On 'Pitch,' with special reference to 'Hard Copy'
Reading Pitch: Drafts 77–95, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s really possible to traverse Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts project straight through. The way each Draft activates so many inter-texts (within the project & without) seems to suggest that the linear sequence of these poems isn’t the overriding trajectory here, even if we have been reading that axis — those of us following the journal publications of Drafts — following along (if not systematically, at least historically, in roughly chronological order), witnessing the project build to a pitch, as it were, to a critical mass.
Led by either axis of the donor grid, my reading of Drafts usually involves a major physical pileup of texts, including (now) all four books of Drafts, as well as any number of supplemental volumes. But the arrival of Pitch has me tracing another concern, reading poems like “Draft 85: Hard Copy” as also contained, autonomous. So that I’m beginning to approach each separate Draft as a kind of co-incidental text: sharing incident (inciting and incited) but also, in certain cases, strikingly divergent from the organizing principles of donation and sequencing.
For one thing, Pitch announces a plastic edge of the project thus far undocumented by any of the book publications, though not without precedent in Drafts’ use of ideogram and redaction. The excerpt from “Draft 94: Mail Art” (first published in Jacket 37, with a volume of The Collage Poems of Drafts now out from Salt) features black and white scans of DuPlessis’s own collages, offering an exciting navigational supplement to the donor grid. And even without jumping to entirely different media, certain poems here gesture towards a monumentality that I have to read as running concurrent, as a framework, with that grid. Though DuPlessis has plotted each numbered poem on a trajectory — the x and y axes — in Pitch, two long poems comprise almost half of the book (Drafts 85 and 87). Of course, if there is a move towards the monumental in certain poems here, poems like “Draft 93: Romantic Fragment Poem” are becoming minor, reminding us that the fragment or the ruin might be as reliable an index as any for a reading of Drafts.
To get a better sense of one of the un-indexed momentums of Drafts, I’d like here to treat Draft 85 almost exclusively, hoping that even in the context of a review such a narrow focus will be useful, and that, further, it will be clear that the pleasure of reading DuPlessis’s work by reading it through to other texts and contexts isn’t in “getting” the references, but rather in being swept up in a poetics of historical critique. DuPlessis is one of our great literary historians, and the poems in Pitch only further solidify that position.
Written over Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous” — section by section — Draft 85 has so troubled my sense that even two axes are not sufficient scaffolding by which to “map” (so as to traverse) these Drafts that I find myself completely preoccupied. A point of departure, then, from “Draft 85: Hard Copy,” for a (one) reading, in the form of a few lines that might seem — out of context — more ruin than monument: “There is at once too much / and too little / for getting the force of it, the rebuff” (59).
Draft 85 isn’t on the line of 11, yet it borrows the above from a poem on that line, “Draft 49: Turns and Turns, an Interpretation”: “I am not getting the force of it in, // the rebuff, the clarity, in.” This inter-text, not indexed by the donor grid, adds an Objectivist nexus (to borrow a title) to the scaffoldings already articulated in DuPlessis’s grid of Drafts, inasmuch as it sends us to another Draft written over a “major” Objectivist work: Zukofsky’s “Mantis” and “‘Mantis’: an Interpretation.” Certainly something different is at stake for DuPlessis in overwriting Zukofsky, and we might even say that 49 more willingly turns from, even elides, the text and author on which it is modeled. But it would be important to note that, in sending us back to Draft 49, Draft 85 has also drawn a relation to one of DuPlessis’s most complicated assessments of feminist activisms. The “it” that proves so difficult to account for in the shared lines above is (in Draft 49) the ability to articulate an engagement with feminism that is at once contested and sincere: “I was angry at my sister; who is my sister we enter a dark chamber” (112).
And though the repetition of text from a previous Draft might constitute a donation akin to those indexed by the donor grid, both 49 and 85 are what I would call “major” Drafts, though they’re not alone, in my reading. I’m fully aware that I’m overstepping here to claim “majorness” for a project that so persistently politicizes (even dismantles) that notion. I also risk the (major) misstep of advancing as “major” only those Drafts mapped on the concerns of DuPlessis’s male predecessors. It would be worth clarifying, then, that 49 and 85 stand out as major precisely because of the directness with which these Drafts politicize authorship and perform a sustained feminist historiography, both of which I take to be central concerns of this project.
Readers might note with curiosity the absence of “clarity” among the concerns enumerated in the text borrowed from 49, once it resurfaces in 85 (the Oppen Draft). More on this.
“Hard Copy”: the title names both a lyric impulse (written “on” Oppen, that the address was difficult) and a documentary one (the poem takes up the Iraq War, but also torques the discourse of documentary poetics by viewing the problematics of authorial distance through the lens of gender). The title also locates something in the way of accounting for the entire project of Drafts, since the donor grid, while suggesting “pitch content” like a pitch set in musical set theory, does not describe a strictly procedural work, but a series of donations that are, rather, hard won, emergent.
The poem is a calling-back; an exegesis; a midrash; a critique; a modeling; a theft (or a take-back, in the case of the reappropriation of lines Oppen once borrowed from DuPlessis); a lament; a redaction (or not); a numerousness (in Duncan’s sense of the unoriginal poet, H.D.’s palimpsest); a touch (a mourn-touch); an update; a screen or projection from this side of the twentieth century; “what is under the surface / trying to come to light” (Pitch, 42); the (everyday) impenetrable (42–43); or graffiti; even translation; an ambivalently monumental in memoriam (44); a binding — in hard copy — of “us to the damage” (45); an “annunciation” of “states” (“of being (numerous)”) (46); a “joy” (here) “riven / with revulsion” (48) at optimism in the face of the present world; a “recurrence” (48); an “improvement” (48 — see the take-back).
As in the epigraph from Celan’s “Meridian” speech, “The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author stays with it” (42).
Plays on copying abound in 85, so that I have difficulty not reading passages ostensibly “about” other things as doublings into an exploration of the proprietary side of artistic production. As a gender-inflected question of authorship, whether to “copy” might be why this copying’s “hard.” But then again,
What is the point of pure revulsion? I am beginning
to be very simple, to have very simple thoughts, no
complicated language, therefore; nothing
too subtle. (44)
“Pure revulsion,” read as a demeanor of authorship, is a question of copying, of singularity, even difference, indifference. As if to ask, what is the point of work so singular that it seems abstracted from any context? Or even, as a critical position, what is the point of response so separate, so revolted by, that it moves towards a like abstraction? So the poem turns to a direct reading of Oppen, as an answer to or an extension of the question as to “the point of pure revulsion”:
It’s a question of “among”
shatter of the reflection
“to see them”
and “to know ourselves.” (44)
A question of “among.” So then, here’s reading as reading company, writing as writing company. But lest that formulation sound too accessible, too utopian, here, too, is reading and writing company as impossibly mediated by nation, difference:
The problem is to articulate
any promise of the civic,
without this glint of the apocalyptic. (46)
DuPlessis’s rendering of the treacherous position of writing “among” wars reads like an elided history of women war writers: Sitwell, H.D., an unnamed female correspondent in Iraq, DuPlessis herself (52–53). That this list overwrites Oppen’s firsthand account of a war seems to suggest that history is best written by a chorus of accounts, and that further, listening to (rather than looking at or “seeing”) who/what one lives among is preferable, as a methodology. Thus, to “shatter” the reflective in Oppen’s original formulation (“There are things / We live among and ‘to see them / Is to know ourselves’”) is also to redouble an effort to acknowledge a multiplicity of historians of war, to sanction alternate histories, alternate ways of knowing.
Reading back, “to articulate” is (also) “the problem.” Hard ^to^ copy (these contemporary disasters, into text — hard to justify the cost, hard to do the copying):
A sense of desperate outrage
anneals the onlookers
onto the very page
on which these words are put
as fetish substitute for the directness
of rubble. (Pitch, 49)
Still, the poem persistently recovers from despair and advocates against indifference in relation to writing (as, among) disaster:
And the nice life? The poetic vista?
Coziness and connection?
There is no elsewhere.
Even the poem is not elsewhere. (57)
In a “Hard Copy” distance is key, so not distance: there’s no elsewhere, but because of that fact, here’s an elsewhere (i.e. not abstracted from a larger network of sites and contexts, never only here). At a certain point, copying’s no longer the question. In Drafts, all context is co-incidental, inter-(con)textual, as in “Draft 87: Trace Elements”:
This may have happened more than once
and more than here. OOOOOOOOOOOI (90)
What humbles me about DuPlessis’s treatment of Oppen’s person and work in this poem (as throughout Drafts) is that the work of mourning a friend and mentor and the work of engaging a politics of authorship are followed out in tandem. Followed out as not mutually exclusive, if not exactly symbiotic, endeavors — in generative proximity.
Say you are neither disloyal nor pilferer.
And sit tight on the icons and rocks of meaning
gathered from the paternal household,
the talismanic counterfoils, even
the fewest and smallest
from the fierce storehouses of articulation
You will remake these goods in your own blood. (63)
How to convey the intimacy of this trespass-as-mourning? If Draft 85 performs a take-back, first there was the taken — this, in “Of Being Numerous”:
‘Whether, as the intensity of seeing increases, one’s distance
from Them, the people, does not also increase’
Again, “distance” is key (in mourning, in discourse, in writing company). The donor grid of Drafts proceeds by repurposing text from previous “donor” Drafts. However, in writing on/over Oppen’s poem, Draft 85 repossesses (variously) the above lines that Oppen borrowed from a 1965 letter from DuPlessis.
As a result, a tradition of inter-textuality is here figured as “not elsewhere” from the pilfering of Iraq: “There is some distance from this to be negotiated / But only if you’re fairly lucky” (Pitch, 52). The reference to “a Pitcher’s duel” doubles as both a characterization of the American occupation of Iraq (as zero-sum), and of the situation of tribute, influence, quotation. Further, that “there is some distance from this to be negotiated” sends us back to Oppen’s consideration of the lines borrowed from DuPlessis, his thinking-through of ‘distance’ throughout “Of Being Numerous.”
It’s amazing to me that 85 would take this turn, would arrive at this confluence — in the notion of “a Pitcher’s duel” — of DuPlessis’s thinking about the war and her thinking about authorship. There is no elsewhere — the two lines of thought collide, or cohabit, in this fact.
Walking up and down in it /
walking to and fro in it (60)
I would say that a review would be no place to try and sustain a reading of that collision or cohabitation, but the truth is that even in an extended form — a book, say — Drafts overburdens a reading. We need volumes on Drafts. I understand this critical mass as a field poetics, not so much in terms of a projective relationship to the page, but rather a directional relationship to making meaning. Allusion of course sends us elsewhere, but Drafts presents itself as a text that’s elsewhere, a multidimensional, multi-locational work that must be wandered through.
For a long way around, it might be useful even in a review to compare the sections in Draft 85 to their counterparts in “Of Being Numerous.” For example, section 22 of Oppen’s poem (his call for “Clarity / in the sense of transparence”) here becomes:
If I were to say all this, all at the same time
The way it’s felt,
The page would go black from overprinting. (Pitch, 58)
I read the above as a gloss on DuPlessis’s own use of redaction elsewhere in Drafts (in 87 and 94 of Pitch, for instance). We’re told in the note to Draft 5, that the redactions “are intended to suggest the FBI files of George Oppen.” So that a page gone “black from overprinting” mourns Oppen’s textual body, while extending, elaborating, correcting, and engaging this notion of clarity as silent or transparent. DuPlessis has written quite candidly of being unable to get on board with Oppen’s push for linguistic transparency: “This is because the non-transparency, the historical density of words is more vital to my practice as a poet.” In Pitch, “Draft XC: Excess” tells us that
Excess is the lexicon.
The fullness of the word
refuses to forget. (131)
And then back in Draft 85,
Were I to cry out
full as a symphony, but in a littler space,
this intensity of conviction, this witnessing,
would emphatically signal
unfinished business. (64–65)
The poem returns here to the question regarding “the intensity of seeing” and of making a “clear” account, while motioning to the “unfinished business” both of mourning and of confronting the disasters of gender in a war zone, in writing histories of wars. For a sustained consideration of these concerns in prose, readers can consult DuPlessis’s contribution to the recent volume, Thinking Poetics: Essays on George Oppen — but here again we’re off to a supplemental text!
Which is to say that the poem risks clarity, risks every misreading, like the double basses in the description of a symphony in section 25:
suddenly left alone,
impossibly mournful … (60)
The double basses are thus cousins to “the poem” itself in the Celan epigraph — lonely and en route. The poem here posits a radical simultaneity between the singularity of the present work and its indebtedness to that which incites it, pointing up its distance from the text on which it’s shaped and letting out a wail to mourn the distance. DuPlessis’s relationship to Oppen comes to seem both central to her own work, and yet at once incidental, flanked by, overshadowed by other relationships, contexts, and concerns. Response of this magnitude leaves the poem “alone” and “impossibly exposed” where reducible to tribute, because (if thus reduced) the poem risks being construed as “elsewhere” in relation to concerns vital for DuPlessis that seem to cross Oppen’s only marginally (like feminist histories and women’s responses to war in particular). Or the poem is “impossibly exposed” where critique threatens to drown out mourning.
Of course, the poem isn’t thus reducible, but it risks this misreading out of a refusal to mute the multiplicity of threads given voice in 85, the push to say everything “all at the same time, / the way it’s felt.” In writing on/over “Of Being Numerous,” this multivocal page goes “black from overprinting.”
It’s difficult now to speak of poetry —
It’s hard for me to talk about poetry.
So it becomes clear that wandering through a “Hard Copy” is a treacherous maneuver, even with the donor grid as map, and I think the poem’s aware of this, given the roads, signposts, and signage throughout, which paths lead back through Draft 49, not incidentally; 49 begins:
I was walking through woods spring-strewn green sodden
to follow a spry, disabled woman. It’s clear from the tone
a dream of climbing backward on a trestle over stressed woods.
History and class turn up in films as smudges on, basically, clothing
but gender appears in the tinkle of mannerist sincerity & depression.
I am inside a dream without cinematic protection. Intricate, ambivalent
walking or taking a train was it dark coach bridge-work
leaving another life behind, the tunnel the selved-city too much
geography too many sites […]. (Pledge, 111)
Drafts 49 and 85 chart the dislocation of finding oneself in the midst of a motion but without a clear sense of the motor that moves you: “walking or taking a train was it.” I read this dislocation as shared, as characteristic of both the writing and the reading of Drafts: the problem of determining “What is important and what is not / in a real place filled with signs” (Pitch, 65). An obstructed view — whether one seeks a forward motion or not, whether outward or further in — is palpable:
But trying to act
on this murky path,
overcast wet air, headlines thrown
keeps demanding other knowledge. (68–69)
And if the paths are difficult, then there are the poem’s obstinate doors:
Open the door
says a weeper
to a stone room,
do not take the path
of the indifferent. (47)
Lack of a door labeled “door.”
And then the lack was a door. (71)
This last couplet might be a way of figuring Drafts as a field: no single, clear entry, and that lack becomes the way in. So even doors aren’t definitive guides, and in terms of entry points for a reading of Pitch, we might even say “no doors” is decidedly not the problem, but Draft 85 already anticipates this: “I want polyphony / I want excess” (53, emphasis mine). That desire, announced in the very name of DuPlessis’s long poem and performed in the doubling donations of the donor grid, is in part a feminist response to an inheritance from Pound that would have us see excision as the primary inroad to clarity.
Read in the context of a feminist historiography, the couplet above might also suggest that certain impasses become answers for critics and activists, or at least suggest a provisional course of action: that the fact of “no door” provided some direction forward in that movement, some measure of clarity amid “historical density.” In Draft 49, the lack of a door is a wall:
Thus we found another side to the “wall,” a space breathtaking of the “we.”
Palpable, it appeared. “We take the woman’s side in everything.”
Throws of chance in all revolution enlarge intensities of claim.
In the throes. (Pledge, 112)
As “throws” opens onto “throes” (a pitcher’s duel?), DuPlessis reiterates the provisional nature of doors, of movement — one moves towards action and ends up in thrall. And it bears repeating:
Each single word, each labile letter
opens a mini-world
from particular presence and long implication.
Then they and we, you and I, he, she, and it,
reflect and refract
infinitudes of twirls and networks. (Pitch, 5)
Thus Pitch posits another, a noisier clarity, whose clatter here reaches its apex in the percussive experiment of “Draft 78: Buzz Track” (from which, the above). Part of the work of this project is to insist on polyphonic contexts for reading, to refuse to abandon context on the road to clarity. The “Buzz Track” clarifies:
yiou and thwe and wey and hheer
emerge on the pronoun grid
as what we always knew but never before said. (7)
The pronominal play of Draft 78 demonstrates that part of the work of this vocal excess is to prepare a space of being among, to enact “among” as a way of reading, of listening for/as the illegible, so that historical density might become apparent to a reading of history. “Elsewhere,” Anne Carson reminds us that there’s a classical reference point for reading clarity (as gendered) through to vocal excess (as clarity): Sophocles’s description of Echo as “the girl with no door on her mouth.” 
And then the lack was a door.
For this reviewer, to approach Pitch from start to finish might have missed the point of the project: how to review a book that happens all at once, as it were? Where each poem is a complexion of a shared concern, coming into view as a kind of eyetooth, the visibility in Drafts being always partial, at least from the limited vantage point of any one poem. Even if read as monument, this can only be partly true, sometimes true, since Drafts is also a field (sometimes), or even a maze, as John Keene has described it.
It “keeps demanding other knowledge.”
1. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Pitch: Drafts 77–95 (Cambridge: Salt, 2010).
2. DuPlessis, Drafts: Drafts 39–57, Pledge, with Draft, Unnumbered: Précis (Cambridge: Salt, 2004), 112.
3. DuPlessis also notes Draft 49’s indebtedness to Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette (Pledge, 229).
4. George Oppen, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2003), 163.
5. Ibid., 167.
6. Ibid., 382.
7. Ibid., 175.
8. DuPlessis, Drafts 1–38, Toll (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 269.
9. DuPlessis, “‘Ballad’: On Reading Oppen Once Again,” in Big Bridge 14 (2010).
10. Oppen, New Collected Poems, 180.
11. DuPlessis, Pitch, 62.
12. DuPlessis has explored just this thread in her work on Beverly Dahlen and Anne Waldman, two poets whose work in the long form keeps company with DuPlessis’s own.
13. Anne Carson, “The Gender of Sound,” in Glass, Irony, and God (New York: New Directions, 1995), 121.
On Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Edited by Patrick Pritchett