This is a rewriting of my talk at the Temple symposium on Rachel DuPlessis’s career and writing. Though my announced title, “The Mothers of Us All, and Their Fathers: Drafts and the Epic Tradition,” pointed toward Stein, that was just a placeholder I’d provided months before. Stein is a plausible figure to bring to bear on Drafts: hers is the first proper name to appear in the poem, and no modernist is more specifically anti-patriarchal. Think of “Patriarchal Poetry” or the diatribe against fathers in Everybody’s Autobiography (“Fathers are depressing … father Hitler and father Roosevelt and father Stalin …”), not to mention her final play that my placeholding title quoted, “The Mother of Us All” with its satire on Daniel Webster and John Adams. But Stein is not a major presence in Drafts; and in the event of the talk itself I spoke nary a word on her, instead focusing on the moment of conversation between Rachel and myself when she first confirmed that the poems she was publishing marked the beginning of a Poundian/counter-Poundian project.
For Rachel to have announced that choice makes it a charged moment. Stein would have provided many pleasurably instructive paths, but with Pound the issues are inescapably grave. With Stein one could have reinhabited attractive scenes of writing, say, the long summer where Alice continually drove a cow or two into the view while Stein continually penned Lucy Church Amiably, but with Pound the pleasures, if one wants to call them that, have proven historically prohibitive; and instructive? Not so much. Nevertheless, the power of his poetics remains a compellingly interesting force.
Before the talk I emailed Rachel to check my memory-image:
“Do you remember when I asked you if with Drafts you were going for 100? And, as I remember, you said yes, as if you had decided at that moment? Do you remember that? Is my memory at all accurate? Where were we? Who else was there? Ron? Gil Ott?”
“I sure do remember! it was (I am sure) after an Ann Lauterbach reading at Temple … I do believe it was 1993, maybe around November. I have written about that moment in Blue Studios … We were having the readings at 1515 Walnut then (which was then the TUCC space), and it was not the world’s loveliest room. I remember it filled with a blue light from florescent bulbs though this hardly differentiates it from the 222 room, in the Market Street building, except the room at 1515 was smaller. If it was 1993, this is before Jena (I think), so maybe Susan S. was around, maybe Gil …
Here is the passage from Blue Studios:
Somewhere during the exfoliation of Drafts, I think in around 1993, but possibly just after The Trouble with Genius appeared in 1994, Bob Perelman asked, not quite casually, ‘how many of them there would be.’ I hadn’t considered the question consciously, but unconsciously I was ready. So I answered, ‘100, like Pound’s Cantos.’ We both sort of gasped. I am grateful that he asked, because his question … catapulted me into facing my actual ambition. It was the first time I had said the number aloud. Been allowed to say that number. What are the implications of that revealing remark? What stopped it (or maybe not!) from being just sheer bravado, the work of the blurter in me, a stagy, confrontative claim to which I had no claim to which I had no right? Well, to say this project was involved with and against Pound from the start is almost tautological.
My memory, having been jogged by these messages, nevertheless replayed a slightly different version of that moment: I hear myself ask if calling it Drafts means there will be 100 — i.e., are you taking on The Cantos? — to which I hear Rachel answer, Yes, in some sort of wary, confident mix of tone.
I now find the situation of our memories vying to claim the initial public utterance of the names of Pound and The Cantos to be a vaguely Jamesian vignette. But the much more important actor in this moment is of course, Pound. And the real moment of interest is not this snippet of conversation, however inflected, but the emergence of Drafts.
That moment is not yet complete, but when it is, it will of course mark a major fact in anglophone poetic history. One of its entailments will be to effect a reversal of Pound’s power of literary naming. Or, to put it differently, to un-name the Pound era. Near the beginning of the last century, in a tea shop across from the British Museum, Pound named Hilda Doolittle H.D. Imagiste. Near the beginning of this, DuPlessis writes a long poem entitled Drafts that, ultimately, reclaims from Pound that word and gesture, and brings the long poem back into the arena of social, political, and poetic argument.
Pound the person was, as he faced the challenge of the long poem, much more anxious than DuPlessis. His “Ur-Cantos” are a well-known expression of this anxiety. A lesser-known instance, from Gaudier-Brzeska, is instructive:
I am often asked whether there can be a long imagiste or vorticist poem. The Japanese, who evolved the hokku, evolved also the Noh plays. In the best “Noh” the whole play may consist of one image. I mean it is gathered around one image, enforced by movement and music. I see nothing against a long vorticist poem.
On the other hand, no artist can possibly get a vortex into every poem or picture he does. One would like to do so, but it is beyond one. Certain things seem to demand metrical expression, or expression in a rhythm more agitated than the rhythms acceptable to prose, and these subjects, though they do not contain a vortex, may have some interest, an interest as “criticism of life” or of art. It is natural to express these things, and a vorticist or imagiste writer may be justified in presenting a certain amount of work which is not vorticism or imagisme, just as he might be justified in printing a purely didactic prose article. Unfinished sketches and drawings have a similar interest; they are trials and attempts toward a vortex.
If they precede accomplishments, such anxieties are interesting. (Pound can’t decide whether he will be writing a long poem or a single, all-intensive moment.) But actual beginnings — extant moments — are more interesting than their attendant anxieties. Here is the beginning of Drafts:
The moment is a fraught arena for any poetics. It is always changing and never convenient for the longevity of any of the conjectures of poeticians, and it is where any poetic fact must continually exist.
As Ron Silliman insists in The Alphabet, “The point at which you read each word (the / only point there is), two minds share a larger whole.”
However, if we fetishize the moment (which Silliman doesn’t do) we get Poe’s insistence: “I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, ‘a long poem,’ is simply a flat contradiction in terms.” The poetic measure for Poe is a dilated peak of individual excitement: “I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient.” Thanks to DuPlessis’s work, it now clearly the case that the elevated soul for Poe is gesticulating toward is gendered male, a sad fact of history whose final truth is as follows: that “the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world” (an idea DuPlessis characterizes as “rancid” [Blue Studios, 220]).
Here, even more than Pound, was the gist of the problem. To write Drafts entailed continual struggle: not to be the beautiful object, eternally momentary, i.e., dead.
But if we cannot fetishize the moment we must nevertheless continually face it, which DuPlessis does to attending to each mark, line, syllable in both its fragmented being and via repetition, torqueing, connecting to others making it a poetic fact that is both a matter of a given moment and of a world of long range efforts and effects. The complexity of those multiple trajectories is what gives any momentary feature or gesture its scintillation.
DuPlessis is one of the most efficacious poet-critics of our time. She writes from “Haibun”: “Speaking as a scholar, it’s not so much the belatedly understood influence of H.D. on me but (don’t get me wrong) my influence on H.D. This peculiar position is true of several other feminist critics who wrote on H.D. very early … notably Susan Stanford Friedman, Adelaide Morris, and Alicia Ostriker … We were inventing an H.D. We influenced her work — how it was read, what parts of it were read, why it was interesting. We made it matter for this generation” (Blue Studios, 226). But this example can be extended. DuPlessis has profoundly changed the field of twentieth-/twenty-first-century writing. Her readings have been a fundamental challenge to the prior regime of professed disinterestedness since she writes as a committed feminist. Her criticism is profoundly interesting precisely because of this breach of decorum. Her readings of H.D., of Loy, of Williams, of Creeley, et al. are refreshingly accurate while remaining wide-focused, not in spite of, but because of the ubiquity of gender. It’s as if DuPlessis were reminding us of one of the (social) senses, one that had been systematically crimped.
It’s seems a routine enough assumption that the hyphen in poet-critic means that the person so designated is engaged in some cooperative amalgam of poetry and criticism. And certainly DuPlessis’s criticism is one with the poet’s syllabic zest, otherwise I don’t think we’ve have a piece like “‘HOO HOO HOO’: some episodes in the construction of male whiteness,” where DuPlessis deftly links Lindsay, Stevens, and Eliot all hoo-ing their adventurous forays into the dark. Her term for historically perspicacious close reading, “social philology,” allows her to articulate history in the syllable.
But in a basic way the clarities resultant from DuPlessis’s criticism trouble the poet-critic hyphen. Her criticism shows that she knows, in the greatest detail, just how improper it is for a poet such as she to be writing a long poem, how contra naturam (to use the Poundian fulmination) it is for her to systematically avow scale. Which brings us back to Drafts and Rachel’s announcement of its genre.
It’s not historically accurate to read Bunting into that opening moment of Drafts. But his “On the Fly-Leaf on Pound’s Cantos” seems, if counter-historical juxtapositions be allowed, to comment aptly on the constructive DuPlessis makes out of those Ns.
ON THE FLY-LEAF ON POUND’S CANTOS
There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?
They don’t make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb,
jumbled boulder and weed, pasture and boulder, scree,
et l’on entend, maybe, le refrain joyeux et leger.
Who knows what the ice will have scraped on the rock it is smoothing?
There they are, you will have to go a long way round
if you want to avoid them.
It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps,
fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!
I doubt if I knew this poem very well then — I certainly hadn’t thought about it — and I don’t know that Rachel did. Nevertheless, while it can be construed, from one angle, as a wonderfully generous description of The Cantos, from another, in the description of Pound’s writing as glacial, millennial in its semantics, one can make out the warning signs: Danger! Sublime Ahead! Empathizers, Collectivists, and, especially, Women, Keep Back! This sublime expanse was especially chilly for one such as DuPlessis. If readers of Pound’s epic were fools before the Alps, think how much more foolish, untoward, improper it would be for a woman to actually appear on these Poundian slopes, in work clothes, not waiting for glaciers to carve the meaning into the rock, but carrying her own tools. Quite a breach of modernist epic decorum. Woman, as DuPlessis has made quite clear, was a depersonalized myth for Pound: his “forms of modern maleness … depend, as subject positions, on proposing and maintaining a dehistoricized, despecified female figure (Blue Studios, 124).
One of the most positively unPoundian tools in her toolkit was the notion of “subject position.”
In “Draft 20: Incipit,” she comments:
The beginning was, as these things go,
’twas also setting forth of signs to read or tell.
Moonlit refraction by a strange heap
counted on base “N” and on base “Y.”
Yes and no. Both and and. (Toll, 131)
Earlier I said that DuPlessis was truly efficacious. She is changing the conditions in which she is writing. One change is that Pound, while one can read traces of him throughout Drafts, is less and less a shaping force on the writing as the poem accumulates. Not working out of the Poundian subject-position — this is a great gift. DuPlessis’s incessant inventiveness, her interest in inventing via number, her commitment to a poetic and critical commons — these are profoundly beyond Pound. Or, more generously, say that DuPlessis’s work is modifying Pound’s still-exciting obsession that poetry mean something and do something in the world we live in.
1. “A Celebration of the Poetry and Criticism of Rachel Blau DuPlessis,” Temple University, October 21, 2011.
3. Gertrude Stein, “Patriarchal Poetry,” in Gertrude Stein: 1903–32 (New York: Library of America, 1998); Everybody’s Autobiography (Cambridge: Exact Change, 2003), 136–37; The Mother of Us All (New York: Vintage, 1975).
9. Basil Bunting, “On the Fly-Leaf of Pound’s Cantos.”
Rachel Blau DuPlessis's arguments with Adorno
In an interview from 2008, Rachel Blau DuPlessis discusses her serial poem Drafts and in particular “Draft 52: Midrash,” which takes up the ethical dilemmas the contemporary poet faces in writing about the Shoah. The poem attempts a sustained response to the challenge of Theodor W. Adorno’s famous statement that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Though Adorno amended this claim repeatedly, his formulation prompted manifold critical and artistic responses as well as various misattributions contending that he claimed there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. This essay offers a reading of DuPlessis’s long poem “Draft 52: Midrash,” tracing its argumentative dialogues at the boundaries of the critical and the poetic. As an intertextual conversation with Theodor Adorno’s statement about the possibilities of poetry after the Shoah, “Draft 52: Midrash” institutes itself as a communicative and memorial space over and against an imagined elaboration of Adorno’s bases for an ethical interdiction of the poetic. The poem’s foregrounding of its own critical arguments contests any conventional acceptance of Adorno’s claim, asking that we reconsider the stakes of a space that conjoins commemoration of the victims of extraordinary violence and the reflection of our daily existence.
Commenting on Adorno’s words about the barbarism of writing poetry after Auschwitz, DuPlessis muses:
His statement comes from the most wrenching revulsion, grief and human anguish. Therefore, because it was so absolutist, I respected it as such. However, because it was so absolutist (plus annihilating, as morally wrong or uncivilized, my desire to write poetry), I felt it had to be discussed. Not answered, discussed. Opened out. Exfoliated. Looked at again and again from any number of angles or facets. That is what my serial poem does. Each time I approach the statement, in the 27 sections of this poem, I try to honor the level of ethical revulsion and grief from which it came. So each of the sections tries to invent an answer to the question why did he say this in the immediate post-war context. What was he getting at by singling out poetry.
By maintaining dialogue, “Draft 52: Midrash” becomes a way of “honor[ing] the level of ethical grief and revulsion” that Adorno’s words manifest. The poem offers commentary on his statement without seeking either to refute or to validate it, and at the same time, such commentary becomes a form of continuous self-examination and -questioning. By likening this process to an “exfoliation,” DuPlessis does not merely invoke renewal and regeneration: Instead, the dermatological/textual layers, removed to reveal the level below (and so the old made new), demonstrate the intertwining of body and writing in the intertextual enterprise, which operates at the point of contact between the material and the imagined trace. Indeed, DuPlessis emphasizes that her interest is not in “answering” Adorno but in inventing potential answers, in order to allow an ongoing confrontation between texts, so that the possibility of conversation beyond the hierarchical division of critical claim and poetic defense may emerge.
In fact, “Draft 52: Midrash” invites its critics and readers to grapple with the interpenetrations necessary for both creative and critical thought, and it does so in ways that question the boundaries between genres, as well as the dichotomy of content and form. For the poem (as part of the entire serial poem, Drafts, and of the second volume in particular) not only employs poetic license and device but also foregrounds its own scholarly and critical apparatus, through the use of footnotes, annotations, citations, and a poem that offers a précis of the collection’s first half. The allusions to scholarly works, incorporated in the body of the poem and elaborated in its annotations, diffuse the boundary between these two modes of writing and depict the scholarly as poetic, while rendering the poetic scholarly. It is a vital feature of the Drafts project as a whole that the individual poems offer a return to and rereading of their predecessors, in diverse allusions as well as in a formal periodic structure. DuPlessis remarks upon such conscious intratextuality as a vital facet of a poetics that critiques the tradition within and out of which it operates:
At Draft 19, all of a sudden, it occurred to me, I could “begin again” — a Steinian move. By beginning again, I could construct a fold or crease across which the poems related. The fold involves any kind of connection between two specific Drafts, one of which I call “the donor draft.” What I’m trying to do is sustain a continuous, generative folding of one work over another. […] [T]he deep feelings of the fold, or its epistemology, are harder to articulate. I have the sense that with folding and repetition, all parts of the work are involved with all parts, each touches on all. There is a topology of mutuality, even mutual pleasure and relatedness. By establishing “donor drafts,” different poems become “muses” for each other. This avoids any “I/you” muses, with those well-worn gender ruts, and makes the pronominal interaction more like “she/it” in the poem as a whole.
The flexibility of the draft — as ongoing work, which promises the possibilities of revision and adaptation — challenges the very concept of a boundary that preserves the perfected text. As DuPlessis points out, the notion of “relatedness,” of kinship and mutual influence between poems, involves the imaginative critique of the limits of formal and generic traditions.
Yet while she insists that one must understand the material conditions of poetry’s production, she also asks that we recognize how these conditions emerge within the poem itself, often unbidden. Beyond such sensitivity to the process of poetic creativity, DuPlessis’s citations from a critical text that questions the ethical status of poetry indicate from the start that the poem enters (and must enter) into a dialogue with the conditions of its own making. Such circumstances refer not simply to the poem’s individual production but above all to its inherent struggle to negotiate the frictions instituted by inescapable social and cultural parameters. Indeed, DuPlessis writes that the poem as argument with preexisting ideological frameworks bears witness to its own coming-into-being and thus to its marking by these very conditions. In her essay “Manifests,” a title which plays on the notion of involuntary revelation and of authorial will (through alluding to the formulation of a metapoetic credo), DuPlessis explains the difficulty of a critical project that originates in the context it seeks to transform:
As much as I resist Romantic lyric or narrative, or make critiques of their normalizing and naturalizing of gender, of causality, of trajectory, of telos, of memory — my resistance is also porous. It is riddled by holes through which leak these discourses and their histories of use, their vast influences. My resistance itself is contained within a complex cultural netting in which the very histories of these genre(s) are constructed by the materials I would (claim to) resist and may want to appropriate.
Destabilizing the position of authorial agency, the exchange of individual speech and collective discourse occurs through the permeable rather than rigid boundaries of structures, which cannot separate the internal and the external, since they both threaten and allow for appropriative movement.
In DuPlessis’s view, the poet’s vexed position of simultaneously resisting cultural histories of influence and being infiltrated by them leads to the liberating movement of appropriation. Appropriation is not a usurping or fraudulent attempt but a form of dialogue that testifies to the ways in which the poet works within and against a tradition at the same time. It is a negotiation of cultural conditions and as such especially important for a feminist poetics: the notion of appropriation as practice enables the female poet to make visible the politics of ownership and even adaptation, processes from which she has heretofore been excluded. DuPlessis rejects the position of “woman in poetry,” for as she explains, woman can only occupy a central space as the object of a male view, not as the agent of her own making. Short poems — and particularly the lyric — preclude the woman writer from accessing the figure of the female, because she does not own her authorial position.
Portraying this challenge of the intersection of gender and genre in spatial terms, DuPlessis describes a dispute over a delimited poetic universe, which the female poet, in an inversion of conventional sexual imagery, must seek to penetrate:
I’m not trying to exclude “the lyric” from poetry, because that would be truly a quixotic gesture. I wanted to surround it, to build through it, and to rupture it — to break it up inside to become something else. I wanted to break a monochromatic subjectivity, a limit in tone, a smallness which builds one iconic object against the void and does not acknowledge the void inside the text. And I am also rejecting poems that are centered only in the private world, not a social and political world. This position was enabling for me. There are any number of other interlocking reasons: awe, grief, astonishment, the plethora, being overwhelmed. Then there is the whole area of cultural ambition, to open up into the largest kind of space, the challenge of scope itself. I just want to write a lot of women’s words right now because, basically, there are so many absent women in my generation, in generations past, and in all of culture.
The vocabulary of forces that both move out of and move into the textual space — the trajectories of exclusion, enclosure, penetration, and rupture — make it impossible to determine from which side she approaches the framework, whether she speaks from within or outside its borders, from an individual position or on behalf of a collective. Indeed, even the phrase “I just want to write a lot of women’s words right now” contains an ambiguity, since we wonder whether “a lot of” modifies “women” or “words” (or both). This ambiguity proliferates potential implications: Does it designate the single author speaking for and to others in a quasi-prophetic mode (another form of expression traditionally denied women)? Does it conjure the scribe translating the inaudible into the audible, by archiving the silenced voices of the many for remembrance? Does it lay claim to a canonical, Whitmanian tradition, in which the self contains multitudes? In any event, this passage asserts a challenge to conceptions of both poetic and godly creation (and their assumed intersection in the figure of the divinely inspired male poet). In “opening up the largest kind of space,” the female poet reminds us that she works continuously to fill a vast, limitless universe with its missing texts, traditions, and genealogies.
By flaunting appropriation as a productive act, DuPlessis questions what may link the restrictions on women’s poetry and on poetry after the Shoah, as she argues with their various explicitly and implicitly imposed limits and investigates the connections between gender, genre, and ethics. Appropriation allows for an agency that challenges assumed ethical norms: the female poet responding to the Shoah’s horrors speaks against a doubled circumscription of her speech. However, in this dual context, appropriation also foregrounds the problem of a necessary ethical boundary for the subject’s speaking position: If the poet gives voice to silenced others with whom she identifies, then she also calls into question the legitimacy of laying claim to the voices of those who can no longer speak themselves. “Draft 52: Midrash” puts into tension the appropriative movements of a feminist poetics and a poetics that deals with the Shoah, by asking again and again how one may counterbalance forces that confine poetic expression and delimit the position and voice of the speaking subject, while at the same time negotiating the competing claims of experience and imagination. The poem’s commitment to critical argument refuses categorical decisions on ethical quandaries, even as it seeks to provoke debate by emphasizing and utilizing the various conditions that bind the writing subject.
The interpenetration of the public and the private — with the attendant need to negotiate social, cultural, political, and aesthetic realities — therefore mandates a refusal of conventional generic boundaries, since to write within these boundaries would signify complicity with their practices of exclusion. If DuPlessis laments the lack of a developed tradition of women’s writing and the exclusion of female writers from the literary canon, she simultaneously considers implicit assumptions about the genre of poetry, which align it with a feminized domesticity and triviality. In section 4 of Draft 52, she generates numerous, paradoxical pairings of neat containment and messy sentimentalism, so as to wonder whether such a conception underpins Adorno’s choice of poetry as the particular genre made impossible by the Shoah:
to compose music, to write novels, is barbaric.”
Is “poetry” the only affirmative décor in this house?
Kitsch collectible gathering dust on the shelf? Pearly button off a ripped shirt?
Is it the blandishments of poems, their automatic adhesion
to attraction, glades of sparkle, birthday offerings, tears at graves,
female visitants, house finch eating pear blossom,
awe-struck thoughts on planets, stars and moon —
is it the modest size of poems, their nicely tuned endings,
the diction and gestures they normally exclude,
their status as tender, elegant tokens
(concealing ferocious, self-fascinated delight)
that makes of “poem” a particular insult and blight?
By beginning the stanza with a presumed citation that is at once an adaptation (through the substitution of “composing music” and “writing novels” for “writing poetry” after the Shoah), DuPlessis emphasizes the poem’s authority to take on another’s voice and to reimagine another’s speech. While we may understand this as a form of empowerment — the ability to oppose what seems a categorical statement by refashioning it from within — we remain aware at the same time that in the context of the Shoah, this use of another’s voice, more particularly the voice of one who can no longer respond, presents us with an ethical dilemma. Of course, speaking in a common language is already a form of borrowing another’s voice, as the intelligibility of language cannot be located in any particular speaking position but exists in circulating.
Moreover, the quotation marks in this section may not only perform the borrowing of another individual’s voice (whose language is already collectively accessible) but may also serve to emphasize and critique the confines of genre, visualizing the boundaries that enclose what is considered a “poem.” Within this framed space, we find the poem authored by a woman poet doubly enclosed, so that the quotation marks imply what cannot be taken seriously, since it is supposed to remain in the private realm and to subsist as a single (rather than universal) articulation. Such critique operates at the intersection of the senses — or at the spot where their boundaries unravel — for while the quotation marks and their various implications stand out to the eye reading the poem, the listening ear must be attuned to a subtle difference in tone and intonation to set the cited word apart.
Quotation marks are not the only restraining force at work here: poetry’s narcissism emerges only within parenthetical boundaries, from which it threatens, nevertheless, to explode. The parenthetical enclosure is contained a second time, now not only by syntax but by poetic form. The stanza’s final couplet (following as it does upon free verse) evokes the strictly prescribed style of the sonnet, which male poets use to describe a female muse or beloved, melding her body, as an object of visual and physical pleasure, with the aesthetic enjoyment derived from and epitomized in the poem. In this section of “Draft 52: Midrash,” however, the final verses appropriate the function of the sonnet couplet, utilizing its simultaneous effect of a surprising turn and satisfying closure. But such containment cannot hold, for the concluding question demands response, so that the final verses employ form as its own critique, revealing the impossibility of neat endings. Anticipating its self-liberation and performing its own poetic defense, the poem refutes the amassed clichés that proclaim its impropriety in dealing with matters of grave importance, of human experience, and especially of human suffering.
Such considerations return us to the critical status of the fold, which possesses not only formal but also ethical significance. Recalling DuPlessis’s description of the fold as that which opens a space of “mutuality,” one may maintain that the fold establishes nonhierarchical relation without subsuming or eliding difference and so provides a way of conceptualizing the ethical bond, which proves vital to a sustained attempt at articulating loss. This articulation takes shape again and again as an exploration of deixis, demonstrating the intimate link but also the dangers of slippage between language and life. DuPlessis devotes a poem in her Drafts project to the problem of deixis, which describes the function of words whose meaning shifts depending on the context of their articulation. Indeed, “Draft 33: Deixis” is the very poem upon which “Draft 52: Midrash” folds, since the project instantiates nineteen as the periodic return. Taking issue with a scholar (Wlad Godzich) who claims that deixis marks the differences between locations, temporalities, and subjectivities, Draft 33 observes that “it appears oddly harsh, and also somewhat / automatic, drawing / such an unwavering line between the elements, / for in poetry, / the out-there is connected / precisely / to the over-here, / folded upon it / the ethics of poetry being that fold.” The fold thus both establishes and offers up for exploration that realm of poetry in which connection presents not organic wholeness but sustained involvement and its ethical consequences. Towards the end of Draft 33, DuPlessis asks, “What happens if there is something that takes place that cannot be pointed to” and asserts, “call this the matrix of the unallowable, or perhaps indifferently, say loss // call this the problem of the dead // call it the toll // It is the space of poetry.” Poetry exceeds a critical vocabulary by insisting on this deictic “it” both as origin and as remnant, as a surviving presence that proclaims its own fragmented nature.
And so, in “Draft 52: Midrash,” the doubt about what literary forms are possible in relation to a culture that allowed genocide to happen (and therefore may allow it again) emerge repeatedly, in ways that intertwine the problems of a feminist and an ethical poetics. DuPlessis’s investigation of the shape the poem takes in response to its imperiled viability includes attempting to locate the point at which language becomes insufficient and can no longer bear the ethical pressures of grappling with the reality of the Shoah. This attempt exposes its own fragility, as it pursues the intertwining of the critical and the poetic to its point of disintegration into a near-babble. So for instance in section 5:
Poem: symbol of normal culture. Culture:
has become barbaric. Therefore, the poem: and so on.
The syllogism rests.
Or another. Words fail at the exact point of this.
Poetry is made of words.
Therefore, write no poem.
Alt.: write a poem in which words fail.
(was the poem invested with so much
unsortable toll it must in this time silent fall?
was poetry always now impossible?
we could further never write it, and now, in neither
we cannot ever write it for a doubled reason.)
Exercising the various logical arguments that might motivate an interdiction of poetry — its inseparability from a condemnable culture, its failure in the moment of encounter with the reality of suffering — the stanzas retreat into the enclosure of the parenthetical and of the hovering, unanswerable question. The last verses dispense with logic as a mode of making sense of the world and avow only the negation of authorial agency.
“Draft 52: Midrash” thus investigates the tension between the poem as documentary and aesthetic artifact on the one hand and the author’s efforts to produce it on the other. The aim to locate language’s breakdown — “Words fail at the exact point of this” — demonstrates the conflict between needing to insist upon the reality of suffering and being unable to articulate it. This unrelenting gesture towards the unnameable reality occurs by way of deixis, which, while defining a precise subject- or object-position, nevertheless resists delimitation, because it shifts its designation depending on the context in which it is used. The demonstrative “this” gestures towards the horror without being able to capture it in language.
In section 6, DuPlessis addresses the problem of definition, claiming that at the bottom of questioning creative effort lies the doubt in language’s ability to express the workings of human behavior. Such doubt may make writing beside the point, as the first stanza indicates, with its list of proliferating and seemingly unanswerable questions:
Why should anything be written or not
what is a “crisis”
what is an “event”
what is a “policy”
what is “normal”
what is “hegemony”
Since there are no question marks, the requests for response, merging into one another unpunctuated, become a litany whose differences in substance are overshadowed by the monotony of their parallel form.
While this stanza, read on its own, may seem to indicate despair in the power of language to articulate various conditions of experience, the next stanza again relates this doubt in the capacities of language to poetry as genre. By querying whether poetry in particular is unable to use and situate such terms appropriately, DuPlessis allows for the possibility of an affirmative answer to this question but implies, at the same time, that poetry’s limitations or even impropriety should not necessarily mandate its categorical refusal:
Does poetry ignore crisis
trump up event
say policy does not matter to it
accept the normal
should it therefore be forbidden?
And by whom, exactly? and how best?
Is there an enforcement mechanism
you’d like to suggest?
In the final line, the poem invokes Adorno as addressee, yet the reader cannot be certain whether the “you” designates only this single interlocutor or whether it doesn’t also demand of its audience their position on poetry’s interdiction. The stanza’s only rhyme, between “best” and “suggest,” performs (in a playful yet defiant tone) the threat of the “suggestion” as a verdict which imposes a formal framework, so that only a replication of similitude is possible. Thus, the section exposes such prohibition as a restriction of freedom (and, in this way, a form of violence), which reproduces what it seeks to avoid.
By demanding in such varied ways why poetry should be the particular art form made impossible by the Shoah, DuPlessis implicitly holds Adorno accountable for delivering an explanation of what constitutes the poem and what, in this constitution, makes it uniquely unsuitable to post-Shoah existence. Moreover, she insists — frequently through a direct address of Adorno as her interlocutor, whose response she might expect — that he exhibit an awareness of the medium of his own reflections and of the fluidity of generic boundaries.
Indeed, the undoing of generic limits operates not only through poetry’s use of the critical mode, but also vice versa. In the notes to the poem, DuPlessis explains that the conclusion of section 9 involves a quotation of her own writing, from “Draft 29: Intellectual Autobiography” (a title that itself hints at the importance of a poet’s critical self-reflection). The lines she cites from her earlier poem, embedded now in Draft 52, reveal a continued preoccupation with Adorno’s statement, whose words she portrays not as scholarly analysis but as a poetic discourse that casts its spell on her: “Still, ‘chortle under the stark curse / you entitle ‘Adorno’s verse.’’ / Because his statement, irreducible and bleak, / makes intricate play with rhetoric and metaphor, / enacting poetry against itself. So to speak.” The duality of radical minimalism and figurative proliferation is not an empty opposition, for the two are intertwined. DuPlessis’s rhyme on “irreducible and bleak” and “so to speak” suggests as much, hinting at language’s incapacity to capture and arrest experience. Ultimately, these lines indict “Adorno’s verse” of a potentially transgressive speech act, which founds the condition of its own speaking — “so to speak” read as “thus to speak” or “to speak in this way” — upon the self-destructive turning of poetry “against itself.” Of course, in doing so, his poetics must annihilate itself, since, if spoken on the basis of poetry’s self-obliterating movement, it can speak at all only in the process of being eradicated too. But because the speaker of Draft 52 insists at the same time on highlighting her own involvement and intervention — by foregrounding self-citation and self-reference — we also remain aware of the necessary distance between Adorno’s critical statement and “Adorno’s verse.” The former remains to haunt a discursive and poetic tradition, while the latter seems to obliterate itself: but what is their relation? What are the implications of the ways in which Adorno’s language survives and exerts influence on both critical and poetic traditions?
Given debates about who possesses the authority to depict the horrors of the Shoah through language, the problem of experience — of its definition, its appropriation, and its expressibility — arises time and again. “Draft 52: Midrash” ponders the central correspondence established between the human body and the text as the basis for the translation of experience into language, meditating on the possibility of transposing the body onto the page in the corporeal singularity of each letter. So for instance in the following long stanza that concludes section 14:
Every mourner as a black Letter unwritten
every body, stick, or piece of body ash
a silent blanked out sentence inside a syntax of systematic
revulsion, here’s the point — there is no accurate lexicon.
Barring that “word,” half measures are indecent.
Language not equal to itself.
The only poem is blackened, barred-out lines.
To write poetry — to pretend to find
that word or this, filling the unfillable space —
is grotesque, obtuse, barbaric.
You need imagine the rest of this writing as black blocks.
But this, then, would be indistinguishable
from the “censored,” from the “erased.”
Dense with the imagined relations between physical and textual being, the stanza reflects upon and then seems to refute the transformation of body to letter (a doubt epitomized in the deictic “I”). Entangling the literal and figurative in its insistence that “here’s the point,” the stanza shows the movement of deixis and thus undercuts the colloquial ease and brevity of a phrase that claims to summarize and distill knowledge. The figurative notion of “barring the word” — that is, of excluding certain expressions, or verbal expression as such — evokes in turn a literal bar obstructing sight, a crossing-out of language, which is “not equal to itself” and thus cannot produce meaning through analogy. Yet the seeming assurance of this solution, which leads the speaker to advise the reader that “you need to imagine the rest of this writing as black blocks,” nevertheless begs the question why the poem does not instantiate this commandment itself, why, instead of recommencing as a literal barrier to sight, it mandates instead the necessary discrepancy between its continuation in words and the reader’s task to envision its obstruction. What happens to writing and to reading in this process, in this space in which the reader takes part in the poem’s making, or, in this case, in its dismantling? The stanza concludes that its injunction to “bar the word” is itself impossible, because imagining such an act would at the same time recall the Nazis’ erasure of writing, in the form of banned and burned books and — by the figurative extension that summons the horrific reality — of human beings.
In fact, the poem instantiates the barring of words two sections prior to postulating this necessity, and it does so while experimenting with the tension between adaptation, adoption, and appropriation of the voice of an anonymous individual, who experienced the Shoah’s horrors. As I discussed above, DuPlessis regards appropriation not as a moment of usurpation — and thus, implicitly, of violence — but as a potential form of empowerment, as a way of resituating speech in order to become aware of its position. In section 12, however, it seems that she considers the parameters of such an argument anew:
“I stared out.”
Forced to work in this factory
killing, stripping, burning,
or killed and stripped and burned
“I am put in this place.”
Personal pronouns are moot. Eye only.
Poetry constructed of enormity:
mounds — of faces, limbs, shoes, rags.
The shadow line of times and places.
By establishing the homophonic correspondence between the “I” and the “eye,” this section addresses the problem of whether only the person who has experienced atrocity may bear witness to it. (In this case, vision, as an immediate form of sense impression, stands in metonymically for experience.) If the stanza declares the authority of a speaking subject who was (and is) witness to the horrors (“I stared out,” “I am put in this place”), it also presents this authority as already mediated. Not only are these statements quotations — the borrowing, that is, of another’s voice — but the quotation “I am put in this place” hints at the very process of substitution, as the subject adopts the other’s position in an endlessly repeatable cycle. The phrase “I am put in this place” (and its imagined corollary “‘I’ is put in this place”) reveals deixis as the movement of substitution, in which the particular and the general circulate endlessly, and so it demonstrates the ways in which the pressures of language and body act upon one another. But it also locates the ethical dilemma at their nexus: if the language we use to describe the experiences proper to us is one that circulates freely, then where do we draw the line — the poem’s black bar — that prevents us from impinging upon the experiences and expressive capacities of another, of appropriating their lives into our versions of a common language? At the same time, we mediate the impulses of empathic recognition through shared words as well, so in this sense, their capacity to be adopted and reworked may serve a vital ethical function.
The practice of putting the self in another’s place is thus interrupted by an obstruction of the I/eye, in the form of the thick black bar that invades the middle of the stanza. Is the bar at the center of the stanza also “the shadow line of times and places,” entering the poem by necessity, a visual reminder of the annihilation of words and, simultaneously, of the obliteration of vision as a tool for understanding? It appears to signal both the eradication of words and the impossibility of vision (in the double sense of sight and illumination). Interpreting this bar as an interruption of poetic creation or, alternatively, as its basis, the following verses present both possibilities: “Personal pronouns are moot. Eye only. / Poetry constructed of enormity: / mounds — of faces, limbs, shoes, rags. / The shadow line of times and places.” The movement of reduction and impoverishment (signaled by words such as “moot” and “only”) is countered by a growth that is only the accumulation of devastated fragments, the remnants of crimes committed: “mounds — of faces, limbs, shoes, rags.” In accordance with Marianne Hirsch’s concept of “postmemory” and Susan Gubar’s notion of “remembering what one never knew,” the temporal and spatial “shadow lines” also offer a “negative image” (photographically speaking) of the ways in which surviving humanity is haunted by the horrific suffering inflicted upon others, elsewhere, in the past.
Of course, the poem also has a particular figure of simultaneous presence and absence in mind. In accordance with a poetics of questioning and of dialogic response, DuPlessis foregrounds the various invocations of Adorno as interlocutor, presenting him as apostrophized partner in argument. Here, apostrophe — both emphasizing and ignoring its status as posthumous address — demonstrates the ways in which dialogue seeks to endure, attending to the voice of another beyond the physical limits of his or her existence. One might argue that the poem, written decades after Adorno’s death, can only ask for his attention and participation in conversation by sustaining — and asking its readers to sustain — a disregard of the boundary between real and imagined time and between physical and remembered existence. Yet, as the section dedicated to Draft 52 in “Draft, Unnumbered: Précis” indicates, the traversal of this boundary is precisely necessary in order to engage in the task of remembering and commemorating others’ suffering: “If I were to cry out / the questions why or how or / who would hear us — / I’d say the only ones to hear this / are ourselves. / Therefore it is scrupulous to listen. / Especially to shadows.” Through enjambment, the questions about historical fact and meaning (why or how or who) become questions about the very possibility of communication (why or how or who would hear us). Thus, these verses reveal a tautological experience, in which the speaker and the listener are one and the same. But such enclosure does not relieve us of the twinned tasks of asking and listening; rather, its bond calls for our attention. Indeed, the synaesthesia of the final lines — the image of listening to shadows — instructs us not in a proliferation of sensory experiences but in the ethical demand entailed by the brutal curtailing of the senses. Shadows, as negative traces of the visible, stand in for the muted voice. To listen to shadows emphasizes the struggle involved in attending to an ephemeral yet tenacious reality, at a dual remove from our own sensory experience.
According to the poem, finally, what emerges as most important about Adorno’s statement is not its truth value but its survival, its tenacious existence, which continues to demand response. I would argue that what may seem like an apostrophe of Adorno — and, on one level, it certainly is that, in its insistent address of a deceased author — is in another sense a metonymic transfer between body and text, so that the address of the human being is also a response to the call of “the sentence,” the statement itself. Interestingly enough, however, the section in which this transfer operates most explicitly does not include a direct address but refers to Adorno only in the third person. Paradoxically, the words of supposed interdiction become the catalyst of continued critical contemplation and commemoration as well as of poetic creation:
Relentless, the sentence returns.
So it is plausible that he meant
it would take a long time, longer
than a life, a fact strangely moot, to absorb fully
that many dead, and the pre-quels and encores
of this event, that desire systematically to exterminate
named populations as such, for their regular
being It would take a long time. If ever.
Thus, as a marker of that sadness,
to write poetry is barbaric, barbarous.
Those very words snuck up again,
to beg the questions.
The refusal of poetic production comes back persistently, a re-creative moment at odds with the temporality of the postexistence that it seems to express. As these verses make clear, the time of comprehending suffering and the time of mourning do not coincide. The simplicity and categorical absoluteness of Adorno’s verdict is deceptive, for it reemerges over and over as supplication and query, uncertain of an appropriate response and manifesting itself outside of its critical boundaries. If the apostrophized author cannot answer the poem’s challenges, his writing is nevertheless engaged in the intertextual argument the poem demands, an argument whose origin cannot be located within a defined framework but occurs at the very limits of the critical and the poetic.
The simultaneous diminishment and excess of language that these verses describe returns us to the relationship of the temporality and ethics of commemoration, asking us to think poetry beyond generic restrictions. Indeed, it is the liminal space that constitutes both the separation and the bond between experiencing or recognizing another’s suffering on the one hand and the modes of seeking to express this incontrovertible reality on the other. But to honor and commit to the exploration of this gap may be impossible, as the final stanza of section 20 of Draft 52 reminds us, “The interstice is a stark revolting site. / We are not frightened enough, nor enough engaged / to be riven by this, to live by this.” What does the parallelism of being riven by something and living by it entail? The aims of ethics and representation seem to fail at once: just as the deictic “this” twice marks language’s inability to capture that which it seeks to express, so we resist the conscious existence that our understanding of the Shoah’s reality would mandate. Nevertheless, we must continue to explore the gap — the “stark revolting site” — because to do so, to bear in mind the distance between our efforts to comprehend and the horror of reality, means to engage in the work of commemoration. The poem ends with a citation of Adorno’s injunction against oblivion, from the essay “Commitment:” “‘The abundance of real suffering / permits no forgetting.’ / Yet memory does not work that way. / It works another way, halfway, a ground lens, / a great stark. One little scrap where something is. / Incommensurate.” The scrap returns us to the bit of paper, to the draft. The incommensurate — refusing the possibility of analogy, and particularly the equation of lived and textual reality — precludes the finality of this last word. It promises instead the lasting space between two versions of existence, between being and its remembrance, life and its representation: a space that is integral rather than prohibitive. What remains, in the end, is this arena “where something is.”
2. Theodor W. Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society,” trans. Samuel Weber and Shierry Weber Nicholson, in Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 162. In German: “[N]ach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch.” Adorno, “Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft,” in “Ob nach Auschwitz sich noch leben lasse”: Ein philosophisches Lesebuch, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997), 205.
3. As Robert Kaufman points out, the scope and force of responses (initially in the German but later also in the Anglophone context) is surprising: “Adorno’s words have generated such controversy that it has seldom been remarked how bizarre it is — given how slim the chances initially would have seemed — that one barbed aphorism and its reformulations could come to have so much influence on, could create a six-decade donnée for, reflection on consummate horror and on art and culture’s ability — or incapacity — to address such horror humanely and critically.” See Kaufman, “Poetry’s Ethics? Theodor W. Adorno and Robert Duncan on Aesthetic Illusion and Sociopolitical Delusion,” New German Critique 33 (2006): 74.
4. DuPlessis and Adam Fieled, “Feature Poet Interview: Rachel Blau DuPlessis,” Adam Fieled: Poetry, December 2005–January 2006.
5. Describing the historical development of poetic responses to the Shoah, Susan Gubar mentions the notable presence of female voices in contemporary Anglo-American poetry. Often, she finds, these poets add supplementary materials to indicate their “indebtedness” to first-generation poets and to scholars. In DuPlessis’s case, I would argue that the critical apparatus and the supplementary materials she includes in her poetry function not simply to emphasize debt and gratitude but to enter a debate that extends beyond hierarchical or genealogical lineage to allow for and even promote argument across temporal and generic divides. Gubar, “The Long and the Short of Holocaust Verse,” New Literary History 35, no. 3 (2004): 457–58.
6. DuPlessis and Jeanne Heuving, “An Interview with Rachel Blau DuPlessis,” Contemporary Literature 45, no. 3 (2004): 404–05. DuPlessis also investigates the problem of the muse figure for a feminist poetics in “Marble Paper: Toward a Feminist ‘History of Poetry,’” Modern Language Quarterly 65, no. 1, 2004: 93–129.
13. At the same time, we may read the final stanza as performing a Talmudic logic of questioning by visualizing the entanglement of opposing voices left to stand next to one another in an unreconciled fashion, thus highlighting the indeterminacy of the intertextual.
14. In Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, Susan Stewart argues that “[d]eixis fuses form, expression, and theme as one event in place and time — the inseparability of frame and context in deictic forms is evident in the impossibility of paraphrasing or abstracting them. We therefore could not speak of the specificity of the deictic as translatable or transportable to other locations, for it is its own location. Yet we can understand its meaning or significance independent of its reference to the here and now of apprehension. The form creates or defines its location and the listener, viewer, or apprehender finds his or her position established in relation to the concrete determinants of the form — everything ‘matters’ as an aspect of the manifestation. In this way the artwork’s very specificity, its ‘finality of form,’ enables its context independence. The theory of deixis in linguistics has implications for presentational forms more generally, helping us consider framing the time and space of apprehension, the mutuality, reciprocity or nonreciprocity, of relations between positions and perspectives, the reversibility of things amid the unidirectionality of everyday time, and assumptions of intention and reception.” See Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 156. Stewart’s emphasis on the tension between fluidity and structure, particularity and universality in the deictic suggests its mediating function, while Agamben’s characterization of the deictic as a form of the “desubjectifying experience” implicit in all human existence and epitomized in the “barbaric” speech of glossolalia posits deixis as an indication of what cannot be mediated. See Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 1999), 114–16. Both notions are productive currents for an analysis of the conflict between poetic excess and inadequacy, as we encounter it in DuPlessis’s work.
15. Once more, however, we may interpret this form as an allusion to the style of Talmudic exegetical practice, which launches its arguments with an inaugurating, quasi-rhetorical question. As Benjamin Harshav points out in his analysis of the ways in which the forms of Talmudic discourse enter the structure of Yiddish discourse — and by way of Yiddish, other languages Jewish authors use — it is vital to note that the question functions both as a solicitation or demand and as an expression of doubt: “[A]sking a question is equivalent to questioning, raising a difficult or problematic point in an argument.” See Harshav, The Meaning of Yiddish (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 112.
17. See, for instance, Marianne Hirsch’s description of the way in which a simultaneously excessive and insufficient relation to a past one did not experience structures the phenomenon of “postmemory:” “Postmemory is a powerful form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation. That is not to say that memory itself is unmediated, but that it is more directly connected to the past. Postmemory characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are displaced by the stories of the previous generation, shaped by traumatic events that can be neither fully understood nor re-created.” Hirsch, “Past Lives: Postmemories in Exile,” Poetics Today 17, no. 4 (1996): 662. Susan Gubar claims that the value of poetry about the Shoah written by those who did not themselves experience it lies in the portrayal of this history’s lasting impact on contemporary cultural concerns, since “the proliferation of Holocaust poems in English turns our attention not away from those events but toward their reverberations as they affect a series of generations searching for a means to keep alive the urgency of continuing to confront a past as it passes out of personal recollection. The ‘warrant for imagination’ consists, then, in a psychological, ethical, and historical need to remember what one never knew.” Gubar, Poetry After Auschwitz: Remembering What One Never Knew (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 9. But there are also those who argue that we are not haunted but exactly the opposite, since the Shoah has little or no impact on our daily lives. According to such interpretations, the “negative” quality of “the shadow lines” might highlight their waning, ephemeral, and weightless nature, as they are merely inversions of what we perceive as reality. Consider, for instance, Gary Weissman’s argument that contemporary commemorative practices which attempt to offer an “experiential” access to some aspect of the catastrophe hope to counteract “an encroaching sense that the Holocaust seems unreal or pseudoreal in American culture, which, in the aftermath of the event, fails to reflect in meaningful enough ways that the Holocaust occurred.” Weissman, Fantasies of Witnessing: Postwar Efforts to Experience the Holocaust (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 22.
18. DuPlessis’s citation is taken from the following passage in Adorno’s essay: “I do not want to soften my statement that it is barbaric to continue to write poetry after Auschwitz; it expresses, negatively, the impulse that animates committed literature. […] But Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s rejoinder also remains true, namely, that literature must resist precisely this verdict, that is, be such that it does not surrender to cynicism merely by existing after Auschwitz. It is the situation of literature itself and not simply one’s relation to it that is paradoxical. The abundance of real suffering permits no forgetting […]. But that suffering — what Hegel called the awareness of affliction—also demands the continued existence of the very art it forbids; hardly anywhere else does suffering still find its own voice, a consolation that does not immediately betray it.” Adorno, “Commitment,” trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson, in Can One Live After Auschwitz?: A Philosophical Reader, 251–52. In German: “Den Satz, nach Auschwitz noch Lyrik zu schreiben, sei barbarisch, möchte ich nicht mildern; negativ ist darin der Impuls ausgesprochen, der die engagierte Dichtung beseelt. […] Aber wahr bleibt auch Enzensbergers Entgegnung, die Dichtung müsse eben diesem Verdikt standhalten, so also sein, daß sie nicht durch ihre bloße Existenz nach Auschwitz dem Zynismus sich überantworte. Ihre eigene Situation ist paradox, nicht erst, wie man sich zu ihr verhält. Das Übermaß an realem Leiden duldet kein Vergessen […]. Aber jenes Leiden, nach Hegels Wort das Bewußtsein von Nöten, erheischt auch die Fortdauer von Kunst, die es verbietet; kaum wo anders findet das Leiden noch seine eigene Stimme, den Trost, der es nicht sogleich verriete.” Adorno, “Engagement,” in “Ob nach Auschwitz noch sich leben lasse”: Ein philosophisches Lesebuch, 299–300.
Midrash as the angel of history
In his hermetic essay from 1933, “Agesilaus Santander,” Walter Benjamin writes: “The Kabblalah relates that, at every moment, God creates a whole host of new angels, whose only task before they return to the void is to appear before His throne for a moment and sing His praises.” But in an earlier essay on Karl Kraus, he describes the angelic as a kind of monster — part child, part cannibal — a creature who, before passing into nothingness, is either “lamenting, chastising or rejoicing.” Inspired by Paul Klee’s painting, the figure of the angel takes on its final iteration as the Angelus Novus in Benjamin’s “Theses on the Concept of History,” a text so familiar by now I’ll forgo the usual excerpt. Suffice it to say Benjamin conceives of his angel of history as a witness to the folly of progress (or the progress of folly). But this angel is also a victim of what it sees. Immured in history, it’s unable either to rescue itself or to impede events from being engulfed in catastrophe. Benjamin’s angel can do no more than preside impotently over the ruins of history. Its very hybridity seems to militate against effective action: part theological, part material, it belongs fully to neither world. The failure of the angel is located in its status as a messenger. It carries no powers of intervention, no sword of justice to set things right. That task properly belongs to the messiah, the one who will never come.
In Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s secular Judaic poetics, a different figure of the angel of history emerges, one whose weak messianic authority derives from its commitment to a midrashic model of textuality. This angel is the principle of continual poetic revision as intervention. It reads and writes the past not as it was, but as it is found: deeply fractured by contingency, open to an ongoing process of revision. The midrashic angel takes up its task not merely by bearing witness to what it sees, but through actively constructing new alignments of meaning from the scattered wreckage of the debris field.
As the angel of history, midrash attends to the rubble, less through a work of mourning than by a work of haunting. The distinction here is fine, but haunting is specific form of mourning; an activity which persists at the edges of loss and trauma and that works to keep the trace alive rather than securely bury it. By attending to the bits, this midrashic haunting invests the remnants with new forms of relation. Its method is the bricoleur’s. It cobbles together whatever’s been rejected, overlooked, forgotten, repressed, estranged, emphasizing the visibility of the seams and sutures of its patchwork. How things are joined together becomes as important as their joining. As Gershom Scholem puts it, midrash is “poetic prose in which linguistic scraps of sacred texts are whirled around kaleidoscope like.” For the angel, ruination offers a new kind of redemption; rupture and caesura are utilized not as agents of demolition but as a method for building constellations. Any fragment recovered from the rubble could be loaded with a potential for acquiring new significance once placed in network with other fragments.
Of course, midrash is primarily concerned with guaranteeing the past’s link with the present. As DuPlessis employs it, however, it also probes the very premises for forming such linkages. This, too, is in the spirit of midrash, which behaves, as Geoffrey Hartman notes, as a textual montage. In Drafts, midrash is both the process of suturing and the exposure or denaturalizing of that process. It opens up the seam inside, as DuPlessis puts it. Part of keeping open a continuous link to the past requires asking what continuity means and whether the past is best served by maintaining it as it has been transmitted, or interrupting it, subjecting it to “strange angles,” as she puts it (or strange angels?), to the perspective that will yield a messianic light, in Adorno’s phrase. Midrash is an ethical intervention in how meaning is constructed. The midrashic poetics of Drafts follows Zukofsky’s injunction to think through statements without compromising the integrity of the “thing.”
“Draft 87: Trace Element” (from Pitch) exemplifies this midrashic poetics. Recalling Lacan’s quip that he’d like to know how the spirit can manage to live without the letter even while claiming a position of superiority, it begins by adumbrating the nuances of spirit’s passage into textuality. Following Derrida, DuPlessis sees the trace enjoying a curious state of existence — simultaneously canceled out, yet still part of the count. Its erased shadow is essential to the total chain of signification. In Derrida’s lexicon, trace names the mark, or smudge, which remains even after the logocentric dream of recovering an original or foundational point of reference outside the sign system has been erased. These traces linger, ghostlike, haunting philosophical systems, history, and languages alike, fueling them with the desire for an unattainable goal of recovery. The trace is what remains of metaphysics’ perverse longing for a closed, regulated system (perverse, because focused solely on its self-enjoyment), one undisturbed by that other key Derridean term, play. Trace comprises the very core of différance since it both overturns and keeps in play the logic of the recoverable origin. Derrida is emphatic on this point. “The trace is in fact the absolute origin of sense in general. Which amounts to saying once again that there is no absolute origin of sense in general.” The trace places the idea of origin under erasure, as Derrida argues, destabilizing its claims to authority, rendering it, in effect, porous.
The trace, then, is what haunts every sign, and indeed, the entire logic of every system of meaning or signification. But this haunting is more than the phantom of discredited metaphysics. It opens a path into rethinking how memory and history are mutually braided. “Trace Element” begins by tracing the idea of trace from a variety of angles.
The trace is
a hold/a hole
of evanescence through which
travel small powerful things,
impotently, earnestly, but, and,
whether, what if underlying them.
Traces of what happened
commend your attentiveness to the almost invisible
Or trace exists before all this …
Incipient emptiness of a living void.
Or trace indicates almost meaningless
propulsions of smudge and grit
dragging vestige, graffito and spoor.
Gradually, these metaphysical considerations give way to tracing the shadow of trace through history in order to “illuminate the breakage” (93). “For traces caused by enormous historical crimes // one thinks, unthinks, and thinks again. // Molecules remain in air. We breathe each other in. // This is not consolation” (101).
What was it? What did you want?
“how to tolerate an inconsolable instant …”
that has spread its wings
the spiral of gravel kicked out underfoot
and the charred book
the meltdown of page in the world’s greatest age
the Age of Ash we are
the alloy of. (102)
Finally (not finally, though) trace implicates us all in its melancholy and guilt.
Trace is evidence.
It is a blurry mark of what we should have known
a melancholy reminder
Trace offers flakes of the unimagined
and unimaginable so we can
continue, fully unable to imagine it.
Or unimagine it. (104)
The poem turns on this pivot. In recognizing its own site as a trace (a moment, also, of méconnaissance) it locates the power of imaginal capability contained within the ceaseless production of associations the flake calls up. Each minute particular is a tiny messianic gate. All the minute particulars of the daily are rife with potentiality for signifying otherwise by activating the power of the poem to re-link language continually through yet another chain of signifiers.
One word, with its history, its specificity, its residues,
The scintillation of its distractions can open a universe
Of connectors. That poetry
Being words is like this, that poetry is made of trace phonemes …
That speak, do speak with palimpsested distinctness. (107)
The power of the trace takes on recursive properties, investing language with a messianic explosiveness that can cut through the scar tissue of history. “The trace emanates the trace! … / trace is inscribed everywhere / and the world is trace, / but without a reader” (108). The danger here, for DuPlessis, is that the trace verges uncomfortably close to losing its material character and performing merely as a surrogate for spirit or some other reifying abstraction. She pulls back from this position by ruefully acknowledging that “we are custodians of the meanings / we make of world. / It is circular, / this argument, if it is one, / but to pine / is ridiculous. / This is / trace at its best” (109). The epitome of trace, in this view, is that it returns the reader to the world with a new sense for the potential of as yet unmade connections. “Let the shard become readable by / jaggedness and by piecing, / let letter engage its crowns / let black be luminous with luster” (109). DuPlessis’s shard does not provide, as Oppen’s notion of impenetrable matter wishes to, some indestructible bedrock. Rather, it acknowledges its own contingent status by remaining opens to the possibility of further damage.
For DuPlessis, the trace inverts the hierarchy between outside and inside, supplement and origin, or, more specifically, between midrashic commentary and original text. In Drafts, there is no original text, no founding principle except that of the midrashic trace itself, the ever-repeatable and circulating return of the poem to the poem in a process that generates yet another poem, another commentary on the process. This potentially endless procedure of reiteration is given a vivid and witty turn at the close of “Trace Elements,” which invokes as a model for such a poetics that masterpiece of the bricoleur’s art (and a model as well for Ronald Johnson’s ARK), Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers.
All serifs are seraphim: such is faith in the letter.
Such is the force of the word.
The faith is touching.
In every alphabet
in every technology of memory —
knots, rocks, dots, rhymes,
monuments and books —
in that shockingly endless tower built
of the balances and loops of wire
ceramic shards set in cement, and mirrors, too,
extendable yet poised in mutual
There is no verb in this sentence. (109)
The verbless sentence, brought up short in a characteristic self-commentary, gains rather than loses its momentum by this seemingly spontaneous interruption. While this gesture, which comes to mark Drafts more and more as it progresses, flirts with the idea of a verbless sentence, a kind of ideal fragment or ur-kernel of utterance, it sustains itself on the strength of the dialectical subduction that, not without some calculated violence, yokes lowly typography to the empyrean seraphim who, following Benjamin’s Talmudic angels, sing endlessly their praises of the Most High. But it is not spirit that has not passed into and animated inert matter. Quite the opposite, matter itself is made to sing here, through the miniscule flourishes of alphabetical design.
The trace is both valediction (“ahead of all parting”) and inauguration. Congruent with midrashic self-reading, it guards memory even as it reframes it, generating the weak messianic force as a momentary stay, not against confusion, but in productive confusion. “Memory,” according to the Baal Shem Tov, “is the secret of redemption.” But the recovery of memory is itself an endless operation. This is another way in which Drafts invites us to read it as angelic. Each poem ascends and descends like the angels in Jacob’s dream. Each arrival (above? below?) is also a departure and either one of them acts as the occasion for generating another poem in response to the poem that’s preceded it. Indeed, in Drafts poetry reads poetry. This reading carries an angelic function: each poem is the message that the other poems desire. And because the poem as angelic messenger is also the message itself, each message is altered by its encoding and delivery. At the same time, no poem can become the final message, the elocutionary act that forecloses or fulfills all others. While Drafts is continually redeeming the meaning of time, of lived experience, full redemption not only eludes it but is actually antithetical to its logic. The end of any poem is also a forgetting. It signifies the necessity for writing again, writing over, writing beyond.
None of this is to say that Drafts is a religious poem. But in as much as the textual is spirit, that is, thought, the soul of thought, if you will, its very form, made material and visible as letters, as language, it adopts a theological posture. As Geoffrey Hartman so eloquently puts it, writing of Derrida’s Cinders:
letter is spirit and reclaims a non-nihilistic revelation … everything turns on the signifying force of a writing that is generically no more (and no less) than the independent trace of an originating, inspiring feu … Derrida’s philosophy celebrates words that have entered time yet escaped the flames, that persist despite deadly repetition, on the one hand, and ecstatic visitation, on the other. From this perspective, writing is the shadow of its own flame and writers the cinder bearers of a brûle-tout that “swallows the movement of meaning” (Blanchot), that burns up, without placating, the restless ghost (revenant) such charged words as “Holocaust,” “spirit,” “being.”
Such a radical poetics of fire and cinders, of saying, destroying, and saving, traces a finite set of themes along a fractal curve of infinite loss and recovery. It reverses the Pauline claim that “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” For spirit as such has failed. This is the message the midrashic angel of Drafts bears. And it is a message of hope. A midrashic poetics suggests that we must regard form itself, in all its dissolution and reformation, as the ongoing process of redeeming time.
4. Hartman’s discussion of midrash is the shadow text under many of my own remarks here. See “Text and Spirit” in Scars of the Spirit: The Struggle Against Inauthenticity (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 119–37.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s 'Torques: Drafts 58–76'
I am always one volume behind in Rachel DuPlessis’s Drafts. Yet, I have been a loyal reader and realize to my surprise that she has been writing them/I have been reading them for the best part of twenty-five years now. We, author and reader, have been “strained companions” in the creation of this work. Often, throughout this essay, I refer to the “writer/reader” of the work to demonstrate the shared enterprise that is an intrinsic part of being in Drafts. Drafts will not yield to you without attention, not just to the individual piece, but to a kind of active, physical juggling, the moving of the finger along the lines of the grid of poems, the reading back and forth within the folds of at least three books. Drafts are a pleasure and a weighty pain as they roll on remorselessly, demanding that you keep up, keep faith and care, that you follow through, follow back and forth, forth and back, reading notes, seeking intertexts, being in the process. We are as battered and elated as DuPlessis herself must be, by the end of each Draft, each volume, each enfolded reading. The poet is aware of this as she challenges, berates and encourages us in the journey. “Are you Ready? are you composed? / Can you go a third Vertiginous road?” she asks with a mocking rather jaunty half-rhyme at the beginning of “Draft 73: Vertigo” (and of course the capitalization of “Ready” makes us see “read,” asks if we are read-worthy of the journey). The whole project is vertiginous in its refusal to cease or fix. I think that my surprise at how long it has all been going on is due not just to the natural human amazement at how time passes, but also to how these pieces still feel so fresh and innovative, so contemporaneous, in their individuality and their structure as a long, ever-changing poem.
This then, is a (rather late) review-essay on DuPlessis’s Torques: Drafts 58–76 and a tribute too from a companion-reader on the other side of the Atlantic. It is also a gathering in and an updating of my own earlier work on DuPlessis, in particular a review-essay of Drafts 1–38, Toll written for How2 in 2002 and an ill-fated unpublished piece from even further back in the mists of time. I also revisit more general essays on which DuPlessis has been influential, one on gender and pronouns written in 2000 and one on “the eco-ethical poetics of found text in contemporary poetry” written in 2009. This then is a revisiting of her words and my words on her words, both of which are interspersed in snippets throughout. As such this essay is written in the spirit of circling and layering through time that DuPlessis’s enfolded Drafts enact and encourage. But I want also to look at what is different, as well as what is continuous, in these Drafts of the early 2000s, at the specificity of Torques in terms of practice, mood, language, and technique. In particular, I identify a growing darkness to the work, the concomitant growing influence of the Objectivist poets, and an increasing tension and richness between complex and simple uses of language in conjunction with each other.
this tensing buzz of poetry (75)
The Drafts project, this “small epic,” is a work of chutzpah, a self-confessed challenge to Ezra Pound’s Cantos (a “counter-Cantos”) as well as a simultaneous, spectacular refusal of the slim volume and the monumental volume at the same time. We are always in the “middle muddle” of the fold and the grid. DuPlessis’s Drafts refer back to themselves along the same numerical line in groupings of nineteen (i.e., 1/20/39/58 or 7/26/45/64). She plans to keep on until 114. Each individual piece of writing however also has its own structure. In Torques DuPlessis continues the Olsonian open form project which is important to her own and subsequent generations. Her fellow poet Kathleen Fraser has noted the “immense permission-giving moment of Charles Olson’s “PROJECTIVE VERSE” manifesto” for her generation of women poets. Fraser was founding editor of How(ever), now online as How2, the journal which, virtually singlehandedly, revived the study and publication of modernist and contemporary innovative poetry by women. DuPlessis was “contributing editor” from its foundation in 1983. For Fraser, her Olsonian practice has evolved into a dynamic four-sided page:
the location where an entirely “inappropriate” or “inessential” content might be approached or seized, by fact of the poet’s very redefining of margin as edge: four margins, four edges — PAGE in place of the dictated rigor and predictable pull of the straight, the dominant Flush Left.
In her subsequent book of Drafts, Pitch: Drafts 77–95, DuPlessis does explore the four-sided page in a series of collage poems. In Torques, the left-hand margin remains as precisely an edge, a point of tension against which to push and pull the Draft text to varying degrees of distance, to enact the process of rebellion in text, the inclusion of “unclean … jots and tittles … traces of the Hebraic … debris, rot, fragment.” All this being defined by DuPlessis as precisely counter to Pound’s totalizing and anti-Semitic, anti-feminine systems. Above all, innovation happens in context — form and content enfolded as in the old marriage described by Creeley and amended by Levertov: “form is never more than an extension (revelation, said DL) of content.” Often pieces fold into their construction references to literary and linguistic genres, subgenres and structures as they have been created within the cultural sphere. So, “Draft 67: Spirit Ditties” adopts mock-lyric structures and language; “Draft LXX: Lexicon” is an alphabet-based poem; “Draft 72: Nanifesto” plays with the structure of the manifesto so beloved of the Modernists; “Draft 74: Wanderer” echoes the “books,” the long poem-paragraphs and the complex enjambed sentences of Wordsworth’s Prelude (cited throughout) and “Draft 75: Doggerel” is an anti-doggerel poem written in excruciating rhyme.
Very often homage and ironic critique are embedded in these pieces. However, the Draft structures are not just literary in-jokes. As is fitting for a poet with such a strong social commitment, they bear at least as much relationship to how we should live as to how we should write. “Draft 72: Nanifesto” is particularly notable for this, being largely devoted to social, political, and cultural instructions rather than literary ones (“Critique monoculture”; “Destroy the merely consumable”; “Link the emergencies”; ”Live in empathy”; et al). Whilst there is an affectionate mockery of the manifesto (and of the modern self-help book I can’t help feel) in the “nanifesto,” the advice is sincere as the emphatic and definitive full stop at the end of a line demonstrates.
The poet’s own life is conduit for all this, not too much more. She is pulled from side to side in the torque of her own created structures, as in “Draft 63: Dialogue of self and soul,” which follows a dialectical structure of blocks moving from side to side of the page. There is so much to say and so much that cannot be said, that strong sense of the “unsaid,” that is present throughout Drafts (see the early piece “Draft 11: Schwa”). Here in “Draft 69: Sentences”:
There is so much never to say
filled with gists and drifts.
There was never so much to say
in this tensing buzz of poetry. (75)
There is a sense that DuPlessis is always restlessly seeking structures that reach for the unsayable in ever more challenging ways, ways that might even provoke us to action. “Draft 66: Scroll” has long scroll-like and/or newspaper-like columns — these two textual relations act as a way of trying to pull in the simultaneous rush of mental and emotional material (the “so much”) that DuPlessis wishes to transmit to her readers:
|Not a text and gloss but
structured as gloss next to gloss
no center, no side, just
swerving and looping
querying what aspect is marginal
how to travel it, how to re-think —
|So much wells up at once, thus
a lava-ribbon of text emerged
instabilities of liquid rock
with fracture, overleafs and turns
to what; how ask why this is so:
one lives here, now in riddled exposure — (49)
This section of the unravelled scroll both reflects on its own form (a gloss next to a gloss, speaking or “swerving” back and forth the page across to each other) and considers the possibility of poetic models that might fight or fold their way out of hierarchical structures. Here is the possibility of writing/reading in multiple ways, literally up-and-down and side-to-side here, but also within the larger structure of the enfolded Drafts and the smaller structure of how we might interpret each word and phrase — another set of “strained companionships.”
These forms are not always optimistic in their innovations; the blacked-out sections of “Draft 68: Threshold” carry connotations of (self?-) censorship and decline and take us to a darker place. This is a technique DuPlessis has used before, but more minimally, for example in “Draft 5: Gap.” Here the phrase gleaned from John Cage, “No words for this and these are them,” is made actual in the sustained blackened present/absent words of the poem. The notes confirm that behind the black is “real” lost text. This, to a writer-reader, is a chilling thought, almost reminiscent of book burning. If we read the Michael Davidson glosses down the right-hand side of the page, this effacing of language appears to be a result of the historical conditions “[a]s the war returns.” Davidson is made to critique DuPlessis’s language, or at least to analyze its “Glut and revulsion / truckle the body, / twist discourse” (67). This is a poem of political and linguistic despair, personal in its analysis of the sleeplessness and dreams of the haunted protagonist, of powerlessness and loss. Whereas earlier thresholds or limens have carried elements of hope in DuPlessis’s work, here there is a deathly feel (“Plunge haunted water”), for the whole society and the individual (69). Here is a darkening page for a darkening world.
Darkly, I listen. (22)
Always haunted, DuPlessis’s “langdscape” becomes bleaker, slower, and sadder in this volume. In a short piece about being “Inside the Middle of a Long Poem” written just before embarking on this phase of Drafts, DuPlessis repeatedly describes herself as “haunted” by America’s “compromises, failures and mistakes” as well as by past horrors such as the Holocaust and the fate of outsider artists past and present. Here she locates herself as being “halfway through” Drafts, in which case Torques is the beginning of the second half of the project. Things have not improved. In her “Working Notes” for the “Women and Ecopoetics” special feature I put together for How2 in 2007, she writes that many of the poems in Torques “have had enough”:
Many are written in revulsion towards the Bush regime or coup in US politics and towards the fundamentalist turn in the world at large. Many of them implicitly or explicitly ask what good is it to write poetry. Torques says I am twisted, bent, pulled, under tension, by the political and social reality of Now.
There is a very real sense of crisis here. In the middle of “Draft 69: Sentences,” a Draft which plays out and around with the idea of being “sentenced” to write, DuPlessis asks:
And it isn’t as if this “I” has gotten nowhere,
is it? (71)
It strikes me as an unusual question for DuPlessis to ask. In so many ways, she is a public poet for whom personal angst, haunted by the specter of all those ’60s confessional women’s poems, is undesirable. Even here, the “I” is hedged about with quotation marks. She knows it has no center, but nonetheless there is an “I” who is “twisted, bent, pulled, under tension.” In Torques, DuPlessis allows herself, her “selvedge” as defined against socially constructed contexts, to begin looking back, assessing her career in writing. To any observer, she is a well-published, highly regarded success story, but it is the political failure that she refers to when she asks, “is it?” As such, this is not a particularly self-indulgent question, but a simple statement in line with the Objectivist commitment to “sincerity.” It articulates her “absolute frustration” with the difficulty in fulfilling her ultimate “deeply felt” (another uncharacteristic phrase) desires (14, 70). As she goes on to say in the How2 “Working Note”:
I have been asking myself for years how to communicate my deep social and political questions in aesthetic forms that give pleasure but which also disconcert and destabilize one’s complacency. But I don’t have a lot of answers to that question. I just keep asking it.
I speculate that at the beginning of her writing career this relentless and restless questioning (to which I shall return below), this disturbing of complacency, this disruptive play, was more fun for the poet, a part of her rebellious feminism. It was perhaps more communal too, held in common with the extraordinary community of women poets in the modernist tradition, people such as Kathleen Fraser, Beverly Dahlen, and Alice Notley. Now, as the global political and ecological story darkens, the page is darkening too. Now doubled language is not so joyous:
impossible not to write. Not to; Or to.
Double judgments frozen within
paralysis, which neutralizes its own stasis
into even further stasis. Into minoritized acts.
Sentenced to reject the sentence. (73)
Now, at times, we find ourselves becoming impatient with DuPlessis as she becomes impatient with herself (“boredom with melodrama”), as we become impatient with ourselves (74). In “Sentences,” she berates the reader/writer, both, about the condition of torque:
Don’t make me laugh!
So what? So you are being jerked around
and knotted; so you are roped
and pulled aground.
This is news?
Well, it stays news.
Their masterful escapades
and plundering moves
and thuggish scaffolding
become “your life.”
The title was written with a knife.
The trick is, Watch It.
The trick is, Watch Out. (73)
Torques is full of thwarted intentions and desires, of deep frustrations, of lines which articulate an attempt at simplicity, a simple sense of failure, such as “I wanted to show you things”(19). Torque and thwart are sonically close, and have appeared together before, for instance in the “transverse torque” of “Draft 27: Athwart,” a poem where nature and art fail: an old oak falls in the “tilted force” of strong wind, the hands of the musician “fall athwart,” the work of the photographer Aaron Siskind fails to please the New York Times reviewer who writes “the social world drained from his work.” This is a phrase that haunts the earlier poems, encapsulating perhaps one of DuPlessis’s greatest fears. The word “athwart” suggests an oblique or perverse direction, which, for both reader and writer, once started, “can’t stop / going along.”
Even starting to speak seems impossible now. The very first page of Torques opens, wistfully, poignantly, with the words:
This was to be a beginning,
a beginning, in situ,
that is, in the middle, here. (1)
And of course that is exactly what it is in one way. DuPlessis begins with a relatively small scale personal crisis and links it to the global, drawing a stark simple analogy:
a student jumped from a window
of my workplace
a few tense days before the newest war. (2)
So the book commences with a suicide; the tone is set. Yet these words also lead everywhere, that is, into the twisted public context, and nowhere, since they pose no answers, only questions. The poem ends, “How account for it; how call it to account,” an extraordinary ambition. And of course, DuPlessis has started and over and over again, she must start again, remaining “incipit,” the title of the twentieth Draft and a word that lingers in Torques, chosen for instance from “Draft 9: Page” to form the first “i” section of “Draft LXX Lexicon” (79). She says to herself, to us, we say to ourselves, “Just start” (36). This is an encouragement to others, yet at the same time an aw(e)ful effort. The impatience, the edge of desperation, in “Just start” contrasts with the more hopeful “Begin anywhere” of earlier Drafts. Even in the very last Draft of the book, “Draft 76: Work Table with Scale Models,” this thwarted feel, this sense of the insurmountable “so much,” still has not departed:
I had wanted to write just small, though hungry, sentences,
But so much wells up at once it is like
externalizing a gigantic wall. (133)
The whole archive is an argument. (52)
As the phrase “I just keep asking it” suggests, restless questioning is key to Draft work. From the very beginning, this element of the battering and battered series of more-than-rhetorical questions has always been present. It all began with gender and genre (“who is ‘I’ who is ‘you’ / who is ‘he’ is ‘she’”) and this line of questioning continues in poems such as “Draft 67: Spirit Ditties” which revisits the feminine lyric and narrative structures.  In this more recent work however, the restless questioning is most frequently applied to the question of who is responsible for the current “world-system.” In “Draft 71: Headlines, with Spoils” a poem stuffed with references to injustice and “superabundance,” DuPlessis hurls questions at the page:
Who controls these junctures?
who prices these conjunctions?
who mines the evisceration? (92)
A little later, following some found text about “Smart Dust,” a tracking device which may already being used in Iraq, she asks:
Who strews, who reaps?
What is it to be tracked? What catch
to it, what caught? what purpose to deploy?
What haunt imprinted? Who
at stake? Why
tracked? why fought? (94)
This questioning relates to the Jewish tradition of argument and debate present in the midrash of sacred texts such as the Talmud and through the glossing process mentioned above. This cultural tradition also has a bearing on the sense of broken promises or covenants in DuPlessis’s Drafts. These broken social, religious, political, legal, or economic covenants litter our long human history and provoke yet more questions:
What’s the covenant?
who is propitiated
who assuaged? who profited?
The judge fell off his perch
and broke his neck.
He heard the news and lost his balance.
That was the end of valid judges.
Now we are led and judged by monsters.
Where is my place? (38)
By the time of Torques, the disillusionment is stronger than ever, hence the latter part of this citation, the portrait of the crooked judge. Perhaps we are in fact “Covenant-less” (91). Late in the book, in “Draft 74: Wanderer,” she asks:
Should we assume there can be no real covenant,
not given, not imposed, not crazed, but struggled
for and wide? Or should that hope be
given out as gone? (108)
Context is important here — “Draft 74,” a long philosophical wondering/wandering poem, is both intimately bound up with Wordsworth’s Prelude and with the “Wondering Jews” (the title of DuPlessis’s chapter on Jewish culture and religion in her 2001 book Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908–1934). In an intriguing example of strange bedfellows, the question might well have been asked by both wonderers/wanderers. Indeed Wordsworth might have asked it as he moved away from early socialism into a more conservative old age, not a process we see occurring in DuPlessis’s later years. Rather, DuPlessis’s question, “Where is my place?,” steers us away from the blaming of “them” to the questioning of ourselves as writer/reader-companions. Throughout her work, we have always been asked to “Credit your own complicity” (“Draft 72: Nanifesto,” 96).
Truly World War III or IV is one or two too many (121)
In a 2002 statement written for Pores, DuPlessis draws on Adorno to argue that the political has “migrated into” poetry which should not be “a form of propaganda, but a … part of ideological and discursive practices.” It is not that the Drafts complexify life, as avant-garde work is often accused of doing; it is life that complexifies the Drafts, however much they try to be a “straight-line list.” Yet, as I show throughout this piece, there are moments when DuPlessis consolidates everything into moments of simplicity throughout this text. Torques is not just a speaking, then, but also a response, a “[l]isting and listening” to the historical and apocalyptic moment in which Torques was written, between December 2002 and September 2005 (12). As such, it covers the period in which the US and the UK began to justify their invasion of Iraq, the actual invasion (March 2003) and the first couple of years of the Iraq War or Second Gulf War. It is no coincidence that one of the bleakest poems is “Draft 64: Forward Slash,” which is dated “December 2003–May 2004,” precisely that period when the arguments for invasion were marshaled and then acted upon by Bush and Blair.
But it is war in the bigger sense, the justification and endless condition of war, that concerns DuPlessis in this “little epic” (134), just as it was for her important predecessor H.D. in her long poems engaged with the arguably masculine epic form, Trilogy and Helen in Egypt. “Draft 61: Pyx” asks:
You think you thought you know.
One in which you were born
or borne or bored
“Draft 62: Gap” is written “November 2002–January 2003 / Before the U.S. Invasion of Iraq” and looks back to the Second World War as well as forward to the Iraq War (34). And it continues the
Listing and listening
— a great swath of names and citations
and the question what were they
what had happened
these suffering bodies
riddled and scarified, bandied, branded (12)
Reading DuPlessis writing, the sense of the absence/presence of the dead has always been powerful. It may be her predecessors, women and modernist poets, whom she is calling on: “alas, they cannot hear / although we talk to them” (7). More often though it is the hordes of tragic dead, the war dead, the massacred dead, the starved dead to whom she has a duty and also a longing which can’t be fulfilled. DuPlessis’s Jewish heritage is surely influential here, the Holocaust having always been present in her work, particularly in the Gap poems along the line of five. She has this memorializing in common with Objectivists such as Charles Reznikoff and more recent poets such as Jerome Rothenberg.
This then is a journeying into the past, an act of mourning, both of which are intrinsic to the Demeter/Persephone or Kore (the name of DuPlessis’s daughter) myth, a touchstone throughout her work. “Draft 61: Pyx” is a particularly ghostly piece. Here, in a reversal of the myth, the underworld surfaces into the “real” world: “and when the page turned back / an underneath came up” (22). Yes, it is “back” here, but the shadow word, the aptly invisible word is of course, “black.” Again, a darkening page for a darkening world. The unsaid, the silenced in DuPlessis’s work, is most often associated with the words the dead cannot speak:
How is it? I said: that the ghosts are so gathered?
Because they are palpable and present
the names that cannot rise and so they turn
and come as darkness thickened without sound
These shadows make antiphonal claims
as words that fail. (“Draft 61: Pyx,” 29)
In “Draft 64: Forward Slash” the writer/reader becomes a ghostly figure (“Blank Rachel … / I too am a stranger … [among] other shivering walkers”) and there is a sense of hopelessness by the end of the poem:
Ghost. Yes ghost. This one not complex.
Just the shadow isle of sunken hope and text. (43)
Here, at the end of this piece shadowed by the Iraq War, we find another of these simple moments, where the end of hope, depression is deathly but, “not complex.” Where the wanderer includes the poet/speaker herself, we begin to see a blurring of the worlds of the living and the dead:
As for R, like a revenant, I wandered
far and wide
reversing, and revering
the streets and cemeteries
of the dead
and I saw the Monuments
to the Deported
stark inside me
as in a city … (24)
The reference here to “Deported” is also of course to the departed, but it brings in another realm of the deathly: the deported, displaced, exiled, homeless people who exist in other lands from their home(land) or whose land never feels like home, in particular of course the Jewish immigrants to America whose cultural depiction in early twentieth-century poetry was largely one of disgust and pollution, as DuPlessis has charted. These wandering/wondering souls, strangers and revenants, neither wholly dead nor alive, frequent the Draft poems of Torques: “Revenant, tell me if you know / what land am I? and you?” (92). Perhaps, again, the Objectivists were also in DuPlessis’s mind, many of them being Jewish outsiders, exiles or immigrants in America. In “Draft 66: Scroll” the revenants keep vigil together, recovering their own memories or “epiphanies of mourning” through the music of Shostakovich (49). This is a reference to an actual incident, but is broadened here, woven into a wider picture of reasons to mourn as it looks back to the war and forward to our future mourning in the face of environmental disaster.
roam the groundwork of resistance (84)
Arguably DuPlessis’s Drafts have always been ecological in the broadest sense, their strong sense of “Out there / connected / to the over-here” being an essential element of environmental thinking, in particular the environmental justice movement (93). Her disgust at consumerism (“malls a homey homeless home / ahung with things”) has been consistent, and she traces these “signs” back to the origins and conditions of cheap labor. Her practice, too, the use of intertexts and scrupulous notes from a wide range of sources, literary and cultural, has, as I have argued elsewhere, the humility of recycling, about it, the poet replacing the great romantic myth of originality, the poet as genius, with the poet as reuser, recycler of words.
Inevitably, as our knowledge of the environmental crisis grows, that sense of “out there […] over-here” has led DuPlessis to reference environmental issues more in her work. “Draft 53: Ecologue” (written in 2001 and published in the previous volume of Drafts) foreshadows many of the ecological concerns of Torques. Here, the factual inclusions, the material that cannot be assimilated, is often that which reflects on the deterioration of the ecological situation, as in this left-hand side column of “Draft 66: Scroll”:
“If this ain’t yours, it’s no one’s”
trans-generic bacteria, plus us
need 4 more planet Earth’s
to all consume like U.S. citizens
So yell “Trigger Treat”
without fraying, or unravelling
Folded inside these intricacies
it’s collateral wreckage
Is this the Tentieth Century? (48)
DuPlessis references E. O. Wilson’s The Future of Life here in a passage that projects into the future a sense of where an American-influenced future may lead us if we do not shift the trajectory of progress. I read “the Tentieth Century” as a reference to the tented communities of climate refugees we already see and which are more likely to grow than diminish. This cannot be dissociated from our fundamentally capitalist and consumerist “world-system”:
|Patchy roads and fast foods
educational outlets in strip malls
pinguid gluts, unknowable nauseas
Read the signs as you walk
read them, trying to figure how
the menace of marks
|Failed development paradigm
arousal to justice deferred
given box stores filled with stuff
Cheap as blood,
vigil memory error theater
both ruthless failure
and unspeakable forgotten hopes (49)
America is grotesque here in its adherence to “stuff” and the real cost appears in the words “blood” and “choking” which reference the attendant human and environmental disasters behind the “Forlorn shoppers’” endless deathly quests (51).
“Draft 72: Nanifesto,” which has “Ecologue” as one of its donor Drafts, is immediately and recognizably ecological in approach from the very first lines:
Insist on smallness.
Scale down clutter.
Critique monoculture. (95)
The political work of DuPlessis’s Drafts has become a call to “groundwork” also.
The counterbalance to consumerism, that is the “natural” world, however hedged about that term must be, has not had much of a presence in DuPlessis’s work to date. As a predominantly landscape writer myself I find it exciting to see nature creeping in, as if DuPlessis has been led back to “nature” through environmental politics. In “Nanifesto” we have “compare the properties of reeds”; “Respect honey and, even more, the bees”; “Investigate wild asparagus, for it grows oddly”; “Hike in strong boots to wherever a good there is” (95–97). In her Wordsworth poem “Draft 74: Wanderer,” the emblematic nature poet is referenced throughout. Here she creeps beneath Wordsworth’s breathless big scapes to create the nano-image of two fucking butterflies (109). As with the bees of course, it is the threat of loss of nature that makes us consider its “worth,” Hence, the litany of apple names DuPlessis cites in “Draft 53: Ecologue” and her reference in “Wanderer” to “as many kinds as still can grow despite industrial agriculture (119). Although he is not included in her notes to either poem, this recalls for me Thoreau’s 1850 essay on “Wild Apples,” which mourns the loss of native fruit and dwells on apple names and histories real and created. Here DuPlessis adds the actual apple to the cultural apples (the apple in alphabetical primers; the mythological “apple of discord”) which appear throughout Drafts (see 65, 77). In keeping with the twist and thwart of Torques the apple’s last appearance in the book is as “A for apple” for “anger” and for “anguish” … “This being what it is.” (119).
Place, from planet to locality, is referenced throughout Torques. In “Draft LXX: Lexicon” “P” reveals a cluster of words around “place”:
This pulsing present
watching current performance of Powers —
This place, this place. Poor planet I pray,
only to the quire
but Ready to be ready.
Reaching, wretched, returning
to roam the groundwork of resistance. (84)
The fear of preaching or being perceived (“quote unquote”) as preaching is common to environmental campaigners, as is the need to refute the idea of environmentalism as a form of replacement religion with “holier than thou” elements. DuPlessis explores this here, not least through the reference to “quire” a word we can read as a musical church choir or as a quire of paper, her particular materials. A little later in the poem, she identifies another problem of eco-action which is the emphasis on “saving” a particular locality (usually a space enjoyed by middle class people on recreational activities):
Are these trees here
more sacred trees
than any other trees? (85)
In the face of the threat to our planet, our feelings about it have changed radically and this is reflected in DuPlessis’s recent poems. Although there is presence of abyss in early Drafts, there are also joyously choric wide poetic cosmological spaces/pages for thinking/performing: “Here is the space for action, a theatre, a page, a white space in which voices, marks, words and letters will move, sound and think in a dynamical performance.” “Draft 26: M-m-ry,” for instance, begins:
That the airy opening hung somber, / that the moon
trapezoid / on the floor be thus, be / here,
that musical/ logic in
the hypnogogic space / come waves rush/
crosswise, athwart ….
Contrast this to the remorselessly bleak references to space and the planet in Torques:
with what ? empires? profiteering?
sheer misuse? (31)
Tonight the planet earth, one total thing,
will cast a brownish stain
over our intimate, the big-faced moon. (37)
Picking up on the references to pollution and poisoning present in the enfolded “Draft 47: Printed Matter,” “Scroll” is scattered with little words and phrases that heighten our sense of a present and progressive global crisis (“extinct orioles,” “thinking beyond / our air rights), all of which culminates in a final image of the “half bleak, and half-pending / Tainted Spot,” our fundamentally polluted planet (51). There is an awareness too of the comedy and hubris of human expectations of nature in this work. In the second part of “Draft 63: Dialogue of self and soul,” the poet awaits an eclipse, but will it meet her expectations:
It looks to be going
into deeper umbra
What is darker; what is lighter
Will these clouds move?
Was this the hope, or that
Am I seeing it? (39)
Possible, word by letter, letter by word (75)
In “Draft 69: Sentences,” just before the drastic cutoff (“But this poem has to exit. / This is enough to mourn. / Impossible to stand it.”), a tiny hopefulness seeps into the poem in the form of more spacious lines which say:
Possible, word by letter, letter by word,
trying to true, again to enter and
engage the saturated task. (75–76)
The hope in DuPlessis’s Torques is only through the micro-tools of the work, the little individual letters and words. I’ve always loved this element of her work, the bringing together of the micro and the macro, the single letter in the big-scale poem. I ended with this idea in my last essay on DuPlessis’s Drafts and toyed with the idea of starting with it here, except that I wanted to foreground, first, the idea of an ever-darkening page against which those letters still dance. In “Draft 63: Dialogue of self and soul,” DuPlessis refers to her own project:
19 columns of impacted writing
are indexed under 26 letters.
why zero in on one?
I’d hardly say that letters
do not matter, their brilliant serif-im as fire,
but thinking only of design, of mystical nets,
will not absorb the imprint of our time. (36)
And yet, right through Torques, she does precisely “zero in on one,” or different single letters and pairs of letters, additions and omissions of letters from words. In this, she is consistent with earlier work, although the individual letters’ peculiar significances are often specific to this book. There is a primer element to this that is not new. From “Draft X: Letters” onwards, “A” is “Always apples / are (r) / first /… A / premier symbol / on the table.” However, in Torques, although apples feature as we have seen, the “premier symbol” of the primer here is surely “N,” the principle of negativity all too alive in the world:
noman, nomad, nogirl, no good
just the sheer N of no. (5)
These lines come near the bleak close of the very first poem, “Draft 58: In Situ.” Add one letter and “Not is as good a mark as now,” a sad picture of the present from “Draft 61: Pyx” (31). The lyrical “poetic O of moon” of poetry is subsumed by “N” in “Draft 63”:
one letter beyond N
and completing the NO
Or perhaps the P of Paralysis? (36)
So in a cluster of oppressive associations, “N” is no, “P” is paralysis, “C” is complicity or collusion (77), and “V” is vertigo, void, and a sinking raft of other Vs in “Draft 73: Vertigo,” a poem infused with a sense of loss, flooding, and abyss (98). Here too we see the saved letters of DuPlessis’s daughter as an infant, less endearing than “stark” and “formless” in their suggestion of “another other trace, or mark, or sign” that is “beyond one single alphabet’s entanglement.”
But then, just as we feel our alphabet to be “in the void” (129), there is “H,” the great Hope of Torques:
I wanted a whirling list of hopes
hopes hopes hopes whole alphabets of H’s
to evaporate and leave the sweet encrust,
a deep powder; a power inside the poetry … (17)
The fantastical idea of an alphabet of one letter is alluring, funny, magical: all elements which come into play in DuPlessis’s letters. The hope is not achieved in this poem of signs, “Draft 60: Rebus”; it is dissolved into M for (quoting out of line sequence) “moaning … muttering … misery … merciless management … Malarial muck for drinking water” (19).
However, “hope,” almost secretly, in spite of itself, is a powerful force in Torques, as it flickers in and out of the poems and pages. Look above. In the darkest pages, we have already seen it (quoted in the order cited in this essay):
Or should that hope be
given out as gone? (108)
This one not complex.
Just the shadow isle of sunken hope and text. (43)
the menace of marks and unspeakable forgotten hopes (50)
Was this the hope, or that
Am I seeing it? (39)
Ultimately, in another moment of simplicity, DuPlessis writes:
Not to see hope
To see it, but deluded, could be worse. (112)
So “H” is the only counter to “N.”
In “Draft 66: Scroll,” opposite a compressed “field guide” to ecological disaster (“urgency,” “Post-consumer waste”) appears the “gloss” on the human side of the equation:
both ruthless failure
and unspeakable, forgotten hopes
that alphabets nonetheless pleat and
Political autism and Rage
in tempore belli
with burning and dodging techniques
so where is our N to stand? No where?
need clarity of Letter exfoliated … (49–50)
Here, in our zone of perpetual war, the H of Hope and the N of No are in dialogue throughout Torques. Like Persephone/Kore, we feel the “undertow or undertone” of the “U” of Underworld pulling us down, only to find touches of “H,” of Spring, again (85). The scroll goes on to note how these scrolls of letters “hardly suffice / for a smallest local hope” but yet hope always starts “again and then again” in a process of albeit haunted “arousal” and re-arousal:
Again. Not again! In the imperfect moment
again to unroll the scroll
like this. In Yet and Yes. Id est:
all the letters, N and Y, J and A,
X, and explore intricacy along the way
e.g. inside necessity (51)
If we can find hope in these dark pages, then:
Why rip the books?
The books, the books contain our hopes.
To rip them
is to concede
to grope. (73)
“H” and thus hope is often linked to home, as these extracts from the alphabetical “Lexicon” poem illustrate:
sight of that home, or hone, shimmering
among bristled haulm of
the Irretrievable; the Inchoate; the Impenetrable …. (78)
Hard to tell which hungers hinge to home. (83)
Hope and home then may together provide a mental homeland for the tragic wanderer/wonderer revenants figures who haunt the pages of Torques, as well as the reader/writer herself.
injustice, rage, despair (12)
The word “hope” from DuPlessis’s individualized primer draws our attention to the place of abstract nouns in Torques. “Go in fear of abstractions” was Ezra Pound’s advice for would-be Imagists, but DuPlessis, lover of modernists as she is, has many reservations about Pound and his prescriptions. Her abstractions are not frequent, but they are all the more simple, strong, and purposeful for that. They stand, amidst the varied and various vocabularies of this poetry, for what they are, for inassimilable human emotions and concepts. They are self-conscious, always edged with irony, as in this citation of perhaps the biggest abstraction, “truth,” mockingly arranged to raspingly half-rhyme with “laugh”:
The truth? It’s true.
Although I also laugh. (12)
In “Draft 59: Flash Back” it comes down to:
Where is justice?
How to get it? (13)
In the Lexicon poem discussed further below, “J” is once again unequivocally:
Just that. (87)
DuPlessis must be one of a very few contemporary poets who have set out in the public sphere a clear set of political values adding up to “Justice”:
What are my political values? social justice. gender justice. equality of access to reasonable living goods. economic justice, which means an equalization of society. … Access to education, to health care, to social goods: genuinely and liberally available. No despoiling of the earth, and the living creatures on it (including us) for profit. The call for an end of global crimes: of exploitation of child labor, of capturing people inside prison-model factories, of the destruction of water, animals, plant life; of the poisoning of people at work by their work. Development without despoiling. Justice. justice. justice for all … All this means post-capitalist, and post-nationalist values.
Whilst DuPlessis’s enfolded Drafts have always embodied a ceaseless quest for an unobtainable, this has become more generically associated with social justice and less with a specifically feminine quest.
Nonetheless, as always, DuPlessis is confronting gender expectations, and this very use of abstract nouns is one of them. This reclamation of emotion flies in the face of the snide, dismissive approach to female emotionalism in critical thinking. Conversely, in her essay “Corpses of Poesy” DuPlessis finds Pound’s praise of his fellow modernists Marianne Moore and Mina Loy for their lack of emotionalism just as problematic. He fails to recognize, she notes, their “passion, sarcasm, anger.”  In DuPlessis’s own work, she openly and confrontationally claims these very feelings. More often than not, what we find in the quest for “J” is “R,” a series of variations on the theme of rage: “impotence, rage, solemnity, paralysis” (4); “injustice, rage, despair” (12); “rage and grief” (50). In DuPlessis’s “Draft 72: Nanifesto” she upholds the dark or negative virtues: “Do not fail sadness”; “Persist in negative care”; “Work in anxious panic”; “Keep the rage complex”; “Credit your own complicity” (95–96). Rage is the keynote dark virtue here, right through the volume: “Enraged by our time. That simple” (14). Many of the poems are written in rage, committed to rage. “Draft 71: Headlines, with Spoils” asserts:
To keep track of grievances means living in fury. Forget
recollection in tranquility. Try collection today. Any day will do. (93)
To sum up, R=N+H=R.
Since every word is three (11)
Letters make words. The consciousness of every letter’s place within a word allows each word to multiply into a host of words, a plethora of portmanteaux, of homonyms and homophones, of newly created words, of words within words within words, just as in H.D.’s Trilogy :
… I know, I feel
the meaning that words hide;
they are anagrams, cryptograms,
little boxes, conditioned
to hatch butterflies …
Often every word is three, DuPlessis’s much-quoted (by me, at least) “both and and.” This allows “bountries” to be “bounty-boundary” but also the unspoken countries (13). Invariably the word not said is the one we might have expected: for example, we hear “coincides” when DuPlessis writes “co-insides” (13). Equally, the split words “BEG IN” and “IN STILL” create richer meanings in context (22, 30). Sometimes, both pairs of a homonym are set side by side: “one rancid day of mist or missed” (42). The slippery process also occurs between languages: “COMME SI” and “COME, SEE” (104). This is sonic too, of course, adding to the caressive quality of DuPlessis’s touching and tasting, the “play-splice” of language, as in “parling, parting” (107). It has also always been “a punning metonymic chain of connections (absolute poison to her detractors) to ‘get over’ dominant language,” a process of decoding and rejuvenation giving “access to the language ‘inside’ the language, suggestively occult, suggestively female.” This description comes from DuPlessis’s analysis of Trilogy in her 1986 monograph, H.D.: The Career of That Struggle. We can see how H.D.’s technique must have influenced the early DuPlessis who spends several pages of this densely packed book on this passage. For H.D., the spiritual dimension of the process was at the fore as she shifted her way through Greek and Egyptian mythologies:
Osiris equates O-sir-is or O-Sire-is;
the star Sirius,
recover the secret of Isis
For DuPlessis, as a “realist and materialist poet” in the “Objectivist continuum,” spiritual consolation is scant. She does not oppose female spirituality with “masculinist-nihilist / materialist positions,” as she describes H.D. doing. Materialism is no longer masculinist in DuPlessis’s world. Yet, describing herself as a secular Jew with grave doubts about religion, she nonetheless writes in Pores: “I have a debate with modes of transcendence; I live in materiality which is nonetheless filled with sparks of awe (Niedecker).”
DuPlessis rejects the “female figure of power at the center of the poem” that she finds in other women writers’ work, including H.D. For her the redemptive comes through the eroticized “repetition and crumpled touching” of both the enfolded grid of poems and of language within the poems — this is the sustaining force in her work, even if in Torques it must fight against the sense that even poesis as polluted. In the final poem of the volume, “Draft 76: Work Table with Scale Models,” there is a redemptive return to the erotics of fold and language “with its ferocious flood of desire and demands” (132):
The talismans of this or that are handed round.
Their “folds come to contain the flow of time.”
Fold to flow, come to con-, tain to time.
And this is also a theory of debris.
Not ironic, but saturated in irony. (133)
Here the “Beautiful” refers not only to the Charles Altieri quotation (“folds come to contain the flow of time”), but to the slippage of language in “Fold to flow, come to con-, tain to time.” DuPlessis is revealing the poetry in the original quotation and also creating a new line whilst revealing the beauty of the whole slippery process. The “Really” and the emphatic full stops after each word of “Beautiful. Really.” acknowledge the shock that this emphatically positive abstraction is to us after the abstract nouns offered previously. Before this point, the only instance of the word has been the cutting:
They say: it’s so beautiful
couldn’t you do better? (16)
Real beauty is often found in the change of one letter in two consecutive words, “a deep powder; a power inside the poetry” (17). The lyricism, eroticism, and significance of poems increases with this multiplicity. Wander and wonder recur in Drafts and in particular throughout “Draft 74: Wanderer.” This allows for the conflation of mental and spatial journeying which characterize the whole collection. I have a weakness for DuPlessis’s alliterative or more complex sonic pairings, often in lines of four, such as “knit and knot and gloam and glare” (1) and “pinch and poke; poppit, prime and pry” (115). Not surprisingly, we find them too in the mock-lyric poem “Draft 67: Spirit Ditties”:
Bite and bark
trunk and leaf
rune and turn (53)
This can also act as a lightening influence through quickfire humor, such as the witty reversal “fast drivers in fat cars” (40). “Draft 61: Pyx” is a darkly comic take on male authority in academia, featuring lines such as:
He tapped his cane, surrounded
by other men
showing the faculty or facility … (21)
Here we also have the wonderful “avant garden” (23). On the very next page, though, the word slippage is much edgier as the woman poet sends her lines out into the world through “a process of greeting / of gritting” (22).
Something that sort of ends, but sort of not (8)
There are bigger structures for letters than words. Individual letters are commonly perceived as part of a collective, of course, the alphabet with which DuPlessis has always had a love-hate, playful relationship. Structures are always under question in her work. In “Draft X: Letters,” referencing William Carlos Williams, she constructs a letter poem ordered on the typewriter/keyboard sequence, left to right. Yet, although this is a QWERTY poem, many of the letter sections seek X, the mystery letter of the title and under X, the whole alphabet returns plays out again. No structure is singular.
“Draft LXX: Lexicon” in Torques is another letter poem, this time based on an individualized alphabet made into a fold/grid experiment. Here DuPlessis draws letters and words from Draft 1 in the A section, 2 in the B, and so forth. This then is a numerical as well as alphanumeric experiment which produces not one single whole alphabet as in a primer, but two and two-thirds of an alphabet, finishing at “r.” It is also a fold within a fold, since it divides the previous Drafts into groups of twenty-six, rather than nineteen, thus becoming “amusingly complicated” (140). The words and letters of the enfolded Drafts, the full “langdscape,” return — they become themselves revenants, ghost words, and yet, used again, are of course also new in context. The procedure of the poem is to join up letter sections rather than to separate them, so “Lexicon” becomes a flowing, self-referential piece on writing past and present as can be seen in the example of p, q, r cited in the discussion of place above. As I have demonstrated above, we can also read out from “Lexicon” into the rest of Torques itself in order to identify important word clusters around letters, just as the “P” reading as place links into the environmental thread of the volume (84, 90).
In “Draft 59: Flash Back” DuPlessis returns to that suspicion of preordained structures for thinking, including the alphabet. This “question” inaugurates a series of speculations on alternatives:
Why use the alphabet to organize,
and why not? Discuss.
Suggest another mechanism of order.
One form and then another.
Something that sort of ends, but sort of not. (8)
In his note to the piece, “The Dreamlife of Letters,” Stefans describes DuPlessis’s original text as a “texturally detailed, nearly opaque response” to the questions posed by Dodie Bellamy for the online roundtable. Another word Stefans uses about it is “loaded.” One could read DuPlessis’s critique of the alphabet as a critique of Stefans’s certainly frolicsome but rather lightweight transfiguration of DuPlessis’s work. In her note to “Draft 59: Flash Back,” she remarks that Darren Wershler-Henry asked Stefans in interview whether the work “did not compromise the feminist speculation in my statement” (137). Certainly to me “The Dreamlife of Letters” seems to articulate an attempt to avoid the difficulty that DuPlessis’s original text poses, to lighten the dense “load,” if you like. DuPlessis’s life and texts are not light (one is tempted to cite Dickinson’s “my life had stood a loaded gun” here), and the alphabet, like all other systems, is under question. The deceptively simple statement “It is not one Anything,” the more one dwells on it, is deeply radical in its resistance to preordained structures of any kind (9). They always lead to loss, as more restless questions suggest:
Who has designs on us? and Why?
What is the force of our conviction?
Something has gotten away from us:
urgency for justice, intensities of ire,
lime-green as the after-image
in the eye-teeth of unrhymable orange. (9)
Here again, DuPlessis references “The Dreamlife of Letters” which Stefans described as a “flash animation poem with a twist of avant-feminist lime” and which is set against a bright orange background (137). Note the abstract absolute, Justice, again. By the end of this Draft, after considering the various effects of her animated words, DuPlessis feels perhaps, as I tend to, that contemporary web poetry has a long way to go. She returns to:
A page: where every line stands up affright
porcupines that run ahead
in sudden light. (10)
Dry tears over blood-type headlines? (12)
We have seen in the discussion above that DuPlessis moves between her usual shifting language-play associated with poetries associated with poststructuralist practice and a more urgent direct language “(This one not complex”), including manifesto dictates, philosophical statements, and abstract nouns. There is a continuing struggle to work out what language will rise to the challenge of the times, which is heightened in the torque or twist of this volume. In “Draft 69: Sentences” (which follows the blacked-out “Threshold” poem), language is “corrupted, corrupting/ corruptible” (70). In the face of the temptations, risks and slipperiness of poetic language, at times all we can do is collect textual evidence:
Impossible to write a poem.
No sentences can be made.
Social founders, kitschy gabble.
No collection mechanisms seem engaged.
except razoring facts from the newspaper page
to which I am sentenced. (70)
Of course, the poem moves on, as it always does, to speaking of multiple though often agonizing ways of writing, but I want to stay with the newspaper facts here, with DuPlessis’s habit of “razoring facts” from the papers in order to pull the work into focus or clarity (another Objectivist word), in order, perhaps, to give reasons for all that rage:
“12 hours per day for a pittance, living
“12 to a room, working
“in fenced-in factory complexes,” (92)
We can read “razoring” here as a verb (as in cutting from the paper) and as an adjective (facts which are painful for us read). This is part of the “listing and listening” to the “great swath of names and citations” and the accompanying restless questions: “what were they / what had happened / these suffering bodies” (12). Right through the Drafts project, to tell has always been to toll, and this title was chosen for the gathering together of the first books of Drafts into one volume, Toll. In “Draft 73: Vertigo,” “NOTHING IS EVER ENOUGH / even into extended telling, even unto toll” (103).
This collection of testimony, of evidence, is reminiscent of the Objectivists’ enterprise, the attempt to remain true to what Louis Zukofsky called “inextricably the direction of historical and contemporary particulars,” found text being one example of how this was achieved. The most extreme example of the incorporation of factual found text into poetry is in the work of the Objectivist Zukofsky saw as working at the height of “sincerity”: Charles Reznikoff. His poems Testimony and Holocaust are based entirely on found text selections from courtroom records. The British poet Anne Stevenson wrote of Holocaust that “No poet has ever written a book so nakedly shocking, so blatantly calculated to make us feel that the Nazi persecution of the Jews can never be fictionalized or abstracted into “literature.” DuPlessis asserts, regarding Reznikoff, that “there is a political agenda in simply confronting readers with a record of hurt and wounding.” In other words, no fictionalized or poetic words could break through our defenses as effectively (“NOTHING IS EVER ENOUGH”).
So, as these lines from “Draft 74: Wanderer” illustrate, the poet turns documenter and witness:
who want to speak to sigh, to sigh and
rage, not for that hour, not for that place
unembellished by some trace:
documentary (that and more) witnessing (that
many more) and witless, hurtful “jesting air” — en-
joined, frozen in motion but not to crumble, rather
The singular “want” both asserts this desire and, through the shadow word “wants,” asks who could want do this work, a doubleness or ambivalence we see throughout the volume.
At the heart of “Draft 69: Sentences” and the heart of Torques itself, DuPlessis muses on not being a journalist with an official role and place to speak:
I have no press pass. No credentials. Not embedded.
That stands at the margin of edge
without particular brands of “I”
to greet you with.
Only you alone are listening,
perhaps; and thanks.
Or maybe not, can’t count on that. (71–72)
Yet that edge-position allows of course for the ability to recontextualize the facts of journalism, to present them to us so that we see them again, more clearly. I have written elsewhere about the sense of anger and powerlessness that often characterizes how we feel about the world, particularly environmental, issues that face us now. As our knowledge and concerns grow ever less national, more global, we are increasingly dependent on news media. When we turn there, we are bombarded by narratives of disaster and apocalypse. Particularly in relation to climate change, there is a danger of not just helplessness and despair, but also, most dangerously, desensitization. In his essay “Climate Change and Contemporary Modernist Poetry,” Richard Kerridge, via Slavoj Zizek, has noted how our response can never be adequate since we are dealing with material beyond “our most unquestionable presuppositions,” such as “our everyday understanding of ‘nature’ as a regular, rhythmic process.”
DuPlessis considers how we might remain sensitized to the world and the possibility of action with it in her working notes for How2. She picks up on “will anything teach us?,” her own phrase from Torques (85):
Will anything teach us? A poem with both affect and information has as much chance as anything to give rise to understanding, via an incantation of words that turns the mind, deturns our thinking, makes us face our world, and, perhaps even motivates us to political action.
She refers here to the Situationist practice of detournement, a practice of “appropriating” and “turning” of public language. For Raoul Vaneigem, the Belgian Situationist, detournement involved “acts … against power” requiring tactics “taking into account the strength of the enemy.” For Guy Debord, this included the “negation and subversion of ‘official public language’ that “conceals and protects” the public world. Through her use of found text, found poetry and poetics, DuPlessis practices this “turning back” of public language against itself, a process that should “inform” as well as satirize or emotionally affect. Perhaps she is thinking here of Debord’s statement that “Information is power’s poetry (the counterpoetry of the maintenance of law and order)” (102). Arguably, DuPlessis determines to recapture information for poetry. Within “the vast plethora of news that washes over us” is the news that we need to hear and digest. That plethora of “dark news” is a continual presence in Torques, darkening the page in forms (especially the scroll draft), uses of language, and numerous explicit references (130):
and thereupon open
A rush of people across a bridge:
grift, happenstance, war, drought, need
mortal life washes us up on its shores
somber and singing
cracked hordes, cracked lips (30–31)
A few pages later, as she often does, DuPlessis condenses this as “grief the news and rage,” surrounding “the news” with “grief,” echoing the “grift” above, and the all-important motivating “rage.” This is the “checkered Now” (108) we have to meet, the “historical moment,” but the beginning of this extract emphasizes again how these present crises originate out of the past, hence the necessity of memory implied by the vocative “Sovegna vos”: you should remember. Interestingly, DuPlessis removes the other half of this Dante quote as cited by Eliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Here, “Sovegna vos al temps de mon dolor” is a far more self-indulgent expression of woe, of “mon dolor,” not everyone else’s.
“Draft 71: Headlines, with Spoils” is a striking example of the use of news headlines, cast in a “larger, darker font size [to] underline our condition” and to resist the “washing over” effect, to produce poetry which combines “information with feeling.” The phrase is important. DuPlessis does not hold back from exploring emotion or psychological affect, as Reznikoff does in his testimonial work. In many ways DuPlessis is closer to what herself describes as the “psychosocial” cultural poetics of the only female objectivist, Lorine Niedecker. She speculates that Niedecker’s interest in the psychological and emotional resonances of language and politics might relate to her gender and social difference from the other Objectivist poets. I speculate that DuPlessis herself might identify with this, in particular what Niedecker describes as an “awareness of everything influencing everything” which, near the end of her life, she no longer fears might just be “goofing off.” Perhaps too DuPlessis finds inspiration for her developing environmentalism from Niedecker’s own.
In the following lines from “Draft 71: Headlines, with Spoils,” the factual headlines stand out and the lines in quotation marks acquire an irony in context:
Night sky, wet roads; headlines thick,
big-font lines, the whole shtick
in I Ching throws.
Auto and plant emissions linked to fetal harm
bling bling — “linked to”
but, as stated, “no cause for alarm.”
There is a garish palette of superabundance at an undisclosed location.
Shopping binge compensates for a low industrial sector
Freedom of Choice! (“linked to,” as stated, “no cause for alarm”)
And then the prototype robot-soldier
“readied, aimed and fired at a Pepsi can,
performing the basic tasks of hunting and killing.”
This work will never hit
the post-production stage,
Tanker Sinks Off Spain, Threatening Eco-disaster (91–92)
DuPlessis’s headlines are attributed to sources such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and International Herald Tribune. Without sacrificing subtlety and context, DuPlessis makes us feel that our response is demanded and should even be translated into some kind of action.
We have come full circle here to my first point about Torques: that form and content remain closely engaged in DuPlessis’s work and that she succeeds in evolving both her structure and language to meet the needs she sees around her, drawing as she has always done on the work of the previous generation of modernists and making it speak again, afresh for the here and now. Although the Draft project reflects back to us a darkening social condition which sometimes we would rather not confront, it also demonstrates the ability to respond. At the end of “Draft 61: Pyx,” there is a casting asunder of all the barriers to speech, one of those moments when words coalesce into one last incipit, simple statement:
It is this very site.
It says “Sit down in it.
It’s time now.”
Now it’s time. (31)
1. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Writing on ‘Writing,’” in Tabula Rosa (Elmwood, CT: Potes and Poets Press, 1987), 84. I have always read this piece as a prologue to the Draft body of work, almost a declaration of intent.
3. Harriet Tarlo, “‘Origami Foldits’: Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts 1–38, Toll,” How2 1, no. 8 (Fall 2002); “‘A she even smaller than a me’: Gender Dramas of the Contemporary Avant-Garde,” in Contemporary Women’s Poetry: Reading/Writing/Practice, ed. Alison Mark and Deryn Rees-Jones (Houndmills: Macmillan, 2000); “Recycles: The Eco-Ethical Poetics of Found Text in Contemporary Poetry,” Journal of Ecocriticism 1, no. 2 (2009), special issue on “Poetic Ecologies.”
4. The growing Objectivist influence must also of course be related to DuPlessis’s work in the late nineties (shortly before writing these poems) in coediting The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999), the most important contribution to date to the understanding of this neglected group of modernists.
6. Kathleen Fraser, “Translating the Unspeakable: Visual Poetics as Projected Through Olson’s ‘Field’ into Current Female Writing Practice,” in Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000), 175.
13. DuPlessis, “Working Notes for ‘Draft 71: Headlines with Spoils,’” How2 3, no. 2 (2007).
20. DuPlessis, “A Statement for Pores,” Pores: An Avant-Gardist Journal of Poetics Research (July 2002): 2.
25. Perhaps it is also a reference to the tenth house in astrology, which is referred to in “Draft 67: Spirit Ditties” as a “darkened house, / memory house” (55). It is the house of the public sphere and of parental influence, hence perhaps the house of inheritance from our forbears.
34. This is but an extract from a pretty comprehensive list to be found at DuPlessis, “A Statement for Pores.”
35. Again, as with the Objectivists, there is a critical counterpart here in her contemporaneous 2001 book, Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908–1934. Here DuPlessis broadens her poetry criticism of the early Twentieth Century to consider wider issues of race and culture, in addition to gender. Having said that, I am conscious that I have marginalized discussion of gender in Torques in this piece somewhat. It remains a concern of course, but one most commonly discussed with reference to DuPlessis.
36. “‘Corpses of Poesy’: Some Modern Poets and Some Gender Ideologies of Lyric,” in Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, ed. Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 85.
43. DuPlessis, “A Statement for Pores.”
45. This piece can be found at UbuWeb.
51. Part of the next few paragraphs is drawn from “Recycles: the eco-ethical poetics of found text in contemporary poetry,” 123–25.
54. DuPlessis and Quartermain, introduction to The Objectivist Nexus, 11. This is not a new term in her work, having been used in “For the Etruscans,” in The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice, 2. In her later essay “Manifests” she writes of the danger that psychoanalysis should become a “near-mythic system of explanation” instead of a ‘social theory of interaction.” See Blue Studios, 206.
55. Lorine Niedecker, letter to Gail Roub, June 20, 1967, quoted in DuPlessis and Quartermain, introduction to The Objectivist Nexus, 12. See also Richard Caddel, “LN and Environment,” Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, ed. Jenny Penberthy (National Poetry Foundation, Orono, Maine: University of Maine, 1996), 281-286.
Turning points in 'Drafts'
Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts is a bona fide difficult poem. The book is one of struggles, specifically as it redrafts modernism to address feminism, but also as it provokes a dialogue writ large between poetry and itself. Throughout its formidable one-hundred-plus sections, the poem encompasses the historical, personal, aesthetical, and ethical, and it is pitched in a spectrum of modes, though most notably in the interrogative. As such, we are prompted to ask our own questions, and the first may simply be: How does one read an avant-garde epic like Drafts? One approach is to begin at the beginning and to forge ahead. But another path that I have found, musing on the conventions of the epic itself, is to start in the middle.
It’s revealing that the rough midpoint of Drafts offers a through-line that spans much of the poem’s copious scope. “Drafts 49” is subtitled “Turns & Turns, an Interpretation,” and indeed the section provides a kind of turning point. But DuPlessis is explicit, and “Drafts 49” does not simply lead us to a big shift in the poem. Rather it points to its own revision as a series of pivots that are variously literal, meta, and subversively monumental. Ultimately what DuPlessis deems as turns and turns becomes the ethical grist that generates the poem as a continuous work site. In “Draft 58: In Situ,” she writes:
This was to be a beginning,
a simple beginning, in situ,
that is, in the middle, here.
An impossible task
Since all words dismember into invention.
For in (or by) the act of starting (staring, stating)
something else takes shape.
could It be otherwise?
Shifts of it, makeshift, light shafts.
Shadows fall, split.
Sequences of looming
shimmer dark and dun.
casts fates in strange outcomes, hard to own.
Two shadows blown
is one way of hinting it.
The above stanza is indicative of the poem overall, as one move immediately triggers several more. DuPlessis’s acknowledgement that “something else takes shape” is also a concession that the poet is not out to master her shape-shifting discourse, but is allowing the poem to take its own shape. She writes: “Whatever happens / casts fates in strange outcomes, hard to own.” Still, it is worth noting that the form here echoes the three-line stanza of William Carlos Williams’s “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.” The use of this stanzaic triad contributes to yet another iteration of the numerous back and forth exchanges that simultaneously occur throughout the poem.
And so it is that like many demanding and rewarding texts, the more we read Drafts the more we learn how to read it. DuPlessis writes:
The first sentence teaches you to read; the second sentence tracks the surface. Third and you’re gone; then you arrive nowhere in order to explore what that “nothing” will generate. Suppose you cannot turn back? Suppose there is no return? Then it is the poem, claiming nonetheless the interlock and open hope of hinge. For it will sometimes say there is a pivot. Yet sometimes there is not.
Here DuPlessis offers another version of the double shift and release, which she formulates as “the interlock and open hope of hinge.” Again, to quote from the opening section of “Draft 82,” the constant struggles “that seem dialectical” are foregrounded. As elsewhere, the terms of the poem are couched along ethical lines and have explicit formal ramifications. DuPlessis writes:
“We stand bewildered before our own destiny …” Perhaps there
should be no more poems, only acts of writing. There would be no
more books, but transfer points; no finished pages, simply work sites.
Here’s a single tangled page that stakes a claim.
Its interplays of hole and hold, of dead and dread
Seem dialectical, yet operate in a struggle
Whose tip-top, top-you term I can’t supply.
Part of the driving force of the poem is that DuPlessis is, by necessity, on the offense in the poetic conversations. These are not polite give-and-take exchanges among DuPlessis and Pound, Eliot, H.D., and Williams, among others, but they are always pointed. Early in the Objectivist-charged section of “Draft 3: Of” that begins with the lines: “Hinge-loss door, lack latch / ice-ribbed, straws, wad / T-top conglomerate, gritty glass / smash, street-glacier moraine.” DuPlessis sets the tone — she writes:
Thick, this smashed bottle green
On glaciated street ice, grey octopus.
Things are the
Diecast power stick in your craw?
Well, fuck off.
Here sound and sense is and are sharply fused in ever-finer “juncted points” of language. In “Draft 32: Renga,” she writes:
Opening the yod that goes with this space
the book is awake
enters a tiny point.
The counter-counter points continue — DuPlessis writes:
In time, the infinite,
comes down; it’s
holds the point.
Points are held and yield, and then held again; fractured glosses expose and make more incisive glosses. The point is that nothing is glossed over. We see this most powerfully in “Draft 52: Midrash,” which is one of the most highly charged sections in the poem. It begins with an extended quote from Theodor Adorno, parts of which are the much-quoted lines: “Cultural criticism find itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.” In section 8 of “Draft 52,” there is a moment of double push back. Here DuPlessis directly engages the ethical problem of poetic turns. She writes:
Therefore no poetry. You cannot get off this hook
with lyrics trading in transcendence and turn.
Early in “Draft 52” the syntax exposes that even the work of pointing is vexed. She writes:
and face What Is, that it is, that this
happened. As such. The finger points —
troubling toll through sentiment —
at unspeakable untellable yod,
wood, leather, fabric, organic char, ash of ash, then
also there is the tiredness
of pursing anything
DuPlessis’s vigilance to invert turning point builds a centrifugal momentum. Again, in “Drafts 49” the most personal/political/ethical/poetic aspects are fused and re-fused to continue the poem’s bounding charge:
I was angry at my sister: who is my sister we enter a dark chamber.
Wild horses dragged between us lacunae of embattled twinships.
Noveremember, decemb— manifesto after manifesto. What somber depths
and quick decisions what exclamations leaping, there were many
driving fast inside the array and we turned, we turned the wheel!
Intensely restless, gleeful, restless, I am not getting the force of it in,
the rebuff, the clarity, in. “Women’s liberation members demand full
for the once frail sex” said Newsweek. “Once frail” — a nice turn.
Someone is photographed holding a sign. She is sneeringly “ugly”
a fact we recognize and are proud that some can garner that level of
Or they said this “feminism” is polemical — or “we knew it already
it is not such a big revelation no particular surprise Ho hum.”
I listened to “I couldn’t get it through her head!”
I heard someone say he need more time alone
than his wife Why? “Because she takes tranquilizers.”
The instruction to “record the ordinary.” The ordinary!
scare are these words out! it was ordinary as mythic and then real again.
Conflictual overald turned compasses to spin.
And the path of the poem continues to swirl:
I turn page upon page look for “diagnosis” for “justice”
in the scintillating swirl and snarl of mixed paths and junctures.
There is rupture and there is rhetoric, but the questions continue, and they are not rhetorical:
“Who” turned upon the question of who (in any case) was “the invisible.”
We each flooded with the rips and tears, the tides of multiple women
plus there was the refusal ever again to be “a woman.” I am darting
needling, thru the febrile network of definitions. Feel polemical kinship
with many positions. Who is “We” if “I” is split? What is your class
overview? “Which men is it that women want to be equal to?
“Draft 49,” which is an approximate middle of the poem, ends not on shift, but emphatically. It is fitting that the final turn in this section is no to turn at all.
here it is this staggering life where dreams insist it’s they
make something known before we know it. Do not turn away.
Here the consciousness of the poem is front and center, at least for the moment. Still, DuPlessis’s injunction not to turn only dramatizes the ethical awareness that overrides the overall poem. Ultimately, Drafts is driven by the knowledge that “being” is a process of continual “transfer points” rather than a fixed position. But even moving points need to secure their place for a time, and it is that dialectical exchange, which is the work of the poem, one that continues.