Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Photo by Ben Friedlander

It’s taken me years, decades in fact, to figure this out – in retrospect it seems obvious – but there are at least two ways to read through Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts. One might read, for example Drafts 68: Threshold between Drafts 67 & 69, the way it appears in Torques, the latest collection from this project. But one should also read it along what DuPlessis refers to as “the line of eleven,” following Draft 11: Schwa, Draft XXX: Fosse & Draft 49: Turns & Turns, an Interpretation, a reading that entails having at least three separate books out on the table more or less all at once. And, oh yes, Draft 87, which is not yet written tho the two that come immediately after are already “in print.”¹ This recognizes the underlying cycle of 19 poems that is reiterated as Drafts stretches out. 19 because, as DuPlessis once informed me, it just “felt right.” It’s yet another instance where poetry derives its metric, its measure from a prime number, the way we talk of iambic pentameter instead of ten-syllable lines, the way Williams built his stepped verse by what he termed a “triadic” line, the way haiku resolves into the numbers 3, 5, 7 and 17. So Drafts, because it is cyclical, growing richer & deeper with each sweep, is becoming not unlike Julio Cortázar’s great Oulipo-inflected novel, Hopscotch, a text that must be read in different directions.

I have an idea – maybe even a theory – that reading Drafts straight through accentuates the autonomous nature of the poems, to harken back to DuPlessis’ characterization of them as a “series of autonomous, but interdependent canto-like poems.” Reading them in this other direction, however, accentuates what is or can be interdependent between them. Thus I turn to the very first lines of Draft 11:Schwa and read this:

The “unsaid” is a shifting boundary
resisting even itself.
Something, the half-sayable,
goes speechless. Or it can’t

and Inbetween

what is, and
that it is

is ə Inside

……an offhand
sound, a howe or swallowed
shallow. Sayable Sign
of the un-.

This is followed by a line of twenty-five periods. As I type this, I’m not even certain that HTML will let me get away with a “ə” or that readers will see that the capital I in Inbetween and Inside is boldfaced. I know that I missed that the first time through.

Now remember this same passage as you read the opening words of Draft XXX: Fosse:

Imagine a book, a little book
        whose words are covered
                  one by one
with the smallest pebbles –
                  fossils imprinted, shale splinters,
slag and gnarls from fossick,
                  cheep sweepings arrayed,
a road of morse lines
        step by step
                  down the page.

It looks like poetry, runs along depths
        on the surface, slugs
                  of a text that is lost;
the instruction it offers
        is delicate,
                  may be misplaced.

The words and their syntax
                  not to nothing
                  (for the lover of pebbles)
but to an irradiating splayed out
                  so large
it can only be
        marked thus:

+ It could say erosion of the book.

This as it happens is a description of an actual book by conceptual artist Ann Hamilton. Where in Schwa DuPlessis offers us the unsayable, the unmarked vowel that could be any vowel, or the silent “e” appended to a word (turning “how” itself into an allusion of poets Fanny & Susan), here we find language eroded, “a text that is lost.”

Draft 49: Turns & Turns, an Interpretation covers this same terrain, but in entirely different ways. The poem is itself two poems, not unlike Zukofsky’s “Mantis” and “’Mantis,” an Interpretation,” a work that at one point the “interpretation” discusses. While this is perhaps the closest DuPlessis gets an actual homage in any of the Drafts yet written, its substance comes from an entirely opposite direction, the tale of a dream, giving rise to an interpretation of the dream, to the process of interpretation itself, to the social roles of gender in that process –

Here is something!   women propelled   with analytic rages every day
”Adventurous for him”   turns “careless for me.”   “Prolific for him” comes
to “facile for me.”   He is opinionated   but I am hectoring;   he passionate,   I strident.
We see, we see, we see!   “We are demanding   an end   to hypocrisy!”

The long lines broken with visible (but not necessarily audible) caesurae is intended to remind some readers of Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette. In this third round of the “unsaid,” what is effaced is nothing less than the role & contribution of women. “The roar of the missing,” DuPlessis calls it in the 25th of the poem’s 28 six-lined stanzas.

It is worth noting not only that “Turns, an Interpretation” begins with an epigram, but that the epigram itself is preceded by simple, but vital word:

or “To write history is so difficult that most historians
are forced to make concessions to the technique of legend.”

Thus Erich Auderbach in Mimesis. I might have said that narrative has its own demands. What follows is the closest moment to direct address thus far in all of Drafts, beginning by examining images from the dream & the ways in which her six-line model never successfully resolves into a sestina

Besides I don’t have the skill.
It is difficult enough even claiming
a “political poem” given I am hardly
writing “to program,”
with any correct itinerary or conclusion.
Could only propose
gender justice in the context of social justice
enacted in particular struggle or location.
Those six words (gender, justice, social, struggle, location, enacted)
might trace through the poem, and be repeated there,
but to use them as such was too positive, positivist.
I did not use them.

What I wanted was an openly “negative” poem turning on
contradictory feelings, the ungainliness
of those edgy feelings, the fullness
of what happened, but symbolized distantly.
Not one “side,” but the “technique of legend.”
For “the historical comprises
a great number of contradictory motives in each individual,
a hesitation and ambiguous groping
on the part of groups.”
Ongoing urgency, choice and act.
Unintended consequence, debates about fact.
Besides, “the woman’s side,”
the “other-side of everything” –
emerged with full force,
yet before that binary, there was
another kind of start --
a sense of juncted tracks,
woven intersections, knotted lines
with all their merges, switches, turns.

The contrast between the two sections, or poems, within this poem could not be more pronounced. Against the worked & tightly compact passages of the opening section, this free verse is meant to feel almost artless – at least until DuPlessis sticks in that end-rhyme of act & fact. “Turns, an Interpretation” continues for five more pages.³ Turning not only figures thoughts & second thoughts, but prefigures the concept of torque as well, the definition of which in physics is a vector that measures the tendency of a force to rotate some object about an axis. In short, it gives it a turn.

More tomorrow.


¹ Drafts 88 & 89 appear in Jacket 35 and can be found here & here. DuPlessis tells me that Draft 86 is approximately 99 percent done.

² Tho we note what DuPlessis does not, that the 28 stanzas carry within them the echo of a double-sonnet.

³ One of the interesting elements of Drafts 39-57, Pledge, with Draft, Unnumbered: Précis, as this volume is subtitled, is the length of its poems. DuPlessis has been quite consistent. The works in Drafts 1-38, Toll as well as Torques: Drafts 58-76 have averaged just a hair over seven pages each. Yet during this third run through the set of 19, the average swells up to 11, even factoring in the curious free-floating “unnumbered” poem. The obvious question is why – what is going on in this run that did not apply either before or, at least thus far, after?