'The force of an intervention'
Rachel Blau DuPlessis's response to Oppen
“Whether as the intensity of seeing increases, one’s distance from Them, the people, does not also increase” — Rachel Blau DuPlessis to George Oppen
George Oppen was an important friend and instigation for Rachel Blau DuPlessis at the start of her career as a poet-critic and has remained a presence throughout. Their relationship was mutually productive both despite and because of their difference in age, gender, and as DuPlessis’s career progressed, her intertwining scholarly, critical, and political commitments. He offers an admiring, brief comment on the back jacket of her first book of poetry, a visit to the Oppen archive just after his death is among the several events that she has cited as launching Drafts, her work in seriality and collage that stands as a major and ongoing contribution to the long poem tradition, and acts of citation and dedication continue throughout the work. During the same period in which DuPlessis was writing what she would come to conceive of as the first “half” of her long poem and the experimental essays she would collect in The Pink Guitar, she edited both The Selected Letters of George Oppen and, with Peter Quartermain, The Objectivist Nexus. Beginning with his response to an early piece of her dissertation on Pound and Williams, Oppen’s letters to DuPlessis reveal him to be the rigorous mentor he was to several younger poets of the moment. However, one significant feature of their correspondence distinguishes it from most of the other younger poets to whom Oppen was then writing: the way in which letters to her function as a site for working out his response to the New Left and the relationship of that response to his poetics. They would directly discuss the intersection between poetry and politics in the late 1960s, but in October 1965 it is the subtext of another unique aspect of their friendship: the fact that just two months into it he sends her the poem that would become “Of Being Numerous,” and, while rejecting most of her queries, includes the question I cite as my epigraph prominently in the finished product.
In February 2006, in the midst of a lifetime of personal and poetic connection to Oppen, DuPlessis returns most directly to “Of Being Numerous” in “Draft 85: Hard Copy,” a poem which is, in her words, “mapped loosely on, thinks about, and responds to” Oppen’s poem. In returning to her initially restrained inquiry into Oppen’s stance with respect to social collectivity, DuPlessis sharpens it and, in so doing, begins what might be a reorientation of her own. This turn, which might be called a torque towards the political, marks a crucial juncture forher long poem. Over the now twenty years and five volumes of its production, Drafts has absorbed a range of sociopolitical issues and events — most obsessively the Holocaust and gender inequity. I have argued elsewhere that Drafts’ accumulation of and commentary upon on the materio-linguistic fragments of modern catastrophe represents DuPlessis’s unique version of Walter Benjamin’s tarrying among the ruins of culture in order to uncover their “messianic” potential, the historical materialist process of “brush[ing] history against the grain (“Little Words”). Through procedures like layered deictic gestures, randomized repetition, and what DuPlessis calls the “fold,” Drafts creates the conditions for poetic language to produce and reproduce itself, letting go of certain elements of authorial control. The considerations informing these practices are multiple — from a desire to dismantle muse and hero figures, to a recognition that even the smallest signifying element may bear witness to provisional truth, and that, therefore, “to show,” in Benjamin’s terms, rather than “to say” is the most humane approach. As Walter Kalaidjian puts it: “DuPlessis grants a certain autonomy of expression to the ‘anguage’ she witnesses in her verse” with the belief that “the revolutionary moment of Benjamin’s ‘material historicism’ happens neither in the social solidarity of a ‘polis’ nor in some saving ideological narrative of heroism and progress” but instead in the “truth” of language’s “symbolic procedures.”
But even as DuPlessis continues to theorize the validity of this practice, and while the very structure of Drafts is hardwired against any singular trajectory, the last page of Torques summons the poem to radical change: “Clear the table! Break this allegiance! … Begin! / Here! And Here!” The “intransigent response” DuPlessis demands in “Hard Copy” — the title itself suggestive of a new directness — is the only response, she suggests, to the “error after error” of modernity as it builds towards a kind of catastrophic apogee. Early in the poem, she asks, “Were there other times like this— / over and beyond the bearable?” While acknowledging that the question is “callow,” she also says it is “heartfelt” and goes on to confront the evidence accumulating quite literally at her doorstep. It “surely seems a bloody time,” she writes, with a sense of understatement, “where / someone is murdered down South 23rd St., / drugs, deals, rage, guns, / and then / the shame of War … / cabal of manipulation and / devious complicity.” The answer to the initial question is apparently “no,” but the poem is going to continue, “demanding other — unknown, strengths.” She asks, “What is the point of pure revulsion? I am beginning / to be very simple, to have very simple thoughts, no / complicated language” she writes. “Hard Copy” is by no means “simple,” but in it, Drafts, whichhas built itself into a reverberative archive of traumatic witness, turns toward political judgment and action.
And this is why “Hard Copy,” written at the moment when the costs of the Iraq War were poised to exceed Vietnam, faces Oppen and “Of Being Numerous” so directly. DuPlessis’s critical reassessment of what Oppen called, in “The Mind’s Own Place,” the poet’s “political non-availability” marks an important moment in Drafts as a long poem that would, as DuPlessis puts it, “offer the force of an intervention.” In section 37 of “Hard Copy,” DuPlessis cites lines from both her first book of poetry, and from section 37 of “Of Being Numerous” which itself glosses lines from Discrete Series, Oppen’s first book of poetry. Both poets view their early work from a distance of about thirty years, questioning their efforts “‘to see / what was really going on.’” Oppen appears ambivalent, both about his decision to open Discrete Series with the Henry James character Maude Blessingbourne, in an attempt to see with her into a new century’s clarity, and about whether witness can yield anything in the contemporary moment. Against argument and action, which the poem suggests are guilty of “thickening the air / … with myth,” the section ends with the vague affirmation that the act of seeing the materials — “motes, an iron mesh, links” — is still “relevant.”
Writing what she has called a “midrash” on their accumulated language, DuPlessis creates a meeting place for, “what could then be written,” as “then” points to the locus of constant change — 1934, 1968, 1980, 2007. While the page thickens with citation, it becomes curiously, correspondingly clear. Drawing from the title of one of the “donor drafts” of “Hard Copy,” the act of “facing pages” in this instance produces not just a “coruscation” — a word whose vagaries she considers in that draft — but a fiery blast, the explosion of direct combat. As her text engages Oppen’s retrospect on his own, DuPlessis whirls round to confront what’s happening right now: “One nano-second later and / a snarl of light that crashed to the floor binds one / to the terrors of historical time,” she writes, “That’s what awe is, that’s what fear. / Demanding an intransigent response / To the knife and its addictive power.” Where Oppen’s consideration of the act of seeing still finds in it a primary if limited ground on which to stand, DuPlessis’s poem cannot contain itself to a discussion of first principles — the extratextual world comes crashing in and “binds” her to respond; there is no choice.
The experience of binding, the reality of the knife — DuPlessis is here presenting the echoes of the binding of Isaac, in the ongoing war of human sacrifice conducted along the thin line between faith and secular ethics. She has recently called this story “the most startling, repeated, vital,” biblical text in Drafts as a whole, a negative moment in her sense of “creolized Jewishness.” Here, it recalls most immediately Oppen’s modified citation, in section 16 of “Of Being Numerous,” of a fragment from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Oppen’s section begins, “‘… he who will not work shall not eat,” and concludes, “and only he who unsheathes his knife shall be given / Isaac again. He who will not work shall not eat … / but he who will work shall give birth to his own father.” His identification with the value of “work” opens his text to a surprising endorsement of “unsheathing his knife” as an act of sincerity, grounded in the “vertical consciousness of oneself and one’s god.” This stance becomes especially clear when we read section 16 as a rejoinder to section 15’s ventriloquizing of the concern with being or doing “good” that Oppen disparagingly associated with women poets: “‘… find every hair / Of my belly, I am good (or I am bad), / find me.’” Work, or more specifically the solitary “workman,” is cited as a strongly positive way to “speak of poetry,” in section 27, further sharpening the gender distinctions that emerge in the interchange between 15 and 16.
“There is trouble in the desert,” DuPlessis writes in her section 16, “trouble in the lineage,” meaning at once her Jewish lineage and her patrilineage in Oppen. Part of the problem and likely part of the allure of Abrahamic allegory is its stark singularity: “they are all male singletons,” she writes, “one A, one I and one One / (undercounting various brothers / who do not matter in the tally; nor enumerating most sisters, though they certainly existed).” For DuPlessis, the resolution of Judaism’s founding narrative is radically inadequate because of this singularity; it needs to be reread from the perspective of the absent Ishmael, the unnamed sisters. Even as “regime of human sacrifice / was declared theologically finished,” she writes, it is clearly not “politically and ideologically finished,” because of the value it gives to what the poem elsewhere calls, referring to Bush and Cheney, “single Illumination,” and “mono-Ocular blind-sided Vision.” In section 9 of her poem, we find the knife “readied / for another human sacrifice” in this “this time and place.”
Section 9 is, of course, the site of DuPlessis’s original entrance into “Of Being Numerous,” and in “Hard Copy,” she treats this looking glass moment with a mixture of self-deprecation and seriousness: “And in this space a birth of enigma / to which one owes one’s own enigma,” she writes, in the space Oppen allotted her fragmented question. But the question she goes on to ask reflects her accumulated sense that the “distance from Them, the people” has increased, with dangerous effects: “What art for this recurrence?” In the word “recurrence” I read DuPlessis’s torque on Oppen’s “occurrence” — a value term, linked in his thought to “experience as it presents itself on its own terms” and positioned prominently in the opening section of “Of Being Numerous” as a figure for human relations as at once “true” and “impenetrable”: “Occurrence, a part / Of an infinite series.” Maintained over the “time that has passed — almost forty years” between the two poems, this stance, DuPlessis seems to suggest, may be partially culpable for the “grief after grief, / error after error, profit after profit,” the history of violent recurrence. At the very least, for her, right now, it is inadequate: “as if the sheer clarity of pointing / the dialectical oscillate of meditation / could ever illuminate this time and place.”
Clearly what I’ve read as DuPlessis’s critical Jewish response to Oppen is also a critical gender response. The Abrahamic gift of “giving birth to one’s own father” is but one site in “Of Being Numerous” where masculinity and a valued, austere singularity become possible in reaction to feminized figures of less rigorously considered human connection. As John Lowney has noted, female and feminized figures become a primary focus in the latter sections of the poem, though Oppen tends to position them as either beautiful objects of vision — “the perfect tendons / Under the skin” — or “assuming the burden of blindness.” The long poem presses towards its conclusion through these images, beginning with section 29’s address to “my daughter, my daughter … / I have a daughter / But no child,” and ending, ambivalently, in the voice of Walt Whitman contemplating the statue of freedom atop the Capitol dome, in a letter written during the time he spent in Washington as a quasi-nurse tending to Civil War wounded.Of the final sections of the poem, 34 probes issues of gender most deeply, reviving intratextually many of the “competing propositions” that I’ve been arguing Oppen kept in play both on and off the poetic page in the decade of his reemergence.
The section begins, “Like the wind in the trees and the bells / Of the procession.” Like section 9, this opening cites the writing of a young woman, however here the words are incorporated without quotation marks. Until Lowney’s chapter, DuPlessis remained the only reader to address the fact that these lines come from a woman named Jo Pacheno, in a brief note to a 1966 Oppen letter to John Crawford in which Oppen discusses “the problem of the ‘I’ in feminine poetry,” and the question of Pacheno’s future as a poet. The letter summons Sappho and Emily Dickinson as the only women writers capable of achieving “some sense of the distances and the realities around the ‘I’” that Oppen associates with “the chance of poetry.” In “Of Being Numerous,” Pacheno’s “procession” opens onto a catalogue of “beautiful particulars.” Encompassing the natural (“the earth / children and the grass”) as well as the urban (“the papers blown about the sidewalks”), these specific details are at once a site of value and limitation. Given the liberty of Oppen’s multidirectional line breaks, we read “Among the beautiful particulars … // ‘… a Female Will to hide the most evident God / Under a covert.’” Lowney has suggested that the prophetic stance of this couplet from William Blake’s Jerusalem appears “disjunctive” with respect to the opening nine lines of the section, which he describes as an homage to the “immanentist poetics” of Reznikoff’s “urban pastoral.” But if the juxtaposition seems sudden, it isn’t surprising, as it recapitulates the double positioning of women as both mute representatives of a valued object world and powerful agents of the “regime of right thinking” that would “veil” that world’s truths [this is the argument that the longer version of this essay develops extensively with respect to Oppen’s poetry, prose, and letters]. In the compressed logic of this passage, the feminized “particulars” (in the form of Blake’s Vala) themselves block access to “infiniteness,” or what Oppen calls in the letters, “vertical consciousness.” When section 34 resumes after the Blake quote, it underscores, rather than contradicts it. For whatever the social etiology of the “burden of blindness” women “assume” (and the poem leaves their choice in this matter an open question), they remain “intruders,” associated with “life” and the relationships of dependency that stem from it, as against “the most evident God.”
There are six more sections of “Of Being Numerous,” and the fact that the last three revolve around the figure of a genderless “Nurse” and appear to embrace the “knowledge” gleaned from “touch” and “care” does much to complicate the value system Oppen established around these terms and the people he associated with them. The poem may very well remain, as DuPlessis has recently said, “perfectly unstable.” But if even this is the case, its reception is riddled with gender gaps, and her section 34 of “Hard Copy” seeks to fill them. Where he launches his section with the uncited “voice” of a woman would-be poet, she constructs hers entirely of dedications, beginning, “To mothers who cannot / protect their young?” She inhabits his heroic/romantic figure of “the young women // Carrying life / Unaided in their arms” from the inside, investing her “mothers” with a canny double consciousness: “They probably know / impotent despairs, / expressed as resignation / but surfacing in little sleights of hand, candy,” she writes. This passage subverts the precursor image in “Of Being Numerous,” giving the lie to the debilitating sweetness of yet another iteration of the “Lady Poet … the Domestic Poet, the poet of the happy ending,” against whom Oppen would establish his “purity,” his “clarity in the sense of silence.” Though it is clearly intended to question the nature of the “courage” that Oppen attributes to his “young women,” we might also read the central stanza of DuPlessis’s section 34 as a dedication her younger self and, more distantly, to Denise Levertov (whose relationship to Oppen as a figure of a feminized, abjected political sphere the longer version of this essay traces):
To girls asked to filter the universe
by the poets who evoke their beneficence?
what will protect them
from the enormities
that they might suffer in their skirts and veils
while staged on the buffer zone they
are imagined to constitute?
If there are answers to the above question, they lie in the “fierce storehouses of articulation” that, as her career builds, sharply distinguish the “mesh” of DuPlessis’s writing from Oppen’s “clarity in the sense of silence,” even as she works to establish his poetic reputation and position him literary historically (“Hard Copy”). Occupying multiple positions in the nexus of “participation, production, and reception over time” is another answer — multitasking as feminist strategy.
This essay is excerpted and adapted from a longer piece entitled “‘That We Can Somehow Add Each to Each Other?’: George Oppen between Denise Levertov and Rachel Blau DuPlessis,” which appears in Contemporary Literature 51, no. 4 (Winter 2010).
1. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, letter to George Oppen, 1965, in The Selected Letters of George Oppen, ed. DuPlessis (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), 390. Cited in Oppen, “Of Being Numerous,” New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2002, 167.
3. The small press Potes and Poets published up through Draft XXX before Wesleyan University Press brought out its first volume, which republished the thirty drafts along with an additional eight to produce what is commonly taken to be the first volume, Drafts 1–38, Toll (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001).
4. After the nineteenth draft, DuPlessis established a grid method of composition whereby each new poem emerges in part out of the language, ideas, images, etc. of its “donor draft” nineteen poems prior to it. DuPlessis discusses “the fold” in depth in “Inside the Middle of a Long Poem,” in Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 242–43.
6. DuPlessis, Drafts 58–76, Torques (Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2007), 136. In an essay on Oppen, DuPlessis analyzes his formation of the line and the “combinatoire” of materials he achieves across line breaks in terms of Benjaminian allegory (Blue Studios, 196). The essay begins “in memoir” with an account of Oppen’s early editing of her work, and announces that “in a certain light everything I write is set against his uncompromising sign” (186).
7. DuPlessis describes the “midrashic” element of her poetics in a number of essays, including, most recently and fully, “Midrashic Sensibilities: Secular Judaism and Radical Poetics (A Personal Essay in Several Chapters),” in Secular Judaism and Radical Poetics, ed. Stephen Paul Miller and Daniel Morris (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010), 199–224.
8. “Drafts” that work through this story include “Draft 25: Segno,” “Draft 32: Renga,” “Draft 34: Recto,” and, most significantly prior to “Draft 85,” “Draft 52: Midrash” (in Drafts 39–57, Pledge [Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2004]).
9. Commenting on the “find me” section in a 1965 letter to Diane Wakoski, Oppen writes, “it seems to me still the pitfall that has trapped every woman poet who has written in English: I am good (or I am bad); find me” (Selected Letters, 110; noted in New Collected Poems, 384). Nevertheless, Oppen admired Wakoski personally and poetically.
10. Oppen’s Kierkegaard citation has for the most part eluded critics. Zack Finch offers one of the most extensive analyses to date in a recent essay about Oppen, Whitman, and violence. Introducing an interesting sexual waver into the gender terms with which we’ve been working, Finch claims that the citation “addresses both Abraham — ‘he who unsheathes his knife’ — and Isaac, who ‘shall give birth to his own father.’ Isaac’s suffering is really just as unthinkable as Abraham’s. Through an act of Levinasian forgiveness in the face of originary persecution, Isaac manages to give birth to his father, to renew the father’s life. … For the labor of giving birth, as an act of being penetrated from within, is both a temporary wounding and a sacrifice one typically considers to be an act of love. In giving this maternal work to a man, Oppen opens himself to the ordeal of a penetration which he actively chooses.” Finch, “‘I am / of that people the grass / blades touch’: Walt Whitman and the Aesthetics of Curiosity in George Oppen’s Critique of Violence,” Jacket 36. In my reading, the fragment Oppen takes from Kierkegaard seems focused solely through Abraham’s perspective, and the poet’s identification, to the extent there is one, is, I’d argue, with him.
12. Oppen, New Collected Poems, 181, 188. Several recent essays have discussed the stakes of Oppen’s Whitman citation, including Izenberg, Lowney, and Finch. Lowney reads Whitman’s status as a “nurse” as “perhaps the most conventional representation of female valor,” and suggests that it is on these antimasculinist terms that the poem means to end (225).
13. Oppen, Selected Letters,137, 392n18. Davidson doesn’t mention this citation in his notes to the poem in the New Collected. Lowney reads Oppen’s appropriation of Pacheno as validating “female vision” (224).