Features

Drafting beyond the ending

On Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Rachel Blau DuPlessis in 2007 in Philadelphia. Photo by Robert S. DuPlessis.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s “Draft 94: Mail Art”; DuPlessis in 2007 in Philadelphia. Photo by Robert S. 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 DraftsThe 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.

There is no reconciliation

"So Good" (2011) and "Self Portrait" (2010) by Brandon Downing
"So Good" (2011) and "Self Portrait" (2010) by Brandon Downing

Jacket2 features a review of Brandon Downing’s Lake Antiquity by Luke Bloomfield, and a gallery of recent collages by Downing.

Look and look again

Twelve New Zealand poets

Emma Smith, "Hecate" (2010).
Emma Smith, "Hecate" (2010).

I once heard a story about a biology teacher who asked a student to look closely at a fish, then write a description of it. The student took a good look at the fish, then wrote down everything he could think of to say about it.

After the student had brought back his description, the teacher told him to look at the fish again, and to write another description of it. This time the student took it home and went into real depth about everything he could find out about that species of fish, as well as this particular specimen.

After he had brought back his second description, the teacher told him to look at the fish again and write another description of it.

By now the student must have been starting to get the point.

*

1. I say that I “once heard” the story. Actually I heard it from Richard von Sturmer, who told it to a group of us when I was doing his evening class on Japanese poetry a few years ago. Richard spent a decade working at the Zen Center in Rochester, New York, so he certainly knows a lot about how to observe things intensely. He made us do the same exercise in class with an object of our choice.

2. Now that I come to think of it, Richard didn’t simply attribute the anecdote to an anonymous teacher. He told us that it was a story about Louis Agassiz, the great Swiss naturalist, and specified (as I recall) that what Agassiz actually said was, “Look.” Then, “Look.” And finally, “Look.”

3. Actually, if you want to take it a bit further, you’ll find this very same story at the beginning of Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading (which is presumably where Richard got it from in the first place):

       No man is equipped for modern thinking until he has understood the anecdote of Agassiz and the fish:
       A post-graduate student equipped with honors and diplomas went to Agassiz to receive the final and finishing touches. The great man offered him a small fish and told him to describe it.
       Post-Graduate Student: ‘That’s only a sunfish.’
       Agassiz: ‘I know that. Write a description of it.’
       After a few minutes the student returned with the description of the Ichthus Heliodiplodokus, or whatever term is used to conceal the common sunfish from vulgar knowledge, family of Heliichtherinkus, etc., as found in textbooks of the subject.
       Agassiz again told the student to describe the fish.
       The student produced a four-page essay. Agassiz then told him to look at the fish. At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it. [1]

No doubt you’ve deduced the analogy I’m trying to draw by now. “It’s not a ... subtle point you’re making,” as Greg Kinnear says to Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets. No, not at all a subtle point.

1. If one were to try to give a quick overview of New Zealand poetry today, there are a number of important and prominent names — mostly published by the major university presses — who would spring immediately to mind. This is, I suppose, the kind of view-from-a-distance perspective very ably provided by Robyn Marsack and Andrew Johnston’s 2009 Carcanet anthology Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets. (You can find them all listed here, if you’re curious.)

2. If one wanted to look at the subject again, in a bit more depth, quite a lot more names would come up: some senior poets a little faded from the public eye, but still eminent; up-and-comers of various shades; an assortment of travelling bards and troubadours; nests of Academic poets. This is roughly the view attempted by the three Auckland University Press anthologies (Classic, Contemporary and New NZ Poets) edited by Jan Kemp and myself between 2006 and 2008. Our canon would thus grow to eighty-odd poets — many of them, admittedly, now deceased.

(You can find more details about these books and the larger set of materials they were drawn from at the AoNZPSA [Aotearoa NZ Poetry Sound Archive] site.)

3. The third view, the one I’m trying to represent here, would disclose a far more complex picture: an immensely varied undergrowth of experimentalists, zealots, eccentrics, and prophets of various stripes: amateurs (in the very best sense of the word), people often highly respected in other fields, but dabbling with an alchemist’s fervor in the murky waters of modern poetics and poetry.

Attempting to map this constituency would be a far more difficult task than either of the two projects above (though I have to acknowledge that no one has yet got closer to that objective than Paula Green and Harry Ricketts in their excellent 2010 Vintage book 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry).

The aim of my own small sampling of twelve poets, then, is to avoid the easier choices and instead opt deliberately for the less visible: the undersung — as one might call them — since it’s my contention that each of the writers included here deserves to be far better known.

None of these twelve poets is included in the Carcanet anthology, but some of them do feature in the AUP anthologies — as well as the AoNZPSA (not to mention that immensely useful Green / Ricketts compendium):

One of them, John Adams, works as a judge, but has recently taken a year off to do a masters of creative writing in poetry at Auckland University;

Another, Raewyn Alexander, is an artist and fashion designer as well as a poet and novelist;

Another, Dr. Jen Crawford, tries to combine being a fulltime academic with her own disquieting brand of poetic perfectionism;

Another, Dr. Scott Hamilton, works as a freelance political activist, chronicling his activities on his very popular blog Reading the Maps;

Another of them, the Rev. Leicester Kyle, was an Anglican priest turned poet and ecological activist who died in 2006 before his work could gain the hearing I still strongly believe it deserves;

Another, Aleksandra Lane, is a young Serbian poet turned Kiwi surrealist;

Another, Thérèse Lloyd, is an art gallery administrator who’s studied poetry at both the IIML in Wellington and the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa;

Another, Dr. Richard Reeve, after finishing a PhD dissertation on Heidegger, is presently studying to become an environmental lawyer;

Another, Michael Steven, combines his job as an industrial electrician with his vocation as a poetic craftsman and translator;

Another, Apirana Taylor, is a popular and internationally acclaimed Māori poet and storyteller;

Another, Richard Taylor, is a chess master as well as a devotee of the cutting edge in contemporary poetics;

Yet another, Richard von Sturmer, teaches on Zen retreats as well as working as an educational administration.

I’ve made no attempt to popularize or soften the character of the poems presented here. Of course it’s impossible to be truly representative of the character of each individual poet’s work in such a small space, any more than one can hope to represent more than a few of the complex crosscurrents of writing in New Zealand at present, but I’ve done my best (in each case) to provide a sample which may help to lead sympathetic readers onwards.

One of the contributors, John Adams, asked at an early stage of the editing process:

Jack, for an international audience, I wonder if “snicker …” should have an explanatory note that “taniwha” refers to ancient gods/ancestors traditionally recognised by Māori, New Zealand’s indigenous people. And maybe explanation that the first part of the title refers to an incident where the Māori demi-god, Maui, disguised as a lizard, was betrayed by the snicker of a fantail (piwakawaka) whilst he attempted to conquer death by entering the body of his fearsome goddess grandmother, Hinenuitepo, in order to extract her heart. The piwakawaka found the sight so ridiculous that mirth could not be contained and Maui was crushed between the thighs of the goddess.

He goes on to speculate that “perhaps these things should be left as mysteries for those who don’t have the background — or maybe they should be discarded for an international audience?”

I don’t believe that it does any harm to include such information, but I’m not sure that it does much good, either. One of the interesting things about writing in New Zealand, about New Zealand subjects, is that we are constantly being told that our work “won’t export” — due, for the most part (allegedly), to the large number of Māori terms included in the local brand of English.

It’s true that Ibsen’s first readers were forced to encounter his work in German translation, due to a lack of familiarity with the Norwegian language, and that a good many misunderstandings were the result, but I think that people will always take the trouble to study the intricacies of a foreign culture if they think the reward will be worth it.

In other words, if we make a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to our door — if we write well and interestingly enough, readers will bother to hunt out our works, however rooted in the local and particular they may be. Native Spanish speakers continue to have a good deal of difficulty with the Indian dialect included in Augusto Roa Bastos’s classic Paraguayan dictator novel I the Supreme (not to mention the Qechua in the work of his Peruvian contemporary José María Arguedas) — but it hasn’t stopped their books from reaching an audience of millions.

(If, parenthetically, one were to posit director Peter Jackson as our own NZ Ibsen, our one internationally acclaimed and instantly recognisable artist, then the analogy becomes a rather disquieting one. Maybe we don’t want to be branded quite so irrevocably as the fitting backdrop for the ahistorical fantasy world of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and (now) The Hobbit …)

So, if these twelve poets can be said to represent anything in particular as a group, then I hope they stand for the variety, excitement, and passion of at least some of the poetry being produced in New Zealand today. Beyond that, none of them is particularly easy to classify, and none of them seems readily interchangeable with any of the others.

I’ve accompanied each set of poems with an image by one of my favorite New Zealand artists, Emma Smith. There’s a lyrical emotiveness about Emma’s work — imbued as it is with strands of mythology and folklore — which I think matches well with the poets I’ve chosen.

One motive was certainly to give as consistent as possible a tone to this otherwise rather diverse troupe of poets, but I have to admit that I also wanted to avoid touristic clichés about the beauty of the natural landscapes hereabouts: don’t imagine for a moment that we clean green New Zealanders are not just as capable of dumping toxic waste in a stream or overfishing an ocean as the greediest Humvee-driving consumers anywhere. Hobbiton / Wellington — Middle-Earth / Aotearoa? I fear not …

Albany, Auckland, New Zealand
August–September 2011



1. Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (1934; London: Faber, 1961), 17–18.

 

 


Poems by John Adams John Adams
Poems by Raewyn Alexander Raewyn Alexander
Poems by Jen Crawford Jen Crawford
Poems by Scott Hamilton Scott Hamilton
Poems by Leicester Kyle Leicester Kyle
Poems by Aleksandra Lane Aleksandra Lane
Poems by Thérèse Lloyd Thérèse Lloyd
Poems by Richard Reeve Richard Reeve
Poems by Michael Steven Michael Steven
Poems by Apirana Taylor Apirana Taylor
Poems by Richard Taylor Richard Taylor
Poems by Richard von Sturmer Richard von Sturmer