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Andrew Mossin reviews
Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work
by Rachel Blau DuPlessis

302 pp. The University of Alabama Press. $37.95. 0817353216 paper

This review is about 11 printed pages long.

‘An Uncanny and Unstable Aura of Resistance’:

Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Blue Studios and the Work of Poetry

This piece is about 11 printed pages long.

paragraph 1

Any period to which its own past has become as questionable as it has to us must eventually come up against the phenomenon of language, for in it the past is contained ineradicably, thwarting all attempts to get rid of it once and for all. The Greek polis will continue to exist at the bottom of our political existence — that is, at the bottom of the sea — for as long as we use the word “politics.”

  — Hannah Arendt, ‘Walter Benjamin,’ from Men In Dark TimesHenri Matisse, ‘Red Studio’


Simply to go inside the fierce exactions of syntax and be answerable.

  — DuPlessis, ‘Draft 38: Georgics and Shadow’


Reading Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s astonishing new collection of essays is a bit like encountering an old friend who’s just returned from a city in a foreign country (say, Venice....or Berlin after the Wall came down). “Look,” she says, “this is what I can show you, this is where I’ve been....” And then she spreads out on the ground blistered, discolored maps, some faded marbleized pages from a leather bound book of poems, a few shiny coins, pieces of colored glass, and points down to everything she’s arrayed before you and says, “Here, take a look.” Part guidebook, part essay in survival, part exile’s account, part resource for all of us living through another epoch of ‘dark times,’ DuPlessis’s discussion of our acculturated, languaged, existences offers a hopeful, if cautionary, view of where we are, of how we came this way and where we might, potentially, go next.

Henri Matisse, ‘Red Studio’

Henri Matisse, ‘Red Studio’



The form of the book is the collection, broken into four formally discrete but thematically overlapping groupings of essays: ‘Attitudes and Practices’, ‘Marble Paper’, ‘Urrealism’, and ‘Migrated Into’. Each essay here (the earliest piece dates from 1991, just after The Pink Guitar was originally published, the most recent from 2004, all heavily revised for their appearance here) reflects DuPlessis’s ongoing commitment to a pluralist writing practice, finding in what she terms the ‘postpatriarchal essay’ a resonant room within which to work: ‘It is a method of the passionate, curious, multiple-vectored, personable, and invested discussion, as if a person thinking were simply talking in the studio of speculation, grief and utopia’ (3). Blue Studios is the product of that conversation, one that DuPlessis has been having with herself and her work and with modernist and post-modernist companions whose presences vitalize and engage throughout these pages — staring back at us from the materiality of language.


What comes forward through each of these essays, gathered from nearly twenty years of writing and unstinting productivity (a word with singular application for DuPlessis, a poet-scholar-professor whose work in each sphere enhances/enriches the other) is the weight, the durability of a visionary poet(h)ics that wants ‘historical depth; critique of convention; scrupulous, moving, and invested language; poems saturated with a generous understanding of other practitioners’ (11). It is a struggle that has transpersonal consequences, insofar as each of us is saturated in cultural and socio-historic circumstances that more often than not blind us to what is present, real, necessary to say.


Here is how DuPlessis describes one aspect of this project’s conceptual difficulty in her moving account of George Oppen’s continuing presence in her thought and poetry, ‘“Uncannily in the Open”: In the Light of Oppen’:


The problem of writing for me is to get an ethical literature without didacticism or political forcing. How to address human issues without being trapped by the ego-, ethno-, phallo-, logocentrisms of humanism. How to honor choice in a serious way, even an existential way, while somehow allowing for mystery and transcendence (a word I use with some suspicion). And how to write poetry in brackets — meaning barred from whatever merely accomplished poetry we have in our tradition. That is, how to write not poetry as decoration, not poetry as recurrent symptom of problematic gender narratives and iconizations, not poetry as only expressive or simply personal, but some austere, deliberative, materialistic, awestruck art in segmented language. (194)


How do we get there? From here: this muddied, beaten up, sometimes indifferent, sometimes inadequate landscape we inhabit most days. With utopic fervor and elegant repositioning of the ideologies (racial, sexual, political, poetic) that dominate and inhibit our cultural consciousness, DuPlessis provides us here with a deeply humane — which is to say, public — account of the linkages between writing and feminist inquiry. These essays probe the connects and disconnects, the ruptures, repulsions, signatory arrivals and departures, the risks and strategies involved in discovering a language of adequate statement. No easy task. What do you want? What’s enough? “The point is,” DuPlessis reminds us, “poetry is intellectual work, criticism is poetic work, and if these do not come as a necessity — a personal and cultural necessity — what good are they? (30, ‘“Reader, I Married Me”: Becoming a Feminist Critic’).


Blue Studios creates an emergent and vital cultural space for renewed consideration of the relationship between poetry and collectivity, gender and subjectivity, historical materiality and cultural loss. DuPlessis’s title derives from Matisse’s ‘Red Studio’ (shown above). The effluent beauty of the oily surface is notable, as are the figures of the women — captive on a deep red background. As so often happens, DuPlessis casts her gaze back upon a singular artifact of modernist art, and offers a reading that is both formally incisive and, from the standpoint of gender, reconstructive. This, from the title essay, a response to the poet Barbara Cole that appears as part of an issue of Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory:


Do you remember Henri Matisse’s ‘Red Studio’ (1911, at MoMA)? The painting displays his work reproduced in miniature, in his studio, a passionate deep-but-flat red field. Iconic miniwomen are depicted — as a statue, on a plate, in a painting — these figures are artifacts of Art as an institution, made, contained, and set within his magisterial red world. To write in the spirit of friskiness, pensive loose end, and rumination from a blue studio changes the direction of those female depictions to activated women, produced in and by, but also producing art. (48)


It’s a bold repositioning, still, in 2007. “Activated women, produced in and by, but also producing art.” I recall a conversation with DuPlessis in her office at Temple University in 1994, in which she was describing to me the experience of going to see a film (I forget which one, but perhaps it doesn’t matter), and she said with a kind of rueful laughter, ‘So I pay my money and I go into the theatre and I look up at the screen and see myself up there and think to myself, “There I am and there I am again.”’ I understood what she meant at the time. Sort of. In fact, it had never occurred to me to think of myself in such terms. Normative ways of looking vs. that moment of recognition — followed by reactions ranging from suspicion and confusion to anger, or simply fatigue with the same old. Like, ‘Is that really me? Well, what’s new there..’ An uncanny and deliberate re-seeing in Western culture’s gender-laden hall of mirrors. In certain ways, it’s a similar experience to the one DuPlessis records in her remarks on Matisse’s ‘Red Studio’: Oh, there we are....what are we doing there? And why? And for whom?


Probing these connections between feminist thought — tracked throughout this work, creating a kind of narrative continuity to DuPlessis’s inter-related projects — and her own production as a poet, critic, scholar gives Blue Studio’s critique of ‘poetry and its cultural work’ its torque, its incisive and ethical force. This exploration raises as well the relationships between DuPlessis’s feminist praxis and the multiple positions her writing inhabits: poem as essay, essay as poem, and criticism as response to and enhancement of both. Such choices require a subtle re-invention of the self(selves) writing. Moving from the desk of the critic-scholar to the notebook of the poet and back again. That this movement is more than professional circumstance is made clear in what amounts to an argument for a multifarious notion of writing as writing, circumstantially committed, non-hegemonic, non-hierarchic. Such re-positioning is at once daunting and, as evidenced throughout the pages of Blue Studios, fundamental to the principled, feminist project of these working pages:


There has been a crucial interactive pattern to the production of my feminist work. My poetry propelled my criticism, criticism propelled poetry, and essays were originally born in a spurt between them...The three genres I use offer (at least) three different and related subject positions, answerable to different social expectations and writing forums. But there were not separate tracks, and Blue Studios makes that fact visible. (30)


Like Robert Duncan in The H.D. Book or Robin Blaser in his essays (though with rather different cultural incentives, different aspirations and actions upon the world), DuPlessis takes the heterogeneous, inter-generic as first fact of composition. Again, there is a deeply held ethics to this approach: a refusal to demarcate, border off, cordon the work into the province of one or another identifiable category (thus the shift into poems, the turning of the voice back on itself in a reflexive moment of auto-fictive inquiry). The markers of ‘poet’ and ‘scholar’, hyphenated to read: poet-scholar, acquire a rather different, less stable meaning here. For if the work represents writing from different subject positions, DuPlessis manifestly adheres to a model of discourse that is dialogic in nature. Poems respond to essays (poems in essays) respond to criticism and back again in a process that has no clear boundary, no set beginning or endpoint. It is, to use Barthes’s useful term, writerly work. With readerly pleasures.


Feminism represents the ethical life-spring of this task: an unwavering investigation of cultural history. As defined here, feminism ‘means struggles for gender justice in the context of social justice’ (50). DuPlessis isn’t seeking a utopic idealized state of gender equity (though there is a euphoric tenor to some of the remarks here, a hopeful recognition of where these struggles might eventually lead, the world we may yet construct, somehow), but a reinvigorated reconsideration of how feminisms work now: the histories they’ve established, the credos and politics they’ve instantiated, the plurality of their hard-won oppositions and interventions.


In ‘Blue Studio: Gender Arcades,’ DuPlessis uses the model of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Arcades’ as a strategy to explore culturally enforced strategies of reading and making texts. Making reference to the formative work of Butler, Cixous, Irigarary, et al., DuPlessis marks the site of gender as itself multivalent, porous, multiply arrayed and legible as cultural datum. Feminism, as she delineates it, ‘is a capacious, historically mobile term filled with its own intellectual and political debates, filled with the tugs and pulls of other social-subject locations… So the questions: what feminism, where, facing what, defined by what, responsive to what, blind to what, hostile to what, benefiting whom, used by whom’ (53). This profusion of questions, of positions investigated, agendas dissimilated, refuted, rewon, cast aside, thought through again and again comes to us via a rhetoric of considered humility and egolessness. For as DuPlessis remarks on her ongoing serial poem, Drafts, this work isn’t ‘personal’ in the culturally conditioned sense of the term. Rather, it is a kind of critique that asks again and again, ‘Where can we stand?’ and, following from that, ‘What can our writing say or make of this?’ (188).


Digging out. Digging up. Digging across the field. Once you start, you recognize how far down there is to go, how much work to do. Recalling her 1971 immersion in Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, DuPlessis writes that she understood then that ‘all culture from the very beginning would have to re-seen with feminist eyes. Everything would have to be remade — all cultural products, all fields — name them!’ (49) This fervor — political and social in nature — requires a certain patience, a certain stubbornness, and, notably, a faith in the ability of one’s projects to move us perhaps a bit closer to equality across the board. ‘Ever since, I have been doing what I could. It’s not euphoria or fashionableness. It’s more like Conviction’ (49).


The critical essays that comprise the second section of Blue Studios, titled ‘Marble Paper” for its allusion to the marbleized paper most often found in leather-bound editions of ‘standard works,’ should be required reading for every undergraduate course in poetry and feminist studies. ‘Manifests’ in particular is a profound — and profoundly moving — investigation of the blockages and obstacles, the detours and dead-ends facing women artists. DuPlessis begins by citing a poem of her own from 1967, one that is organized around an address to the ‘Lady,’ historically saturated, out of reach, and at the same time an emblem of the (female) writing self. The poem fragment ends with the culturally fraught question: ‘Can I?’ Write? Write past this figure? Write some way that isn’t invested in lyric beauty, lyrical promise, ‘feminine’ presence? And beyond these, ‘Am “I” forbidden to poetry by one — but one key — law of poetry: the cult of the idealized female?” (74) Those are, to put it mildly, heavy questions and they are at the core of DuPlessis’s project, one that as we know could have had a rather different outcome, never needed to have led to the groundbreaking work of Drafts. Where poetic ambition is fulfilled, it can just as easily be forestalled, go silent: ‘If this is what poetry is, should I?’


Unpacking that ‘should’ involves turning that question back on male writing that has been deeply invested in the muse (gendered female). Writing methodically through several layers psycho-sexual and literary history to get at the deeply constructed nature of our cultural attachment to muse figures, ‘Manifests’ offers revisionist readings of Allen Grossman’s persuasive and problematic tract, ‘Summa Lyrica’, and Charles Olson’s poetry and poetics as they relate to Frances Boldereff, the silenced partner/muse figure and ‘ear’ to Olson throughout the early, formative years of his career. In the case of Grossman, DuPlessis offers a sympathetic, while at the same time critically resistant, reading of the compacted, heavily paternalistic ‘instructions’ of his ‘Summa.’ As she suggests, ‘one is treading the vatic waters of an oedipal narrative, tempting, resonant, and powerfully interpretive, displacing other ways of reading the access to words and the vocation it discusses’ (78). Intervening in this narrative forms the symptomatic basis of DuPlessis’s reading — one that asks, if you will, for a different, less oppressive theory of poetic production and value, a less primogenitive, more socially democratic model that would invite play, agency, mutuality.


With Olson, rich territory for gender readings (see work in this vein by Michael Davidson, Sharon Thesen, Mossin), DuPlessis establishes clear linkages between the ‘gendered exhortations’ of Olson’s key document in poetics, ‘Projective Verse,’ and his ‘vivid and explosive, sexual and intellectual, and poetic relationship’ with Frances Boldereff at the time of this document’s initial drafting. As the letters between Olson and Boldereff clearly reveal (published in 1999 as Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff: A Modern Correspondence and edited by Ralph Maud and Sharon Thesen), Boldereff’s contribution to Olson’s thinking and writing became fundamental to his post-humanist poetics and the early poems that helped establish his reputation. DuPlessis artfully and, again sympathetically, teases out the ways in which Olson’s dependence on Boldereff as his ‘ear’ or helpmeet and Boldereff’s role as cooperative, persistent genius sister-muse allowed Olson to develop as he did: ‘[Boldereff] was that through which Olson became himself’ (88).


Repositioning the relationship to allow for a much more nuanced view of Boldereff, a figure cordoned off for decades in the scholarship, DuPlessis enacts a materially based, gender reading that probes the ideological basis of Boldereff’s choices: ‘Boldereff’s tremendous usefulness to Olson and her effacement emerge from a specific gender ideology, one allowing her the option of pouring her intense hopes over and into him, as the great soul she selected, as the male destined to be sparked by her ideas, as the one who could make those ideas active and credible to the world’ (88). What emerges from the letters and documents sent by Boldereff to Olson, such as her formidable and culturally haunted ‘A Primer of Morals for Medea,’ are ‘the agony of ambivalence, along with a tragic acceptance of what she takes to be her tragic flaw — female gender’ (88). It’s not going too far to suggest, as DuPlessis does here, that for every Olson we are likely to find (or not) a Boldereff. There. And not there. A fissure or gap that tells another history of poetry, radically different (and far more troubling) from the one we are likely to experience in the culture-at-large.


Lyric beauty, it might be said, relies heavily upon this arrangement, this kind of cultural silencing, and creates for the poet seeking to work outside of normative gender protocol a problem with no easy answers — and many hard ones. Attracted to the “female ‘ghosts’ haunting poetry’ (76), the murk and marked surfaces of those traveling alongside, unseen, almost, unheard, almost, the poet working through this culturally messy setup has certain options: abandon poetry altogether or write in such a way that the conventional pleasures and enticements, the glamors of lyric poetry, its pathos and figuratively alluring signage, are removed in the process. What’s left? What’s worth keeping? DuPlessis’s approach, moving us toward a rigorous rethinking of the impasses of lyric (the haunted house of poetry we still dwell within), suggests a plural, socially engaged terrain of feminist inquiry, shared by sympathetic writers and readers, women and men, whoever chooses to take up this work.


A kind of cultural tautology emerges, burdensome, difficult to ignore, necessary to explore — and explode — from within: poetry and its representations mean a certain kind of elaboration of the feminine and masculine, a certain kind of dependence on narratives that gives voice, priority, spirit and form to the latter, not the former. But why does it have to be this way? Who says? (Well, looking up for a moment and pulling down the Norton Anthology of Poetry from the shelf, there are, to put it mildly, a lot of models...a lot of voices saying just that...) What if, though, ‘“poetry” as a formal medium does not depend on anything like these stories and may be agnostic to them’? (94). What, then? The history of feminist responses in poetry has been accumulating steadily over the last 30 years: Kathleen Fraser, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Harryette Mullen, Beverly Dahlen, Barbara Guest, Juliana Spahr, Jena Osman, Kristin Prevallet — these and many other writers whose artwork documents what can be done, what is being done.


As DuPlessis’s supple, forward-looking readings of Lorine Niedecker and Barbara Guest suggest, one’s choices as a writer always bear the marks of traditions that are not ever easily disentangled from poetic production and the ‘mythos’ of the woman artist doing the work. By enfolding these and other writers within a feminist reception, her term, and a vital one, alert to ‘the tremors of dissemination’ and the erasures and stoppages along the way, these essays suggest a cogent model of inquiry with huge implications for all the work we may do as writers and teachers and scholars. The agenda is, at the very least, multi-focal. Reading against the silences of literary history and ensuring a polyvocal space of inquiry that ‘puts no limit on the nature of the work’ (166), Blue Studios asks us to consider the struggle ‘otherhow’: as a fundamental part of related struggles for social equity and historical justice. Acknowledging where we are, how we got here — its contemplations and crises — amounts to a kind of credo: to investigate, at all costs, the ‘persistent gender narratives of poetry’ (95) and ask, at every turn, How else? Not to do so constitutes an act bad faith by all of us who remain committed to the production of a humane, politically just social world in which to work, live, love.


Blue Studios closes with essays that meditate on poetic practice, specifically related to DuPlessis’s work in Drafts over the last 20 years roughly. The materials here, spanning the years from 1992 (‘On Drafts: A Memorandum of Understanding’) to 2004 (‘Inside the Middle of a Long Poem’) situate the reader in the working ‘blue studios’ of mind and heart that have been the central locales, the inspirited spaces, of DuPlessis’s ongoing work in poetry, criticism and scholarship. Without sentimentality or self-aggrandizement, but a keen awareness of how little gets through — and the importance, therefore, of doing one’s best at every stage — DuPlessis offers a version of poetic practice and belief in a cultural setting wherein the exact opposite view finds continued support: ‘I cannot romanticize poetry. It is hard to make up words about it. Poetry is the creation of a necessary object made in and of lines of language’ (209). Not romanticizing, remaining objective, clear, open to what comes: these are the incentives of a practice that has much to teach each of us at any stage of career or writing. And again, one must appreciate the marginal status of such inquiry in the culture ‘out there’: the investment, heavy — devastatingly real, documented in 90% of what passes for poetry in the contemporary zines and mags and the major trades — in work stripped of its adventurousness or formal risk.


Interestingly, these essays do not speak (directly) of DuPlessis’s work as a teacher and mentor. And these last pieces are, from the get-go, teaching texts, meant to goad, inspire, cajole, confront, assuage and redress. If the studio is metaphor for poetic and critical practice, the writing workshop and the tutorial suggest two related and embedded locales of production. A communal space that marks the site of poetic vocation, and provides an argument that lingers deep within one’s bloodstream, pulsing at the root: Do you need this? Why do you need this? What will it do? How will it help?


‘On Drafts’ first appeared in a journal I co-edited with Seth Frechie from 1992 (roughly) to 1996, TO: A Journal of Poetry, Prose + the Visual Arts. I mention this not to make some claim on the work, but to offer one story of community: one model of the social within the realm of poetry. The journal — whose name was drawn from Charles Reznikoff’s To Magazine of the 1930’s — grew out of conversations between Seth and me during the spring of 1991, while we were participating in a workshop with Rachel as part of our work in the Creative Writing Program at Temple University. Rachel made us aware as no one else did of the incentives and problematic nature of poetic communities, their necessity and culturally factual presence, as part of literary histories we wanted both to engage and participate in. It isn’t going too far to say that Rachel taught us something fundamentally inspiriting about the ways that poetry and collectivity can foment change, intervene, process new work, propose alternative ways of reading, writing, getting the job done.


As a work of self-reflective reading, ‘On Drafts’ is, among other things, a document of gratitude and acknowledgment: a profoundly felt gesture of appreciation toward those whose contributions to DuPlessis’s project — predecessor figures, instigators, collaborators, auditors — helped move the work from incipience to fluency and contingent mastery (contingent because the work won’t allow us to peg it quite that way): it wants to waver and wander as much as it wants to voice the unsaid, to elicit knowledge and gloss Fāma, the middle path of cultural access. ‘On Drafts’ begins, then, in the spirit of acknowledgment: to Williams’s Paterson and Pound’s Cantos, which early on provided both guideposts and contestation, challenge, blockage to the emergence of Drafts; to Mary Kelly, whose Post-Partum Document influenced an early pre-‘Draft’ piece; to Beverly Dahlen, whose A Reading ‘gives rise to a midrashic layering and linkage of interpretation;’ to Kathleen Fraser’s gift of the ‘nourishing brown-marbled-paper Italian which I “drew” or “drafted” words into the page, making a sketch pad of language’ (212). And finally, ‘On Drafts’ acknowledges the pivotal presence of George Oppen, whose words DuPlessis had been reading in May 1986 at the Archive for New Poetry at La Jolla, California, while editing his letters for publication: ‘You have your own pencil and your own piece of paper and you’re on your own word by word from scratch.’


As the subtitle of ‘On Drafts’ suggests, the essay is a memorandum to (her)self, one that participates in its own scholia and exegeses of poetic texts: explanatory, allusive, objective, factual, flickeringly autobiographical: ‘Structurally, the works are linked by subtle forms of repetition, presenting the reader with sets and bits of recollection, or the evanescent sensation of déjà vu, its rhythms of gap and recall’ (215). Memory, its erasures, lesions, deployment and entanglements, is as much a structural motif of this work, as it is a thematic grid: impersonal, social, autographic, engendering, gendered and fraught: ‘I have lived for many years, with the losses of shadowy memory. Mourning for it. But in the poem I found that I was building the space of memory or a replica of its processes. There is a repressed and barely articulated grief — the extensive killing that has formed the places in which we reside’ (213). The poems accumulate as responses to that history, as both reprieve from trauma and its accompaniment: leading us over the stones of cultural violence and injury, the multiple patterns of forgetting and remembering that ‘flood this site / a well of muted consciousness’ (‘Draft 27: Athwart’).


‘I have tried to write Paradise,’ Pound writes near the end of his Cantos. DuPlessis, in what she has termed her ‘counter-Cantos’ (250), writes out of compassionate necessity to stay grounded here, in the debris and litter of this time, no other. She asks instead:


What do you do this for?

The figure demands
that the question be stated
the issue opened, said
again and again, even in panic,
even in sweetness, even in grief,
even without answer,
both by the living, and by the dead.

(‘Draft, unnumbered: Précis’)


‘One just writes as best one can,’ DuPlessis tells us. ‘The vow is simple, though it may have taken years to recognize: to work in one’s time. Time and history are the situation and ground; work is the medium and the response’ (217).


‘This site is so implacable
But it is, clearly it is.’

(‘Draft, unnumbered’)


Halfway through a life’s work, we pause, look up. In awe of all that’s here.

October 2006 — March 2007

Andrew Mossin photo by Isabel Mossin.

Andrew Mossin’s poetry and criticism have appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Conjunctions, Hambone, Callaloo, Contemporary Literature and The Journal of Modern Literature. He has just completed a memoir, The Presence of Their Passing, and is working on a collection of poems. Mossin is a Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches writing. [Andrew Mossin photo by Isabel Mossin.]