In Review

Surge by Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Salt, 2013.

cover of Surge

Reviewed April 1, 2017 by Paul Jaussen.

Ending, Beginning

The American long poem has an ending problem. It is an overgeneralization, simultaneously helpful and hasty, but we might say that the early stages of the modern long poem were dominated by male authors with ambivalent ends. The next period in that literary history, which may be coming to its own end and passing on to something else, saw the development of numerous major long poems by women, works that offered new political, historical, and cultural aspirations while transforming our understanding of ending. Endings, after all, are ambivalent, multivocal occasions. An ending can be read as a gesture of power, finality, stasis, completion, mastery, and totality, or it can be a sign of fragility, resignation, loss, silence, hospitality, and farewell. It would be an unhelpful generalization to attempt to strictly map these different valuations of ending onto gender; as poet, critic, scholar, and collagist Rachel Blau DuPlessis puts it in the introduction to Surge: Drafts 96-114, “any stereotypical observation—however situationally true—risks restating (re-instantiating) patterns we want to reject” (9). Consider the multiple inflections of ending, then, as a range of potentiality always actualized by the surprising, singular conditions of the poem.

With the publication of Surge, DuPlessis stages her version of a long poetic ending. Surge is the final addition to her opus Drafts, a text 26 years in the making and published over five volumes. As its title suggests, Drafts is a poem that formalizes the endless processes of writing, revision, extension, and addition. In doing so, the poem’s recurring modes of attention—literary history, daily life in a postmodern world, the formation of the subject in and through language, the intersections of language, ethnicity, and gender, the losses of a traumatic century—are constantly written and rewritten, since “With words, the world / is more than is the case” (Surge 87).

In keeping with that ethos of process, DuPlessis’s innovative formal solution to the long poem’s end was discovered during the composition of Drafts. Structured according to a series of “folds,” the poem turns back upon itself every 19 “Drafts,” rewriting and expanding its earlier elements to produce the next sequence of 19 poems. From these folds emerge “lines” of poems crisscrossing the numerical movement of the text. The “line of 2,” for instance, is constituted by “Draft 2: She,” “Draft 21: Cardinals,” “Draft 40: One Lyric,” “Draft 59: Flash Back,” “Draft 78: Buzz Track,” and “Draft 97: Rubrics.” Inspired by midrash, the Jewish tradition of textual commentary, each poem in the line becomes a commentary upon all of the others, establishing a network of intertextual relationships that make possible multiple reading pathways through Drafts. Thus, the final poem, “Draft 114: Exergue and Volta” does not constitute closure or completion so much as it establishes the conditions for a new reading, another “turn” (volta) back into a remarkable network of poetry whose contours are now fully visible.

Poetic endings are not merely formal problems. Political and social “ends” are simultaneously instrumentalist and apocalyptic, suggesting both an agenda and a disaster beyond all plans, while personal ends are characterized by mourning, loss, memory, the ghosts of friends and lovers. Drafts has used commentary to turn and return to these human ends, establishing a poetics of social engagement inextricable from the movement of time. In Surge, engagement is always fragile and resistant, in need of constant revision. “Draft 96: Velocity” presents us with the “Recklessness of life inside its own / endangeredness” (23), a risk amplified by the inescapability of social and textual entanglement: “‘The bit of ugly, the glitch, the torn, the sweeper, the tender, / the constant reminder that things are being made, unmade / and tended’—you are now one part of all of this” (35). The tangles of gender are presented most explicitly in “Draft 101: Puppet Opera,” a midrash on Marcel Duchamp’s notes for a “hung / suspended woman” whom DuPlessis transforms into a female marionette in dialogue with “Another puppet, male.” When the male puppet claims a greater degree of freedom because of his “absence of strings,” the marionette reminds her partner of their inevitable connectedness: “I can’t tell much about you from where I am. But you should care about my situation because I could fall and hurt you” (49). The “hung/suspended woman” transforms an observation into a critique, a tending, and a claim, turning and returning language in several directions simultaneously. The multiple potential of language as social action embodies the ethics of Drafts as a whole, a writing of “Honesty / Observation / Analysis / Languages / And / A haunted hungering” (156).

The grid of Drafts keeps that haunted hungering alive, making possible not only the pleasure of endless future readings but also new beginnings. Since the publication of Surge, DuPlessis has developed several volumes that she calls “interstices,” writings coupled to Drafts that explore the spaces generated by the formal grid of the poem. We might think of the interstice texts as DuPlessis’s own reading of Drafts, often deploying alternative genres or modes. In Interstices, for example, the letter becomes a major genre, with the text composed as a correspondence to various friends and writers, real and imaginary, alive and dead. Graphic Novella puns on the “new” and “news” of the novel, exploring questions of plot and fiction while collaging extracts from the newspaper and popular culture, stories of ecological, political, and military disaster.

This turn to narrative concerns, while striking for the writer of a non-narrative long poem, is not entirely surprising. Plot, after all, possesses its own relationship to time, to beginnings and endings. DuPlessis’s inimitable poetic achievement comes from her remarkable capacity to write sensitively, attentively, ethically, and beautifully into time, the uncertainty of our shared future: “When to do the work of understanding and repairing? Is there time?” (Graphic Novella 102).

Works Cited

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Surge: Drafts 96-114. Cromer: Salt, 2013. 169 pp.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Interstices. Cambridge: Subpress, 2014. 105 pp.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Graphic Novella. West Lima: Xexoxial Editions, 2015. 120 pp

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Paul Jaussen’s essays on poetry and poetics have appeared in New Literary History, Contemporary Literature, Journal of Modern Literature, William Carlos Williams Review, and Jacket2. He is currently finishing a critical monograph entitled Writing In Real Time: Emergent Poetics from Whitman to the Digital. He teaches literature at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan.