Friday, February 07, 2003

There is never a word nor syllable nor the slightest scratch upon the paper in any of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts that has not been thoroughly vetted through the mind &imagination of the poet. So when I find indeterminacy & surplus in her texts, I know that they haven’t gotten there by accident, that even when it appears “meaningless,” it means something.

I was reading “Draft 2: She” this morning, which is replete with such effects. A case in point:

Dabbles the blankie down
do throw foo foo
dles the arror
of eros the error of arrows
each little spoil and spill
all during pieces fly apart.
Splatting crumb bits there and there.
Feed ‘n’ wipe. Woo woo petunia
to get the fail of it
large small specks each naming
yellow surface
green bites
Red elbow kicks an orange tangerine.

If my HTML skills were up to it – they aren’t – I might offer some even more extreme examples: there are are twelves places in this eight-page poem in which DuPlessis offers alternative word choices typed almost literally atop one another, as in “the mother/the monster” or “hurl/hole/hurt.” But, as DuPlessis herself notes in the passage quoted above, “large small specks each naming.” Just because these uses of alternatives & of baby talk don’t resolve to traditional denotations does not make them unmeaningful. Woo woo petunia!

The question here is what. At one level, “She” is about gendering the family & the intricacies of mother-daughter roles. At another, it’s about the acculturation of the child into the world of adult roles & values & systems, language foremost among them. It’s precisely in the use of language that cannot be resolved into normative concepts of meaning that I most hear the world as it was viewed by Louis Althusser, the late French political philosopher, at least in his saner moments.

Althusser’s observation was the world replicated itself through two systems – repressessive state apparatuses (RSAs) and ideological state apparatuses (ISAs). We are, all of us, only too familiar with RSAs, which include everything from stop signs to the Justice Deparment (even when it’s not in the hands of a maniacal neo-fascist like John Ashcroft) to the version our government is about to visit on the people of Iraq. ISAs are more numerous, more complex, more subtle & ultimately more powerful. The church, family, popular media, even poetry, generally fall in the Althusserian scheme onto the side of ISAs.

I should say something about ideology here, which in the Althusserian model is only incidentally about being a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian or a Green, or even about being “for” or “against” capitalism. Rather, as Althusser saw it, ideology is that which calls your name & by which & through which you recognize yourself. As such, it is precisely a subconscious process, exactly the level on which the material signifiers of language operate.

For all of the unquestionable pleasures of the Lacanian & for the ways in which, say, a Carla Harryman might make use of a Kristeva, my sense has been that with the notable (& almost sole) exception of Nick Piombino, the unconscious in writing has been given short shrift at best by my own generation of poets. Most of the effects of a text such as Clark Coolidge’s The Maintains or Polaroid occur at the subconscious level or else can be described in the matter-of-fact language of feature analysis, a close reading of surface devices that never actually gets to what occurs elsewhere when one reads. At one level, I think one could much the same about Lee Ann Brown or Quincy Troupe or even Billy Collins. But, at another, the absence of such critique seems especially galling in the case of poets whose work actively eschews normative expository, figurative or narrative frames.

When I think of the poets of the New American generation, three in particular seem to have made active reference to, or use of, psychoanalysis in any form: Charles Olson, Robert Duncan & Robert Bly. Duncan, in good part because of H.D.’s influence, made active &, I think, relatively effective use of Freud, although now that I put those words to screen, I realize that I cannot fully articulate what I mean by that. Olson poured Jungian analysis into his vast grab-bag of intellectual discourses that he might call upon, but, while the spectre of Jung has sometimes been raised to suggest a reason & underlying cohesion for the great & wonderful mess that is Maximus, Olson’s own approach has always struck me as remarkably unsystematic, forever opportunistic, & as indebted as much to Mao as to the Vienna gang.

Bly? Well, it rhymes with sigh. Invoking Jung in a very different light & yoking it first to bad translations of the especially narrow swath he cut through the surrealists & later to the Iron John one-man comic philosopher shtick, Bly went a long way toward making psychoanlysis, Jungian or Freudian, off-limits to a younger generation of poets unable to suppress their snickering.

Bly was one of a generation of poets who was raised initially within the framework of the old New England formalist tradition, but who in the 1950s rebelled against its even then moribund dynamics. Including W.S. Merwin, James Wright & Adrienne Rich in addition to Bly, these poets did not turn automatically to the growing alternative of the New Americans*, but rather struck off in a new direction, which for the male poets among them meant a version of surrealism and, at least for Bly & Merwin, a turn toward European influences.

For a brief moment in the early 1960s, Bly in particular made an attempt to forge a synthesis with some of the next generation of New Americans, most notably Robert Kelly, whose interest in all matters occult took him through Jung, and Jerome Rothenberg, whose interest in ethnopoetics took him far closer to native roots than the pancho that was Bly’s omnipresent clothing accessory during that decade. The “deep image” movement didn’t last long. I’ve written before of how Kelly’s interest in the alternative wisdom traditions helped to cut him off from some of the younger & more secular poets who would come up around langpo. The figuration given to the unconscious in the work of some of the poets around first Caterpillar & later Sulfur, especially that offered by Clayton Eshleman, only furthered to steer the next generation of poets, already deeply suspicious of figuration itself, in the opposite direction.

One of the great ironies in this is that the unconscious is to analysis what birds are to ornithology, and it’s the unconscious processing of poetry that’s of interest here more than the extrapolation of intellectual systems. It has long seemed to me that the New American who most directly raised the issue of the unconscious in his poetry was not Olson or Duncan, who tended more to talk about it, but Jack Spicer. Spicer’s use of contradiction & overdetermination is unparalleled in his generation & tugs continually at the ways in which we utilize & experience just such phenomena, not merely mentally but in day-to-day life.

It’s interesting in this regard that there really was no such thing as a second generation San Francisco renaissance. Spicer’s early death in 1965, preceded by the decline of his health due to drinking, set his own circle adrift, with significant portions ending up in Vancouver & even, in the presence of Larry Fagin, in New York. The poets who most deeply reflected Duncan’s influence – David Bromige, Michael Palmer, Aaron Shurin, David Melnick – seem to have worked with him serially. Duncan’s imperiousness & his public battles with Spicer in their later years made it even less likely that anything cohesive might arise out of such a problematic context.  

So when Rachel Blau DuPlessis roars out “Woo woo petunia,” I sense her taking up something that has lain untouched for some time in writing – not that it isn’t present, say, in the work of Frank O’Hara or any of another 100 poets you could name, but rather that it exists there unaddressed, not unlike the alcoholic uncle at the end of the couch nobody quite mentions. And I wonder if poets such as Coolidge (or even, for that matter, myself) have felt safer precisely because a discussion of the unconscious has been off the table for so many decades, as if we could venture into this territory knowing that no critical frames existed that could be usefully employed, precisely because they had been blocked by the use of the discourses (Freud, Jung, but as read by Bly or Duncan) that had been there previously. Like Grenier’s use of the literally subliminal in his scrawl works, DuPlessis gives us a writing in places – it’s not the only thing she’s up to here, just the one that I’m intrigued with today – that can only be forever beyond the rational. At one level, it’s a demand, a demand that we come to understand exactly what it means.

Woo woo petunia

* Although Rich’s pivotal poem “Diving into the Wreck,” made its first appearance in Clayton Eshleman’s Caterpillar.