Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Late Work
Black Square Editions, 2020, $20.00

Rachel Blau DuPlessis has always been one of our most enterprising and ambitious poet-critics. In such works as The Pink Guitar, Blue Studios, and Purple Passages, she has offered what amounts to a thoroughgoing feminist rethinking of modernist poetics. Her friendship with and devotion to George and Mary Oppen have given us invaluable insights into these crucial literary figures through her definitive edition of George Oppen’s letters and the marvelous collection of essays, The Oppens Remembered. Of equal importance, her deep understanding of Objectivism led to her editing, with Peter Quartermain, The Objectivist Nexus, still one of the most important gatherings on that influential poetic movement. During her years of teaching at Temple University, she mentored many younger poets and critics. My own friendship with her dates from the publication of my first academic article on Oppen in Contemporary Literature in 1981, when I received a postcard from her, generously praising my work. Just out of graduate school, I felt deeply grateful.

DuPlessis’ major poetic achievement is the multi-volume serial poem Drafts, written between the years 1986 and 2012, and the subject of a number of probing critical studies. Emerging from the complex and contradictory tradition of the modernist long poem, augmented by deconstructionist theory and a secularized understanding of Jewish midrash, Drafts, as Patrick Pritchett puts it, is a work that is “deeply fractured by contingency, open to an ongoing process of revision.” In this respect, while looking back to the epic as reimagined by Ezra Pound, it also epitomizes the postmodernism of such works as Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems and Robert Duncan’s Passages, keeping in mind that “revision” for DuPlessis usually means a feminist intervention in a largely patriarchal genre.

It also means the challenge to the expressive voice, the formal self-consciousness, and the emphasis on the materiality of language which are all associated with language poetry. As Ron Silliman observes in an essay that precisely locates DuPlessis’ sequence among American long poems since The Cantos, “Drafts has been built from the beginning at exploring precisely not just the frontier of literature but of literacy itself, spoken, written, thought. And it has done so from the very first letters of the poem.” Yet although she has certainly been allied with language poetry, I for one have never thought of DuPlessis as a language poet per se. Historically and geographically, she was never located in New York or San Francisco. More importantly, the feeling-tone in her work is different from that of most language poetry: despite her questioning the status of the “I,” there is a greater sense of presence and less of the neutralization and fragmentation of the self than one finds in most of the language poets’ work. For me, despite its emphasis on structure, it is less brittle, less formulaic.

We see this clearly in her recent writing. Since completing Drafts, DuPlessis has been working on a long poem called Traces, with Days; Late Work is the most recent installment. Less systematic and even more open-ended than Drafts, this new project is constructed from aperçus, observations, and ideas that momentarily catch the poet’s attention and then unfold through association and word play. To a greater extent than in earlier work, DuPlessis adopts a collage aesthetic—indeed, part of the work (though not the volume under consideration here) consists of actual collage. Emphasizing this recent turn to collage, Andrew Mossin writes that “DuPlessis links the ethics of this project to a sense of urgency about the ways in which poetry can function as cultural documentation, as it moves beyond the purely aesthetic or verbally adroit to consider alternative formations of sense-making that challenge normative language.”

Such being the case, what is DuPlessis’ Late Work like? It is not retrospective. It is not nostalgic. On the surface, it does not appear very orderly, but there is a powerful sense of order to be found in every poem that is not merely a matter of style. Rather, it is a matter of worldview: reality consists of layered meanings, and the poet, through the medium of language, expresses her apprehension of that meaning. As Robert Duncan puts it in “Orders, Passages 24,” the poet improvises upon this apprehension “to illustrate concords of order in order, / a contrapuntal communion of all things.” But whereas Duncan’s mode is that of sublime Romantic vision and insistent mythopoesis, DuPlessis, closer to Williams’ vernacular immediacy, writes with a feeling of playfulness and wit, exuberance and sprezzatura. More often than not, and even when addressing serious issues, this poetry is fun, a quality in short supply these days.

Two poems in Late Work nicely demonstrate all these qualities. The first is called “Everyday Life,” a title which proves to be both tongue-in-cheek and perfectly accurate. DuPlessis constructs the poem from seemingly random sentences, snippets of common language, and statements found in her daily reading. A text of this sort has its roots in European modernism, gets Americanized by the New York School, and is then passed on to more recent avant-garde practitioners. What counts (assuming the work is not driven by chance procedures) is the way the poet arranges her statements—her sense of collage design:

Now they say Snakes used to have Little Legs.

Speaking up for things.

“Assume responsibility for your state of mind and all of your actions,”
said the Naropa University Right Action handout.

Tall order.

What are the “things” that “choses” encompasses? Is it people, too? words,
too? days too? Probably so.

Homophonic pretty party choses. No, it’s “chooses.”

Some are committed to a category called “former life tales.”

As if! (47-48)

What I find especially interesting about these lines is the way in which DuPlessis’ “everyday life” gets encoded here. It makes sense that DuPlessis, an expert on the Objectivists, would find herself thinking about “Speaking up for things” and homophonic translation (an important technique in the poetry of Louis Zukofsky). But since this is everyday life, common idioms such as “Tall order” and “As if!” punctuate the flow of statements. “What is the form of my search? The overflowing of the poem” (52), DuPlessis writes, and indeed, the text is an overflowing, the superabundance of linguistic formulations that constitutes everyday experience. As the poem winds down, we get this: “Philip Guston said, ‘They baffle me too. That’s all I’m painting for’” (53). What Guston says about his late paintings clearly applies to DuPlessis’ late work as well.

The concepts at work in “Everyday Life” are also to be found in “July 31, 2015,” with its epigraph from Josè Saramago: “Every day has its story, a single minute would take years to describe, as would the smallest gesture, the careful peeling away of each word, each syllable, each sound, not to mention thoughts, which are things of great substance...” (65). Bordering on conceptual poetry, DuPlessis’ self-appointed task here appears to be the recording of whatever she is experiencing or whatever is passing through her consciousness over the course of the eponymous day. But here we get another turn of the screw: the second line of this ten-page poem reads “The illusion of immediacy is a strangely duplicitous time/space in a poem” (65). Is the poet’s embrace of immediacy a con? Does the poem give us the immediate experience of reality (I have always seen this as a utopian aspect of the Objectivist project)—or does it give us, despite its appearance, what DuPlessis calls “total alterity”:

The desire to create total alterity
(I already have the critique of that, OK?)

and I mean total, like nothing ever before
in language or vision

which also speaks or signs
(I’m on it, OK?)
directly into heartsick minds
and discourses stuffed with
suffering;

this desire is trying to transmit to me
a transformed alphabet, an altered language,
a structure beyond anything ever seen before. (72-73)

Apparently, that “altered language, / a structure beyond anything ever seen before” is an equally utopian ideal, especially when we are conscious of the ineluctably “heartsick minds” of ourselves and others. Nevertheless, this inscription of “one single day” can still “work itself // and its baffled occupant / into ecstasy” (75).

The ecstasy, the jouissance, for which DuPlessis yearns, may be achieved in and by the poem, ironically, only when the poet abandons the poetic. “Poetry is not the poetic” (87) she insists; for her, the great question is “How to make the stuff we live right now—into ‘art.’ / Or how to stop thinking about art” (101). This is truly “late work”: these are the deep questions asked by an artist only after form and content both appear to have been fully achieved after years of making. “We live in nomadic / unfulfillment” (97) DuPlessis tells us; perhaps it is as close to an answer as we can get. It makes sense that these lines appear in “Angelus Novus,” an extended meditation on Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” (aka “Theses on the Philosophy of History”), with its famous vision of the Angel of History, based on the Klee etching Benjamin once owned. Here is the penultimate section of DuPlessis’ poem in its magnificent entirety:

A project is a desire, altering
itself as it goes, shadowing
the names it thought it had, tracing
the words behind the words
which are the only ways to know.

To live among quotation makes
everything exegesis, which ennobles solemnity and
convergence.
One pitches down the incline of the scroll.
Interpretation is a mode of clarity,
and maybe (very loosely)
reverence.
Destiny. (97)

“If to know is noble // It is ennobling”: so writes Oppen in his masterpiece, Of Being Numerous. That poem, which Oppen tells us contains the words of many friends and of many literary citations, is, like DuPlessis’ poetry, an exegetic project. Not accidentally, both Oppen and DuPlessis write within a secularized Jewish tradition of commentary, wed to an American poetic of Objectivist immediacy. “To live among” and “ennobles” are quotations from Oppen; thus DuPlessis exemplifies precisely the theme which she addresses in her verse. Likewise, as Oppen declares in “Route,” “Clarity, clarity, sure clarity is the most beautiful thing in the world, / A limited, limiting clarity // I have not and never did have any motive of poetry / But to achieve clarity.” For Benjamin, for Oppen, and for DuPlessis, interpretation is indeed a means to achieve clarity. DuPlessis longs for clarity, but also understands how the restless desire at the heart of her poetic project inevitably produces an altering and shadowing, making clarity an elusive goal. Through endless interpretation and the give and take of form (note the rhyme: altering / shadowing / tracing, goes / know), clarity may yet be achieved in the moment to moment play of thought. And that, for DuPlessis, is “maybe (very loosely) / reverence.”

Post by Norman Finkelstein on 11/8/2020 at 4:00 PM