Wednesday, December 17, 2008



TORQUES: DRAFTS 58-76 by Rachel Blau DuPlessis
(Salt Publishing, Cambridge, U.K., 2008)

“Suggest Another Mechanism Of Order”:
Rachel Blau Duplessis, Torques, and the Uncertainties of Artistic Practice

In her recent collection of poems, Torques, Rachel Blau DuPlessis reflects on both the limitations and the possibilities of language when faced with loss, a thematic approach that proves striking. Part of an ongoing long poem project in the tradition of Pound and Williams, her work takes the shape of canto-like “drafts,” a form that in itself evokes the opportunities and obstacles inherent in the writing process. Often pairing the incapacities of words with suggestions of activism through artistic practice, DuPlessis raises significant questions about the responsibilities of the poet in the twenty-first century, a role that proves at once meditative and political.

In exploring these themes, the poems in Torques elaborate on two preceding volumes of work, Drafts 1-38, Toll and Drafts 39-57, Pledge, which both establish poetry as a register for the social dynamics of one’s time. Although at times portraying language as insubstantial when faced with overwhelming political grief, DuPlessis suggests that in art, for many marginalized groups, reclaiming agency truly begins. She writes, for example, in Toll:
Thus my voice is empty, but I speak and sing
only of this.
The undersentences
that rise, tides of sediment, the little
stuff agglutinating in time, debris
                  I sing.
Cannot not do it so.

In this passage, DuPlessis creates a speaker who envisioned herself as being vulnerable, an idea conveyed through such phrases as “my voice is empty” and “my shallow heart has flooded.” By juxtaposing this sense of powerlessness with the compulsion to create, or, in other words, to “sing” of the “undersentences/that rise,” the poem establishes the creative process as a means by which to record and assess the currents of history, beginning with “the little/stuff agglutinating” in everyday existence.

DuPlessis explores similar ideas in Pledge, the volume of drafts preceding Torques. Frequently invoking the political through the intensely personal, the speakers found in Pledge also express an interest in the connection between artistic constraints and social inequity. She writes, for example:
Metaphor? A snarl some of whose knots
Have been pulled so close and tight and hard
The rough, the smooth, the sleek, the rotted,
That one is compelled to act.
But how?
Unpick the knot? or cut? or both? and splice?
Perhaps it’s not a knot. No metaphor is right.
And hence this so called poem
suspects them, too much, too many, rough and ready,
uneven, demanding, illogical,
not prettied or curried in the manner of good poems.

Depicting art as being shaped by culturally dominant groups, who determine that “good poems” should be “prettied or curried,” DuPlessis suggests that conventions of art often reinforce the marginalization of groups in society, yet in the end prove subversive. Because she defines metaphor something that “compels” one “to act,” the poem, like others in the collection, implies that awareness and understanding of these social inequities often begins in the creative process. This poem and others like it establish themes that resurface at the start of Torques, which, like DuPlessis’s previous collections, considers the possibilities of a limited lexicon when faced with intense political disappointments.

By beginning Torques with a poem that describes the death of a college student by suicide, DuPlessis dashes the readers’ hopes for a definitive starting point, instead following the “tides of sediment” that she has mapped during her first two books. Using this opening image as a metaphor for subjugation in political life, the poem, “In Situ,” suggests that such iniquities have remained present throughout history. For example, she writes in this piece:
One’s building used as weapon
leaves a mark

one’s stairwell
intimate dull concrete

one’s city
broken apart,

high-pitched twist
of sirens, useless

work of a moment, it leaves a shadow.

In this passage, DuPlessis conflates the student’s death with the aftermath of war, suggesting that an individual’s death proves just as tragic, an idea that is often overshadowed by the “Hollywood militarism” that “makes some dead inconsequent”. Invoking the cultural frustration present in her two previous collections, the beginning of Torques establishes such artistic endeavors as being a means toward recognizing the political dimension often present in personal tragedies, an idea that transcends specific social injustices.

Just as in Pledge and Toll, DuPlessis uses this scene to transition to a reflection on narrative convention and its potential for both activism and subjugation. In a piece entitled “Draft 59: Flash Back,” she juxtaposes linguistic convention with parodies of such traditions, a combination that proves thought-provoking throughout. She writes in “Flash Back,” for instance:
Why use the alphabet to organize,
                  and why not? Discuss.
                  Suggest another mechanism of order.
                  One form and then another.
Something that sort of ends, but sort of not.
                  The alphabet is existentially funny.
                  Lettristic vaudeville, a blood-orange horizon.

Mimicking the “question and answer” format of a classroom, DuPlessis implies that although such linguistic structures remain inevitable, they often reflect dominant ideas in the given culture. By telling reader to “Suggest another mechanism of order,” the poem highlights the unavoidability of such artistic constraints. Like other works in the book, “Flash Back” pairs hopelessness with continued attempts to subvert these narrative “mechanisms,” proving at once philosophical and grounded in concrete detail.

In doing so, DuPlessis often creates texts that can be read in multiple ways, ultimately subverting this linguistic “mechanism of order” through her use of from, rather than the limited lexicon that she describes throughout Torques. These ideas are exemplified by her poem “Scroll,” in which she juxtaposes two columns of text which may be read separately or concurrently, a form that enables her piece to take on a variety of metaphors as it progresses. She writes, for instance, in “Scroll” AT THIS LINK courtesy of Jacket).

Throughout this piece, DuPlessis mimics the format of a newspaper, a choice suggestive of the culture of spectatorship surrounding tragedy. The two parts of the poem, when read separately, imply that the speaker’s desire for a language conducive to activism, in which the “Snide Rhetorics of ‘scare quotes’” have been replaced, remains unrealistic. When read together, though, the two sections of the poem present a more complex vision of this same message, in which the audience perceives barriers that the speaker does not, suggesting that some artistic endeavors prove both redemptive and illusory.

Often examining the role of gender in shaping her speakers’ experiences of this multifaceted creative process, DuPlessis establishes feminism as being a stigmatized ideology, incorporating dark humor and a quick wit throughout. Often presenting women’s activism as futile, much like conveying political grief with a limited lexicon, DuPlessis suggests that just as with poetic endeavors, recognizing feminism as valuable remains key in reclaiming political agency. She writes, for example:
I zip my body bag, donate myself to science:
                   ‘feminist.’ And secular to boot.
Wall-eyed between suitcase and body bag
I asked ‘are alterations possible?’
                  A poufed-out plastic bag blows by,
                   ‘Pathmark’ is what it says.
                                    This is an ambiguous answer,
                                    whatever the question.

In this passage, DuPlessis creates a speaker who recognizes the limitations of claiming the label of “feminist” in today’s America, yet persists at analyzing social inequities through the lens of gender. Suggesting that feminists remain, quite literally, rare specimens in modern society, the poems in Torques present language as being at once liberating and highly gendered. Just as the speaker receives an “ambiguous answer” when caught between flight and capitulation, DuPlessis presents a complex relationship between activism, language and gender, ideas that recur throughout the collection.

Her focus on feminism and its limitations becomes increasingly prominent as the book progresses, often expounding on ideas from Toll and Pledge while creating a more complex vision of gender politics and their presence in the creative process. In Toll, for example, DuPlessis lists various literary representations of women in previous books, suggesting that even before the creative process begins, the page remains something of a gender loaded space. She writes in a piece entitled “Draft X: Letters,” for example:
Rachel, the pinkish color of a powder.
Triangle leap. Solomon’s seal…
Woman, as a well-inked
                  Letterpress. Kohl round her eye;
                  She splots on the page as she falls.
X, it marks the spot. It hits the spot.
                  And marks taboo, and intersect.

By invoking biblical characters like Rachel and Solomon, DuPlessis suggests that prominent cultural ideas, in this case Christian ones, often shape representations of women in literature. Implying that such convention can both limit and inspire art, the poem’s transition to the image of a written page evokes the possibilities of both subversion and further subjugation through artistic endeavors. The woman serving as “a well-inked/Letterpress” for established order, she also “marks taboo, and intersect,” a dual role that DuPlessis suggests marginalized individuals must negotiate while creating art.

Likewise, throughout Pledge, DuPlessis depicts the artistic process as being dual natured for marginalized groups, in this case implying that such endeavors remain encased in a biased rhetorical structure. Frequently deconstructing the colloquial, the poems in Pledge suggest that everyday speech remains a subtly politicized space. She writes, for instance, in “Draft 48: Being Astonished”:
Note how odd the story seems from what you now have called the
“other side”
of “the story.”
Try to figure out how many facets something called the other
side might have, if one said “sides.” See whether the two sides are, in
practice, enough. Forget “sides.” Enter.
Identify the qualities and textures of silence, the materials
Involved in silencing, the slight rustles or traces of the silent.

Using a common phrase to illustrate the ways everyday speech reflects undertones within a given culture, DuPlessis presents attempts at diversity and inclusiveness by those in power as reductive. A metaphor that conveys the inextricability of social injustice from language and other social structures, “Being Astonished” presents equality as involving a dramatic change in worldview—one that remains impossible within many linguistic frameworks.

In Torques, DuPlessis further complicates these themes, relating them to both the shortcomings and the possibilities of language. By invoking some of the tropes of literary tradition, such as direct rhyme, quatrains, couplets, Torques demonstrates that the literature of protest can, and often does, operate within such constraints. She writes, for example, in “Draft 64: Forward Slash”:
The poem is the fosse
in which to cower
hunching down
by warehouses of power

a sludge-filled ditch
where futurists once lay;
now backwashed debris,
now box store splay.

Presenting a dissenting message within the guise of literary conventions, DuPlessis uses form to comment on content. The poem being “the fosse/in which to cower” in the face of cultural dominance, the rebellious lines of the piece are literally dominated by the pronounced direct rhyme scheme being used. Implying that such nonconformist writings are often shaped by the tropes that came before them, poems like “Forward slash” demonstrate that tradition’s constraints can be subverted.

Lastly, DuPlessis conveys the resilience of language through a series of poems entitled “The Deletions,” which appear throughout Torques, Pledge, and Toll. By blacking out large portions of the text, the works suggest that dissenting poems like “Forward Slash” remain inevitable no matter what the constraints. She writes, for example, in “Draft 68: Threshold,” which appears in the third volume of the poem project and can be viewed AT THIS LINK (courtesy of Ron Silliman's Blog):

By censoring portions of her own text, DuPlessis suggests that the suppression of questions about powerlessness, loss, and political fulfillment remains inevitable, yet at the same time futile, particularly for the arts. “The Deletions,” like other poems in Torques, presents a complex vision of what poetry is and is not capable of achieving, particularly in the political landscape of the twenty first century, a project that remains thought-provoking throughout.


Kristina Marie Darling is a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. She has written on contemporary literature for The Boston Review, New Letters, The Mid-American Review, Third Coast, The Warwick Review, and other journals. Recent awards include residencies at Rockmirth and Writers and Books.

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