- Reviewed by
2012 was a banner year for poet and critic Rachel Blau DuPlessis. She finished the original plan for her multi-volume poem Drafts and finished the final critical work of a trilogy that included The Pink Guitar (1990) and Blue Studios (2006). Those collections combined studies of individual poets with more general theoretical essays examining the gendering of writing practices (and feminist alternatives). Blue Studios included essays that reflexively interrogated the essay form as well as essays in which the critic reflected on her own poetic work. Purple Passages, by contrast, assiduously follows a particular plot line of literary history, specifically in the poetics of American male identity-formation in the mid-twentieth century. DuPlessis brings to this new book the same combination that has characterized her work throughout her career, juxtaposing sophisticated, intricate readings and broad historical and theoretical awareness. In the process, she once again forecloses any reading practice that is naïve to its own implications with regard to gender identity and sexualities. For these reasons, Purple Passages is an enlightening and sometimes disturbing work.
The book's central premise is that male poets in "the Pound tradition," far from adhering to rigid masculine stereotypes, were in fact exercising "a male-imperial potential for ranging across and deploying a variety of sex-gender stances" while at the same time denying that potential to women (6). The royal color of the title underlines the claim that "this imperial range is central to experimental poetry by men" (6). DuPlessis argues that the only subjects missing from these multi-generational "passages" between men were actual women.
The first chapter provides an excellent example. Ezra Pound chopped ninety-eight lines from Mina Loy's 122-line poem "The Effectual Marriage"—Pound renamed it "The Ineffectual Marriage"—thereby vitiating the ironic gender critique contained within the original poem and making it a relatively conventional portrait of an unhappy union. However, DuPlessis argues, [End Page 397] when Pound edited "The Waste Land," he cut out precisely those parts that presented the most stereotypical gender roles and instead "foregrounded . . . a striking empathy for the gender-doubled transgressive searcher(s) tested by the trials of waste-land sexuality" typified by Tiresias. Thus Pound assigned Eliot the voice of "wounded manhood" while reserving "phallic manhood" for himself (47). However, DuPlessis argues, T. S. Eliot's endnotes to "The Waste Land" serve to reinscribe the phallic; the "multiple, contradictory gender positions [of the poem] combined with the imperial, authoritative range of the notes are precisely patriarchal" (57).
Later, the young Louis Zukofsky would write to Pound to say that Eliot must be shown "why, spiritually speaking, a wimpus was still possible and might even bear fruit of another generation"— the "wimpus" being "a prosthetic device for sustaining erections" (66). Thus the younger poet "stands ready to complete modernism: to prop it up, as needed; to revive it; to make it fecund" (67). This "arrogant and witty" claim is important, as Zukofsky strives to maintain an "affiliative" relationship with Pound, based on equality and shared purpose, rather than a "filiative" son-father relationship based on belatedness and tutelage. Zukofsky meets Pound's anti-Semitic insinuations that characterize his work as "feminized, perhaps parasitic"; Zukofsky insists that it is Pound who is belated, who has in fact copied a motif from the very first section of "A" (74). On DuPlessis's reading, the entirety of that "intricate" and "inexhaustible" text could be read as Zukofsky's attempt to "supercede" (in the Christian theological sense) "Pound's totalitarian categories" and thereby assert his own primacy (85).
The second part of Purple Passages moves forward to "New American Poetry," particularly that of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. Creeley's often self-effacing early poems tell "the story of male inadequacy. . . . Yet poetic competence, linguistic cunning and wit compensate," as they do in Eliot (102). Olson "began his career trying out a variety of contradictory sex-gender materials that sometimes had a place for powerful women," but...