The first book of poetry by Rachel Blau DuPlessis that I owned was Tabula Rosa (Potes and Poets Press, 1987). I had just entered the MA Program at Temple University, where she would become my workshop mentor and, eventually, dissertation advisor. The book features the first two of what became a decades-long project in serial poetry, Drafts (1987-2013). An excerpt from “Draft #1: It” exemplifies the language that drew me in then — and more than 30 years later it still comes as a jolt:
No “books” no ministers no tow art
“no sandpoems” built of it, not on it
it is sacred what you can do with it
the general aura of quest just as a baseline.
Since that time, DuPlessis has written many books of poetry and criticism. Ethics are central to her craft as she has confronted such issues as the marginalization and oppression of people based on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation; the diminishment of what the philosopher Hannah Arendt once referred to as the “world held in common;” and the erosion of trust in the arts as a viable instrument of social change.
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The last volume of Drafts, titled Surge: Drafts 96-114, came out in 2013 (Salt). Its completion posed the obvious question: What now? DuPlessis recounted to me the experience of simultaneously retiring from her faculty career at Temple and completing this major poetry project:
A friend pointed out (in a great Worry) that I was retiring (2011), then (2012) stopping the long poem I’d been composing for 25 years — wasn’t I a little afraid of what would happen (that is, in my translation of this message — are you crazy?). The answer was, “yes, a little,” and I did not know what would happen (or whether I would regret this risk), but really did cast myself off into projects “experimentally” — to see what would happen.
Working experimentally has meant she reinvented her poetic career two ways. First, she began making actual visual collages and then series of works with poetry and collage together resulting in two books and one on-line chapbook. Second, still working from this space “after” one multi-decade project, she began to write books of poetry now grouped under the rubric Traces, with Days. re-envisioning projects that would become on the one hand, interstitial and, on the other, moving toward the opening up of another realm of work, one with roots in collage. “Entering the actual visual spaces of collage,” DuPlessis told me, became a critical step in “instantiating my collage poetics by making visual text as well as poetic structures.” When I asked her in a recent email exchange to talk about this transition, in which collage became a constitutive form of thinking and writing, she stated:
I was trying to attend to a mode of visual art to which I had always been deeply attracted, despite having no particular visual or technical training. I had taken a step into two collage poems in Drafts made in color (with text), and only published in full in a separate book (a bit rare but in print) called The Collage Poems of Drafts (2011). […] I was ready for a large serial project mingling writing and collage. I think of the process as “making pages,” a rubric whose meanings and scope I am just beginning to understand.
The connection between collage and text started to shape around the political climate of the early 2000s, a period that DuPlessis described to me as “darkening and getting weirder in ways I had few insights to state in analytic terms. The economic crises, the blockages, and mean-nesses — I just began working intuitively with these political feelings and odd ‘normal’ images in fairly ugly, angry, baffled, and off-putting ways.”
Graphic Novella, published in 2015 (Xexoxial Editions), puts the pieces into motion in stark combinative visuals and poetry that together encapsulate the tension between economic deprivation and capitalist accumulation, the frustrations of seeking social justice and the ability of poetry at least to document the complex and baffled emotions around that yearning and frustration.
The work, filled with unease of theme and statement, and unease about what I was actually making, slowly coagulated, image with writing, and got sequenced, thus took shape almost like a “trash book” or “scrapbook,” a “summary account involving daily life,” at any rate something graphic, flat out about lives today, particularly about “waste people.”
Examining the political through the iconic images of automobiles, cameras, expensive watches, and other big ticket items led DuPlessis to seek a way of having the book “pass beyond the avant-garde question about what the ‘new’ is in favor of the much more desperate question ‘what is the news’ and how to understand what is going on in every crisis-laden aspect of life: political, economic, ecological […].” What emerges from these overlapping aspects is a web of meanings, no one of which can be entirely independent of the other.
If the impetus is political, Graphic Novella and other post-Drafts works also reappraise the idea of the book itself — specifically the poetry book, typically thought of as a collection of typographically uniform texts called “poems” — and cast into stark relief the historicity of the book as a form of organizing what and how we know the world around us. As DuPlessis described it:
It became clearer that doing collage with writing — making that kind of object — a work of collage-poems as a book — does break the frame of the book, particularly a book of (normal) poems. There is some ethos of illuminated manuscript and beauty, the dialogue between image and text, but collage poem work is not afraid of its oddity and potential ugliness.
She added that Graphic Novella allowed her “to ‘illustrate’ (and to propose) political insights and social feelings deep inside that had always been as much a part of my poetry as a cosmological wonder.”
With its investigative aura and reclamation of poetry as an art of linguistic pointing or deictic invention, DuPlessis sees her collage poems as part of her ongoing project of reimagining innovative poetries as a form of methodical culture work. In a collage included in Numbers (Materialist Press 2018), she writes in longhand and types out the sentence: “Collage is a deictic practice of debris.” The two sentences extend in diagonals across the visual elements on the page, which include a portion of a Coats & Clarks thread spool label, pieces of string, and notation pads. She explained:
The “debris” … comes from the desire to see and look by salvaging bits of the almost lost — the almost wasted — it is an ethical position in poetics. And the interactive readings across media challenge me to “make” those interpretable pages with various suggestive seams and junctures. More conventions of seeing/reading are in play, compounding one’s pleasure.
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. “I do not want to decorate my age,” she told me recently. “I want to investigate it, to explore it, feel through it and notice.”
Days and Works (Ahsahta 2017) explores this ethical dimension with newspaper clippings that conjoin and populate the pages in startling ways. This work collectively has a documentary feel in the way it conveys the curious, perplexed, angry, and reactive set of responses from a person looking around at her world: “Sometimes that sense of document just means a tiny person standing amid history and the universe and looking around,” she said. Accordingly, Days and Works takes up the challenge of documenting how any of us is situated at any given point in time by who and what we are and see and do. Taking notice is central to her deeply conscious, perspectival mode of looking and looking again.
The author’s confrontation of the contemporary as ongoing has never been more prominent than in these post-Drafts juxtapositions of materials and voices that illuminate our era at every turn. This conversation between materials and media has allowed her to establish “an arc of musical on-goingness built by the poem — voices, interactions, clashes, senses of shape made in spacetime by the poem. All this to make a lucid and full experience for the reader.” She noted, “Dialogues of various kinds have always been part of my poetry (as genre, as tonal self-interruptions — lots of ways). I find multiple juxtaposition a good way of negotiating and presenting materials.”
Locating the author’s movement across these complex poetic formations and practices requires an immersion in the varied materials, forms, and linguistic turns DuPlessis recognizes and incorporates. Negotiating the political in light of the aesthetic and the aesthetic in light of the political has meant seeking out new forms of making, as well as re-appraising what work that communicates on multiple registers represents.
DuPlessis’s multivalent recent work has at its root a clear-eyed understanding that “many people, including me, can no longer settle time, air, rooms, food, insight. One response is trying to evaluate my art — does it stand up well in light of all we have gone through in the months of COVID quarantine, the Black Lives Matter protest, and the increasing recognition of the malfeasance and probable criminality of the Trump regime. I go further writing about our long-term chronic crisis with any further exploration of aesthetic-social questions and tactics?” Such questions bear on the connections between poetic expression and public accountability, the artwork as object and the object as social document, concerns that all of her recent poetry and collage have unpacked as a way for the reader to see anew.
“It is the endless dialogue of poesis — of making,” DuPlessis described. Remarkably, in a career that has spanned more than four decades, she continues to make work that engages with the world in important and prescient ways. Her poetry illuminates the spectacular possibilities of human perception and social engagement, particularly for those who struggle to see the world from different perspectives, and the central role the arts play in bringing these possibilities to our attention.