How to mourn-touch
The redactive prosodies of Rachel Blau DuPlessis
“Inside art, poetry would succeed — perhaps — in withdrawing from art; it would exit art within art. Thus we must think, in art’s greatest intimacy and as this intimacy itself, of a sort of spacing or hiatus. A secret gaping. Perhaps intimacy — the ‘heart’ of the same — is always such a gaping, as the possibility for the same to be itself and to join within itself to itself; the pure — empty — articulation of the same. And perhaps for art (the Unheimliche), this intimate gaping would be precisely what ceaselessly ‘estranges’ the strangeness of art (of the strange): precisely the caesura of art, the spasm — furtive, hardly felt — of the strange. In which case poetry would not be, in art-outside-of-art, the flaw or the failing of art, of language: let us say, silence. But rather the pain of art (of language). Hence the aggravation of the catastrophe, which is, strictly speaking, a revolt …” — Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Poetry as Experience
“Ash, we were saying, annihilates or threatens to annihilate even the possibility of bearing witness to annihilation.” — Jacques Derrida, Sovereignties in Question
Working through George Oppen’s various calls for clarity, Patrick Pritchett arrives at a discussion of the caesura: “It’s as if the only way for Oppen to write clarity is through these sharp incisions of white space. […] Clarity becomes a kind of invisible ideogram, a para-notational blank space, a scission cutting into the material body of the poem. […] Clarity, finally, is not what can appear through means of the orthographical sign alone, but only as and from the pauses within the overall shape of the poem, the white caesuras of its metrical breaks.” I’d like to explore how this material caesura has been revisited and extended since Oppen, particularly in writing that seeks to politicize clarity by framing the problem in the context(s) of difference. Broadly speaking, legibility is a near central, often excessive demand in navigating any discourse, but the problematic of ‘the clear and the obscure’ or ‘the legible and the illegible’ might also be situated more narrowly within a poetics of the document, where confronting that demand involves developing strategies for understanding what it might mean to go on record, materially, and for engaging that record.
I’m concerned, then, not with erasure, but disfigurement: by redaction I mean to call to mind a forcible collision whereby the visible and vocable edges of a text contract. In this collision, the redacted remains apparent — even as redaction occludes, it mars material. More than erasure, redaction is how a discourse tends its own limits, since the out-of-bounds must remain visible as such whenever the lines of permissible speech are drawn. But to adopt redaction as a tool of lyric work is to bring the noise — to welcome refuse and to allow debris to collect along the road to clarity, as a kind of clarity. So what I’m calling redaction engages a material practice even at the expense of legibility.
One way Rachel Blau DuPlessis has responded to Oppen is by positing occlusion as an inroad to clarity. I want to consider her work as a renewal of Oppen’s call through the overwriting, overprinting, and redaction of his ‘white caesura.’ In Pritchett’s terms, a white caesura isn’t the silence of a poetic voice, or the falling silent of speech or song — it instead re-members a history gone silent, pointing up the always visible occlusions in the record when the historical person was silenced. An embodied gap in the historical record, this notion of a material caesura opens the door for other ways of writing clarity, inviting in particular a response to “transparence” as the vehicle (in Oppen’s “Clarity in the sense of transparence”).
DuPlessis overwrites Oppen’s call and intervenes precisely at the question of obscurity in art, as if to say that we haven’t reached the limit of lyric work if we rest in a view of the illegible as a threat to clarity. In a poem that deploys as much redacted as unobscured text — an effort to approximate war’s syntax — DuPlessis frames the practice as lament: “Such sorrow obliterates statement.” I understand her work as exploring strategies for arriving, via a material practice, at that caesura of revolt named by Lacoue-Labarthe in the epigraph above: a critical space of “exit[ing] art within art,” a space of mourning-as-resistance. Her redactive gestures eventually disfigure rhetoric and exit discourse — so to give it a start.
Notes and redactions: Describing some edges
The lengthy notes accompanying most sections of Drafts perform a rigorous transparency regarding the source materials and engagements that went into the poem’s composition. They take up citational practice as a problem, and reading the notes as a gender-inflected gloss on the poetics of appropriation would not be far afield. But it’s also worth pointing out from the beginning (if one can begin at the beginning with Drafts — and perhaps one really shouldn’t) that occlusion is as much the modus operandi of the notes as exegesis or citation.
An early example can be found in the following elliptical note for Draft 1: “There is also a buried statement by Paul Celan.” (The statement remains buried in the note.) Much later — if reading Drafts according to the linear sequence of the y axis — a note for Draft 39 clarifies: “‘No sandpoems’ as in Draft 1, from Paul Celan.” DuPlessis has written that, from the outset of the project, she adopted Celan’s dictum for guidance in “how to write […] some austere, deliberative, materialist, awe-struck art in segmented language.” Though it might seem like minutiae to begin by parsing the notes to the poems, the delayed disclosure suggests that even the critical apparatus of the notes attempts to work out a material practice, perhaps even with an eye toward Oppen’s notion that “To write poetry is […] to control ‘the sequence of disclosure.’” That “No sandpoems” is “buried” — both in the poem and the notes for Draft 1 — is a pun that points up the material nature of the citational system at play here.
If DuPlessis’s sensibility in Drafts is shaped in part on midrash, then this occlusion itself might function as gloss. The Draft 1 note is unforthcoming, offering attribution and immediately withdrawing it. As a dictum, “No sandpoems” calls (impossibly) for work commensurate with the disasters to which it responds, but I would argue that the burial of Celan’s statement in DuPlessis’s early citation seems to further qualify his demand: no immaterial work. That is, one should strive after a commensurate work, but particularly through understanding that one’s materials are uniquely capable of registering disaster’s persistent trace, including the white ‘space’ of the page, including even a critical apparatus. Further, if the practice is material, if a material’s in play, no erasure’s ever complete. (From an ecological perspective, even our beaches can absorb a permanent mark.)
So, almost immediately, the apparatus refuses full disclosure, so to lament a historical foreclosure on so much immaterial, unremarkable detail strewn in the wake of events. As if to suggest that, in the absence of “a past become citable in all its moments,” citation buckles, or becomes at least suspect, and that, holding one’s tongue under the weight of such a messianic reevaluation of writing history, one might via occlusion produce at least a draft. Even to declare “No sandpoems,” if only as program, is beside the point, immaterial. Better simply to do it, to put it in play — to keep a material in play — as Celan does by the end of his poem. Thus, the Draft 1 note declares a burial and performs it in the same gesture, marking in the process the material residue of Celan’s work and dictum, as against (or as inseparable from) the shifting sands of ‘mere’ citation or commentary.
Before considering DuPlessis’s deployment of the literal redactions from Oppen’s FBI file as a similar kind of burial, it would be worthwhile to weigh the significance of the fact that this earlier redaction — “No sandpoems” — is her rendering of the opening line of a poem that ends: “Deepinsnow, / Eepinno, / I-i-o.” A snow burial of the word “Deepinsnow,” “I-i-o” is a “white caesura” wherein the poem concretizes its lament by disfiguring its own lexicon, muting the semantic content but also foregrounding a sonic value (virtually illegible noise). DuPlessis has explored a similar becoming-silent in Oppen through a reading of Adorno: “As close as one gets to ‘stopping’ writing (something Oppen, of course, did, a silence generated and supported variously, a sociocultural act), that temptation and its complex overcoming ‘expresses negatively’ (in Adorno’s terms) ‘the impulse that animates committed literature.’” Redaction is a material trace of that impulse where, in an attempt to ‘write’ silence, the poem must somehow move to render it legible.
In fact, at stake in the entire line of 1 (thus far) is a test of reiterated silence that deploys multiple, simultaneous silences or silencings. And this is in some ways where DuPlessis’s response to Oppen’s call for clarity really takes shape: as opposed to a “transparent” or quiet silence, here is a poly-vocal arrangement of silence, where the trace, the evanescent, the redacted are “[called] to account,” even in muteness and occlusion. Here is a noisier clarity that picks up its own station at the same time as it lets in the static ghosts of other channels, previous broadcasts. This clarity “Will verb; will Verb verb” — will silence silence:
Silence, silence, silence
was, this was, the implicit subject was
The lines from Draft 1 above gloss Oppen’s “Clarity in the sense of silence” and announce a concurrent direction for thinking through what constitutes the immaterial in the lyric: many silences (many different silencings) must be in play simultaneously, must be recognized, named, performed, reiterated. This is integral to the methodology of Drafts and bound up in the notion of the written draft as the organizing principle. The provisional nature of drafting is adopted as a compositional strategy, so that the project offers itself as a critique of the monumental work’s authority. But redaction further qualifies the methodology, since the draft is exactly where “the page would go black from overprinting,” where excess would be separated from essence and rendered mute. In DuPlessis’s work, however, the draft doesn’t generate refuse along a trajectory towards an ideal form (the clear, the monumental) — but instead activates a gendered space of the lyric that contests Pound’s principle of condensare as little more than ‘trimming the fat’ (a friend calls this a demand for the “anorexic lyric”).
As much as Oppen, then, it seems Beverly Dahlen’s on the other end of the line in Drafts, since the question of what’s beside the point or immaterial is exactly the point. DuPlessis writes of her early “desire for poetry so great that it [stops] poetry, and [her] inchoate quarrel with gender narratives in the lyric.” To reiterate, she writes of being driven by both pursuits at once. In Dahlen’s work, DuPlessis locates this other model for tracing a political edge of material practice: “Dahlen’s A Reading is an articulation between lyric (the force moving) and documentary (record without judgment). And something else, this palimpsest where language (and thus social registers and discourses) constantly overwrites and whispers the otherness of half-seen, shadowy words. An ‘it,’ a space half-entered.” As a methodology, “it” is thus a kind of redaction that shatters “the binary distinction between text and space” to create a poetry of “voided markings, marked void.”
This reading of Dahlen’s work is useful in situating redaction as close as possible to a part of speech (and thus, to legibility), if only to clarify the difficulty of establishing it as a linguistic act. If it can occupy a legible space in a lexicon, it must do so pronominally, for the closest it comes to articulation is the “space half-entered” that DuPlessis finds in Dahlen’s “it.” The line of 1 extends a consideration of “it,” a pronominal thread announced in the subtitles to the Drafts in that line (“It,” “Incipit,” “Split,” “In Situ,” and “Pitch Content”) — and contains as well a Draft dedicated to Dahlen herself (Draft 39). So “it” (the line of 1) calls on a community, positioning Drafts in proximity to other projects — specifically a feminist intervention in the long poem — and, like Dahlen in DuPlessis’s reading, “it” does so as a means of “preparing in the most banal way to say everything possible.”
I want to claim that, if we read them as lexical, the redactions in Drafts would seem to occupy the space of pronominal address, saying roughly (though they’re not speaking) “you” and “we” — perhaps also, eventually, “yiou and thwe and wey and hheer” — only, that is, if we insist on extrapolating from them a semantic content. When they make their first appearance in Draft 5, redactions are meant to approximate Oppen’s FBI file, and by the time they’re deployed in Draft 68, they’re part of a syntax of war: “As the war returns; / its syntax recurs.” So, they arrive out of a confluence of the private and the historical—figured in DuPlessis’s personal and critical relationship with Oppen (the inarticulable you of redaction as pronominal address in Draft 5) — and they “recur” as part of a question (our question) about how to wrest a writing of history from the grip of the ideologies and apparatuses that run it through.
However, even if address is there, somewhere back of the blacked out passages, it’s important to note that redaction is primarily a textual event: that, rather than capitulating to a troublesome tradition of apostrophic lyric address, DuPlessis engages the redacted text (the official document, the lyric poem) as a disaster site where historical trauma can be examined in situ. Redaction inserts the distance of textuality into even ostensibly personal poems (like Draft 5 or Draft 99, written after Robin Blaser’s death), but it also mourns the distance. Draft 5 begins in redaction, which is first figured as a behavior of the photographic record:
A man within a day
estranged in light […]
Then, in running columns of text that quickly bleed into one another — interrupting and doubling the sentences — the physical properties of redaction take on roughly the shape of a flag, but with an organic texture:
enamel a “modern” kind of minimal
mural: indelible black rectangles […]
A photo of the near dead, a flag, a “Strange […] enamel”: the funereal, corpse-like qualities of redacted texts seem to be highlighted from the outset. Confronted with such a textual corpus, one is forced to wonder, “who coded the deletions,” and to confront a reading of history as a material encounter, so that, asking such a question, one maneuvers (impossibly) to interrogate the immovable and impersonal apparatus of the state. To engage institutional redactions, the poem deploys its own, inviting some complicity with that state as it selects what can and can’t be divulged, and in what order. This strange flag threatens to collapse the machinations of poetry into those of state, since whoever “coded the deletions” controlled the sequence of disclosure. The blackouts also seem to mourn Oppen’s textual body, or mourn the passing of his physical body textually, by obliterating the present text, by taking in obliteration as a horizon, even as a textual mark or event (thus rendering it legible).
I’m tempted to read the practice through DuPlessis’s own gloss on Adorno’s claim that poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. Thinking through Adorno in “Draft 52: Midrash,” DuPlessis first revisits the visual arrest of the redacted text as matter, corpus:
“I am put in this place.”
Personal pronouns are moot. Eye only.
Poetry constructed of enormity:
mounds — of faces, limbs, shoes, rags.
Later, DuPlessis interprets Adorno’s unrelenting claim as self-disfigurement:
It is an act of mourning
to cut off
what is important to him —
poetry — 
Again, I’m tempted to see a similar self-immolation in DuPlessis’s approach to redaction, but I want to resist overemphasizing the destructive nature of that gesture (and the bodily nature of texts), since redaction is also — as in Draft 68 — a generative critical tool. In the unnumbered Draft (“Précis”), DuPlessis ‘reads’ all the poems on the front end of the project (1–57), and her complicated account there of Draft 5 — where mourning is palpable, if ‘hidden’ — bears mention here:
= Hidden elegy, the dark lines.
Blackening out of specific records.
The dark inside of unopened present (unopened parent).
Death with everything but regret left inarticulate.
A burned page. Laden ink and tar
across the heavy surface
weighted with obscurity.
The bleak inside of transport.
Dread of the future packed in convoy.
Small recoveries within effacement.
Train across the dark, beclouded country.
Night sky in which some milky lights
are sometimes evident but sometimes
whited out by haze of powerful cities.
Folded into a working definition of redaction in this gloss are the following: redaction as the inside (of present, of parent, of transport), as death itself or the inarticulate, as “a burned page,” as “ink and tar,” as “dread of the future,” as night. What’s more, any words visible in the midst of redaction are devastatingly described as “Small recoveries within effacement,” a sentence that threatens blithely to level all of Drafts. A few lines prior, this assessment of what remains is literally a death sentence: “Death with everything but regret left inarticulate.” So, almost all of Drafts gets despairingly reduced to a series of small recoveries or to little more than articulated regret. Only a handful of the poems thus far contain redacted text (Drafts 5, 52, 68, 87, and 99), and of these, only 5, 68, and 99 make extensive use of redaction. But the concerns bodied forth in that practice are pervasive, and precedents abound in DuPlessis’s long poem.
In some fundamental way, we must look at redaction, confront it visually (as “Poetry constructed of enormity”), and as such it interrupts a reading, but the visual or plastic edge of Drafts is everywhere in evidence. To my mind, there are two important contexts for understanding redaction as a visual practice in Drafts: first, there are the written characters, scrawl, and drawings of Drafts (in 1, 6, 7, 23, and 73). These figures take up Pound’s ideograms, reminding us of the direct engagement with his Cantos in these poems, but the black boxes in Draft 5 also gesture towards the visual arts, finding a specific corollary in, for example, Anselm Kiefer’s black books. DuPlessis has described the poem’s methodology as collage: “this work pressed / down unfinished overwritten refolded.” In the collage poem “Draft 94: Mail Art,” the visual gains a striking primacy, and the arrival of an entire book of The Collage Poems of Drafts suggests that much more work will need to be done to understand this late exit — from within the poem — to another medium entirely. I’ll return to this shortly, though a full treatment will be beyond the scope of the present essay.
Equally important in contextualizing redaction as prosody is the preponderance of abbreviation and contraction in Drafts. DuPlessis makes use of standard abbreviation and grammatical contraction, but as often she torques both practices, so that, for example, “memory” becomes “m-m-ry” and “power” becomes first “pwer,” and then “pwr.” Rather than a proper grammatical contraction, what gets occluded in “Did not yet strike with full intent” refracts and doubles: “Dd nt, or strk.” Then, somewhere between abbreviation and strikethrough, there’s “No writing. Nothing there but / – – lessness,” and in tandem with the first appearance of redaction in Draft 5, there’s also “‘J–w.’” These are only a few illustrations, but the gesture’s pervasive. In exploring strategies for thwarting standard grammatical contraction, DuPlessis situates syntax itself as a site of the trace, a concept so central to her project that it’s treated at length in the longest Draft (number 87, “Trace Elements”).
I would argue that what we read in DuPlessis’s use of redaction isn’t the disappeared but the contracted, the still visible illegible. Though it contains no literal redaction, Draft 85 is written over Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous”—section for section—and in it DuPlessis offers a direct account of redaction as prosody: “If I were to say all this, all at the same time / The way it’s felt, / The page would go black from overprinting, / An unreadable un-negotiable plenitude.” In Draft 99, redaction is (again) illegible excess: “This marks the urge to put everything in. This is it / XXXXXXXXXXXX.” In fact, Drafts often approaches just this type of contraction, where an overabundance of text begins to crowd into the page, and frequently the poem works its own margin, incorporating marginal annotation (as in Draft 68) as well as multiple running columns of text (as in Draft 66). So that we might see the literal redactions as part of the apparatus, an extension of these other formal features — as the resolution of, for example, the ‘stacked’ textual variants in a poem like Draft 2, where the leading (the space between lines of text) drops out to propose “hurl,” “hole,” and “hurt” as simultaneously completing the phrase, “for I am afraid to [ ____ ] it too much.” As a resolution, then, we might say that redaction doesn’t choose among alternatives. It occludes, but does so by way of excess, by including everything “all at the same time.”
And this contraction-redaction may be the only way to gloss a poem that’s already been so thoroughly glossed: Draft 49 includes both “Turns” and a reading of “Turns” (“Turns: An Interpretation”), and the unnumbered Draft also circles back on 49. Though the system of donations in Drafts often behaves a bit like annotation, the direct treatment of 49 (in the addendum to 49 and in “Unnumbered: Précis”) is perhaps unprecedented in this poem. It makes sense, then, that the next Draft after 49 in the line of 11 is riddled with blacked out passages, having arrived at a contracted view of so much gloss. Redaction might be the most literal embodiment of what’s happening in the incessant donations of Drafts: one might imagine that the poem, were it to continue on indefinitely, would eventually resolve into a sequence of black monoliths. The exit to the visual arts late in the poem begins to make a new kind of sense, inasmuch as it’s a palpable way to read the poem anew — by plasticizing it, cutting it off from poetry.
“Draft 68: Threshold” — the third ‘take’ on “Turns” — is a contraction of “Turns.” As Ron Silliman has usefully noted, in Draft 49, “what gets effaced is nothing less than the role & contribution of women.” This, Silliman posits, is due to the formal modeling of 49: while the engagement with Zukofsky’s “Mantis” and “Mantis: An Interpretation” is voiced in DuPlessis’s title, the poem’s nod to Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette remains unvoiced outside of the notes to the poem, since the debt to Notley is primarily legible in the form of the frequent use of caesura, which remains (roughly) silent. This silencing, this occlusion, is part of the poem’s great elegy, yet here again in “Turns,” caesura performs such radical effacement by approaching the material.
It’s important to bear in mind that “Turns” and “Threshold” are on the same itinerary, since the former explores — explicitly, at length — a contested relationship to feminisms that the latter virtually buries. But the everything-in redaction of 68 isn’t unvoiced; it instead becomes a wail of many silencings. The deep lament of “Turns” resurfaces immediately in “Threshold” — “This what you wanted / When you said you wanted ‘more’?” — only to be occluded by the blackouts, cut short in comparison to how it’s sustained in “Turns.” Redaction here is sorrow heaped on itself: “Such sorrow obliterates statement.”
Thus obliterated, statement itself takes shape, becoming object:
The page is slowly turning black
XXX words XXXXXXXXXX XXX.
And reading, drafting, critique, poetics, historiography — the central pursuits of Drafts, all variously strategies for “slowly turning black […] words” — resolve into simultaneously funereal and activist gestures. The threshold is a threshold of touching:
To get anywhere, to resist complicity,
XXXXXXXXXXXX how to touch
XXXXXXXXXXXXXX long and wide XXXXXXX
longer and wider, wilder, meaner and more bereft
XXXXX haunted. XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
So, not the question of how to mourn touch (as aporia), and not how not to touch (“resist complicity”) — but how to mourn-touch, how to say it “the way it’s felt.” This, for me, is the question at the heart of DuPlessis’s use of redaction.
A note for Draft 68 appends the following from Edouard Glissant: “It can happen that the [literary] work is not written for someone, but to dismantle the complex mechanism of frustration and the infinite forms of oppression.” The desire to find some pronominal address back of redaction might only be an effort to translate something that doesn’t need translating, since redaction as prosody already begins to come clear. As mark, as material, redaction obscures, positing an ‘other’ side to the text (as in Draft 94: “If there were holes cut in this page / (not impossible) / what would be the word groups / underneath?”). The pronoun’s its cousin, but redaction is parts (all parts) not part of speech. As syntax, it contracts, even beyond recognition. And when sound — when sounded — redaction wails.
1. Patrick Pritchett, “Clarity, or Late Modernism (A Photological Midrash),” paragraphs 11–12.
2. DuPlessis’s account of Oppen in the context of the work of Paul Celan and Walter Benjamin draws out, as a reading of clarity, his reference to “black verse,” a pun that would certainly be apropos here. See her essay “‘Uncannily in the Open’: In Light of Oppen,” in Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006).
3. DuPlessis, “Draft 68: Threshold,” in Torques: Drafts 58–76 (Cambridge: Salt, 2007), 68.
4. DuPlessis, Toll: 1–38 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 269.
5. DuPlessis, Drafts 39–57, Pledge, with Draft, unnumbered: Précis (Cambridge: Salt, 2004), 224.
6. DuPlessis, Blue Studios, 194.
8. Benjamin’s definition of “redemption” in his third thesis on the philosophy of history. Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 254.
9. Paul Celan, Glottal Stop: 101 Poems by Paul Celan, trans. Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 100.
10. DuPlessis, Blue Studios, 188.
11. DuPlessis, Torques: Drafts 58–76, 5.
14. George Oppen, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2002), 175.
15. The blacked-out passages are somewhat performative, so that we might see them as enacting drafts in Drafts. In this sense they’re similar to a strikethrough, where text remains legible in spite of being ‘crossed out.’ There may only be a handful of examples of words stricken through in Drafts, to date. In Draft 3, a bracket in the left-hand margin extends for roughly half of the poem, with a marginal note indicating that the bracketed text should be “CUT” (Toll, 19), which again might be seen as a kind of scripting. I think it would be a mistake to see redaction as no more than an instance of Drafts ‘replicating’ drafts, but the performative should not be entirely disregarded.
16. DuPlessis, Pitch: Drafts 77–95 (Cambridge: Salt, 2010), 58.
17. Ash Smith, in conversation.
18. DuPlessis, Blue Studios, 192–93, emphasis mine.
19. DuPlessis, Pink Guitar, 112.
21. Dahlen, qtd. in Pink Guitar, 115.
33. Ibid., 84. “M-m-ry” is also the title of Draft 26.
38. DuPlessis, Pitch, 58. It’s worth noting that this is the section that overwrites Oppen’s call for “transparent” clarity. I discuss Draft 85 in more detail in my review of Pitch in Jacket2.
39. DuPlessis, “Draft 99: Intransitive,” Jacket 38 (2009).
41. Ron Silliman, Silliman’s Blog. Silliman made a series of posts on the publication of Torques: Drafts 58–76 that included a discussion of Draft 68, all of which can be accessed in the archives to his blog.
43. Ibid., 68, emphasis in original.
On Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Edited by Patrick Pritchett