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Patrick Pritchett reviews

Drafts 1-38, Toll, by Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Wesleyan University Press, 278 pp., $17.95, ISBN: 0819564842

You can read Rachel Blau DuPlessis — ‘Draft 42: Epistle, Studios’ in Jacket 14.

This piece is 4,000 words or about nine printed pages long.

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 —— 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
though elegy seems the nearest category of genre
raising stars, strewing flowers . . .

And a little later, in ‘Draft 19: Working Conditions,’ she reflects:

For disappearance is the subject
of whatever I do.

If not disappearance,
then what is here.

‘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.

The scale of Drafts is monumental; its focus anti-monumental.  As a working prospectus of the poem’s method, the title militates against any of the grander schemes for incorporating history and myth that Pound and Olson sought to bring to their own work. At the same time, Drafts points back to the Cantos, as well as Duncan’s Passages, taking up their collagist, serial methods for conveying the multi-juxtapositional character not so much of history as of language and interiority. That both are conceived of as processual, folded in on themselves, looping and spiraling forwards and backwards at once, is the coiling paradigmatic tension that DuPlessis explores with a deft and subtle combination of Objectivist precision and Romantic expansion.  Reading Drafts in toto this way – and one of the operational codes at work in the poem is that such a reading will always be incomplete – the argument between Objectivist minimalism and Romantic maximalism seems less fraught. Zukofsky’s notion of sincerity as faithfulness to perception is one which DuPlessis clearly embraces.  Within the same embrace, however, DuPlessis gathers Woolf and H.D., both of whom in their own work chipped away exactingly at the pretense literature makes of owning and subordinating the real.  It’s one of Draft’s great achievements that it keeps the phenomenological baby while throwing out the masculinist bathwater. At the same time it acknowledges and complicates its own ideological embeddedness.  DuPlessis sees that the claims literature advances for purity of method come forward out of an anxious desire to insure its own authority.  One of the key ideas in Drafts is that perception, like memory, can never be pure, much less precise, in an anatomical sense, but because of its openly reciprocal nature will always run the risk of being blurred and contaminated by language. This epistemological instability figures prominently in the poem’s consideration of the fragmentary character of memory.
Memory, for DuPlessis, is a kind of midrash*, and in Drafts it takes on a distinctly feminist valence.

And memory, they say, is the ‘mother’ of the muses.
And mother is the instruction not to speak,
to speak partly, to speak euphemisms,
r mesmerizing euhemerisms. To
peak half-dead to the undertext, to sever notice
to swallow mourning
to swallow the burning over and over so
that tubes and lobes are scarred with
(‘Drafts X: Letters’).

* Midrash 1. an early Jewish interpretation of or commentary on a Biblical text, clarifying or expounding a point of law or developing or illustrating a moral principle. 2. (cap.) a collection of such interpretations or commentaries, esp. those written in the first ten centuries A.D.

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.
With loss.
And with random findings.

I resisted initiations
into ‘virile pieties,’
which were everywhere, nevertheless.

But the rage of the mother
is an unsolved problem
in language.

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.
Part of the question of memory is the question of how to make time visible, and that, says DuPlessis, is possible only by viewing time’s debris, the trace of its presence. Here, as throughout Drafts, the epigraph from Zukofsky’s ‘Mantis: An Interpretation’ resonates. How may the poem find a form for the ungainliness of life? Draft’s response
is not to write an epic poem that contains history, but to recognize history, both public and private, as a mise en abyme, leveraging its suppressed polyvocality in order to challenge the social structures for producing memory. Following Oppen’s decision to choose ‘the meaning of being numerous,’ DuPlessis has staged in Drafts a profound refiguring of the grounds for writing a long poem.  Oppen’s melancholy, yet liberating, assertion of ‘the shipwreck of the singular’ provides a methodology for poetic form that relies on multiple, rather than totalizing, vectors. For DuPlessis it makes possible a plurality of saying that is not so much a form per se as a way to think form inside of the poem.

‘The work is work, however,
and one is always in the middle of it.
For that reason, ‘creation’ is not creation.’

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.
Because all saying is a saying again, midrash becomes the exemplary model for a poetics of fragment, repetition, and reticulation. Inside such a mise en abyme, what can the poet do? How can she say at all, if Orphic nomination is so vexed, and the saying of things as they are avails the pink guitarist very little, if at all?  I think this is why elegy is such an important node of organizing the poem’s energies in Drafts. Not so much the classic work of mourning and lament, elegy here functions as a radical procedure for articulating the phenomenology of experience as it is felt and lived in the moment. The order of the world in Drafts may be predicated on loss, but it’s a loss that’s redeemed by its being folded over into a capacious, labyrinthine process of response that turns the never-ending occasion of depletion into a recurring event of plenitude. DuPlessis’s notion of the fold recalls Deleuze’s comment that the challenge for the fold is how to multiply itself to infinity.  And Drafts is indeed baroque in its dizzying devotion to serpentine replication.  Like Rilke, whom she invokes, DuPlessis’s idea of elegy means staying one step ahead of departure. But whereas with Rilke one still feels the anxiousness behind the calm his poetic pre-empting hopes to acquire, in DuPlessis the event of departure, or loss, is something to be lived inside of as the most constitutive element of our daily sequence. Midrash, in this broader sense, becomes the method for re-inscribing loss on both a public and an intimate scale. To write at all is to practice midrash as part of the quotidian effort of assessing and reclaiming portions of time’s debris. Elegy is not what memorializes a meaning – it produces that meaning in the first place.
DuPlessis undertakes this task with an eloquent, sometimes mournful, sometimes joyous, flourish. In ‘Draft 6: Midrush,’ she situates the chain of citation and self-citation that comprises memory and identity in the larger conversation we carry out with the dead, and of which Drafts is the still moving inscription:

Walk thru the living
say the dead
our rustling voices
more westerly words


It is they that speak
we weep
the flood-bound
written over and under with their
muddy marks
of writing under the writing


Or midrash —
overlaying stories so,
that calling out the ark, it’s
Noah hails and harks
new name and number
what stinking fur and tuckered feather-fobs
did clamber forth
disoriented. Cramped. Half-dead.

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?
memorized of mesmerized?
}   Your Call
oculist or occultist?
annotated or anointed?
(‘Draft 32: Renga’)

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.
In Drafts elegy is empowering, not merely a marker of sorrow, but a revelator of the foundational dynamics of emptiness. Remembering the loss of a wristwatch (‘Draft 15: Little’) leads the poet to reflect on the broader anxieties fomented by a sense of temporal disorientation. She feels oddly ‘exposed’ and dreams of missing her stop. We understand her to mean a bus or subway stop, but the phrase also carries the implication of a final stopping that can’t be located inside of time. Like Bernard in Woolf’s The Waves, the poet in Drafts resolves to go on speaking right through the stopping place of speech, whether it is thought of as death, as Woolf does, or, as DuPlessis sees it, that ultimate vanishing point where the limits of the self are staked out by the interpellating constraints of ideology, that boundary where the poet challenges her status as something spoken in order to become someone speaking. The disappearance of the watch produces a trace, or shard, for the poet, one that she fiercely owns, and that is resistant to any attempt to determine it.

Not hero, not polis, not story, but it.
It multiplied.
It engulfing.
It excessive.
‘It’ like X that marks the spot, that is the spots,
an ever wily while, a wilderness of hope.
The spot of almost hopeless hope.
Can barely credit it.

Thus my voice is empty, but I speak and sing
only of this.
The undersentences
that rise, tides of sediment, the little
stuff agglutinating in time, debris
I sing.
Cannot not do it so.

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’
oracles. That the veil of mist behind which stars
shimmer and show
was, in fact, the Milky Way itself, not clouds at all,
nor close;
That the diasporic
scattering, scattered even in the ‘home’

aura  of endlessly welling commentary

folding and looping over

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.
Drafts is a poem in search of a utopian form. What is a utopian form? One definition might be: a form capable of embracing anything. At the least, it will be provisional, open-ended, and organized around process rather than closure. It will see the alphabet (as in ‘Draft 12: Diasporas’) as a system of bewilderment, rather than a technology of control, a displacing force as much as a stabilizer of identity and belonging.  In this scene, the poet seems to be weighing the difficulty of words to say anything at all simply with the inevitable erosion by the elements of gravestones or tumuli.

Wordlessness whirlwinds words
at that limen, articulating multiples
that cannot even be attached or
arrived at to greet, so foreign and distant, and
so near and constant,
the sets were experienced as one confusion.

These spaces of dispersion
are marked with bourns
which disappear amid the fields of scree
as stones.
So gifts are swallowed up by gifts.
Even erasure is erased.
In this, what residue remains?

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.  
In ‘Draft 37: Praedelle,’ DuPlessis’s employs a bold utopian sound-scheme that is a kind of ode to the topographical fold of place and name. Resonant with Hopkins’s usage of sound, the poem advances music as a principle of ontological relationship, the way birdsong, say, will rhyme with a cloud, or:

Folds fall in laban-notation
from one to the other
striping the absolute
excitabilities of their billow.

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.
Wide low arcdeep fields,
houses dotted, ho detto,
with shadow.  And sun stark.

And ends, stirringly, on a Keatsian riff:

The or of every rift is ore
the eithers also ores.
There are twin rivers rushing wide
that flow apart to lodestar shores.

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.  
What gradually becomes apparent in reading Drafts as a whole is the surprising extent to which it operates on a messianic register. Explicitly, the messianic may be located in the many passages of ‘utopian anger’ addressing social injustice and feminism. What is implicitly messianic in Drafts is form itself — which is never simply form as such, inert and static, but the actively ongoing search for apprehending form. In this sense, DuPlessis’s approach calls to mind Franz Rosenzweig’s rebuttal to the fetishistic cult of facts by proposing what might be called the poetics of ‘And.’  Because it is contingent, interlocutory, ongoing, ‘and’ is the exemplary messianic utterance. It provides the basic suturing morphology of language and memory.

The articulation of previous silences,
the invention of memory, and, and but
the hole, again I said hold,
I have in my head
(‘Draft 14: Conjunctions’).

‘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  
abandon this element. It does not know in advance just where it will end. It takes
its cues from others ... whether that other is the one who listens to a story,
answers in the course of a dialogue, or joins in a chorus.

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
resisting even itself.
Something, the half-sayable,
gone speechless. Or it can’t

and Inbetween

what is, and
that it is,
is Inside

...... an offhand
sound, a howe or swallowed
shallow. Sayable sign
of the un-.
(‘Draft 11: Schwa’)

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?
In the remarkable ‘Draft 33: Deixis,’ DuPlessis takes up the problem of language’s ability to point toward a referent, to confer meaning at all by way of spatial tropes.

call this the matrix of the unallowable, or, perhaps indifferently, say

call this the problem of the dead

call it the toll

It is the space of poetry.

‘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.
‘Toll’ also calls to mind Heidegger’s gnomic suggestion that ‘language speaks as the toll of stillness,’ which is a suitably elegiac one where Drafts is concerned. ‘Draft 38: Georgics and Shadow’ takes up this theme and folds it back over on itself in a provocative dialogue the poet stages with herself — or is it the poem itself that is doing all the talking here?

What did the work demand?
What did the work demand?

The knot.
That the question be asked.


Nothing is inside the work, but everything is. The stillness of things not still.
To say is, is, is again and again, very simple, very painful.

Absolute toll.
Every word teeming and bereft.

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.
So Drafts will never accomplish its own redemption since the poem is always forgetting – writing over or through, smudging, erasing, revising – what it has already written. The compulsion to say things over, to repeat themes in different keys and tempos, to re-modulate the rhythms of loss and recovery, suggests that perhaps we must somehow begin to think of form itself as a kind of redemption.

Sooner of later the plug falls out
and here
coincides with nowhere.

‘To write is to discover this point.’

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