Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ ongoing project Drafts (begun in 1985) is a sort of anti-epic long poem that formally resembles Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Like the Cantos, Drafts too consists of separate yet interdependent canto-length poems, in a series that is supposed to continue until ‘Draft 114’ (quite a random number it turns out as DuPlessis relates in her book of essays Blue Studios: Poetry and its Cultural Work: when asked by friend & poet Bob Perelman how long the poem would be, she answered ‘100, like Pound’s Cantos’, before realizing that she had confused Pound & Dante. DuPlessis ends up with the number 114, ‘as a total approximately parallel to the Cantos had also just a usefully large number…’).
Although Pound’s poem does not precisely follow the guidebook for epic poems much more than does DuPlessis’ Drafts (neither are predominantly narrative, or tell of heroic deeds). One fundamental difference, however, is that Pound himself, in his later years, is widely regarded to have considered his poem a failure, precisely because it was not deemed to cohere (W.B. Yeats wrote, referring to the Cantos, that, ‘[Pound] has not poured all the wine into the bowl’). DuPlessis, on the other hand, makes precisely the fragment a core notion & even a prerequisite for her Drafts. As Patrick Pritchett remarks a review, “The scale of Drafts is monumental; its focus anti-monumental”
Drafts is in many ways an enactment of drafts, fragments, the unfinished; a continual scrambling, sprawling beginning of a possible offering of an alternative to Pound’s absolute aestheticism / aesthetic absolutism, his hatred for the mediocre, the middle. In fact, it is precisely this middle that Du Plessis wants to write – in between spaces & meanings; a rhizomatic middle, a constellation, a conflagration, where words, images, meanings recur & recurrence itself recurs, folds back on itself. It is apt that Du Plessis – who is probably better known as a feminist critic than poet – when talking about a central conceit of Drafts, should cite Sappho (the ancient (bisexual?) Greek poetess from the Island of Lesbos of whose work famously, only fragments remain) rather than Pound, explaining that she tries to write so that:
if a single shard were rescued in the aftermath of some historical disaster, that one shard would be so touching and lucid as to give the future an idea of who we were. It is like our reading Sappho after her total erasure
Lars von Trier at Cannes clumsily, offensively, but perhaps typically, illustrated that artists are sometimes the worst exponents of their own work. The same is true for Ezra Pound whose art, on the whole – in its fragmentary nature (not, of course, in its anti-Semitism) –is at odds with his Fascist, anti-Semitic, often ludicrous ideas about art, politics, and the monetary system. There is no whole with a perfect spit & polish finish. It is precisely the fragment, unfinished & in excess of any whole that cannot be polished away with an ideology of complete aestheticism or style (Pound chose Fascism over communism because he preferred their style; claims Jeffrey M. Perl in an (incidentally brilliant) series of lectures on literary Modernism). DuPlessis’ Drafts thus, although grand in form, size, and even concept, also included – wired into that very concept – a rot, an open-endedness, an absoluteness, but not one of human design (like Pound’s Fascism), but precisely the innumerable, unnameable voids that always already suffuse any attempt at completeness.
a plethora of stars…and the dot…that it defines us and we barely know what or how. An absolute and a-human sense of scale into which these works get swallowed up – a dot, a point, a little flicker.
and glut in the wonder
of all such singularity became the work.
Du Plessis’ poems are often read as feminist poems (probably in part because she is a feminist critic); however, in even more explicit terms than the above, she has stated that her work is first centred around this unnameable void *‡
… there is a drone off the horizon and I was thinking some of the deep poems that I read, there are two kinds of poems and one are the voiceless, the people being given voice… and the other is the deep void or silence of the universe, the voicelessness of the universe, which is a very generative and positive void, in which, through which, out of which one can speak words…that’s a place one writes out of and then one writes out of the silence. So there are really in a way two kinds of silence in a poem, there is a silence that wants to speak that needs to be given voice, the Medusa… and there is this other silence of disappearance of the Void…all that we are is space, and it’s just hardly that we are ourselves at all and this is part of what my poetry is I am speaking from these two kinds of silence, the positive and a negative one.
The only slight quibble I have here is DuPlessis’ use of the definite article to describe void: the void of the universe. This suggests an underlying, transcendent void; generative and positive, but somehow separate from the universe, from the reality that it generates. This does not do justice to her own poems, in which there are as many voids as situations; in which each poem explores its own very specific situation, emerges from and addresses a void specific to its particular little dot, point, flicker.
*‡ Writers Talk with Mary Oppen, Anita Barrows and Frances Jaffer, Produced by Norma Smith at KPFA Berkeley, 1985 or 1986,audio recording available at PENN Sound