Articles

A World According to G.W.

On Grzegorz Wróblewski

Translated from the Polish by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese.

I.

Reading Hotel Cats (Rita Baum, 2010), Grzegorz Wróblewski’s collected poems, I wondered how best to talk about his first three collections: The Chewiness of Life (bibLioteka, 1992), Planets (bibLioteka, 1994), and The Valley of the Kings (Biblioteka KARTEK, 1996). Logically, I would have to place his early volumes within the artistic and literary frameworks of the 1980s and 1990s. I would need to outline his response to the most essential questions posed by art (and poetry) at the end of the twentieth-century. I was aware, however, that Wróblewski’s views and attitudes would announce themselves more clearly if such a reading was completed with a reading of his later poems, those from the first decade of the twenty-first-century: The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises (FA-art, 2009) as well as Candidate (Rita Baum, 2010). Therefore, I decided to examine Wróblewski’s books from both vantage points simultaneously.

Let me begin with an overview of the aesthetic framework and, more specifically, its three vital characteristics. First of all, the 1980s bring a significant change in neo-avant-garde strategies of “doing away” with art. After performance art and conceptualism, the neo-avant-garde search focuses on earth art, environmental art, body art and art exploring technological progress (including multimedia). This search leads to the altered understanding of such concepts as nature, environment, and space; it also highlights the numerous possibilities technology offers art. Secondly, aesthetic debates of that time stress more and more frequently positive outcomes from the contemplation of the “crisis” in art and aesthetics. Contemporary aesthetics invites optimistic predictions about the death of fine arts and aesthetics, which can be traced back to, among others, Hegel’s assertions that art belongs to the past. Transcultural, multimedia and pragmatic types of aesthetics seem to suggest a way out of an impasse in discussions about the significance of art in contemporary society. Finally, changes in our understanding of the status of art and in our attempts to define art (urged by “heirs” to the Dadaists and Duchamp) consolidate thoughts about the relationships between politics, economy and culture. According to Hal Foster, in the 1950s this kind of thinking, criticized both by traditional approaches — keen to see the significance of art in the realms of confession and expression — and by avant-garde formalisms, gave rise to two groundbreaking movements: minimalism and pop art, which were then taken up by feminist art, postcolonial art and cultural studies. “As minimalism challenges this order of modern aesthetics, it also contradicts its idealist model of consciousness. For Rosalind Krauss this is the central import of the minimalist attack on anthropomorphism and illusionism” (Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century 42). The attack on anthropomorphism and illusionism as well as the emphasis on the materiality of art and its economic entanglements resulted from political radicalization of the 1970s.

If we choose to view the abovementioned queries of twentieth-century art and aesthetics as questions of poetic activity, we can easily notice inquiries about the significance of poetry as an institution, about the privileged status of poetry in a given country, and about the authority of the poet as a national bard. (Following the antipoetic examples of Tadeusz Różewicz, Miron Białoszewski, Stanisław Grochowiak, and Rafał Wojaczek, poetry loses its moral and aesthetic grounds, although it acquires cultural justification. The paradigm of mass communication is considered a threat as early as mid-1990s by such poets as Krzysztof Jaworski, Darek Foks, and Robert Tekieli.) Critical readings of the poem as an aesthetic form weaken; the poem understood as a cultural artifact comes under attack. Language experiments and concrete poetry of the 1960s and 1970s, which stressed the antirealism of poetic representation by foregrounding the poem’s textuality, language itself and its control over the speaker (the equivalent of neo-avant-garde tendencies to emphasise metaartistic reflection) live on in the work of so-called deconstructive or poststructuralist poets Andrzej Sosnowski, Tadeusz Pióro, and Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki, to name just a few. Finally, at the start of the 1990s the contestation of the New Wave poetic school and the politicization of poetry in its socialist version produced a variety of countercultural approaches which diversified the understanding of the political. Numerous poetry books (by such authors as Marcin Świetlicki, Krzysztof Śliwka and Jacek Podsiadło) sought to snub “the idealist model of consciousness” (Krauss’s term) with its transcendental aspirations and lack of response to the social and material world around it.

Which elements of this intellectual and aesthetic climate find their way into Wróblewski’s first books? Neo-avant-garde inspirations, though not readily visible in his poetic strategy (for instance, he rarely resorts to metatextual strategies), are clearly there. Wróblewski is not interested in formally offensive linguistic experiments; he does not set off to prove the literariness of literature, nor does he want to emphasize its representational character. He does not turn his poem into an object, the way concrete poets do; neither does he stress its materiality, which does not mean, however, that his texts are deprived of self-reflexivity. For him these aspects are of secondary importance. He does not want a lyric poem to recover traditional aesthetic values (such as experiencing and contemplating) or to restore traditional readings of poetry. Wróblewski does not seek to prove that reality is artificial, construed or simulated; nor does he wish to reveal secret dimensions of reality. Interestingly, he does not strive against high modernism and its perceptions of art: many of his poems offer some form of confession, though always framed by the understanding of art as resistance, not as affirmation. Neo-avant-garde inspirations can easily be noticed in Wróblewski’s opinions about the relationship between art/poetry and the whole human world (which is not identified with the linguistic medium) and in his convictions about the critical, contestational function of art in society.

It is exactly this “non-reconciliation” (akin to non-affirmation) that I consider fundamental to the social and aesthetic premises established by Wróblewski as the author of Candidate, and to his neo-avant-garde affiliations. In Counterrevolution and Revolt, Herbert Marcuse – the leader of counterculture in the 1970s – emphasized the importance of this non-reconciliatory aspect of art:

The affirmative character of art was grounded not so much in its divorce from reality as in the ease with which it could be reconciled with the given reality, used as its décor, taught and experienced as uncommitting but rewarding value, the possession of which distinguished the ‘higher’ order of society, the educated, from the masses. But the affirmative power of art is also the power which denies this affirmation. In spite of its (feudal and bourgeois) use as status symbol, conspicuous consumption, refinement, art retains that alienation from the established reality which is at the origin of art. It is a second alienation, by virtue of which the artist dissociates himself methodically from the alienated society and creates the unreal, ‘illusory’ universe in which art alone has, and communicates, its truth. (97)

Marcuse recommends art that is able to represent “the forces of oppression” which epitomize the raison d’état or the social status quo: “This is an order which demands resignation, authority, control of ‘the vital instincts,’ recognition of the right of that which is” (95).

Marcuse’s text is vital not only as a document, but also as a set of instructions: although nowadays we are aware of the fact that the ease of reconciling the world with art does not necessarily prove the surrender of art to the commercial and political demands of the established order (pop-art and postmodernism have been accused of submissiveness to capitalism and consumerism), we continue to appreciate the readiness of art to revise the status quo. Artistic activity reveals not only the forces of repression, but also its consequences and connections with other dominant forces — the whole multiplied and multifarious network of relationships and influences, which frequently renders the positioning of various subjects unclear and ambiguous so that it is no longer possible to outline the simple symbolic dichotomy: the governing/the governed. Art and poetry which concentrate on “non-reconciliation” disclose relationships (usually invisible due to resentment, pride, frustration or upbringing) between subjects and processes happening under specific conditions. Wróblewski writes about society, culture, sex and race. A closer look at his poems reveals how the relationship between particular elements of the presented order (social, cultural, aesthetic, etc.) frequently assumes a negative form which results from the duality and uncertainty of every action, position or reaction. The poet’s task (or ambition) is to examine these forces, to avoid presenting them as too anonymous or too personal, and to show how they interrelate under specific temporal and spatial circumstances.

In “Midsummer Night’s Concentration,” from The Chewiness of Life, the speaker’s story suggests a connection between St. John’s Eve celebrations (a custom which might seem a vacant gesture in a contemporary metropolis such as Copenhagen) and primeval forces of the past, most probably not fully apprehended. Their effect on the speaker is perceived most clearly when he observes, “A bearded man in a horned helmet is eyeing me. / He must be a Viking, but I play it cool. / Let him be the first to draw a sword …” Similarly, “A Mexican Ribbon” (The Chewiness of Life) uncovers the relationship between technological culture and magic beliefs.

“Mr. Cullen’s Raid” draws our attention to a bigger history: the 1836 truce between colonizers and Native Americans, as shown through the prism of obsessive actions, seemingly grotesque and funny, but in reality pointing to the speaker’s fundamentalist and nationalist leanings. In “The Parliament” (The Valley of the Kings) Wróblewski focuses on social dynamics, demonstrating how a community can achieve them. The economic controversies, which lead to political and cultural fervor “on the square of Ålholm” — the titular parliament — signal the communal ways of communicating and creating social ties. This poem finds its equivalent in “Psycho Taiga” from Candidate. Here the ecological, social and cultural issues are expressed in the aggressive and frustrated language of those whose voice in public debates typically goes unheeded. Interestingly, these voices were named in “The Parliament,” but in “Psycho Taiga” remain anonymous; they could even belong to the system’s beneficiaries, who believe themselves to be its victims. Such a reading may be justified by “Larsen Tells Us in a Christinshavn Pub about His Undeserved, Little Stabilization” in The Principle of the Series (Instytut Wydawniczy Świadectwo, 2000). None of its interlocutors are satisfied with their position in the social hierarchy: despite higher standards of living, they still perceive themselves as low-wage workers, unwilling to accept their present “bourgeoisie” lives, while at the same time unable to return to their previous status. Moreover, their current, privileged position makes them superior to all those “sad-looking / boys in orange vests / who cut weeds on the moat / since the early morning.” The poem’s protagonists cannot identify with any of the life models presented — this inability proves that “unalienated” life is impossible.

In Chewiness of Life, Planets and The Valley of the Kings the speaker’s disapproval of his own life can be understood literally as an expulsion from various geographic spaces, and symbolically as the speaker’s examination of different factors responsible for integrity or disintegration of societies. For example, in “The Transfer” or in “My New Day” the speaker investigates the conditions that enable people to find their place in a given community. Such an active observation allows conclusions drawn from the failure of “assimilation” efforts. Wherever he is, he perceives himself as an odd element, disturbing the social message; however, thanks to his oddness, he manages to uncover the relations which unite or destabilize a given society, although there is no space here for the carpe diem of the individual fully indentified with the world of social and economic structures.

From the vantage point of Wróblewski’s later volumes, the fundamental thought of his first three books can be easily spotted: being at odds with any socio-economic order. In “A Passenger” from Rooms and Gardens (Biblioteka Narodowa i Duński Instytut Kultury, 2005), the animal world is ruled by economic principles: corruption and venality cannot be avoided in the capitalist system. Unclear relationships between sexes are described in, among others, “She Said: You Resemble an Ape” (The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises) and “Masters of the Night” (Candidate). Here Wróblewski proposes a holistic vision of the world where the relations between culture and non-culture create intriguing combinations: the macho needs not only a victim, but also humiliation. Humiliation, in turn, allows the speaker his rites of passage (as it happens in “She Said: You Resemble an Ape”); leaving behind his childhood and infantilism, he gains enough strength to confront himself. The subcultures of macho men and “good girls,” which condition one another, are presented in simple and clear situations where their interconnectedness emerges through minute meaningful details.

Wróblewski’s poems — focusing our attention on culture, sexuality, politics, economics, or social conventions — offer an excellent opportunity to examine the contemporary world. They zoom in on its complexity while relishing in its detail and hyperbolic shortcuts. At the same time they constitute a camouflaged response to conflicts of our world: they insist on rehearsing thoughts banned by a community, they turn new mythologies inside out. This dismissal of any system where Wróblewski’s speaker could function often leads to the private reappraisal of the paranoia implicit in such a system. “Dodo” (The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises) closes with the description of the speaker rolling “in a jam jar / together with a damaged cherry / and an autistic beetle.” This intensification of the speaker’s paranoic states — his self-defence against the world — proves right on numerous occasions, each time differently. Here, the dodo, a species which ceased to exist at the end of the seventeenth century, becomes the future of a human being. The poem’s closing lines sound like a confession of museum exhibits. The resemblances are not merely coincidental, even if we think that we have puzzled out our biology, and there is no connection between such a complicated creature as a human being and something as plain as “a damaged cherry.” However, this is not only about the impossibility of adaptation. The cherry and the beetle embody the process of mutation; hybridity signals the damage (rather than the rot) of the fruit. The word choice referencing technology rather than organic structure points to a peculiar crossover between a living organism and a mechanical object. Similarly, the beetle’s autism (its malfunctioning brain) complicates its categorization as an insect. Equally mutated is the “rolling I” — it is impossible to guess the speaker’s sex, gender or age. All the features that usually assist the identification of “objects” in space and allow their classification have become deformed. The world of distinct categories for human beings, animals and plants belongs to the past. All the parameters specifying category boundaries have eroded, and yet — if the poem’s temporal setting can be established as “post-mutational” — the memory of the dodo, an odd creature, persists.

II.

Wróblewski aims at recording the images of the world in a manner which could be described, after Walter Benjamin, as dispersive. His construals of mini-observations capturing multifarious relations are akin to Jean Dubuffet’s dense canvases, the detailed art of calligraphy and tachism — the techniques that assemble spatially and temporally disconnected details and found objects. Such assemblage causes dispersal and, at the same time, concentration (fragmentation does not exclude detailed attention), which are not systematized by any unifying principle.

Most importantly, Wróblewski’s work reveals its ethnographic potential. His are poems which discover different geographic spaces organized into distinct forms of life. Wróblewski explores them from multiple perspectives: political, historical, economic, racial, and sexual. They are evoked in the images of concrete human subjects and in their responses to reality.

The poet searches for locality and specificity; he turns away from the universally unchangeable. For these reasons his speaker is not a superior, transcendental author of his texts. None of the perspectives which allows observing and recording various systems, models, orders is privileged; no vantage point becomes the reference point. Therefore, the speaker is always included in the observed order, although he never identifies with it. Moreover, his own perspective is frequently questioned, with its extreme positioning which tends to distort and magnify observed events and phenomena. The borderline between the repressed subject and the upholder of the given system, between the system’s beneficiaries and its victims, is fuzzy. These continual shifts of perspective are essential to demonstrate the hidden complexities of the system which do not allow control over all the processes and relations.

Wróblewski avoids the trap of an ethnographic approach. As Foster warns, numerous artists are susceptible to pseudoanthropological art, where the subject is defined in the terms of cultural identity, and not in economic terms, the tendency noted since the 1990s. Foster points to minimalism, social and theoretical pressures, and postcolonial studies as responsible for such an ethnographic turn. “Thus did art pass into the expanded field of culture that anthropology is thought to survey” (184).

Read from this perspective, Wróblewski’s poems show their multiculturalism. They describe how human behaviour is influenced by a particular space and time; how individuals are conditioned by, but also free from, the culture where they grow up and live; how they are affected by political, social, biological and environmental changes. In other words, such an ethnographic approach foregrounds examinations and interpretations of the “overlap” between cultures in the studies of emigration and uprootedness. A Night in Cortez’s Camp (WBPiCAK, 2007) provides ample evidence: it is a book which focuses on the confrontation (military, religious and, most importantly, communicative) between the Aztec culture and the Spanish culture. Also, the reading of Planets cannot forego the narrative of cultural reciprocity between indigenous peoples and incoming peoples. The ethnographic miniseries created by such poems as “A Visit,” “The Celebrations of a God,” “TV Easter,” “A Reading Room in Christianshavn,” “On the Beach in Dragør,” “Bente,” “Local News” and “Dolny Mokotów” comments on the different manners in which people are organized in space. These different sceneries — beach, reading room, public space, private flat, school — alongside numerous habits, obsessions, oddities, prejudices, rituals, and attitudes (work or leisure, religion or other cultures) build up Wróblewski’s story about his selected corner of the world (his 2000 collection of essays entitled Copenhagen also shows its ethnographic character). In this pursuit Wróblewski shows his affinity with Miron Białoszewski, who was very much intrigued by the diversity of human behaviour.

With their disciplined anthropological attention, Wróblewski’s poems search in whatever conditions for regularity within the origins, existence and activity of the species called humankind. These observations of complex biological, social and cultural systems present the human world in all its rich diversity. This diversity of human life forms constitutes the basic principle governing the world. As Clifford Geertz argues in The Interpretations of Cultures, “If we want to discover what man amounts to, we can only find it in what men are: and what men are, above all other things, is various. It is in understanding that variousness — its range, its nature, its basis, and its implications — that we shall come to construct a concept of human nature that, more than a statistical shadow and less than a primitivist dream, has both substance and truth” (52).

The ethnographic potential of Wróblewski’s work complicates its positioning within the artistic framework at the end of the twentieth century. The philosophy of art and aesthetics of that time — neo-avant-garde experiments with referentiality or representation, as well as existential and metaphysical responses to reality — cannot provide a relevant context for the discussion of Wróblewski’s poems. However, it is exactly the ethnographic framework that can tell us more about the speaker, reality, and language in this poetry.

What does such an ethnographic impulse introduce to our reading of Wróblewski’s work? First of all, it allows us to understand that the poet creates “raw” and “dense” ethnographic records. It helps us to realize that his speaker is not a textual construct, an individualist project of the I or a creation which will dissolve the borderline between the text and the world. Rather, he is “a social actor” (Geertz’s term for the subject of his ethnographic texts), the first-degree informant who creates his own interpretations and who is aware of his own interpretative — authorial, in this case — power. The typical starting point for Wróblewski’s observations of the dynamics of the cultural space created by his poems is an appearance of strange elements on some familiar territory, when known and understandable forms of communication reveal the fragility of convention and context. Alternatively, he introduces familiar elements onto a foreign ground.

This may be one of the ways to read Candidate. Just like Rooms and Gardens as well as The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises, Candidate reveals ethnographic ambitions and ushers in different spaces or, to be more precise, space without any temporal, geographic, national or social borders. Whereas A Night in Cortez’s Camp can be considered overtly ethnographic because of the ease with which we can separate the contemporary narrative from that of the past, only occasionally getting lost in time loops, The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises can be seen as set in a peculiar non-time and outside any symbolic borders of human administration. In “Jaguar/ Cage” the speaker’s desire to live suggests that the so-called natural space (of the city, forest, countryside) does not exist: “Let’s get out of here quick, to the sun / and plutocracy. / (O! After all, Mary has suffered from a heart attack) / Through the doors. Onto the street. Into the cacti or / egiptology. // Among the people, pretending / they are great cats.” “You Tell Me Too Much about Angels” substitutes the reality of concrete, glass and other materials — which constituted the natural surroundings of the protagonists of Planets, The Principle of the Series and The Chewiness of Life or the metaphysical space of dreamlike visions from Rooms and Gardens — with the terrain reduced to “black insects / and colourful butterflies.” Interestingly, The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises swarms with comments about insects, spiders, salamanders, birds and other animals, as if only those forms of life were possible in the world which had suffered a severe stroke. In “Mercury Project,” “the Earth’s nervous snigger” is one of the signals perceived by the terrified speaker “watching / A pack of brown animals romping in an abandoned / Motel parking lot.” [Above: Wroblewski, “Statistics and Informatics.”]

We might say that the landscapes described in these poems are deprived of the symbolic reference which allowed humans to first orient themselves (not only in space) and which defined them as human, or at least gave them their recognizably human shape. It is no longer the vision of multiculturalism known from Wróblewski’s earlier books, but the project of a world without any cultural framework – under such circumstances humans do not differ from other living creatures. Such a claim is supported by the following verses: “Everything boneless / avoids me” (“The Spirit of Flat Opuntias”) and “I’ve ended up among horned insects” (“The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises”). If the slogan that a human being does not exist outside culture is still valid, then Wróblewski’s recent books revive it with all their might. Candidate continues this process of (metaphorically speaking) positioning some sort of human being outside cultural influences, although the book does feature protagonists newly situated in the urban space with all its human behaviors — fitness clubs, beaches, cannibal clubs, male and female courtship games, lotteries — all while waiting for God or fate: “It’s enough to register. The signature / And you will finally / be saved” (“Everything Goes. Hunting for a Candidate”). So we deal here with a human hybrid which is neither a project nor a projection.

Allow me my final interpretative remark. Considering the possibility of generalization in reaching ethnographic conclusions, Geertz proposes vitally that “The locus of study is not the object of study” (22). Bearing Geertz’s comment in mind, we should avoid a literal reading of Wróblewski’s poetic situations, which would turn them into simplistic sociological observations. Although Danes, Greenlanders, Poles and Dolny Mokotów, Japan and Zen Buddhism, Mexico and flower wars are all particular and peculiar individual cases, they afford the generalization and synthesis of what we at times call “the pulse of the planet.”

The plural of us

Uses and abuses of an ambiguous pronoun

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

And then back in Draft 85,

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

5. Ibid., 167.

6. Ibid., 382.

7. Ibid., 175.

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

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

10. Oppen, New Collected Poems, 180.

11.  DuPlessis, Pitch, 62.

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

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

Ghost tracks

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


3. “Follow, fellow, furrow”

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


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

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

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

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


5) “… foreign selves …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“The poem
being archive of feelings to come”

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

 

 


 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drafts and fragments

Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s (counter-) Poundian project

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

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

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

Drafts explicitly positions itself as not-Cantos”

— Rachel Blau DuPlessis[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sulfur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

2. Ibid., 211.

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

4. DuPlessis, Torques, 138.

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

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

7. Ibid., 404, my emphasis.

8. Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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