Patrick Pritchett reviews
Drafts 1-38, Toll, by Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Wesleyan University Press, 278 pp., $17.95, ISBN: 0819564842
For those of us who have been following the extraordinary evolution of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s ongoing poetic sequence, the appearance of the panoramic Drafts 1-38, Toll, in a superbly produced edition from Wesleyan, is an especially welcome one, bringing together between one cover two separate books, a portion of a third, a chapbook, a broadside, and numerous poems that till now could only be found scattered throughout various journals and magazines, all written between 1986 and 1999. (The latest installments of Drafts, which by my last count has reached No. 57, are now showing up on-line — http://www.logopoeialogopoeia.da.ru/— extending the work into cyberspace). Such a fragmentary publishing history, spread across two decades, is perhaps not so uncommon these days, but for a poem entitled Drafts — one that consciously situates itself at the crossroads of the provisional and the revisional — it seems especially appropriate. What becomes clear in reading the entire set together as it stands so far is that DuPlessis has created one of the most sustained and magnificent meditations written by a contemporary poet on loss, presence, and the haunting persistence of language to redeem what has vanished. Drafts confronts the reader throughout with variations on the same basic question: ‘What, then, is the size of the loss?’ It is a question that can never be supplied with a direct answer, a question that’s meaning emerges only through the repeated asking as the poem engages on multiple levels with the aporetic knot of memory, language, and the world. As DuPlessis herself comes to realize, in a characteristic moment of self-interrogation occurring roughly midway through, the logic of the entire sequence gradually evolves into a conflicted elegy for time itself. Conflicted, because the very notion of genre is one of the things Drafts so ably and provocatively contests. ‘Being polygeneric,’ she wonders in ‘Draft 13: Haibun,’ ‘why did all your work behave as elegy?’ ‘Draft 17: Unnamed’ provides a partial answer:
It is not elegy
And a little later, in ‘Draft 19: Working Conditions,’ she reflects:
For disappearance is the subject
‘What is here’ is both the full run of experience that the synaptic range of the poem is capable of registering in a dazzling variety of pitches and timbres and its ineluctable evaporation, which leaves in its wake fragments and debris for the poet to take up as theme, ruminate over, turn to song.
And memory, they say, is the ‘mother’ of the muses.
That the source of memory enables speaking while being denied the chance to speak itself is one of the bleak ironies DuPlessis exposes in her examination of women’s place, or lack of place, as speaking subjects in history.
The condition of work being struggle in time.
Like H.D. before her, and like Anne Waldman in Iovis, and Alice Notley in The Descent of Alette, she stages Drafts, in part, as a vehicle for reversing the polarity of the valorizing scene of language played out by the ur-bard Orpheus and his repressed muse, Eurydice. Equally important to the poem’s sense of a feminist midrash is the way DuPlessis incorporates whatever comes along by way of input: snippets of poems and essays (her own and others), dreams, remarks made by her children, conversations with friends, students, and colleagues. The range is generous in its inclusivity, demonstrating the need for gaining a reading competence in the conversations that make up our lives, and illuminating the value of what is lost through the precision of what we say about loss.
‘The work is work, however,
The revolution in form in contemporary innovative poetry is conceived in Drafts as a continual shaping of the poem in medias res. Form is not merely some conventional template for expression, but a ‘theater of the page,’ as she calls it at one point, an active space that produces its own laws as it goes along.
Walk thru the living
Silt as speech. Speech as silt. The dead speak us as we struggle to learn how to say the dead. The theme is echoed much later, in a more playful key, in ‘Draft 32: Renga,’ where ‘at edges, everything’s midrash ... midrash piled on midrash.’ Midrash becomes more than a scriptural hermeneutics, but the dialogical principle underwriting speech itself. Or, as she writes in ‘Drafts 21: Cardinals,’ ‘a disorder of memory is memory itself.’
under or blunder?
The one or two letters by which we distinguish one word from another means that meaning may turn on the slip of the fingers on a keyboard, on a garbled transmission or reception, on the constantly intruding static interference inherent to all communication that is itself a kind of coded message. One way to read this polyvocal disarray is that language is a process that is constantly going off the mark. The compulsion to self-elegize whatever goes missing is the poem’s acknowledgment of this problematic, and its deeper participation in it.
Not hero, not polis, not story, but it.
Emptiness here functions much as the khora does in both Kristeva’s and Derrida’s readings of it, as a formless space of the unspoken that authorizes a deeper speaking of being’s magnitude. By crafting a receptive response to what is continually vanishing, the poet affirms the value of the vanishing by encoding it into the script for living.
That fragments are ‘conspicuous’
The dialectical operations of loss and memory in Drafts give rise to a diasporic conception of memory and language, so that the poem’s task becomes one of re-gathering and re-calibrating the scattered, shattered meanings of words and phrases, their power to signify the human deranged by ideology and oppression. Drafts not only shifts back and forth with nimble celerity between ‘children’s clothing/ factory-stitched by children,’ and, say, the apples painted by Charles Demuth, but takes for its subject the very performance of that shifting, the unsettled and unsettling vectors of everyday consciousness. That the task of articulating a response to the total experience of living and writing is also an impossibility is not seen by DuPlessis as an impasse, but rather a powerfully productive aporia. ‘Form,’ as she notes, is ‘experienced struggle.’ The irresolvable character of language is a hallmark of much postmodern poetry, but few poets have invested this conundrum with such a rich sense of possibility and even joy.
Wordlessness whirlwinds words
One of the great achievements of this poem is that it recognizes that any honest phenomenology of experience must go beyond problematical valorizations of presence (as David Abram fails to do in The Spell of the Sensuous) and take into account the never ending depredations of loss. A post-structural categorical imperative will be one that gazes out at the entangled landscapes of beauty and deformation and sees how oppression and liberation play themselves out everyday at the smallest levels, even down to the very word choices we make.
Folds fall in laban-notation
This is perhaps the other major axis of organization in Drafts, the constellated interconnectivity of language responding as a web does to the least vibration in a behavior similar to what chaos scientists have dubbed ‘Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions.’ The word is conceived of as the vector for multiple forces and causalities, the chiasmatic locus of many intersecting trajectories, all in play at once. But beyond these concerns — or, rather, in tandem with them — what truly delights about ‘Praedelle,’ as with so much of Drafts, is its marvelous roll of song. It begins:
Hard. The dure of tradurre.
And ends, stirringly, on a Keatsian riff:
The or of every rift is ore
The exactness of pitch and the percussive play of consonants set against the dilating and contracting rhythm produces a heady, headlong music. With great finesse, DuPlessis keeps ‘Praedelle’ in continual suspension, giving us the just slightly off-balance sense of an open-ended series running up against the imminent threat of closure, and all of it contained in the vibrant force-field of these crisp and lively quatrains. Here, as throughout the poem, her paronomasia acts as a device for eliciting the sensitive connections between words and our physical response to them. Keats’ injunction to load every rift with ore becomes for DuPlessis a canny materialist procedure for reading the subtle possibilities suggested by the humblest of conjunctions like ‘or.’ DuPlessis's laddered music and tripping cadences read like something from a lost bestiary of The Word, breaking across the page in terpsichorean pageant — the sinuous recoil and redoubling curve of assonance and dissonance flickering in alternate bursts of lyric music and compressed exposition.
The articulation of previous silences,
‘And’ demolishes the period at the end of the sentence, morphs it into a comma, a colon, because it knows there can be never be an end to saying. Because the sentence, the line, is always en route. Rosenzweig calls it ‘the basic word of all experience.’ Rosenzweig’s concept of Sprechdenken, or speech-thought, which he outlines in The New Thinking, illuminates DuPlessis’s bricoleur method as well:
Speech is bound to time and nourished by time, and it neither can nor wants to
To take up such a form of thinking in which pre-conceptions are placed in abeyance, says Rosenzweig, means that ‘we must wait for everything, that what is ours depends on what is another’s.’ DuPlessis recognizes that in giving to Drafts its porous, inclusive quality she provides the poem with the strategy par excellence for avoiding the metaphysical crises of loneliness that seemed to dog someone like Wallace Stevens. The dialogical structure of inclusivity offers the poem a superb method for resisting the enclosing pressures of ideology. Poetic speech must resist arriving at some final stopping place since arrival forecloses the possibility of hope that is the eternal messianic, ‘the wilderness of hope’ that, for DuPlessis, arises from the recognition, the hold, of emptiness. Emptiness, as something present yet unpronounceable, is integral to Drafts’ sense of the messianic.
The ‘unsaid’ is a shifting boundary
The Unsaid as the inside of speech comes forward as the inarticulate sign of the messianic, of the effort of the poem to enunciate the impossible, ‘the very word’ itself, which is like a bell to toll, as DuPlessis, cleverly eliding the word ‘forlorn’ from Keats’s line, has it in her first epigraph. But what sort of toll is it?
call this the matrix of the unallowable, or, perhaps indifferently, say
‘Toll’ here suggests both a call to awareness and the cost incurred for some experience. Drafts deliberately links the two, then goes on to introduce a third term to the dialectic, restitution. One way to think of the poetics of the ethical being proposed here is to say that the eye must make restitution for what it sees, what it points to — not because seeing is a form of damage, but just the opposite: because it is a form of representation and response — of responsibility. The eye makes restitution by recognizing the context for that which it initially singles out. Likewise the word is under an obligation to pay out of its available funds for expression a certain toll for its deictic directions, for speaking at all. That the fund is never quite enough, and yet somehow always more than enough, not quite equal to the cost incurred by saying, and yet abundantly wealthy in the possibilities for such a redemptive saying, is the poetic Moebius strip Drafts travels over. Benjamin’s concept of progress as a series of ‘moments of interference’ might best describe DuPlessis’s method — she interrupts the poem so often that gradually we begin to feel that it’s nothing but interruptions. Continuity, Drafts implies, is accomplished only by way of discontinuity. This kind of ultimate contingency, for a poet like DuPlessis, is not a cause for confusion, but rather an occasion to celebrate the liberating prolixity of language’s endlessly reticulating procedures for form. Far from standing as an idle container for ideas, form exists as a profound mystery since its articulation is the articulation of the mind moving through and apprehending itself. Drafts delights in initiating and disbanding formal alignments in order to keep a deeper pact with form itself.
What did the work demand?
The midrashic principle again: a question can only be answered with a question because an answer would mark the close of response. All the preceding themes and variations of the poem receive a kind of summing up here that is part valediction, part unraveling. If thinking the messianic means, paradoxically, thinking memory, then midrash plays a redemptive role with respect to the poem’s self-questioning, which is precisely what it’s sense of identity is founded on. ‘Memory,’ according to the Baal Shem Tov, ‘is the secret of redemption.’ Yes. But the recovery of memory is itself an endless operation.
Sooner of later the plug falls out
Jacket 22 — May 2003
This material is copyright © Patrick Pritchett
and Jacket magazine 2003