- The Poetics of Midrash in Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts
Few contemporary poets inhabit the tradition of modernist long poetry as self-consciously as Rachel Blau DuPlessis. DuPlessis’s modernist credentials are extensive. She was mentored by objectivist poet George Oppen (whose selected letters she edited), wrote her dissertation on Paterson and the Pisan Cantos, and has, as Lynn Keller argues, been profoundly influenced by Robert Duncan’s developments in serial form.1 Drafts, her major work-in-progress, owes its title, in part, to Ezra Pound’s A Draft of XXX Cantos, but DuPlessis’s willingness to borrow from Pound does not signify a friendly debt. She has written that while her work “was involved with Pound from its inception,” her intentions were to offer “a critical resistance to the impact of [his] work,” “to make an alternative Cantos, a counter-Cantos” (Blue Studios 250). This statement comes from an essay in which she criticizes Pound’s politics and his poetics as being fractured by “paradoxical, embittering contradictions”: on the one hand, The Cantos develop an open poetic practice grounded upon “deferrals and displacements of meaning,” yet on the other, Pound held to a notion of “language without sociality, language as pure force beamed into the brains of others,” a belief that had some bearing upon his totalitarian (and [End Page 114] anti-Semitic) politics (249–50). As the genealogy of her poem’s title reveals, DuPlessis fully engages with the “Pound tradition” of long poetry by way of critical resistance, actively revising, countering, and extending the experimental practices of modernism and its accompanying ideologies.
That contentious stance is visible in “Draft 85: Hard Copy,” first published in 2007, in which DuPlessis speaks back to her mentor Oppen in an homage to and dialogue with his long poem “Of Being Numerous.” The twenty-ninth section of Oppen’s poem is an address to his daughter, confessing that the speaker “cannot judge” the living, subjected as he is to “The baffling hierarchies / Of father and child” (181–82). Oppen’s humility in the face of biological and social orders, including, by implication, patriarchy (another key inheritance resisted in Drafts), is picked up by DuPlessis in “Hard Copy” but in a more historically mediated fashion. She begins her own section 29 with an allusion to the biblical story of Rachel’s theft of her father’s household idols, “rare black stones” that Rachel hides: “cover them with the ass of female claim, / settle in for the duration, and refuse / (‘being in the way of women’) / to rise” (Pitch 63).2 In the context of Drafts as a whole (and “Hard Copy” as a poem), the biblical narrative is of interest for many reasons. It employs euphemism in order to demonstrate an anxiety over the menstruating female body; it evokes the historical blending of the aesthetic, the religious, and the domestic in the form of a household idol; it is a story of a woman engaging in theft, deception, and marginality as a form of resistance to patriarchal order; and in a pun DuPlessis employs elsewhere in the work, the story of another “Rachel” is extended into the poet’s position as artist and woman.
In light of this history, DuPlessis can respond more deliberately to Oppen:
Say you are neither disloyal nor pilferer. And sit tight on the icons and rocks of meaning [End Page 115] gathered from the paternal household, the talismanic counterfoils, even the fewest and smallest from the fierce storehouses of articulation and defensiveness. You will remake these goods in your own blood.(Pitch 63)
Rejecting the accusation that the woman poet is merely derivative or, alternatively, one who denies her own inheritance, the poem calls for a deliberate retention, even occupation, of the paternalistic artworks and texts (that “fierce storehouse of articulation”), icons of the past which would presumably include a work like “Of Being Numerous.” Adopting that other Rachel’s position, albeit more actively, the poet calls for a re-creation of what are already, although perhaps insufficiently, “goods,” through the physical and artistic adaptation of that otherwise silenced female body. Within the context of a poem that echoes, rewrites, and directly quotes...