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Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Torques: Drafts 58—76
reviewed by Patrick F. Durgin
Salt Publishing, Cambridge UK

This review is about 7 printed pages long. It is copyright © Patrick F. Durgin and Jacket magazine 2008.

You can read Patrick Pritchett’s review of Drafts 1–38: Toll, in Jacket 22. You can read versions of some of the poems discussed here in Jacket 14, Jacket 28, Jacket 29, Jacket 35 (Draft 88) and Jacket 35 (Draft 89), and Andrew Mossin’s review of Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work by Rachel Blau DuPlessis in Jacket 32, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis: “Manhood and its Poetic Projects: The construction of masculinity in the counter-cultural poetry of the U.S. 1950s” in Jacket 31.

Knit and knot and gloam and glare


Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ long poem “Drafts” forges a generic field somewhere between a series and a sequence, a mutually constitutive life-poem in drafts and an accumulation of autonomous though recursive episodes. The trajectory — toward coherence or liberated from its strictures — remains indefinite, precisely because this generic field is a construct of the “Drafts,” nothing at all taken for granted or based on received wisdom, though radical modernist long poems provide clear precedents, right to the project’s overall texture of allusion made familiar by, among others, Melvin Tolson’s Harlem Gallery, H.D.’s Trilogy, and especially Ezra Pound’s Cantos.

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Some couple of decades after Pound resolved his long “poem including history” with the despondent promise — “it coheres all right / even if my notes do not cohere” — DuPlessis spent a couple of years writing what would become the harbinger of the “Drafts,” a poem called “Writing,” published with explanatory notes in her first collection, Tabula Rosa. Midway through there is the first proposition that, now that three quarters of the “Drafts” have been published, reads like a mission statement.


Writing (along the lines of research, of work     into and along
the lines of somethings together
as long as it, as they interest each other, trace into and
mark each other)    summarizes and accomplishes intermittent
yearning and proposals
that define the intersecting of strongly acknowledged yet
loosely defined materials with an “I” who is the hidden
subject and object of each of these verbs. (71)


Elide the parenthetical passage and you find a legible program for a fiercely constructivist poetics of identity — one that accommodates the gains of radical modernism (“strongly acknowledged yet / loosely defined materials”) as much as a sophisticated feminism, the twin concerns of Duplessis’ frequently groundbreaking scholarship. But doing justice to the parentheses ensnares this poetics in a hall-of-mirrors effect, of which the aberrant “somethings” is a redolent signal that spreads itself concentrically, almost concretely. The inordinate spacings, parentheses, and finally the scare quotes around the first person pronoun say a lot about DuPlessis’ sense of form.


A little further on, content:


Narrative: the oedipal plot? ends by revealing the hidden
father. Pre-oedipal plot? the mother, hidden. Split subject:
“a living contradiction.” A text to speak now, writing,
writing the sung-half song. (77)


The “Drafts” engage gender per se, that is as a liminal state, a spectral force, engendered by desire. A work of this scope for some evaporates into its ambition — the quirky materiality of “somethings” or a whole poem about deixis never constitute a ground middling enough to take advantage of the liminality of form and content. But what some forget, or elliptically deny, is that joyful torque of a dialectical poetics. As in “Draft 33: Deixis,”


Like translations, poems
           Say the unsayable twice,
                     Once to another language. (Drafts 1—38, Toll)


DuPlessis’ desire is like Derrida’s interest in Pound: everywhere you point is to pointing — they’re all drafts, but most fear that acknowledgment — “writing the sung-half song.”[1]     

Torques, cover


For a sustained treatment of this “openly negative” structural feature of the entire “Drafts” project, see Ron Silliman’s three part review on his weblog. I’ll add, though, how fitting it seems that Silliman would focus on the structure of the project, a grid whose horizontal trajectory favors serial reading practices. These are two of a small handful of poets whose life projects entail major generic innovations. It won’t surprise me to see “Drafts” emerge as a whole as partitive as the “new sentence.” Given its ambition for aesthetic-political efficacy by refusing the lure of autonomy[2] or instrumentality, DuPlessis’ project emerges as an important post-language writing influence; witness any number of younger poets, especially Barbara Cole, whose works share both means and materials.


Torques: Drafts 58–76 begins to close in on the proposed 100 poems, the shape of which (thanks to the overall “grid,” printed here as prefatory matter) is legible as much by the unique generic space it forges as by the scope of its concerns, which never reduce to its literary-historical affiliations. Fittingly, the book begins with an accounting, an attempt to establish perspective “In Situ.” The 58th draft is crafted in long stanzas arrayed like Williams’ breath-based tercets, with an interlude of tightly condensed couplets that suggest late Oppen;  DuPlessis is, of course, an expert reader of these poets’ works by any academic estimation, but as poet she is not imitative.


This was to be a beginning,
            a simple beginning, in situ,
                        that is, in the middle, here.


This occurred, this was situated
             far outside the portal
                         way before beginning,


This was to be a straight-line list,
              itemizing what was at stake
                         knit and knot and gloam and glare. (1)


These are the first three lines of the first three stanzas, stanzas which range from 12—18 lines per. By the fourth, the meta-critical ruminations here on a frustrated process of “begin[ing] anywhere” find the “stakes” very well disclose themselves. A martyr to either a pacifist protest or a suicidal impulse has “jumped from a window / of my workplace,” outside,


A stunned crowd gathers,
nowhere to go.

A strip of yellow CAUTION tape
is caught like wool in a fence. (3)


There is a poignant, but by turns cold, rage to be found in the desperate singularity of the scenario, pitched into the kind of scenery that brooks a likeness with stock pastoral visions of “wool [caught] in a fence.” As the system of staggered tercets resumes, a quatrain intervenes.


a brick, a leak, a twig, a paper
            bone fix twisted in its socket,
            a fresh eye, a weed, the bugs, the pipe,
                        and each thing gets a different torque: the brick — (ibid.)


The dead man had used it to smash through “the portal” and commit the deed, which can, and horribly will, seem fated in proportion to its being located in space and time — “here,” “In Situ” — leaving, at last, “song beside itself,”


            noman, nomad, nogirl, nogood
                        just the sheer N of no,
gathers darkness inside shadow
           — it lists, it tilts — the it of all of this:
                        How account for it; how call it to account? (5)


And so the poem ends. And the book begins.


I offer this synoptic reading of “Draft 58” not only to illustrate that the poems’ allusive structures can and do accommodate much more than esoteric historical or mythical resonances, but also to argue that this book may be as good a or even the best point of entry for readers who haven’t yet had the pleasure of engaging with DuPlessis’ project. It is as vivid an installment as to take precedence among them.


That said, DuPlessis refers to previous poems along the planes of the project’s “grid” as “donor drafts.” But this is not to suggest an algorithmic predation so much as to activate intuitive leaps and laconic associations. A draft is understood as a resource rather than a subsequently improved revision. They don’t begin anywhere but here (a grammatical function identical to beginning anywhere and here). But if time-space radiates from the presence of the poem’s intentionality and by extension the reader’s attention, it stands to reason that the questions posed by and to “Writing” appear primary, again.


The draft in this volume that most explicitly revisits them is “69: Sentences.” Though off the grid, 58 makes a viable “donor,” “saying <it it it> atilt” (74). Both belabor the “minoritized acts” of writing to where a deeper aesthetic traction is found. Both finally embrace such acts, though without self-satisfaction, practically without self-interest. The phonemic and semiotic play of so “saying” avoids the resulting smugness of a poetics that fails to understand the first person as always already under erasure. In “Sentences,” the narrator is “without particular brands of ‘I’ / to greet you with,” flattened, “sentient,” tilting at the he/she/it of “my in-strangement” (72). Here DuPlessis bargains with allusion most solemnly, quoting Paul Celan and then Freud.


Impossible to write
            if there is a “radical-putting-to-question”
            of art,             which there must be

            if there is any “putting-to-question” of
            reality,            which there must be

“Where we live and what” is the rest of that
            formerly noble statement? (ibid.)


Read alongside “Writing,” we can read this, in part, as a sort of indictment of the life-poem, which serves as a donor genre, if you will, to the project overall. The impossibility the narrator feels is at flagrant odds with the narration of that impossibility, the interrogative mood coupling with that avant-garde ambition to write “reality” into existence — “It Is” — and only draws the narrator closer to the quandary. (The quandary can be figured as “the enigma of the plural impasse,” an epigraph from Barrett Watten that opens one of the book’s most disjunctive poems, “Draft 61: Pyx.”) She/he/it may be “sentenced” and “looking for the court of appeals,” but just because “the books contain our hopes” doesn’t dampen as much as it complicates the enormous desire that, at any point, drives these poems, not to mention making them enormously attractive (72, 73).


A draft is a lure to entailments that is anything but dispiriting. DuPlessis is at variance with the drudgery of high modernist solemnity, despite being spirited by its at least partial overturning of dichotomous aesthetico-political impositions, and its more recent and persistent forging of spectral circuits of desire beyond pat capitulations to taste.


Luminous distate.
Don’t make me laugh!
So what? So you are being jerked around
and knotted; so you are roped
and pulled aground.
This is news?
Well, it stays news.
Their masterful escapades
and plundering moves
and thuggish scaffolding
become “your life.” (73)

Archambeau, Robert. “The Aesthetic Anxiety: Avant-Garde Poetics, Autonomous Aesthetics, and the Idea of Politics.” Art and Life in Aestheticism: De-Humanizing or Re-Humanizing Art, the Artist and the Artistic Receptor. Kelly Comfort ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008: 137—156.

Cole, Barbara. Situation Comedies: Foxy Moron. New York: /ubu editions, 2004.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak trans. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

H.D. Trilogy. New York: New Directions, 1973.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Drafts 1—38, Toll. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.

———. Tabula Rosa. Elmwood, CT: Potes & Poets Press, 1987.

———. Torques: Drafts 58—76. Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2007.

Gaston, Sean. Derrida and Disinterest. New York: Continuum Publishing, 2006.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos. New York: New Directions, 1970.

Tolson, Melvin. “Harlem Gallery” and Other Poems. Raymond Nelson ed. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999.


[1] Derrida took Pound’s “fascination” with Fenellosa’s ideogrammic method as proof positive that such a thing as “arche-writing” was a priori. “Draft 1: It” lightly satirizes this method.

[2] Robert Archambeau has usefully defined what he calls “the aesthetic anxiety” of surrealism and language writing: “it denies the existence of such a gap, and asserts that the disinterested pursuit of art for its own sake is also, by its very nature, politically efficacious” (137). However, DuPlessis’ poetry defines the post-language project (really, a sort of long-20th-Century avant-garde tradition) as an overcoming of aestheticism’s dialectical other by professing that “writing” is a form of “research” rather than a form of expression. She, and arguably Silliman, is not attempting “to identify aesthetic autonomy with the political,” nor harnessing Kantian disinterest in the latter’s more extreme leftist interests. If one were to understand this conceit as contemporary deconstructive theorists like Sean Gaston have—as a lack of self-interest rather than a doctrinaire art-for-art’s-sake stance—the term “autonomy” might not be synonymous with the instrumentality even André Breton disallowed, not least by way of his affiliation with engaged poets such as Aimé Césaire, though his disaffiliations are equally telling and disproportionately famous. DuPlessis can be seen as working in tandem with this sentiment, always wary of becoming one of the proverbial aesthetes who, “in glistening webs of letters, / learn their ethics from poesis / in orgies of fabrication” (Torques 6).

Patrick Durgin, photo by Tim Yu

Patrick Durgin, photo by Tim Yu

Patrick F. Durgin has taught literature and writing at SUNY-Buffalo, The College of St. Catherine, the University of Michigan, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His poetry and scholarly writings appear in issues of Aerial: Contemporary Poetics as Critical Theory, Aufgabe, Bay Poetics, Chicago Review, Disability Studies Quarterly, The New Review of Literature, The Poetry Project Newsletter, XCP: Cross-Cultural Poetics and numerous others. In July 2007, Atticus/Finch published his fourth chapbook of poetry (Imitation Poems) and Atelos Press will publish his collaboration with poet-translator Jen Hofer (The Route) in 2008. He maintains

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