Features - December 2011
On Rachel Blau DuPlessis
but nothing includes everything, or dominates over everything. The word ‘and’ trails along after every sentence. Something always escapes … — William James
To say that Rachel Blau DuPlessis has built her entire poetic project on the logic of the provisional and the contingent is no exaggeration. And reader, make no mistake — she has married us to this process. In the School of DuPlessian Midrash every seam and suture is exposed as a subject of instigation cum investigation. Investigation, in Drafts, is not simply a prod to the ethical; it’s heuristic: in teaching us how to read Drafts, Drafts teaches us how to read. (So maybe it’s chiasmatic, too?)
After nearly forty years of teaching, most of it at Temple University, DuPlessis retired in 2011. She has become emerita, an honorific that savors a little of the ironic since the “merit” of her position has always been to question both merit and her own position within the larger system of signification and circulation that is poetry, scholarship, life. According to Wikipedia (yes, Wikipedia), “emerita does not necessarily indicate that the person is retired from all the duties of her previous positions; she may continue to exercise some of them.” DuPlessis is fully exercising these duties — call them poetic commitments — as she nears completion of Surge, the final volume of Drafts, which will bring the series to 114 poems.
Had she done nothing else but write such groundbreaking studies as Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers; H.D.: The Career of That Struggle; Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908–1934; and the trilogy of genre-bending works The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice, Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work, and the forthcoming Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley, and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry, she would have secured her reputation as a major voice in modernist and contemporary literary studies.
But of course, there are the poems.
In the labyrinthine spirit of Drafts, the essays gathered here provide interweaving, overlapping points of entry into the poems. Vectors, swarming. There is no school of RBD as such, either poetical or scholarly, yet many of us have studied there all the same.
Ron Silliman’s bold assessment of the longpoem’s genealogy and legacy travels mainly via a breakdown of Zukofsky’s production of “A” as it traces the implications of the Grid for Drafts. His daring conclusion reads DuPlessis’s Collage Poems as asemic centerpiece of the entire work, an act that moves the periphery to the center and compels us to re-read, yet again, the logic of the poem’s structure.
As Eric Keenaghan attests in his provocative and deeply personal engagement with DuPlessis as mentor and poet, her legacy has less to do with legacy as such as with modes of reading and transmitting. His essay is in part a memoir about coming of age as a scholar and what it means, specifically, to be a gay scholar, committed to recovering repressed or ignored traditions. In the spirit of his subject, Keenaghan runs and sustains the considerable risk of writing what, after Duncan, he calls his own “RBD Book.” Tracing the complex network of connections linking Oppen, Duncan, and DuPlessis, he attends to the nuances of “of” while delineating the fraught dialectics of “I and we” in a study that is both homage and critique.
Libbie Rifkin takes up the complications of the Oppen-DuPlessis nexus, exploring how gender, the New Left, Jewishness, poetics, and two wars — the Vietnam and the Iraq — inform their epistolary and poetic relationship. In particular, she seeks to account for how Oppen’s masculine poetics of clarity — his resolve to hew only to the demonstrable, the irreducible — becomes in DuPlessis’s work a feminine commitment to the mesh and weave of experience. This piece is excerpted from a longer essay in Contemporary Literature (51, no. 4) that examines Oppen’s jittery response to Denise Levertov as well.
Paul Jaussen makes an eloquent intervention by reading Drafts as a life-poem whose production coincides with the emergence of the Internet and the whole raft of new media. For Jaussen, Drafts embodies this dramatic shift in communication technologies, negotiating its own design in often precarious ways by inviting contingency to play a major authorial role.
The materiality of the caesura in Drafts is at issue in C. J. Martin’s essay. Martin sees caesura not as erasure but as a practice of disfigurement that makes room in the poem for refuse and debris. In the same way, the Notes to Drafts ought not to be read as dutiful exercises in citational diligence, but as a whole other layer of redactive incursion that deepens the poem’s dialogical dynamics. If redaction acts as a kind of prosody, then the latest volume of Drafts — The Collage Poems — signal an exit from language into another medium. Martin’s generous contribution includes a review of Pitch: Drafts 77–95 that focuses on “Draft 85: Hard Copy,” DuPlessis’s mirror text/response to George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous.”
Catherine Taylor’s essay examines how Drafts employs the dynamics of recursivity to explore new forms of social life which blend the interpersonal with the global. Taylor’s reading locates some of the poem’s central tensions in the way its uses deferral and suspension to convey the duration of lived experience. This procedure resists the culture of instantaneity by grounding the poem within the moment of the event, where the historical horizon is made visible.
Daniel Bouchard’s overview of the major ligaments in Drafts investigates the tensions in a large scale work between the encyclopedic and the micrological. Bouchard reads the interplay between the little and the enormous, the hinges and the gaps, that mark Drafts as an “endlessly unrolling scroll.” For him, Drafts is less elegy than nekuia, a voyage to the land of the dead, that is, a tour through the debris field of memory and history.
For Thomas Devaney, Drafts poses two significant problems for its readers: one practical, the other ethical. Practically, how does one begin to enter such a capacious poem? The larger struggle has to do with how the ethical scope of the project locates itself between poetry and social critique, including the crucial opening of modernism to feminism. Indeed, one way into this massive book is via the poem’s deep structures, that is, to read Drafts as a series of turning points. The very heart of the book, “Drafts 49: Turns & Turns, an Interpretation,” assumes the implicit challenge of this position. That the poem’s midpoint is structured as a turn indicates that the formal and the ethical hinge not on turning points only, but on a greater pivot between both continuous turning points and dialectical counterpoints that span the entire book.
Harriet Tarlo ranges widely back and forth over Torques, the third book of Drafts, asking what has changed in the poem’s tone and direction from its beginnings, different, as well as what remains continuous. In particular, she identifies a growing darkness to the work, the concomitant growing influence of the Objectivist poets, and a growing tension and richness between complex and simple uses of language in conjunction with each other. Torques, she notes, is a poem marked by “thwarted intentions and desires.” It gives “a darkened page to meet a darkened world.”
My own contribution positions Drafts within the secular Judaic mode of inquiry pioneered by Walter Benjamin. It asks whether midrashic poetics, as practiced by DuPlessis, can be regarded as occupying the role of advocacy represented by the enigmatic angel of history, a figure who does more than merely bear witness to the storm of progress, but actively constructs new alignments of meaning out the scattered wreckage of the debris field.
In her reading of “Draft 52: Midrash,” Naomi Shulman traces its argumentative dialogues at the boundaries of the critical and the poetic. As an intertextual conversation with Theodor Adorno’s statements about the possibilities of poetry after the Shoah, “Draft 52” 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 that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” 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.
Taking up the fraught status of Drafts as an “epic,” Bob Perelman explores what it means for a woman, especially one whose scholarship has proven pivotal for H.D. studies, to assay this Alpine, that is to say, Poundian, territory. As he ably demonstrates, DuPlessis has moved far beyond Pound to create a model of the epic that is entirely new, while at the same enrichingly “modifying Pound’s still-exciting obsession that poetry mean something and do something in the world we live in.”
Alan Golding reads DuPlessis’s contestatory relationship to Pound as something both “foundational and to be moved away from, complexly enabling and an object of resistance.” In arguing that Drafts’ project is to investigate history without reducing it to a scheme, he shows how DuPlessis overturns or writes through The Cantos at three specific sites: gender, authority, and reading. Key to her strategy for placing a female signature to an epic-length, serial poem is the use of endnotes as “an intrinsic rhetorical feature.”
Chris Tysh, who, with Jean-Paul Auximiery, has been translating Drafts into French, provides another look at Pitch. In her view, the poem occupies a crucial middle ground between a poetics of negation and a giddy Olsonian maximalism. Tysh sees Drafts as a poem productively haunted by itself. In this way, midrash and citation keep pushing the poem back and forth between mimetic urgency and the risks and rewards of making itself uncanny.
All of which is to say, both by way of overview and prelude, that the imminent ending of Drafts is as enticing an aspect of the poem as any since it challenges us to rethink the question of how poems end.