Ghost tracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. “Follow, fellow, furrow”

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

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

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

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

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

5) “… foreign selves …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The poem
being archive of feelings to come”

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drafts and fragments

Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s (counter-) Poundian project

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

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

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

Drafts explicitly positions itself as not-Cantos”

— Rachel Blau DuPlessis[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

2. Ibid., 211.

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

4. DuPlessis, Torques, 138.

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

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

7. Ibid., 404, my emphasis.

8. Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Drafts' and the epic moment

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

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

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

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

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

She answered:

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

Here is the passage from Blue Studios:

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

In “Draft 20: Incipit,” she comments:

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the critical/poetic boundary

Rachel Blau DuPlessis's arguments with Adorno

Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Emmanuel Hocquard, and Jean-Paul Auxeméry at work in 1992
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Emmanuel Hocquard, and Jean-Paul Auxeméry at work in 1992 at the Library at Royaumont. Photo by Kathy Imbert.

In an interview from 2008, Rachel Blau DuPlessis discusses her serial poem Drafts and in particular “Draft 52: Midrash,” which takes up the ethical dilemmas the contemporary poet faces in writing about the Shoah.[1] The poem attempts a sustained response to the challenge of Theodor W. Adorno’s famous statement that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”[2] Though Adorno amended this claim repeatedly, his formulation prompted manifold critical and artistic responses as well as various misattributions contending that he claimed there could be no poetry after Auschwitz.[3] This essay offers a reading of DuPlessis’s long poem “Draft 52: Midrash,” tracing its argumentative dialogues at the boundaries of the critical and the poetic. As an intertextual conversation with Theodor Adorno’s statement about the possibilities of poetry after the Shoah, “Draft 52: Midrash” institutes itself as a communicative and memorial space over and against an imagined elaboration of Adorno’s bases for an ethical interdiction of the poetic. The poem’s foregrounding of its own critical arguments contests any conventional acceptance of Adorno’s claim, asking that we reconsider the stakes of a space that conjoins commemoration of the victims of extraordinary violence and the reflection of our daily existence.

Commenting on Adorno’s words about the barbarism of writing poetry after Auschwitz, DuPlessis muses:

His statement comes from the most wrenching revulsion, grief and human anguish. Therefore, because it was so absolutist, I respected it as such. However, because it was so absolutist (plus annihilating, as morally wrong or uncivilized, my desire to write poetry), I felt it had to be discussed. Not answered, discussed. Opened out. Exfoliated. Looked at again and again from any number of angles or facets. That is what my serial poem does. Each time I approach the statement, in the 27 sections of this poem, I try to honor the level of ethical revulsion and grief from which it came. So each of the sections tries to invent an answer to the question why did he say this in the immediate post-war context. What was he getting at by singling out poetry.[4]

By maintaining dialogue, “Draft 52: Midrash” becomes a way of “honor[ing] the level of ethical grief and revulsion” that Adorno’s words manifest. The poem offers commentary on his statement without seeking either to refute or to validate it, and at the same time, such commentary becomes a form of continuous self-examination and -questioning. By likening this process to an “exfoliation,” DuPlessis does not merely invoke renewal and regeneration: Instead, the dermatological/textual layers, removed to reveal the level below (and so the old made new), demonstrate the intertwining of body and writing in the intertextual enterprise, which operates at the point of contact between the material and the imagined trace. Indeed, DuPlessis emphasizes that her interest is not in “answering” Adorno but in inventing potential answers, in order to allow an ongoing confrontation between texts, so that the possibility of conversation beyond the hierarchical division of critical claim and poetic defense may emerge.

In fact, “Draft 52: Midrash” invites its critics and readers to grapple with the interpenetrations necessary for both creative and critical thought, and it does so in ways that question the boundaries between genres, as well as the dichotomy of content and form. For the poem (as part of the entire serial poem, Drafts, and of the second volume in particular) not only employs poetic license and device but also foregrounds its own scholarly and critical apparatus, through the use of footnotes, annotations, citations, and a poem that offers a précis of the collection’s first half.[5] The allusions to scholarly works, incorporated in the body of the poem and elaborated in its annotations, diffuse the boundary between these two modes of writing and depict the scholarly as poetic, while rendering the poetic scholarly. It is a vital feature of the Drafts project as a whole that the individual poems offer a return to and rereading of their predecessors, in diverse allusions as well as in a formal periodic structure. DuPlessis remarks upon such conscious intratextuality as a vital facet of a poetics that critiques the tradition within and out of which it operates:

At Draft 19, all of a sudden, it occurred to me, I could “begin again” — a Steinian move. By beginning again, I could construct a fold or crease across which the poems related. The fold involves any kind of connection between two specific Drafts, one of which I call “the donor draft.” What I’m trying to do is sustain a continuous, generative folding of one work over another. […] [T]he deep feelings of the fold, or its epistemology, are harder to articulate. I have the sense that with folding and repetition, all parts of the work are involved with all parts, each touches on all. There is a topology of mutuality, even mutual pleasure and relatedness. By establishing “donor drafts,” different poems become “muses” for each other. This avoids any “I/you” muses, with those well-worn gender ruts, and makes the pronominal interaction more like “she/it” in the poem as a whole.[6]

The flexibility of the draft — as ongoing work, which promises the possibilities of revision and adaptation — challenges the very concept of a boundary that preserves the perfected text. As DuPlessis points out, the notion of “relatedness,” of kinship and mutual influence between poems, involves the imaginative critique of the limits of formal and generic traditions.

Yet while she insists that one must understand the material conditions of poetry’s production, she also asks that we recognize how these conditions emerge within the poem itself, often unbidden.[7] Beyond such sensitivity to the process of poetic creativity, DuPlessis’s citations from a critical text that questions the ethical status of poetry indicate from the start that the poem enters (and must enter) into a dialogue with the conditions of its own making. Such circumstances refer not simply to the poem’s individual production but above all to its inherent struggle to negotiate the frictions instituted by inescapable social and cultural parameters. Indeed, DuPlessis writes that the poem as argument with preexisting ideological frameworks bears witness to its own coming-into-being and thus to its marking by these very conditions. In her essay “Manifests,” a title which plays on the notion of involuntary revelation and of authorial will (through alluding to the formulation of a metapoetic credo), DuPlessis explains the difficulty of a critical project that originates in the context it seeks to transform:

As much as I resist Romantic lyric or narrative, or make critiques of their normalizing and naturalizing of gender, of causality, of trajectory, of telos, of memory — my resistance is also porous. It is riddled by holes through which leak these discourses and their histories of use, their vast influences. My resistance itself is contained within a complex cultural netting in which the very histories of these genre(s) are constructed by the materials I would (claim to) resist and may want to appropriate.[8]

Destabilizing the position of authorial agency, the exchange of individual speech and collective discourse occurs through the permeable rather than rigid boundaries of structures, which cannot separate the internal and the external, since they both threaten and allow for appropriative movement.

In DuPlessis’s view, the poet’s vexed position of simultaneously resisting cultural histories of influence and being infiltrated by them leads to the liberating movement of appropriation. Appropriation is not a usurping or fraudulent attempt but a form of dialogue that testifies to the ways in which the poet works within and against a tradition at the same time. It is a negotiation of cultural conditions and as such especially important for a feminist poetics: the notion of appropriation as practice enables the female poet to make visible the politics of ownership and even adaptation, processes from which she has heretofore been excluded. DuPlessis rejects the position of “woman in poetry,” for as she explains, woman can only occupy a central space as the object of a male view, not as the agent of her own making. Short poems — and particularly the lyric — preclude the woman writer from accessing the figure of the female, because she does not own her authorial position.[9]

Portraying this challenge of the intersection of gender and genre in spatial terms, DuPlessis describes a dispute over a delimited poetic universe, which the female poet, in an inversion of conventional sexual imagery, must seek to penetrate:

I’m not trying to exclude “the lyric” from poetry, because that would be truly a quixotic gesture. I wanted to surround it, to build through it, and to rupture it — to break it up inside to become something else. I wanted to break a monochromatic subjectivity, a limit in tone, a smallness which builds one iconic object against the void and does not acknowledge the void inside the text. And I am also rejecting poems that are centered only in the private world, not a social and political world. This position was enabling for me. There are any number of other interlocking reasons: awe, grief, astonishment, the plethora, being overwhelmed. Then there is the whole area of cultural ambition, to open up into the largest kind of space, the challenge of scope itself. I just want to write a lot of women’s words right now because, basically, there are so many absent women in my generation, in generations past, and in all of culture.[10]

The vocabulary of forces that both move out of and move into the textual space — the trajectories of exclusion, enclosure, penetration, and rupture — make it impossible to determine from which side she approaches the framework, whether she speaks from within or outside its borders, from an individual position or on behalf of a collective. Indeed, even the phrase “I just want to write a lot of women’s words right now” contains an ambiguity, since we wonder whether “a lot of” modifies “women” or “words” (or both). This ambiguity proliferates potential implications: Does it designate the single author speaking for and to others in a quasi-prophetic mode (another form of expression traditionally denied women)? Does it conjure the scribe translating the inaudible into the audible, by archiving the silenced voices of the many for remembrance? Does it lay claim to a canonical, Whitmanian tradition, in which the self contains multitudes? In any event, this passage asserts a challenge to conceptions of both poetic and godly creation (and their assumed intersection in the figure of the divinely inspired male poet). In “opening up the largest kind of space,” the female poet reminds us that she works continuously to fill a vast, limitless universe with its missing texts, traditions, and genealogies.

By flaunting appropriation as a productive act, DuPlessis questions what may link the restrictions on women’s poetry and on poetry after the Shoah, as she argues with their various explicitly and implicitly imposed limits and investigates the connections between gender, genre, and ethics. Appropriation allows for an agency that challenges assumed ethical norms: the female poet responding to the Shoah’s horrors speaks against a doubled circumscription of her speech. However, in this dual context, appropriation also foregrounds the problem of a necessary ethical boundary for the subject’s speaking position: If the poet gives voice to silenced others with whom she identifies, then she also calls into question the legitimacy of laying claim to the voices of those who can no longer speak themselves. “Draft 52: Midrash” puts into tension the appropriative movements of a feminist poetics and a poetics that deals with the Shoah, by asking again and again how one may counterbalance forces that confine poetic expression and delimit the position and voice of the speaking subject, while at the same time negotiating the competing claims of experience and imagination. The poem’s commitment to critical argument refuses categorical decisions on ethical quandaries, even as it seeks to provoke debate by emphasizing and utilizing the various conditions that bind the writing subject.

The interpenetration of the public and the private — with the attendant need to negotiate social, cultural, political, and aesthetic realities — therefore mandates a refusal of conventional generic boundaries, since to write within these boundaries would signify complicity with their practices of exclusion. If DuPlessis laments the lack of a developed tradition of women’s writing and the exclusion of female writers from the literary canon, she simultaneously considers implicit assumptions about the genre of poetry, which align it with a feminized domesticity and triviality. In section 4 of Draft 52, she generates numerous, paradoxical pairings of neat containment and messy sentimentalism, so as to wonder whether such a conception underpins Adorno’s choice of poetry as the particular genre made impossible by the Shoah:

               “After Auschwitz
to compose music, to write novels, is barbaric.”
Is “poetry” the only affirmative décor in this house?
Kitsch collectible gathering dust on the shelf? Pearly button off a ripped shirt?
Is it the blandishments of poems, their automatic adhesion
to attraction, glades of sparkle, birthday offerings, tears at graves,
female visitants, house finch eating pear blossom,
awe-struck thoughts on planets, stars and moon —
is it the modest size of poems, their nicely tuned endings,
the diction and gestures they normally exclude,
their status as tender, elegant tokens
(concealing ferocious, self-fascinated delight)
that makes of “poem” a particular insult and blight?

By beginning the stanza with a presumed citation that is at once an adaptation (through the substitution of “composing music” and “writing novels” for “writing poetry” after the Shoah), DuPlessis emphasizes the poem’s authority to take on another’s voice and to reimagine another’s speech. While we may understand this as a form of empowerment — the ability to oppose what seems a categorical statement by refashioning it from within — we remain aware at the same time that in the context of the Shoah, this use of another’s voice, more particularly the voice of one who can no longer respond, presents us with an ethical dilemma. Of course, speaking in a common language is already a form of borrowing another’s voice, as the intelligibility of language cannot be located in any particular speaking position but exists in circulating.

Moreover, the quotation marks in this section may not only perform the borrowing of another individual’s voice (whose language is already collectively accessible) but may also serve to emphasize and critique the confines of genre, visualizing the boundaries that enclose what is considered a “poem.” Within this framed space, we find the poem authored by a woman poet doubly enclosed, so that the quotation marks imply what cannot be taken seriously, since it is supposed to remain in the private realm and to subsist as a single (rather than universal) articulation. Such critique operates at the intersection of the senses — or at the spot where their boundaries unravel — for while the quotation marks and their various implications stand out to the eye reading the poem, the listening ear must be attuned to a subtle difference in tone and intonation to set the cited word apart.

Quotation marks are not the only restraining force at work here: poetry’s narcissism emerges only within parenthetical boundaries, from which it threatens, nevertheless, to explode. The parenthetical enclosure is contained a second time, now not only by syntax but by poetic form. The stanza’s final couplet (following as it does upon free verse) evokes the strictly prescribed style of the sonnet, which male poets use to describe a female muse or beloved, melding her body, as an object of visual and physical pleasure, with the aesthetic enjoyment derived from and epitomized in the poem. In this section of “Draft 52: Midrash,” however, the final verses appropriate the function of the sonnet couplet, utilizing its simultaneous effect of a surprising turn and satisfying closure. But such containment cannot hold, for the concluding question demands response, so that the final verses employ form as its own critique, revealing the impossibility of neat endings. Anticipating its self-liberation and performing its own poetic defense, the poem refutes the amassed clichés that proclaim its impropriety in dealing with matters of grave importance, of human experience, and especially of human suffering.

Such considerations return us to the critical status of the fold, which possesses not only formal but also ethical significance. Recalling DuPlessis’s description of the fold as that which opens a space of “mutuality,”[11] one may maintain that the fold establishes nonhierarchical relation without subsuming or eliding difference and so provides a way of conceptualizing the ethical bond, which proves vital to a sustained attempt at articulating loss. This articulation takes shape again and again as an exploration of deixis, demonstrating the intimate link but also the dangers of slippage between language and life. DuPlessis devotes a poem in her Drafts project to the problem of deixis, which describes the function of words whose meaning shifts depending on the context of their articulation. Indeed, “Draft 33: Deixis” is the very poem upon which “Draft 52: Midrash” folds, since the project instantiates nineteen as the periodic return. Taking issue with a scholar (Wlad Godzich) who claims that deixis marks the differences between locations, temporalities, and subjectivities, Draft 33 observes that “it appears oddly harsh, and also somewhat / automatic, drawing / such an unwavering line between the elements, / for in poetry, / the out-there is connected / precisely / to the over-here, / folded upon it / the ethics of poetry being that fold.”[12] The fold thus both establishes and offers up for exploration that realm of poetry in which connection presents not organic wholeness but sustained involvement and its ethical consequences. Towards the end of Draft 33, DuPlessis asks, “What happens if there is something that takes place that cannot be pointed to” and asserts, “call this the matrix of the unallowable, or perhaps indifferently, say loss // call this the problem of the dead // call it the toll // It is the space of poetry.” Poetry exceeds a critical vocabulary by insisting on this deictic “it” both as origin and as remnant, as a surviving presence that proclaims its own fragmented nature.

And so, in “Draft 52: Midrash,” the doubt about what literary forms are possible in relation to a culture that allowed genocide to happen (and therefore may allow it again) emerge repeatedly, in ways that intertwine the problems of a feminist and an ethical poetics. DuPlessis’s investigation of the shape the poem takes in response to its imperiled viability includes attempting to locate the point at which language becomes insufficient and can no longer bear the ethical pressures of grappling with the reality of the Shoah. This attempt exposes its own fragility, as it pursues the intertwining of the critical and the poetic to its point of disintegration into a near-babble. So for instance in section 5:

Poem: symbol of normal culture. Culture:
has become barbaric. Therefore, the poem: and so on.
The syllogism rests.

Or another. Words fail at the exact point of this.
Poetry is made of words.
Therefore, write no poem.

Alt.: write a poem in which words fail.

(was the poem invested with so much
unsortable toll it must in this time silent fall?
was poetry always now impossible?
we could further never write it, and now, in neither
we cannot ever write it for a doubled reason.)

Exercising the various logical arguments that might motivate an interdiction of poetry — its inseparability from a condemnable culture, its failure in the moment of encounter with the reality of suffering — the stanzas retreat into the enclosure of the parenthetical and of the hovering, unanswerable question. The last verses dispense with logic as a mode of making sense of the world and avow only the negation of authorial agency.[13]

 “Draft 52: Midrash” thus investigates the tension between the poem as documentary and aesthetic artifact on the one hand and the author’s efforts to produce it on the other. The aim to locate language’s breakdown — “Words fail at the exact point of this” — demonstrates the conflict between needing to insist upon the reality of suffering and being unable to articulate it. This unrelenting gesture towards the unnameable reality occurs by way of deixis, which, while defining a precise subject- or object-position, nevertheless resists delimitation, because it shifts its designation depending on the context in which it is used.[14] The demonstrative “this” gestures towards the horror without being able to capture it in language.

In section 6, DuPlessis addresses the problem of definition, claiming that at the bottom of questioning creative effort lies the doubt in language’s ability to express the workings of human behavior. Such doubt may make writing beside the point, as the first stanza indicates, with its list of proliferating and seemingly unanswerable questions:

Why should anything be written or not
what is a “crisis”
what is an “event”
what is a “policy”
what is “normal”
what is “hegemony”

Since there are no question marks, the requests for response, merging into one another unpunctuated, become a litany whose differences in substance are overshadowed by the monotony of their parallel form.[15]

While this stanza, read on its own, may seem to indicate despair in the power of language to articulate various conditions of experience, the next stanza again relates this doubt in the capacities of language to poetry as genre. By querying whether poetry in particular is unable to use and situate such terms appropriately, DuPlessis allows for the possibility of an affirmative answer to this question but implies, at the same time, that poetry’s limitations or even impropriety should not necessarily mandate its categorical refusal:

Does poetry ignore crisis
trump up event
say policy does not matter to it
accept the normal
prettify hegemony?
should it therefore be forbidden?
And by whom, exactly? and how best?
Is there an enforcement mechanism
you’d like to suggest?

In the final line, the poem invokes Adorno as addressee, yet the reader cannot be certain whether the “you” designates only this single interlocutor or whether it doesn’t also demand of its audience their position on poetry’s interdiction. The stanza’s only rhyme, between “best” and “suggest,” performs (in a playful yet defiant tone) the threat of the “suggestion” as a verdict which imposes a formal framework, so that only a replication of similitude is possible. Thus, the section exposes such prohibition as a restriction of freedom (and, in this way, a form of violence), which reproduces what it seeks to avoid.

By demanding in such varied ways why poetry should be the particular art form made impossible by the Shoah, DuPlessis implicitly holds Adorno accountable for delivering an explanation of what constitutes the poem and what, in this constitution, makes it uniquely unsuitable to post-Shoah existence. Moreover, she insists — frequently through a direct address of Adorno as her interlocutor, whose response she might expect — that he exhibit an awareness of the medium of his own reflections and of the fluidity of generic boundaries.

Indeed, the undoing of generic limits operates not only through poetry’s use of the critical mode, but also vice versa. In the notes to the poem, DuPlessis explains that the conclusion of section 9 involves a quotation of her own writing, from “Draft 29: Intellectual Autobiography” (a title that itself hints at the importance of a poet’s critical self-reflection).[16] The lines she cites from her earlier poem, embedded now in Draft 52, reveal a continued preoccupation with Adorno’s statement, whose words she portrays not as scholarly analysis but as a poetic discourse that casts its spell on her: “Still, ‘chortle under the stark curse / you entitle ‘Adorno’s verse.’’ / Because his statement, irreducible and bleak, / makes intricate play with rhetoric and metaphor, / enacting poetry against itself. So to speak.” The duality of radical minimalism and figurative proliferation is not an empty opposition, for the two are intertwined. DuPlessis’s rhyme on “irreducible and bleak” and “so to speak” suggests as much, hinting at language’s incapacity to capture and arrest experience. Ultimately, these lines indict “Adorno’s verse” of a potentially transgressive speech act, which founds the condition of its own speaking — “so to speak” read as “thus to speak” or “to speak in this way” — upon the self-destructive turning of poetry “against itself.” Of course, in doing so, his poetics must annihilate itself, since, if spoken on the basis of poetry’s self-obliterating movement, it can speak at all only in the process of being eradicated too. But because the speaker of Draft 52 insists at the same time on highlighting her own involvement and intervention — by foregrounding self-citation and self-reference — we also remain aware of the necessary distance between Adorno’s critical statement and “Adorno’s verse.” The former remains to haunt a discursive and poetic tradition, while the latter seems to obliterate itself: but what is their relation? What are the implications of the ways in which Adorno’s language survives and exerts influence on both critical and poetic traditions?

Given debates about who possesses the authority to depict the horrors of the Shoah through language, the problem of experience — of its definition, its appropriation, and its expressibility — arises time and again. “Draft 52: Midrash” ponders the central correspondence established between the human body and the text as the basis for the translation of experience into language, meditating on the possibility of transposing the body onto the page in the corporeal singularity of each letter. So for instance in the following long stanza that concludes section 14:

Every mourner as a black Letter unwritten
every body, stick, or piece of body ash
a silent blanked out sentence inside a syntax of systematic
revulsion, here’s the point — there is no accurate lexicon.
Barring that “word,” half measures are indecent.
Language not equal to itself.
The only poem is blackened, barred-out lines.
To write poetry — to pretend to find
that word or this, filling the unfillable space —
is grotesque, obtuse, barbaric.
You need imagine the rest of this writing as black blocks.
But this, then, would be indistinguishable
from the “censored,” from the “erased.”

Dense with the imagined relations between physical and textual being, the stanza reflects upon and then seems to refute the transformation of body to letter (a doubt epitomized in the deictic “I”). Entangling the literal and figurative in its insistence that “here’s the point,” the stanza shows the movement of deixis and thus undercuts the colloquial ease and brevity of a phrase that claims to summarize and distill knowledge. The figurative notion of “barring the word” — that is, of excluding certain expressions, or verbal expression as such — evokes in turn a literal bar obstructing sight, a crossing-out of language, which is “not equal to itself” and thus cannot produce meaning through analogy. Yet the seeming assurance of this solution, which leads the speaker to advise the reader that “you need to imagine the rest of this writing as black blocks,” nevertheless begs the question why the poem does not instantiate this commandment itself, why, instead of recommencing as a literal barrier to sight, it mandates instead the necessary discrepancy between its continuation in words and the reader’s task to envision its obstruction. What happens to writing and to reading in this process, in this space in which the reader takes part in the poem’s making, or, in this case, in its dismantling? The stanza concludes that its injunction to “bar the word” is itself impossible, because imagining such an act would at the same time recall the Nazis’ erasure of writing, in the form of banned and burned books and — by the figurative extension that summons the horrific reality — of human beings.

In fact, the poem instantiates the barring of words two sections prior to postulating this necessity, and it does so while experimenting with the tension between adaptation, adoption, and appropriation of the voice of an anonymous individual, who experienced the Shoah’s horrors. As I discussed above, DuPlessis regards appropriation not as a moment of usurpation — and thus, implicitly, of violence — but as a potential form of empowerment, as a way of resituating speech in order to become aware of its position. In section 12, however, it seems that she considers the parameters of such an argument anew:

“I stared out.”
Forced to work in this factory
killing, stripping, burning,
or killed and stripped and burned
“I am put in this place.”
Personal pronouns are moot. Eye only.
Poetry constructed of enormity:
mounds — of faces, limbs, shoes, rags.
The shadow line of times and places.

By establishing the homophonic correspondence between the “I” and the “eye,” this section addresses the problem of whether only the person who has experienced atrocity may bear witness to it. (In this case, vision, as an immediate form of sense impression, stands in metonymically for experience.) If the stanza declares the authority of a speaking subject who was (and is) witness to the horrors (“I stared out,” “I am put in this place”), it also presents this authority as already mediated. Not only are these statements quotations — the borrowing, that is, of another’s voice — but the quotation “I am put in this place” hints at the very process of substitution, as the subject adopts the other’s position in an endlessly repeatable cycle. The phrase “I am put in this place” (and its imagined corollary “‘I’ is put in this place”) reveals deixis as the movement of substitution, in which the particular and the general circulate endlessly, and so it demonstrates the ways in which the pressures of language and body act upon one another. But it also locates the ethical dilemma at their nexus: if the language we use to describe the experiences proper to us is one that circulates freely, then where do we draw the line — the poem’s black bar — that prevents us from impinging upon the experiences and expressive capacities of another, of appropriating their lives into our versions of a common language? At the same time, we mediate the impulses of empathic recognition through shared words as well, so in this sense, their capacity to be adopted and reworked may serve a vital ethical function.

The practice of putting the self in another’s place is thus interrupted by an obstruction of the I/eye, in the form of the thick black bar that invades the middle of the stanza. Is the bar at the center of the stanza also “the shadow line of times and places,” entering the poem by necessity, a visual reminder of the annihilation of words and, simultaneously, of the obliteration of vision as a tool for understanding? It appears to signal both the eradication of words and the impossibility of vision (in the double sense of sight and illumination). Interpreting this bar as an interruption of poetic creation or, alternatively, as its basis, the following verses present both possibilities: “Personal pronouns are moot. Eye only. / Poetry constructed of enormity: / mounds — of faces, limbs, shoes, rags. / The shadow line of times and places.” The movement of reduction and impoverishment (signaled by words such as “moot” and “only”) is countered by a growth that is only the accumulation of devastated fragments, the remnants of crimes committed: “mounds — of faces, limbs, shoes, rags.” In accordance with Marianne Hirsch’s concept of “postmemory” and Susan Gubar’s notion of “remembering what one never knew,” the temporal and spatial “shadow lines” also offer a “negative image” (photographically speaking) of the ways in which surviving humanity is haunted by the horrific suffering inflicted upon others, elsewhere, in the past.[17]

Of course, the poem also has a particular figure of simultaneous presence and absence in mind. In accordance with a poetics of questioning and of dialogic response, DuPlessis foregrounds the various invocations of Adorno as interlocutor, presenting him as apostrophized partner in argument. Here, apostrophe — both emphasizing and ignoring its status as posthumous address — demonstrates the ways in which dialogue seeks to endure, attending to the voice of another beyond the physical limits of his or her existence. One might argue that the poem, written decades after Adorno’s death, can only ask for his attention and participation in conversation by sustaining — and asking its readers to sustain — a disregard of the boundary between real and imagined time and between physical and remembered existence. Yet, as the section dedicated to Draft 52 in “Draft, Unnumbered: Précis” indicates, the traversal of this boundary is precisely necessary in order to engage in the task of remembering and commemorating others’ suffering: “If I were to cry out / the questions why or how or / who would hear us — / I’d say the only ones to hear this / are ourselves. / Therefore it is scrupulous to listen. / Especially to shadows.” Through enjambment, the questions about historical fact and meaning (why or how or who) become questions about the very possibility of communication (why or how or who would hear us). Thus, these verses reveal a tautological experience, in which the speaker and the listener are one and the same. But such enclosure does not relieve us of the twinned tasks of asking and listening; rather, its bond calls for our attention. Indeed, the synaesthesia of the final lines — the image of listening to shadows — instructs us not in a proliferation of sensory experiences but in the ethical demand entailed by the brutal curtailing of the senses. Shadows, as negative traces of the visible, stand in for the muted voice. To listen to shadows emphasizes the struggle involved in attending to an ephemeral yet tenacious reality, at a dual remove from our own sensory experience.

According to the poem, finally, what emerges as most important about Adorno’s statement is not its truth value but its survival, its tenacious existence, which continues to demand response. I would argue that what may seem like an apostrophe of Adorno — and, on one level, it certainly is that, in its insistent address of a deceased author — is in another sense a metonymic transfer between body and text, so that the address of the human being is also a response to the call of “the sentence,” the statement itself. Interestingly enough, however, the section in which this transfer operates most explicitly does not include a direct address but refers to Adorno only in the third person. Paradoxically, the words of supposed interdiction become the catalyst of continued critical contemplation and commemoration as well as of poetic creation:

Relentless, the sentence returns.
So it is plausible that he meant
it would take a long time, longer
than a life, a fact strangely moot, to absorb fully
that many dead, and the pre-quels and encores
of this event, that desire systematically to exterminate
named populations as such, for their regular
being                        It would take a long time. If ever.
Thus, as a marker of that sadness,
to write poetry is barbaric, barbarous.
Those very words snuck up again,
to beg the questions.

The refusal of poetic production comes back persistently, a re-creative moment at odds with the temporality of the postexistence that it seems to express. As these verses make clear, the time of comprehending suffering and the time of mourning do not coincide. The simplicity and categorical absoluteness of Adorno’s verdict is deceptive, for it reemerges over and over as supplication and query, uncertain of an appropriate response and manifesting itself outside of its critical boundaries. If the apostrophized author cannot answer the poem’s challenges, his writing is nevertheless engaged in the intertextual argument the poem demands, an argument whose origin cannot be located within a defined framework but occurs at the very limits of the critical and the poetic. 

The simultaneous diminishment and excess of language that these verses describe returns us to the relationship of the temporality and ethics of commemoration, asking us to think poetry beyond generic restrictions. Indeed, it is the liminal space that constitutes both the separation and the bond between experiencing or recognizing another’s suffering on the one hand and the modes of seeking to express this incontrovertible reality on the other. But to honor and commit to the exploration of this gap may be impossible, as the final stanza of section 20 of Draft 52 reminds us, “The interstice is a stark revolting site. / We are not frightened enough, nor enough engaged / to be riven by this, to live by this.” What does the parallelism of being riven by something and living by it entail? The aims of ethics and representation seem to fail at once: just as the deictic “this” twice marks language’s inability to capture that which it seeks to express, so we resist the conscious existence that our understanding of the Shoah’s reality would mandate. Nevertheless, we must continue to explore the gap — the “stark revolting site” — because to do so, to bear in mind the distance between our efforts to comprehend and the horror of reality, means to engage in the work of commemoration. The poem ends with a citation of Adorno’s injunction against oblivion, from the essay “Commitment:” “‘The abundance of real suffering / permits no forgetting.’ / Yet memory does not work that way. / It works another way, halfway, a ground lens, / a great stark. One little scrap where something is. / Incommensurate.”[18] The scrap returns us to the bit of paper, to the draft. The incommensurate — refusing the possibility of analogy, and particularly the equation of lived and textual reality — precludes the finality of this last word. It promises instead the lasting space between two versions of existence, between being and its remembrance, life and its representation: a space that is integral rather than prohibitive. What remains, in the end, is this arena “where something is.” 



1. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Draft 52: Midrash,” in Drafts: Drafts 39–57, Pledge, with Draft, Unnumbered: Précis (Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2004), 141–157.

2. Theodor W. Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society,” trans. Samuel Weber and Shierry Weber Nicholson, in Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 162. In German: “[N]ach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch.” Adorno, “Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft,” in “Ob nach Auschwitz sich noch leben lasse”: Ein philosophisches Lesebuch, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997), 205.

3. As Robert Kaufman points out, the scope and force of responses (initially in the German but later also in the Anglophone context) is surprising: “Adorno’s words have generated such controversy that it has seldom been remarked how bizarre it is — given how slim the chances initially would have seemed — that one barbed aphorism and its reformulations could come to have so much influence on, could create a six-decade donnée for, reflection on consummate horror and on art and culture’s ability — or incapacity — to address such horror humanely and critically.” See Kaufman, “Poetry’s Ethics? Theodor W. Adorno and Robert Duncan on Aesthetic Illusion and Sociopolitical Delusion,” New German Critique 33 (2006): 74.

4. DuPlessis and Adam Fieled, “Feature Poet Interview: Rachel Blau DuPlessis,” Adam Fieled: Poetry, December 2005–January 2006.

5. Describing the historical development of poetic responses to the Shoah, Susan Gubar mentions the notable presence of female voices in contemporary Anglo-American poetry. Often, she finds, these poets add supplementary materials to indicate their “indebtedness” to first-generation poets and to scholars. In DuPlessis’s case, I would argue that the critical apparatus and the supplementary materials she includes in her poetry function not simply to emphasize debt and gratitude but to enter a debate that extends beyond hierarchical or genealogical lineage to allow for and even promote argument across temporal and generic divides. Gubar, “The Long and the Short of Holocaust Verse,” New Literary History 35, no. 3 (2004): 457–58.

6. DuPlessis and Jeanne Heuving, “An Interview with Rachel Blau DuPlessis,” Contemporary Literature 45, no. 3 (2004): 404–05. DuPlessis also investigates the problem of the muse figure for a feminist poetics in “Marble Paper: Toward a Feminist ‘History of Poetry,’” Modern Language Quarterly 65, no. 1, 2004: 93–129.

7. See, for instance, DuPlessis, “Manifests,” Diacritics 26, nos. 3–4 (1996): 31–53, and “Poetry, Poetics, and Social Discourses,” Journal of Modern Literature 28, no. 4 (2005): v–viii.

8. DuPlessis, “Manifests,” 50.

9. DuPlessis and Heuving, 403.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., 404–05.

12. DuPlessis, “Draft 33: Deixis,” Drafts 1–38, Toll (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 235.

13. At the same time, we may read the final stanza as performing a Talmudic logic of questioning by visualizing the entanglement of opposing voices left to stand next to one another in an unreconciled fashion, thus highlighting the indeterminacy of the intertextual.

14. In Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, Susan Stewart argues that “[d]eixis fuses form, expression, and theme as one event in place and time — the inseparability of frame and context in deictic forms is evident in the impossibility of paraphrasing or abstracting them. We therefore could not speak of the specificity of the deictic as translatable or transportable to other locations, for it is its own location. Yet we can understand its meaning or significance independent of its reference to the here and now of apprehension. The form creates or defines its location and the listener, viewer, or apprehender finds his or her position established in relation to the concrete determinants of the form — everything ‘matters’ as an aspect of the manifestation. In this way the artwork’s very specificity, its ‘finality of form,’ enables its context independence. The theory of deixis in linguistics has implications for presentational forms more generally, helping us consider framing the time and space of apprehension, the mutuality, reciprocity or nonreciprocity, of relations between positions and perspectives, the reversibility of things amid the unidirectionality of everyday time, and assumptions of intention and reception.” See Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 156. Stewart’s emphasis on the tension between fluidity and structure, particularity and universality in the deictic suggests its mediating function, while Agamben’s characterization of the deictic as a form of the “desubjectifying experience” implicit in all human existence and epitomized in the “barbaric” speech of glossolalia posits deixis as an indication of what cannot be mediated. See Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 1999), 114–16. Both notions are productive currents for an analysis of the conflict between poetic excess and inadequacy, as we encounter it in DuPlessis’s work.

15. Once more, however, we may interpret this form as an allusion to the style of Talmudic exegetical practice, which launches its arguments with an inaugurating, quasi-rhetorical question. As Benjamin Harshav points out in his analysis of the ways in which the forms of Talmudic discourse enter the structure of Yiddish discourse — and by way of Yiddish, other languages Jewish authors use — it is vital to note that the question functions both as a solicitation or demand and as an expression of doubt: “[A]sking a question is equivalent to questioning, raising a difficult or problematic point in an argument.” See Harshav, The Meaning of Yiddish (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 112.

16. DuPlessis, “Draft 29: Intellectual Autobiography,” Drafts 1–38: Toll, 179–86.

17. See, for instance, Marianne Hirsch’s description of the way in which a simultaneously excessive and insufficient relation to a past one did not experience structures the phenomenon of “postmemory:” “Postmemory is a powerful form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation. That is not to say that memory itself is unmediated, but that it is more directly connected to the past. Postmemory characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are displaced by the stories of the previous generation, shaped by traumatic events that can be neither fully understood nor re-created.” Hirsch, “Past Lives: Postmemories in Exile,” Poetics Today 17, no. 4 (1996): 662. Susan Gubar claims that the value of poetry about the Shoah written by those who did not themselves experience it lies in the portrayal of this history’s lasting impact on contemporary cultural concerns, since “the proliferation of Holocaust poems in English turns our attention not away from those events but toward their reverberations as they affect a series of generations searching for a means to keep alive the urgency of continuing to confront a past as it passes out of personal recollection. The ‘warrant for imagination’ consists, then, in a psychological, ethical, and historical need to remember what one never knew.” Gubar, Poetry After Auschwitz: Remembering What One Never Knew (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 9. But there are also those who argue that we are not haunted but exactly the opposite, since the Shoah has little or no impact on our daily lives. According to such interpretations, the “negative” quality of “the shadow lines” might highlight their waning, ephemeral, and weightless nature, as they are merely inversions of what we perceive as reality. Consider, for instance, Gary Weissman’s argument that contemporary commemorative practices which attempt to offer an “experiential” access to some aspect of the catastrophe hope to counteract “an encroaching sense that the Holocaust seems unreal or pseudoreal in American culture, which, in the aftermath of the event, fails to reflect in meaningful enough ways that the Holocaust occurred.” Weissman, Fantasies of Witnessing: Postwar Efforts to Experience the Holocaust (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 22.

18. DuPlessis’s citation is taken from the following passage in Adorno’s essay: “I do not want to soften my statement that it is barbaric to continue to write poetry after Auschwitz; it expresses, negatively, the impulse that animates committed literature. […] But Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s rejoinder also remains true, namely, that literature must resist precisely this verdict, that is, be such that it does not surrender to cynicism merely by existing after Auschwitz. It is the situation of literature itself and not simply one’s relation to it that is paradoxical. The abundance of real suffering permits no forgetting […]. But that suffering — what Hegel called the awareness of affliction—also demands the continued existence of the very art it forbids; hardly anywhere else does suffering still find its own voice, a consolation that does not immediately betray it.” Adorno, “Commitment,” trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson, in Can One Live After Auschwitz?: A Philosophical Reader, 251–52. In German: “Den Satz, nach Auschwitz noch Lyrik zu schreiben, sei barbarisch, möchte ich nicht mildern; negativ ist darin der Impuls ausgesprochen, der die engagierte Dichtung beseelt. […] Aber wahr bleibt auch Enzensbergers Entgegnung, die Dichtung müsse eben diesem Verdikt standhalten, so also sein, daß sie nicht durch ihre bloße Existenz nach Auschwitz dem Zynismus sich überantworte. Ihre eigene Situation ist paradox, nicht erst, wie man sich zu ihr verhält. Das Übermaß an realem Leiden duldet kein Vergessen […]. Aber jenes Leiden, nach Hegels Wort das Bewußtsein von Nöten, erheischt auch die Fortdauer von Kunst, die es verbietet; kaum wo anders findet das Leiden noch seine eigene Stimme, den Trost, der es nicht sogleich verriete.” Adorno, “Engagement,” in “Ob nach Auschwitz noch sich leben lasse”: Ein philosophisches Lesebuch, 299–300.

'All serifs are seraphim'

Midrash as the angel of history

Rachel Blau DuPlessis in Umbria at Il Palombaro, Italy, in 2005. Photo by Robert
Rachel Blau DuPlessis in Umbria at Il Palombaro, Italy, in 2005. Photo by Robert S. DuPlessis.

In his hermetic essay from 1933, “Agesilaus Santander,” Walter Benjamin writes: “The Kabblalah relates that, at every moment, God creates a whole host of new angels, whose only task before they return to the void is to appear before His throne for a moment and sing His praises.”[1] But in an earlier essay on Karl Kraus, he describes the angelic as a kind of monster — part child, part cannibal — a creature who, before passing into nothingness, is either “lamenting, chastising or rejoicing.”[2] Inspired by Paul Klee’s painting, the figure of the angel takes on its final iteration as the Angelus Novus in Benjamin’s “Theses on the Concept of History,” a text so familiar by now I’ll forgo the usual excerpt. Suffice it to say Benjamin conceives of his angel of history as a witness to the folly of progress (or the progress of folly). But this angel is also a victim of what it sees. Immured in history, it’s unable either to rescue itself or to impede events from being engulfed in catastrophe. Benjamin’s angel can do no more than preside impotently over the ruins of history. Its very hybridity seems to militate against effective action: part theological, part material, it belongs fully to neither world. The failure of the angel is located in its status as a messenger. It carries no powers of intervention, no sword of justice to set things right. That task properly belongs to the messiah, the one who will never come.

In Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s secular Judaic poetics, a different figure of the angel of history emerges, one whose weak messianic authority derives from its commitment to a midrashic model of textuality. This angel is the principle of continual poetic revision as intervention. It reads and writes the past not as it was, but as it is found: deeply fractured by contingency, open to an ongoing process of revision. The midrashic angel takes up its task not merely by bearing witness to what it sees, but through actively constructing new alignments of meaning from the scattered wreckage of the debris field.

As the angel of history, midrash attends to the rubble, less through a work of mourning than by a work of haunting. The distinction here is fine, but haunting is specific form of mourning; an activity which persists at the edges of loss and trauma and that works to keep the trace alive rather than securely bury it. By attending to the bits, this midrashic haunting invests the remnants with new forms of relation. Its method is the bricoleur’s. It cobbles together whatever’s been rejected, overlooked, forgotten, repressed, estranged, emphasizing the visibility of the seams and sutures of its patchwork. How things are joined together becomes as important as their joining. As Gershom Scholem puts it, midrash is “poetic prose in which linguistic scraps of sacred texts are whirled around kaleidoscope like.”[3] For the angel, ruination offers a new kind of redemption; rupture and caesura are utilized not as agents of demolition but as a method for building constellations. Any fragment recovered from the rubble could be loaded with a potential for acquiring new significance once placed in network with other fragments.

Of course, midrash is primarily concerned with guaranteeing the past’s link with the present. As DuPlessis employs it, however, it also probes the very premises for forming such linkages. This, too, is in the spirit of midrash, which behaves, as Geoffrey Hartman notes, as a textual montage.[4] In Drafts, midrash is both the process of suturing and the exposure or denaturalizing of that process. It opens up the seam inside, as DuPlessis puts it. Part of keeping open a continuous link to the past requires asking what continuity means and whether the past is best served by maintaining it as it has been transmitted, or interrupting it, subjecting it to “strange angles,” as she puts it (or strange angels?), to the perspective that will yield a messianic light, in Adorno’s phrase.[5] Midrash is an ethical intervention in how meaning is constructed. The midrashic poetics of Drafts follows Zukofsky’s injunction to think through statements without compromising the integrity of the “thing.”

“Draft 87: Trace Element” (from Pitch) exemplifies this midrashic poetics. Recalling Lacan’s quip that he’d like to know how the spirit can manage to live without the letter even while claiming a position of superiority, it begins by adumbrating the nuances of spirit’s passage into textuality. Following Derrida, DuPlessis sees the trace enjoying a curious state of existence — simultaneously canceled out, yet still part of the count. Its erased shadow is essential to the total chain of signification. In Derrida’s lexicon, trace names the mark, or smudge, which remains even after the logocentric dream of recovering an original or foundational point of reference outside the sign system has been erased. These traces linger, ghostlike, haunting philosophical systems, history, and languages alike, fueling them with the desire for an unattainable goal of recovery. The trace is what remains of metaphysics’ perverse longing for a closed, regulated system (perverse, because focused solely on its self-enjoyment), one undisturbed by that other key Derridean term, play. Trace comprises the very core of différance since it both overturns and keeps in play the logic of the recoverable origin. Derrida is emphatic on this point. “The trace is in fact the absolute origin of sense in general. Which amounts to saying once again that there is no absolute origin of sense in general.”[6] The trace places the idea of origin under erasure, as Derrida argues, destabilizing its claims to authority, rendering it, in effect, porous.

The trace, then, is what haunts every sign, and indeed, the entire logic of every system of meaning or signification. But this haunting is more than the phantom of discredited metaphysics. It opens a path into rethinking how memory and history are mutually braided. “Trace Element” begins by tracing the idea of trace from a variety of angles.

The trace is
a hold/a hole
of evanescence through which
travel small powerful things,
impotently, earnestly, but, and,
whether, what if underlying them.
Traces of what happened
commend your attentiveness to the almost invisible 


Or trace exists before all this …
Incipient emptiness of a living void.


Or trace indicates almost meaningless
propulsions of smudge and grit
dragging vestige, graffito and spoor.[7]

Gradually, these metaphysical considerations give way to tracing the shadow of trace through history in order to “illuminate the breakage” (93). “For traces caused by enormous historical crimes // one thinks, unthinks, and thinks again. // Molecules remain in air. We breathe each other in. // This is not consolation” (101).

What was it? What did you want?
“how to tolerate an inconsolable instant …”

that has spread its wings
the spiral of gravel kicked out underfoot

and the charred book
the meltdown of page in the world’s greatest age

the Age of Ash we are
the alloy of. (102)

Finally (not finally, though) trace implicates us all in its melancholy and guilt.

Trace is evidence.
It is a blurry mark of what we should have known
and did,
a melancholy reminder
remaining unresolved

Trace offers flakes of the unimagined

and unimaginable so we can

continue, fully unable to imagine it.

Or unimagine it. (104)

The poem turns on this pivot. In recognizing its own site as a trace (a moment, also, of méconnaissance) it locates the power of imaginal capability contained within the ceaseless production of associations the flake calls up. Each minute particular is a tiny messianic gate. All the minute particulars of the daily are rife with potentiality for signifying otherwise by activating the power of the poem to re-link language continually through yet another chain of signifiers.

One word, with its history, its specificity, its residues,
The scintillation of its distractions can open a universe
Of connectors. That poetry
Being words is like this, that poetry is made of trace phonemes …
That speak, do speak with palimpsested distinctness. (107)

The power of the trace takes on recursive properties, investing language with a messianic explosiveness that can cut through the scar tissue of history. “The trace emanates the trace! … / trace is inscribed everywhere / and the world is trace, / but without a reader” (108). The danger here, for DuPlessis, is that the trace verges uncomfortably close to losing its material character and performing merely as a surrogate for spirit or some other reifying abstraction. She pulls back from this position by ruefully acknowledging that “we are custodians of the meanings / we make of world. / It is circular, / this argument, if it is one, / but to pine / is ridiculous. / This is / trace at its best” (109). The epitome of trace, in this view, is that it returns the reader to the world with a new sense for the potential of as yet unmade connections. “Let the shard become readable by / jaggedness and by piecing, / let letter engage its crowns / let black be luminous with luster” (109). DuPlessis’s shard does not provide, as Oppen’s notion of impenetrable matter wishes to, some indestructible bedrock. Rather, it acknowledges its own contingent status by remaining opens to the possibility of further damage.

For DuPlessis, the trace inverts the hierarchy between outside and inside, supplement and origin, or, more specifically, between midrashic commentary and original text. In Drafts, there is no original text, no founding principle except that of the midrashic trace itself, the ever-repeatable and circulating return of the poem to the poem in a process that generates yet another poem, another commentary on the process. This potentially endless procedure of reiteration is given a vivid and witty turn at the close of “Trace Elements,” which invokes as a model for such a poetics that masterpiece of the bricoleur’s art (and a model as well for Ronald Johnson’s ARK), Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers.

All serifs are seraphim: such is faith in the letter.
Such is the force of the word.
The faith is touching.
In every alphabet
in every technology of memory —
knots, rocks, dots, rhymes,
codes, rites,
monuments and books —
in that shockingly endless tower built
of the balances and loops of wire
ceramic shards set in cement, and mirrors, too,
extendable yet poised in mutual
enjambment —
There is no verb in this sentence. (109)

The verbless sentence, brought up short in a characteristic self-commentary, gains rather than loses its momentum by this seemingly spontaneous interruption. While this gesture, which comes to mark Drafts more and more as it progresses, flirts with the idea of a verbless sentence, a kind of ideal fragment or ur-kernel of utterance, it sustains itself on the strength of the dialectical subduction that, not without some calculated violence, yokes lowly typography to the empyrean seraphim who, following Benjamin’s Talmudic angels, sing endlessly their praises of the Most High. But it is not spirit that has not passed into and animated inert matter. Quite the opposite, matter itself is made to sing here, through the miniscule flourishes of alphabetical design.

The trace is both valediction (“ahead of all parting”) and inauguration. Congruent with midrashic self-reading, it guards memory even as it reframes it, generating the weak messianic force as a momentary stay, not against confusion, but in productive confusion. “Memory,” according to the Baal Shem Tov, “is the secret of redemption.”[8] But the recovery of memory is itself an endless operation. This is another way in which Drafts invites us to read it as angelic. Each poem ascends and descends like the angels in Jacob’s dream. Each arrival (above? below?) is also a departure and either one of them acts as the occasion for generating another poem in response to the poem that’s preceded it. Indeed, in Drafts poetry reads poetry. This reading carries an angelic function: each poem is the message that the other poems desire. And because the poem as angelic messenger is also the message itself, each message is altered by its encoding and delivery. At the same time, no poem can become the final message, the elocutionary act that forecloses or fulfills all others. While Drafts is continually redeeming the meaning of time, of lived experience, full redemption not only eludes it but is actually antithetical to its logic. The end of any poem is also a forgetting. It signifies the necessity for writing again, writing over, writing beyond.

None of this is to say that Drafts is a religious poem. But in as much as the textual is spirit, that is, thought, the soul of thought, if you will, its very form, made material and visible as letters, as language, it adopts a theological posture. As Geoffrey Hartman so eloquently puts it, writing of Derrida’s Cinders:

letter is spirit and reclaims a non-nihilistic revelation … everything turns on the signifying force of a writing that is generically no more (and no less) than the independent trace of an originating, inspiring feu … Derrida’s philosophy celebrates words that have entered time yet escaped the flames, that persist despite deadly repetition, on the one hand, and ecstatic visitation, on the other. From this perspective, writing is the shadow of its own flame and writers the cinder bearers of a brûle-tout that “swallows the movement of meaning” (Blanchot), that burns up, without placating, the restless ghost (revenant) such charged words as “Holocaust,” “spirit,” “being.”[9]

Such a radical poetics of fire and cinders, of saying, destroying, and saving, traces a finite set of themes along a fractal curve of infinite loss and recovery. It reverses the Pauline claim that “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” For spirit as such has failed. This is the message the midrashic angel of Drafts bears. And it is a message of hope. A midrashic poetics suggests that we must regard form itself, in all its dissolution and reformation, as the ongoing process of redeeming time.





1. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 2, part 2, trans. Michael W. Jennings and H. Eiland, G. Smith (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard), 712.

2. Ibid., 457.

3. Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, trans. Harry Zohn (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1981), 107.

4. Hartman’s discussion of midrash is the shadow text under many of my own remarks here. See “Text and Spirit” in Scars of the Spirit: The Struggle Against Inauthenticity (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 119–37.

5. See Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 2003), 263.

6. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri C. Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 65.

7. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Pitch: Drafts 77–95 (Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2010), 78–79. Subsequent page references to this text appear in parentheses.

8. Quoted in Susan Handelman, Fragments of Redemption: Jewish Thought and Literary Theory in Benjamin, Scholem, and Levinas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 149–53.

9. Geoffrey H. Hartman, The Fateful Question of Culture (New York: Columbia University Press), 113.