- Open Studios: Rachel Blau Duplessis's Blue Studios:Poetry and Its Cultural Work
An essay's swerve can make the trip. First sky. Then the waves. Sky. The edge of the water. Sudden breathless teeming immersion. Then sky again and pray you're not becalmed since the doldrums are an exploration's true danger. Rachel Blau Duplessis's striking new collection of essays, Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work, is at its best when it is roving at a clip, when she's doing what she says "interesting essays" do, "offering knowledge in passionate and cunning intersections of material, in ways excessive, unsummarizable, and (oddly, gloriously) comforting by virtue of their intransigent embeddedness and their desire, waywardly, to riffle and roam" (37). Duplessis's is a poetics both of the riffle and of the riff, where an ecstatic, disordering, referential page-flipping and a musical, utopic cat's-paw play with literary and linguistic surface effects long to disrupt more deeply embedded ideological structures, primarily those of gender. Whether readers will find Duplessis's essays "comforting" will depend on their finding comfort in some discomfort, particularly in her challenges to familiar forms of subjectivity and writing.
With this volume, DuPlessis continues the prose work begun in her first collection of essays, The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice, and extends the work of her long poem series, Drafts. All of the essays here concern women writers, feminist politics, a feminine poetics, gendered personal and literary histories, or some combination of the above. Many do so in ways that manifest her desire for writing that could be, as DuPlessis writes,
a poem, an essay, a meditation, a narrative, an epigram, an autobiography, an anthology of citations, a handbill found on the street, a photograph, marginalia, glossolalia, and here we go here we go here we go again.(210-11)
This giddy and densely satisfying mélange of scholarship and melos typifies Duplessis's best work. Rich hybridity is especially evident in "f-words; An Essay on the Essay," where she both asserts and performs the inherently transgeneric and transgressive nature of the essay itself. Here Duplessis's yoking of selves, aesthetic forms, and gendered identities cross-implicates her topics and their discourses. In this essay, more than in any other in the collection, her urgent language and condensed analyses propel us through her text, constantly reminding us of the indissoluble relationships among writing, representation, and thought. "f-words" functions as a kind of ars poetica for much of the volume, certainly for the best of it.
Duplessis's essay is propelled by the partially submerged engines of Theodor Adorno and Virginia Woolf. She moves from Woolf's claim that the self is "the essayist's most proper but most dangerous and delicate tool" (38) to Adorno's statement that the essay's "structure negates system" (40). Her essay engages at least two different understandings of Woolf's assertion of the "dangerous" nature of the self as guide and heuristic. First, there is danger in the sense of something fraught with problems, specifically the danger of offering a reified Subject that remains static, a represented self that participates in his or her own cultural constraints rather than cracking through them with the force of linguistic disruptions. There is also the sense of the "dangerous" as a value, a weapon, something that makes the essay powerful by forcing the reader to stand back, to witness an intimate revolt, an explosion, perhaps something akin to Glissant's disruptive aesthetic of turbulence or chaos (and its gesture toward a contingent ethics).
Turning to Adorno's contention that the essay "negates system," DuPlessis suggests that the genre itself might be a useful agent in the struggle to undermine rigid and oppressive systems of gender and language. Indeed, one of Duplessis's major aesthetic, theoretical, and, ultimately, political contributions is to apply to a feminist project Adorno's understanding of form as sedimented content and his insistence on the critical need for innovative, defamiliarizing, and complex modes of writing to disrupt normative representations of emergent political or ideological problems...