Imagining assemblage as maintenance

Rachel Blau DuPlessis and the 'Graphic Novella'

“[P]oetry is full of garbage, which is to say, the textual traces drawn from literature are frequently reinscribed into new formats and configurations that speak to a desire to reorganize rejectamenta.” Detail of page 27 of ‘Graphic Novella’ by Rachel Blau Duplessis.

During a discussion with M. NourbeSe Philip at the Kelly Writers House, philosopher and poet Q (Kyoo Lee) suggested that “if the problem of the twentieth century … is not to be jettisoned,” then “the problem of the twenty-first century is waste management.”[1] The scholarship of Susan Signe Morrison and Christopher Schmidt, among others, take seriously the idea of waste as a generative category of inquiry to embolden the fragment, trace, and excess in various registers of consumer capitalism, modernity, queerness, and literature.[2] So too has Jed Rasula argued that “American writing itself appears to be contingent on the reclamation of the compost library,” a claim that acknowledges the digestible, fertile aspects of American literary traditions.[3] Yet I keep circling back to Q’s provocation and its compelling understated narratives of abjection’s governance: the savage ejection of gooey residues and human beings who cling to life even as they’re aggressively pushed to the urban margins, to the sacrifice dumping zones of oceans, islands, and landfills.

I’ve noted elsewhere that poetry is full of garbage, which is to say, the textual traces drawn from literature are frequently reinscribed into new formats and configurations that speak to a desire to reorganize rejectamenta. One can read poetry in this light predominately as a form of recycling that reabsorbs what is ejected to the periphery back into public consciousness. The textual trace, gleaned from the figurative dustbin, is reincorporated into the environment of the poem. In this way, we might argue, as Patricia Yaeger has done, that waste is an “an archive or instrument of historical reinscription.”[4] Reusing both preexistent language and material discards is evident to varying degrees in Jennifer Scappettone’s The Republic of Exit 43 (2016), Caroline Bergvall’s Drift (2014), M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008), cris cheek and Kirsten Lavers’s The Millennium Collection (2000), and Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Graphic Novella (2015) and Days and Works (2017). Scholars have already noted that DuPlessis’s oeuvre is thickly rich with collage, one that writes through the Poundian tradition, particularly in her life poem Drafts.[5] We can certainly add her recent interstitial works, including Graphic Novella and Days and Works,to this mix whereby collage, seriality, and scrapbooking are foregrounded as a key aesthetic. We can also draw parallels to James Schuyler’s recycling of detritus for his “Trash Book,” which Andrew Epstein cogently argues “resonates with many other approaches to the daily that contemplate the relationship between art and garbage.” I will focus on Graphic Novella in this essay, although it suffices to say that both books make substantial use of found materials and assemblage labor practices, and both are buoyed by the rifts of language and representation, the struggle for knowability, and the limits of language to achieve it. “[L]anguage,” as DuPlessis reminds us in Graphic Novella, “is a secret maze we can barely fathom” (20).   

As the title implies, Graphic Novella warps the graphic novel genre by underscoring the visual properties of language and its infidelities to representation and perception. “Graphic” in this sense pertains less to design, the comic strip, or the diagram, and more to the constructive world making and audience building that the act of writing enables. (Think “graphic”: “Of or pertaining to writing; fit to be written on,” according to the OED. Alternatively, graphic: the descriptive, legible, and comprehensible. Graphic Novella subverts this definition to embrace the imprecision of the blotchy pencil mark, the lacunae, the intimate, and the “unidentifiable feeling”[6] that sometimes accompanies poetry.) The title is also a play on the word “novel” as “new” and “news” as well as “something fashion-able” (16). That is to say, the aesthetics of constructedness are already interrogated in the book’s title. There is no conventional narrative in this work to pin down, although I would describe it as a deliberation on the “raggedy rip,” the rough-edged aperture through which writing sheds the meanest light onto everyday life (32). Throughout, Graphic Novella amasses an assemblage of the material evidence of language: newspaper clippings, adverts, headlines, excerpts from environmental campaigns and Voter ID pamphlets, citations, scanned images of fabrics, and handwritten notes (see figure 1, for example). Information, in other words, and much of it is decontextualized.

page 27 of 'Graphic Novella'
Figure 1. Graphic Novella, 27. 

This assemblage of “raggedy-rip” writing is worth mulling over since Walter Benjamin’s analogy of the poet and ragpicker in his reading of Baudelaire’s “The Ragpicker’s Wine” immediately comes to mind. Both, as Benjamin reminds us, are “concerned with refuse, and both go about their solitary business while other citizens are sleeping; they even move in the same way.”[7]⁠ Both occupations carry risk, although playing to Benjamin’s heroic formulation here elides the substantial harm that contemporary waste pickers face on a daily basis. (Worth noting too is that “waste picker” or “reclaimer” are the preferred terms for contemporary laborers engaged in the informal recycling economy.) In countries like Brazil, Ghana, Kenya, and India waste picking is a highly dangerous livelihood with workers often navigating poor industrial regulations that leave them exposed equally to toxins from illicitly dumped hazardous goods, sexual harassment, and security firms who manage access to landfills. On June 20, 2018, seventy reclaimers living near the Genesis Landfill in Johannesburg were brutally assaulted and robbed in an eviction raid by security acting on behalf of Averda, the Dubai-based company operating the landfill. Globally, waste pickers have few protections, although a number of cooperatives and unions have organized across national lines. Currently, the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers represents some 265,089 members from Canada to South Africa, who are engaged in various aspects of the recycling industry.

I mention these details above because I don’t want to take Benjamin’s reading of Baudelaire’s ragpicker uncritically; the poet–waste picker analogy is clearly not without its issues. Sonam Singh has already cogently noted that Benjamin’s reading simplifies the cultural and historical complexities of the figure of the Parisian waste picker in favor of his own historical perspective.[8] The analogy is certainly a slippery one when applied to a Philadelphian poet-scholar, and professor emerita, from Temple University. The impacts of modernity, along with its hyperactive consumer culture, infringes unevenly on literal poets and waste pickers in the twenty-first century. Yet DuPlessis, I think, is also skeptical of such easy analogies, and I’m not convinced that assemblage is wholly a recycling aesthetic for her. Her method of composition, she writes, did not entail “scavenging interesting shapes, paper scraps, and printed matter at random.” Rather, she “kept on finding pictures of watches and cameras … I saw headlines, news stories, and made unaesthetic clippings of words”: 

These things, these “images” rarely combined. They rarely actually “collaged.” The aesthetic was in the trashbin. I ended up with the strange exemplary pictures or some very unpleasant image-details on pages. (38–39)

For DuPlessis, collage implies a cohesion of scrap. The labor involved in her production of assemblage isn’t one of salvage. Rather she reproduces the messy ugliness of material culture fostered by an economy of consumption. In a nutshell: “What the author thought she wanted and what happened are so disparate as to constitute a ‘case’” (38). Desire and actuality don’t always overlap. In the real world, the waste picker finds something of promise to return it to the economy of value. DuPlessis finds nothing of value in her materials but the ugly repetition of material cultures. In the process, she makes “poor art … from detritus of convention” (40). Where recycling implies a potential for remaking, DuPlessis invites us, as readers, to witness the breakages rather than the cohesions of polished writing (or beautifying writing, for that matter).

The logic that drives Graphic Novella is then not one of renovating or reuse of found materials but one of finding illegible leftovers when modernity has been stripped away. “Just drop the modern,” DuPlessis writes,

drop the novel,
drop the poetry.
What’s left?

THIS. (67)

What are we exactly left with when mass media, consumer, and literary cultures are broken down? The answer, for DuPlessis, is “THIS”: the quotidian matter in Graphic Novella that “calls attention to constructedness” of the material world (37). The “modern” arguably refers to the cultural logic that systematically overvalues innovation and renovation, vis-à-vis Ezra Pound’s dictum “Make it new.” That is to say: make it novel. Renovate.

The problem with innovation (or renovation) is that it requires constant updating. Planned obsolescence demands new products, new shiny gadgets to meet consumer demand. Today’s innovative poetry must continuously supplant yesterday’s. Innovation must constantly produce and reproduce itself in order to stay innovative. Throughout Graphic Novella, the “new” is suspect for it implies a “whole” that elides the particularities of the displaced. “What is the new,” DuPlessis writes, 

has long been the question, and “how to make it.” But really, who now is satisfied by a category called “the New”? As such, it is a fake, if perpetually as it offers the happy pleasures of being top of things. (26)

Arguably for DuPlessis, the “new” paradoxically begets an unsatisfactory sameness. To put it bluntly, then, there is no renovation in Graphic Novella or the desire to make anything novel. “I cut things shabbily,” DuPlessis writes, “trusting chance” (40). Hers is a practice of haphazard, unprogrammatic making from decontextualized scraps of material language, one that seeks to find difference in the sameness of material culture. This is why perhaps DuPlessis rewrites by hand a newspaper clipping on the epidemic of PTSD among American veterans (figure 2). The reader is left with more information from the handwritten copy than the newspaper clipping itself. This isn’t mere repetition. Rather, the resultant assemblage draws attention to the poet’s hand, the affective intimacy it produces when in the act of writing. The similarities between the handwritten “a” and “o” foster the possibility of misreading. DuPlessis produces difference when she further errs in her transcription. In short, she intervenes in the production of the “novel” by drawing attention to her labor.

This leads me to the question as to how we might describe DuPlessis’s assemblages in Graphic Novella. If she is not renovating, what is she doing? If innovation and renovation are the engines of modernity, maintenance intervenes in the politics of the perpetual novel. As Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsell point out: 

Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.[9]

I won’t rehearse their entire argument here but in brief, maintenance — not innovation — keeps the world moving. Maintenance is the domain of the quotidian, vital for the persistence of life in both domestic and public spaces, and it often falls outside the farthest point of visibility. The maintainer cleans, clutters and declutters, thrifts, scrubs, fixes, pastes, cuts up, mops, prunes, sweeps, tinkers, tears down, builds up — but not necessarily to make something better. These actions are difficult to fully articulate, partly because they are generally mundane, significantly gendered, and the scales of their pleasure are often uneven and chaffing. For Russell and Vinsell, maintenance is the continuity of “stuff” before it becomes obsolete.

A poetic practice based on assemblage and amalgamation is a vehicle for feminist labor that draws its critical energy not from the innovator or genius, who values the novel or the new, but rather the maintainer and her practices of sustaining the world at large. I want to avoid the danger of falling into proscriptive and gendered binaries here — read: genius/male, maintainer/female. Yet I also want to acknowledge the different social logics of value at play when we attend to “innovative” poetry.

page 87 from 'Graphic Novella' 
Figure 2. Graphic Novella, 87. 

In other words, we look for the extremes of innovation without realizing it’s in the everyday feminist aesthetics that maintains rather than innovates/renovates. And maintenance is about keeping things, ideas, and people in circulation. It requires a sensitivity to our perceptions of everyday life, which we frequently ignore. Take figure 3, for example. “Window with a dirty screen,” writes DuPlessis. “Lists of things to do.” At the top of the page, a partially legible scribble, ready for misreading: “So many weep for the work to happen unless you get tired.” At the bottom, a citation: “‘Faith in the miracle of the middle structure’ / Grenier” (41). This kind of pithy assemblage hones on and slows down world-building in favor of bringing to the surface the process, not outcomes, of art production. Andrew Epstein has argued that contemporary poetry is a culturally responsive form that has emerged “as a vehicle for attentiveness to everyday life.”[10] In this case, I would certainly argue that DuPlessis writes in her process of making to render it legible for her reader: “I cited things, like from Grenier, / then crumbled them, then / flattened them out,” DuPlessis writes, “Not looking for a lot of ‘results’” (40). Outcomes, of course, elide the labor involved in art production. In figure 3, the scribbled notes, the citation, and the lists of what she or her character observes foreground a process of assembling together the details of daily life.

All this is to say, DuPlessis invokes a strategic tradition of feminist practices like those of Emily Dickinson, who incorporates the economies of domestic thrift. DuPlessis perhaps hints of this connection in figure 4 with an unidentifiable fragment of paper and a marked postage stamp, which recall for me Dickinson’s writing on envelopes. Jen Bervin has already noted the reinscription of domestic thrift in the nineteenth-century poet’s fondness for the material discard, whereby “Dickinson’s envelope writings convey a sense of New England thrift and her relationship to the larger household economy of paper.”[11] It’s also worth remembering the opening sentence of Lydia Maria Child’s The Frugal Housewife, a book which the Dickinson household owned: “The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing is lost. I mean fragments of time and as well as materials.”[12]

page 41 of 'Graphic Novella'
Figure 3. Graphic Novella, 41.
                     page 111 of 'Graphic Novella'
Figure 4. Graphic Novella, 111. 

DuPlessis’s assemblages underscore this “gathering up of all the fragments.” In thinking about her work as a visible form of maintenance, as well as innovative, I also draw on Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s art and writings, and in particular, her Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969! The manifesto underscores the role of maintenance work across private and public spaces and problematizes the boundaries between work and artwork. Ukeles deftly stages the distinctions between avant-garde art and the everyday, only to break these down:

The Death Instinct: separation; individuality; Avant-Garde par excellence; to follow one’s own path to death — do your own thing; dynamic change.

The Life Instinct: unification; the eternal return; the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species; survival systems and operations; equilibrium.


Avant-garde art, which claims utter development, is infected by strains of maintenance ideas, maintenance activities, and maintenance materials. Conceptual & Process art, especially, claim pure development and change, yet employ almost purely maintenance processes.[13]

Ukeles’s maintenance art asks us to confront the lack of value (or the different values) we place on quotidian activities of sustainability, while acknowledging that the daily is not antithetical to the avant-garde or its pursuit of development and individuality. Important to her thinking is the value of the process, whether it involves daily maintenance or art production. And like Ukeles, DuPlessis, I believe, breaks down these distinctions between labor, between the production of art and its consumption, as well as the daily activities of simply making stuff. Cultural preference for the finished object, however, elides the production involved in its creation. “Both the labor that produces the object / and the waste from its production and consumption,” DuPlessis writes, “are suppressed / except in the nausea of the drowning discard” (20). Assemblage in this light is a critical mode through which process is made visible.

I began this essay with Q’s statement at the Kelly Writers House: if waste is the problem of the twentieth century, waste management is the twenty-first’s. To push this statement further, I wonder if we might take seriously the role of maintenance labor in twenty-first century literature. My point is this: I propose that we might consider Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s assemblages in light of their labor and strategic amalgamations of visual and textual fragments. Here, artwork and work simultaneously bleed into each zone of labor. To this end, I wonder if we can also formulate another set of questions as we approach a poet’s work. How did housework interrupt their labor? Did they mop their floors after they added a title or scrub the toilet in between their verses? In other words, how does maintenance labor leak into writing, and become writing? How does art work and work shape the everyday life? This may be a question that resonates for DuPlessis as well: “When to do the work of understanding and repairing?” she asks. “Is there time?” (102)

1. I want to thank the cohort of the 2017–18 Wolf Humanities Forum on Afterlives for shaping the ideas presented in this essay. Thanks also to Divya Victor for her editorial suggestions. Any queries or suggestions to this paper, email

2. See for example Susan Signe Morrison, The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter (New York: Palgrave, 2015); Christopher Schmidt, The Poetics of Waste: Queer Excess in Stein, Ashbery, Schuyler, and Goldsmith (New York: Palgrave, 2014); and Jani Scandura, Down in the Dumps: Place, Modernity, American Depression (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

3. Jed Rasula, This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2002), 16.

4. Patricia Yaeger, “Trash as Archive: Trash as Enlightenment,” in Culture and Waste: The Creation and Destruction of Value, ed. G. Hawkins and S. Muecke (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), 109.

5. For example, see Jeanne Heuving, “An Interview with Rachel Blau DuPlessis,” Contemporary Literature 45, no. 3 (2004): 397–420; Paul Jaussen, “The Poetics of Midrash in Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts,” Contemporary Literature 53, no. 1 (2012): 114–42; and Joshua Schuster, “Jewish Counterfactualism in Recent American Poetry,” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 27, no. 3 (2009): 52–71.

6. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Graphic Novella (West Lima, WI: Xexoxial Editions, 2015), 96.

7. Walter Benjamin, “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” in Selected Writings Volume 4, 19381940, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2006), 48.

8. Sonam Singh, “Baudelaire without Benjamin: Contingency, History, Modernity,” Comparative Literature 64, no. 4 (2012): 407–28. Accordingly, Ross Chambers offers a cogent reading into the sociopolitical contexts of Baudelaire’s ragpicker: Ross Chambers, “Recycling the Ragpicker: ‘Le Vin du Chiffonniers,’” in Understanding Les Fleurs Du Mal: Critical Readings, ed. William J. Thompson (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1997), 176–92.

9. Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel, “Hail the maintainers,” Aeon, April 7, 2016.

10. Andrew Epstein, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press), 19.

11. Jen Bervin, introduction to The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, ed. Marta Werner and Jen Bervin (New York: Christine Burgin/New Directions, 2013), 9.

12. Lydia Maria Child, qtd. by Bervin in Gorgeous Nothings, 9.

13. I am indebted to James English for alerting me to Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s work.