Sunday, October 3, 2010

Here’s the wind-up and now the . . .

Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Pitch: Drafts 77-95
(London: Salt Publishing, 2010)
[5.5" x 8.5" - 181 pages]

Pitch: Drafts 77-95, the fourth and latest (but not the last!) big collection of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ long/life poem Drafts, is hard to write about right, or even read in the way the work deserves.

Here’s the deal: to write about the book in its full measure, to read Pitch in all its glory, you really need to (er, um) step to the plate, to have in mind, all the poetry that’s come before in DuPlessis’ Drafts, and for starters, that’s a lot: the 19 poems and approximately 180 pages of Pitch amount to only about 20% of the project, which was begun in 1986, has no definite end point, and so far comprises almost 100 poems and more than 800 pages (available via four collections, as pictured at the bottom of this post).

And it’s not just the amount of poetry in Drafts that’s the challenge. It’s that Drafts is, in DuPlessis’ words (quoting here, as below, from her prose collection Blue Studios (2006)), “a series of interdependent, related canto-length poems.” Those connections are probably the fundamental quality of the work. “The generative principles of Drafts, DuPlessis writes, “are repetition, recontextualization, reconsideration, [and] returns that are not returns to the same.” As such, “individual poems shut or end only to open again, almost immediately . . . .” Matters raised, words or phrased used, and sensations evoked in one poem can and do return, one way or another, in just about any other.

In addition to these randomized relationships, there are more formal connections in Drafts. The work is structured on cycles of 19 poems, and – and sorry for the run-on here, but there’s no easy way to lay this out – each poem after the first 19 has a “donor Draft” – the poem 19 places before it – from which something has been taken and thus carried forward. So for example “Draft 95” has something from “Draft 76” (the last poem in the previous, or third, collection) which in turn took something from “Draft 57” (found in the second collection), etc.

The prefatory material in Pitch includes a grid that lists the poems in Drafts so far, numbered 1 to 95 (there’s also a free-floating extra), ordered in rows and columns, in the cycles of 19. It’s impressive, just about filling the space (click image to enlarge):

The relationships apparent on the grid are also emphasized in the end notes in Pitch. The one for the book’s first poem states, “[t]his work is the fifth beginning on the ‘line of one.’” The poem, in other words, is the first in the fifth cycle of 19 poems. Which of course means that there are four previous “beginnings,” plus 18 other “lines” (or threads), each of which so far has five poems, all with the formal and randomized interdependencies and relationships of the kinds mentioned above.

And this is all before thinking on Drafts vis-a-vis other American long poems. DuPlessis explicitly intends her work to contribute to that tradition, and so to read and write about it Drafts should be thought about against The Cantos, Trilogy, Helen in Egypt, Paterson, A Reading, My Life, A, The Alphabet, The Maximus Poems, The Holy Forest, Passages, Structure of Rime, Stanzas in Meditation, Tablets, ARK, Leaves of Grass and all the rest. And oh yes, to get the full effect of Drafts, you also need to know, and think hard about, the poetry of George Oppen (“in a certain light,” DuPlessis has said, “everything I write is set against his uncompromising sign”).

This all, for me, makes Drafts – or a sub-collection of it, such as Pitch – daunting to fully write about or read, even while it thrills. With all the randomized and formal interdependencies and relations between the works, it brings to mind Athanasius Kircher’s famous illustration of possible connections, beautiful and dizzying:

I’ve put in a lot of time the last several weeks, reading the new collection, and renewing or catching up with the previous Drafts. Of course, the seemingly limitless connections between poems, the echoes and reverbs, and layers, are a colossal strength: there’s always something to discover and it’s never the same.

But amidst all the exuberant “Wow!”and “Yow!” during this immersion in Pitch and Drafts, there is still some plain old (forgive me) “ow!” It frustrates me to not be able to put Pitch in its larger context, to write down for myself or you, dear readers of the glade, something more-or-less comprehensive about the connections alive in the work, and to map its place among all the other long poems.

And so what to do? Well, I’ve thought the time I traveled to a long, amazing stretch of river – stay with me here, please – a place that had a series of intriguing and beautiful swimming holes, something like this:

Now coming upon a scene like this, what’s to be done? One approach would be to slow down and take the time to get to know the place really well. Explore thoroughly that stretch of water, its nooks, crannies, bends, banks, depths, rocks and currents. Plus take a look at all that’s upstream too, the various watersheds and springs that feed it. Really get to know it first, in other words.

And sometimes that sort of comprehensive exegetic approach is the right way, maybe even necessary.

But sometimes there’s another way.

And that’s to gather up yourself and . . .

just go for it! Take the leap. Jump right in, and not worry too much about putting it all together. Splash, float and make like a fish, enjoying what you can in the cool beautiful strong runnin’ endless river.


The two longest poems, and by far, in Pitch are “Draft 85: Hard Copy” and Draft:87: Trace Elements.” While length alone does not make a poem, these are clearly the book’s major works, and I couldn’t splash around here without saying something about each.

“Hard Copy” is just under 30 pages long, with 40 numbered sections. Its end note, which reads at least initially as a kind of preface, begins, “This poem, as will be evident, is mapped loosely on, thinks about, and responds to George Oppen’s 1968 work Of Being Numerous.”

Unfortunately, the animating presence of the Oppen book wasn’t evident to me when I read the “Hard Copy,” or while re-reading it time and again. This is totally – totally – on me. I’m working on this, but as of today I’m weak on Of Being Numerous. So for now, I’ll have to mostly leave discussion of this particular Draft to others, even though it’s obviously an especially important work.

However, I must share one section of it, # 15. If you trust the “I” in it – and I do – this section thrills with the directness of expressed desire. It’s a 21 line, two sentence, charged-up poet’s dream of her poem-world. It’s an almost Whitmanic declaration, and one I’ll remember for a good long time:
I want polyphony
I want excess
I want no art object
No product, no saleables, no
administrative specs, no oversight
of bureaucracies.
I want the wayward and unpredictable
caused by anything
equally stressed, stubborn or obtuse,
companionably destabilized or destabilizing.
I want to make the gesture comes through me
I want to be touched
I want fullness
I want rapture
the erotics of writing
the pleasure of the daze
the over-reach of structure
and the desire for exactness
all sweet together
exfoliating, rolling, roiling thought
this “felt-and-fat-and-dirt-and-muslin-maze.”
As you might imagine, or as I’ll readily admit, DuPlessis’ mention of “the desire for exactness” seems particularly right to me! But then, so too does “the pleasure of the daze.” What a lovely turn of phrase, and a lovely idea too: the thrill of trance, revelry in reverie. Here’s one way to illustrate DuPlessis’ phrase (I’ll see you on the other side!):

“the pleasure of the daze”

However, given its wonderful embedded pun (“daze” = “days”), which suggests the velvet flash and joie de vivre of our diurnal lives, DuPlessis’ phrase is perhaps more aptly illustrated like this (and again, I’ll see you on the other side!):

“the pleasure of the daze”


The other very long poem in Pitch is titled “Draft 87: Trace Elements.” It has 55 unnumbered sections across more than 30 pages. It’s a monstrously excellent consideration, done – as so much of Drafts – as a kind of collage, in which many of the meanings of “trace” (e.g., the visible residue or memory of an event), as well as ideas related to those meanings, are explored.

The embedded message is that “the trace” can be, might be, quite important. As one stanza, in one section puts it:
Trace is the enemy of fill
          but sometimes it is fill
trace props intensities
          of emptiness open
and generates
particular flickering recognitions,
          but sometimes not.
I have to be careful here with “Trace Elements.” Thinking on its dozens of sections, the poem’s “donor Draft,” the other poems in its line (“the line of 11”), and the matters that relate or echo in still other poems in Drafts, and soon enough, quickly in fact, I’d be stuck in this particular poem – and so too you, dear reader – for a good long time.

But I must highlight one particular section of the poem. These two stanzas – if you can accept a construct that binary-izes the possibilities of poetry (and DuPlessis does that here, although in this poem and elsewhere in Drafts she raises plenty of other potentialities) – encapsulate the two ends of the spectrum in an extremely memorable way:
. . . some say poetry
holds the trace in some permanency,
frames the evanescent flicker in,
as if language produced aura in real time,
and sensual memory were always active in a work.

But a poem may end only as a blot
a frayed defeat
shredded, burnt, flooded, forgot,
kicked into the trash by heirs,
like ancient papers on the archive shelf
sold, and ripped, and twisted into cones
for holding

“a poem may end [ . . . ] twisted into cones / for holding frites.”

Well, it’s not the worst way to go!


The poem in Pitch that I’ve most latched onto is “Draft 91: Proverbs.” It is precisely what the title indicates: proverbs, 93 of them, set out over a bit more than six pages, with a double space between each such that every one stands alone.

DuPlessis has worked similar territory before. The “donor Draft” for this poem – “Draft 72: Nanifesto” (that’s not a typo, but a gendered change-up on “Manifesto”) – presents, in eight stanzas of 11 lines each, almost 90 advisory imperatives that can be heard as proverbs (e.g., “Trip and stumble on the dot itself” and “Engage in pentatonic insomnia”).

I credit DuPlessis big-time for writing down, putting out, a bunch of proverbs, particularly the naked-on-the-page approach in “Draft 91.” First, a series of didactic statements is much different than her typical approach in poetry, so the proverbs are a kind of new path for DuPlessis (although because of the range of ideas presented, and the way subjects and tones are varied line-to-line, the poem in its totality is a collage, and thus similar to her other work).

Writing proverbs also isn’t easy because of there’s already a long and maybe impossible-to-top tradition of them. There’s the book in the Bible, many statements in the Talmud, Mishna, and Qur’an, plus those in the folklore traditions in just about every culture. In poetry, of course, there’s William Blake. His “Proverbs of Hell” just grins down at every one who even thinks of giving the form a try.

Given Blake’s stunning achievement, it’s perhaps no surprise that relatively few poets seem to give proverb-ing a whirl. The few that come to mind are Paul Eluard and Benjamin Peret, 152 Proverbes mis au goût du jour [152 Proverbs adapted to the taste of the day] (1925), parts of Wallace Steven’s “Adagia” (collected in Opus Posthumous (1957)), Thomas Merton’s “Proverbs,” and just this year, John Yau’s marvelous Exhibits.

Proverbs are also a tough to pull off successfully because condensed statements expressing some basic truth, practical precept or important fact of experience can easily, and quickly, turn obvious, boring, and/or too sweet. Many biblical proverbs strike me as very dull, for example, and some of Eluard and Peret’s surrealist collaborations fail to excite. Even among the many stunning and still-fresh Blake proverbs are a few that miss the mark (e.g., the cloying “To create a little flower is the labour of ages”and pedestrian “No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings”).

And so I don’t mind, it’s almost to be expected, that a few of DuPlessis’ proverbs in “Draft 91” seem too commonplace (including, for example, “The torn are always laden with further burdens” or “Don’t listen much to other people’s rules” [though the latter does work as a neat self-critique: the poet suggesting we not put too much stock in the proverbs she has just laid out!]). There hasn’t been a set of proverbs written yet in which there aren’t a few duds.

You can read all of DuPlessis’ “Proverbs” on-line as a pdf (click here), and of course I suggest you do. I here celebrate, and in some cases discuss a bit, a few from the poem that I found particularly striking.

Some of DuPlessis’ proverbs seem, and actually are, eminently practical, yet are unusual enough that they are also somehow weird and thus open up beyond the simply sensible. These include the first proverb in the poem:

To pass a successful night in the forest, don’t sleep in the clothes you cooked in.

and this one, from about two-thirds of the way through:

Don’t bottle honey in long-necked jars unless you own a very long spoon.

There are also proverbs that pertain directly to writing. One of these – “To write is to chose” – seems too close to cliche, but on the other hand:

One can never stabilize the line of signs.

seems fresh or vital in its idea that the words that follow one after another in a fragment, phrase, or sentence can never be fixed, and might at any time explode. Similar ideas, I think, are embodied in this one:

Write hungry sentences.

Now that’s a suggestion or imperative that gets me thinking. What might sentences be hungry for? Hungry for readers? Other sentences, more language?

There are also a few proverbs that emphasize the welcoming and seeking out of the difficulties and complications of experience (including while reading Drafts, I’d say). Here are two lifted from “Draft 91” and paired here for your enjoyment:

This entanglement reveals ever more attractive labyrinths.

If legible, find the illegible in it.

Among the most memorable of DuPlessis’ proverbs are those that bite, that take a good hard swipe at the culture we live in. The most caustic may be the following, a two sentence line:

Economic bulimia equals social anorexia. But who is gathering up the vomit?

There’s nothing at all cloying or cute about that, is there? Other proverbs provide equally bracing, and not at all uplifting, takes on big picture socio-cultural matters, such as:

When π is solved for, perhaps there will also be justice.

Good ol’ pi, and sigh, yes, a deep and heavy sigh here, for justice. DuPlessis here sharply asserts that universal moral rightness (including ethics, fairness, and equity) cannot be attained. It’s an uncomfortable thought. Pi, an “irrational number,” will of course never be solved. As you may have heard, pi earlier this year was calculated out to 2.7 trillion digits, some 123 billion more than the previous record; reciting one number per second, it would take 85,000 years to speak it aloud.

This next proverb is also sharply pointed:

The Spider poisons for only an hour, the Justice Department saturates.

With “The Spider” up front, this one sounds a bit like, has a small echo of Blake, who features many animals, including “the spider,” in his set of proverbs. The other brilliant aspect there is in the sentence’s final clause. The verb therein – “saturates” (which I read here as meaning “to soak thoroughly or completely”) – not only carries forward the “poisons for an hour” trope from the sentence’s first clause, but via connotation and association points directly at United States government officials. Specifically, the lawyer and others who in 2002 concluded that waterboarding – the interrogation technique whereby water poured over a damp cloth draped over a person’s mouth and nose creates an uncontrollable physiological sensation of drowning and imminent fear of death – is “simply a controlled acute episode” and therefore legal. The encapsulated critique of DuPlessis’ proverb perfectly hits the mark.

Some of the more intriguing DuPlessis proverbs concern sleep and dreams. Here are two, which as above I’ve lifted from the poem and paired below. The first of these, I think you will agree, can apply as much to events that take place well before you getting to the land of N1 –> N2 –> N3 –> N2 –> REM:

Things suddenly happen on a bed.

Though always on time, you must run for the train in your dreams.

There are many others I could single out, but again, you can read all of them yourself, so I’m going to end my discussion (although please below images of the four collected editions of Drafts) with the one I find the ne plus ultra of “Draft: 91: Proverbs.” Here it is:

Wild horses wouldn’t melt in my mouth.

This one, the way it brings together that which normally wouldn’t, in a way that surprises and makes me laugh, seems to chime brightly in the surrealist bell-tower. The proverb’s first image channels the mustangs of the American West, the Przewalski’s Horse that roams the steppes of Central Asia, and maybe even the Rolling Stone’s tune. Its final words – and hope this is not too much of a giggle-stretch – conjure up (it’s actually the opposite of) the half-century old advertising slogan for M&M’s!

But what I really like about this proverb is how it seems to reflect the confidence DuPlessis has in her laryngeal chops and poetic voice. No matter how untamed and muscular the experience of the world may be, or how strong and wild the ideas that come a-galloping through, she’ll be able to keep it intact, and work to express it all in language. I dig the powerful certainty of that conviction.

Yes, I dig it so much so that I (forgive me) collaged it up, in homage to one weird and wonderful proverb:

“Wild horses wouldn’t melt in my mouth.”


The Collections (so far) of Drafts

Drafts 1-38, Toll
(Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001)
[5.5" x 8.5" || 278 pages]
[poems written between 1986 and 1999]


Drafts 39-57, Pledge,
With Draft, Unnumbered: Précis
(Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2004)
[5.5" x 8.5" || 235 pages]
[poems written between 1999 and 2003]


Torques: Drafts 58-76
(Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2007)
[5.5" x 8.5" || 143 pages]
[poems written between 2003 and 2005]


Pitch: Drafts 77-95
(London: Salt Publishing, 2010)
[5.5" x 8.5" - 181 pages]
[poems written between 2006 and 2008]


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