correspondence, this in a letter he happened to write her while drafting “Of Being Numerous” (October 4, 1965): “There’s nothing very complex, nothing requiring tremendous aesthetic argument: we need courage, not ‘audacity’ — Pound’s word — but plain courage. To say what it’s like out there … out here” (The Selected Letters of George Oppen, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990], 122, ellipsis in original). His preferred term “courage” reminds me of Arendt’s adherence to the same word, as the basis of a politics founded on communication and individuals’ making and sharing a world. (See especially Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed. [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998]; Arendt, The Promise of Politics, ed. Jerome Kohn [New York: Schocken Books, 2005]). But I wonder if Oppen had too much faith in the fact that one simply has to report on conditions “out there”/“out here” to establish that common, communicative ground. I don’t know what RBD wrote him to prompt this response about courage, but I do know that Drafts exhibits less of an easy faith in the reportage or in the sense that one will ever be heard. Courage to speak must be matched with a boldness to make oneself heard, all while listening well to what’s to be said. As RBD notes in her early essay “Language Acquisition”: “What writes listens. Listening is one of the major social and intellectual skills necessary for signification” (The Pink Guitar, 100). Perhaps that’s what the gendered difference comes down to between audacity and courage: knowing that it’s more audacious for a writer to stop and listen, rather than continuing to assert herself. Funny, though, that, if we are to believe Oppen’s letter, RBD learned that lesson about audacity from Pound, not from Oppen himself.
In the end, such audacity is not to be confused with authority or authoritarianism. RBD has such a precarious relationship to authority, both seeking it and divesting herself of it. This ambivalence comes from gendered lessons about the extent to which one has a self to assert. For instance, note how she writes of H.D.’s palimpsest form, which anticipates her own practice in the Drafts she would begin to write in the same year this study was published: “Palimpsest may have suggest the metonymic chain, a series of tellings of something with no one ever having final dominance, an evocation of plurality and multiplicity, lack of finality. This suggests the porousness of H.D.’s style, its unauthoritarian, constantly exploratory quality, despite this firm appeal to a final truth, saved from the embarrassments of authority precisely by being perpetually hidden as well as being exactly different from what dominant culture offers” (DuPlessis, H.D.: The Career of That Struggle [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986], 56). In Drafts that unauthoritarian stance would come in privileging listening, collecting or gathering. For the most part, authorial agency is limited to pointing. Just note how for one Draft she uses a sentence from Wlad Godzich to define authority as an instance of deixis, of pointing (in DuPlessis, Drafts 1–38, Toll, 219). That itself is a performance of listening, of pointing, to another authority to define the basis of one’s own authority in listening, in pointing.
But I suspect that Duncan was the greatest influence here, at least in terms of how he connected attention and listening to a kind of poetic audacity. He exhibits great anxiety about his own writing when he, the ever-chatty one, had been talking far too much, caught up in “my own goings-on, going-too-far,” at the cost of paying enough attention to others. A remarkable moment of self-consciousness about this tendency arises in The H.D. Book: “But I was talking — would I ever hear what she [H.D.] had to say?” (Duncan, The H.D. Book, ed. Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011], 266, 265; Duncan’s emphasis). A field poetics is premised on the prioritization of listening, even for Olson. But for Duncan — as for RBD — that listening is not just a means to connect with the day’s American idiom, but instead the means of connecting, fully, with one’s social context and the language itself so as to re-vision one’s self.
Is “listening”? The ear
another listening in its
— sound’s alembic —
the equilibrations enter in.
(Duncan, “Everything Speaks to Me,” in “Ground Work Before the War” and “In the Dark” [1984 and 1988], ed. Robert J. Bertholf and James Maynard [New York: New Directions, 2006], 105.)
I discussed this poem in my dissertation, using it to signal what I called then Duncan’s “passive” or “passionate” subject-position as author. After I had shown her a draft of the chapter, RBD spoke to me about what I had done in my reading of the line and of the particular wonderfulness of Duncan’s phrase “sound’s alembic,” the alchemy wherein listening and attending to one’s world enables a kind of action, a creation of one’s self and one’s poem. A similar kind of audacious listening finds its way into her poem as a disappearing of her self to let the here be all the more present:
For disappearance is the subject
of whatever I do.
If not disappearance,
then what is here.
(DuPlessis, “Draft 19: Working Conditions,” in Drafts 1–38, Toll, 127)
22. See especially Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (1993), trans. Peter Hallward (New York: Verso, 2001), and Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (1997), trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).
27. January 17, 2011: Looking back now, “trying” seems to be the key word in this sentence. Not just in the sense of attempting, but also putting her self and language on trial. What I find fault with below is addressed later in Drafts, when — in her wandering and folding back on herself — RBD moves outside aestheticized commercialized zones. Indeed, looking ahead to where “Draft 3: Of” folds in the sequence of the poem, in the meditations in “Draft 22: Philadelphia Wireman” (Drafts 1–38, Toll, 141–44), she moves to consider the noncommercial outsider work of the artist known only by that moniker given in RBD’s title. Here, we find RBD really working out this idea of writing as opening a procedural and processual space. “Be in the OF / and MAKE deep spurts from depths of cursive scrimmage” (143; DuPlessis’s emphasis). This localized writing allows her not only to wonder about the identity of the mysterious artist (“WHO DID the work?” ), but also to think about the present-ness of those conditions informing and permitting any aesthetic work, including her own (“HERE. and HOW.” ). What is curious for me, in light of my argument below, though, is that in topically turning outside (through the Wireman, to outsider art), Drafts still treats this space of procedure, this field of working the language, as a space outside institutional definition. In actuality, not even the outsider artist is fully outside the museums, galleries, markets of the art world. Some knowledge usually inheres, and, as is the case with the local outsider artist I know best, personally, the one in the town where I now live, one can be connected to the artworld via a simple desire to be known and to recognize the fact that painting obscene, childlike pictures of animal-human hybrids may be a means of feeding oneself and getting dope — especially if petty bourgeois [sic] folks like myself keep buying them.
29. DuPlessis, Blue Studios, 10. The concept of “urrealism” is implicitly developed through three essays: “Lorine Niedecker, the Anonymous: Gender, Class, Genre, and Resistances”; “The Gendered Marvelous: Barbara Guest, Surrealism, and Feminist Reception”; and “‘Uncannily in the open’: In Light of Oppen” (139–205).
31. January 17, 2011: Duncan’s open series Passages grow out of derivations from others’ lines and texts (one denotation of the word passage), and become interminable routes (another denotation of passage) through which he journeys (still another, now signaling the route of passage in an intransitive verb) in the intersecting course of his individual life and the poetic tradition. As he writes in his introduction to Bending the Bow, where the series first appears, “Passages of a poem larger than the book in which they appear follow a sentence read out of Julian. I number the first to come one, but they belong to a series that extends in an area larger than my work in them. I enter the poem as I entered my own life, moving between an initiation and a terminus I cannot name” (Duncan, Bending the Bow [New York: New Directions, 1968], v). Elsewhere, he describes the series as an engagement of an idea of poetry “having no bounds, being out of bounds” (“March 6, 1970. Preface to a Reading of Passages 1–22,” MAPS 6 : 53).
33. January 17, 2011: While pursuing research on Rukeyser, I recently encountered an essay by RBD I had not known about, on cultural Jewishness and her poetics. Here, she speaks implicitly to the “Jewishness” of Drafts as owing to a sense of responsibility to the diaspora and to the Holocaust: “Recurrent motifs and materials in many of these works are: home, homelessness, and exile, the death and the dead linked to the living, political grief and passion, including an attempt to look at the many corpses of the twentieth century. There is also silence, speaking and crying out, the sayable, the ineffable or unsayable. In many of these poems I speak of the enormousness of the universe, and the enormities of what has happened in our milky corner of it. I feel, increasingly, as the work goes on, that I am being spoken through, almost as if I were single-handedly building into existence some of the works of the lost” (DuPlessis, “Midrashic Sensibilities: Secular Judaism and Radical Poetics (A personal essay in several chapters),” in Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture, ed. Stephen Paul Miller and Daniel Morris [Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010], 211).
What I find most compelling about her discussion of Jewishness in this essay, though, is RBD’s claim to have gravitated specifically toward the story of Jacob and the Angel as an allegory for the struggle attending her writing: “When one enters such a gigantic task as a long poem, it is difficult not to think of being called and of struggling with something large, multidimensional, and fundamentally unknowable by which you have been touched” (213). This complicated struggle, mixed with vocation and being “touched” by the unknowable, speaks to the core of a politicized ethics, a giving of one’s self over to what is foreign and unknowable, in the service of a human good and a human justice. Such an ethic is not just Jewish, of course. As RBD reminds us: “And it is not ‘the Jews’ / (though of course it’s the Jews), / but Jews as an iterated sign of this site” (“Draft 17: Unnamed,” in Drafts 1–38, Toll, 111). This ethical struggle may be iterated through a cultural Jewishness but it is also related to her feminism, as is clear in her landmark essay “For the Etruscans,” from decades earlier. What she notes there about the experimental essay form speaks just as well to her poetics in Drafts: “The work is metonymic (based on juxtaposition) and metaphoric (based on resemblance). It is at once analytic and associative, visceral and intellectual, law and body. The struggle with cultural hegemony, and the dilemmas of that struggle, are articulated in a voice that does not seek authority of tone or stasis of position but rather seeks to express the struggle in which it is immersed” (DuPlessis, The Pink Guitar, 13).
34. Theodor W. Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society” (1949, 1967), in Prisms, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson and Samuel Weber (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), 31. December 10, 2010: RBD takes up “the stark curse” of “Adorno’s verse” in “Draft 28: Facing Pages” (Drafts 1–38, Toll, 184), and matches it to his strategy of finding resistance in writing anyway, despite the impossibility of fully realizing an effective political resistance through writing.
37. January 17, 2011: Echoes of this passage can be heard in “Draft 29, Intellectual Autobiography,” a canto written for the tenth anniversary of beginning Drafts: “Propose a work, the work, a work of enormous dailiness, vagrant / responses inside the grief of a century” (Drafts 1–38, Toll, 186). In her notes for this poem, RBD indicates that she began writing Drafts in 1985 — the year of “Otherhow” — and not in the year that the first poem is dated. “I had been composing Drafts for ten years, for they began in early 1985” (Drafts 1–38, Toll, 275n). Significantly, the original lines from the essay “Otherhow” are transformed into a meditation on the poem’s relationship to grief and mourning in her appropriating them for this anniversary canto. As I discuss below, that grief has everything to do with the poem’s passionate nature, with what I value most in Drafts: its ethical revaluation of agency so as to refigure our language for and thinking about politics. It is telling that RBD did not come to, or at least did not announce, this understanding herself until she was well along — ten years — into the process of writing the poem. As poets, how can we be expected to fully recognize or even claim the struggles in which we are immersed, those struggles defining our work and of which our work is a living part?
41. December 10, 2010: “The reality of artworks testifies to the possibilities of the possible. The object of art’s longing, the reality of what is not, is metamorphosed in art as remembrance. In remembrance what is qua what was combines with the nonexisting because what was no longer is” (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory , trans. and ed. Robert Hullot-Kentor [Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1997], 132).
43. See especially Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (2000), trans. Gabriel Rockhill (New York: Continuum, 2004); Rancière, Aesthetics and Its Discontents (2004), trans. Steven Cocoran (New York: Polity, 2009); and Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, trans. and ed. Steven Cocoran (New York: Continuum, 2010).
44. December 10, 2010: I may have been reaching for the following passage, which is not exactly a talking-out-of-the-corner but an attempt to redefine the difference between immanent critique and metaphysics (or, aesthetic absolutism). It’s complicated, so worth citing at length:
[…] Art becomes something social through its in-itself, and it becomes in-itself by means of the social force of production effective in it. The dialectic of the social and of the in-itself of the artwork is the dialectic of its own constitution to the extent that it tolerates nothing interior that does not externalize itself, nothing external that is not the bearer of the inward, the truth content.
The dual nature of artworks as autonomous structures and social phenomena results in oscillating criteria: Autonomous works provoke the verdict of social indifference and ultimately of being criminally reactionary; conversely, works that make social univocal discursive judgments thereby negate art as well as themselves. Immanent critique can possibly break through this rigid alternative. (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 248)
So, immanence enacts the dialectic between the two halves of “the dual nature of artworks” — at once metaphysical/autonomous and social.
What’s especially interesting here, and what I seem to have forgotten or overlooked earlier (how?), is the role that theory (“critique”) plays in restoring to our clear sight the social and autonomous. Adorno does not trust the artist to theorize himself. But what RBD (and most contemporary poets worth their salt) do is theorize their praxis and fold that theorizing into their praxis. The question of immanence, when read in this light, seems more palatable. But I am still uneasy with the idea that there is a single (not singular: read, multiphasic, pluralistic) truth-content. And it is strangely akin to Laura Riding’s idea that the only reality is that one truth (the truth of the human) that poetry perceives and brings into the world (see Riding, Contemporaries and Snobs [New York: Doubleday Doran, 1928], and Anarchism Is Not Enough, ed. Lisa Samuels [1928; repr., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991]). Like Adorno, too, though, she judged absolute or pure poetry impossible; so even the most poetic (i.e., lyric) of poets’ attempts to render the truth perceptible becomes a struggle against the unrealities of the social that are judged to be “real.” Her poet, and later (after her abjuration of poetry) her storyteller ([Riding] Jackson, The Telling [Harper and Rowe, 1972]), enacts the dialectic (she calls it a struggle) to negate the social with the poetic. I have long struggled with Adorno, and only recently with Riding. And though I am attracted to their overt (Adorno) or understated or downplayed (Riding) acknowledgment of the sociality of poetry, I am distrustful of the single truth they feel counters social power. This is why I am also ultimately distrustful of Rancière and Badiou: they all share a monistic faith, the faith in the One. With that One comes a belief that the subject is indivisible (individual as in-dividual, as not-divisible). And for me, that is but a step away from claiming an equation of subject and person, rather than seeing life and experience as amounting to these two quantities as held in, put into, and seen through various tensions.
46. Does the word “liberation” recur in RBD’s work — criticism, essays, poetry? I must admit: Just looking quickly, I can’t find it. But that does not mean Drafts does not exhibit a desire for autonomy, does not construct poetic politics out of this desire for autonomy.
47. See Michel Foucault, “The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom” (1984), in Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth: The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954–1984, Volume 1, ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. P. Aranov and D. McGrawth (New York: New Press, 1991).
49. January 17, 2011: Perhaps it should be admitted that, in writing this, I was conflating my experience of a pleasurable, languorous boredom in reading postmodern literature with Lyotard’s classic description of postmodernity as the end of metanarratives, a proliferation of language games, and the production of several knowledge-forms. As his last sentence in The Postmodern Condition predicts: “This sketches the outline of a politics that would respect both the desire for justice and the desire for the unknown” (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984], 67). Drafts certainly self-consciously flirts with both of those categories in this postmodern politics — justice and the unknown. It is the self-consciousness with which RBD engages this procedure or process of writing as a game that is so strikingly characteristic of the postmodern. Yet, it is also an element of Drafts that her modernist investment in the “unknown” (à la Duncan and Oppen, both) puts into tension.
52. Elsewhere, Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text informs much of my reading of Cuban queer writer, visual artist, and theorist Sarduy’s poetics, which I then use to read Barthes against the grain to move toward an articulation of a queer poetic ethics (Keenaghan, Queering Cold War Poetry: Ethics of Vulnerability in Cuba and the United States [Columbus: Ohio University Press, 2009], 116–42). There, I go into more detail about the how bliss and pleasure are related to one another, and how Barthes uses them interchangeably though respects their differences, which preclude a synonymous relation.
55. Barthes, Mourning Diary: October 26, 1977–September 15, 1979 (2009), ed. Nathalie Léger, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 80; Barthes’s emphasis. Barthes’s Mourning Diary, a non-collated pile of note cards left behind after his mother’s death, is another as yet unacknowledged text informing the form of my appreciation of RBD’s work here. As he writes in The Pleasure of the Text about texts of bliss, they are “impossible” and thus “outside pleasure, outside criticism, unless it is reached through another text of bliss” (22; Barthes’s emphasis). If Drafts does, indeed, move along this spectrum between bliss and mourning, perhaps this essay is a meditation in the style of a text of mourning — trying to touch RBD’s where I feel most drawn by and to it. This essay is my asymptotic attempt at criticism of her Drafts.
56. Barthes, The Neutral: Lecture Course at the Collège de France 1977–1978, ed. Thomas Clerc under the direction of Eric Marty, trans. Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 83.
57. February 24, 2011: I don’t know what to do with it now, but I cannot help but compare that agency to another cultural Jew, Allen Ginsberg, who felt compelled to close his own political poem “America” with the line: “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel” (Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems [San Francisco: City Lights, 1956], 43). The mark of a queer or feminist writer often assumes a taking or assertion of agency. Yet Ginsberg’s poetics, somewhat like RBD’s, are typified by a blissful or pleasurable spontaneity and passion. Perhaps this is the crisis queer poets share with feminist ones: just how much can we let the passion speak, let ourselves be agents of rather than sui generis agents, without betraying our own political purposes?
60. October 29, 2011: We are now actually married in the eyes of New York state (via Connecticut, before the legalization of same-sex marriage was passed at home). The other state — the nation-state — of course still clings to DOMA and refused to recognize our contract … and thus our humanity.
64. For example, see Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004); Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004); Douglas Crimp, Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002); Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and Politics of Queer History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
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