Owen Bullock Reviews Rachel Blau DuPlessis

By | 1 November 2018

Days and Works by Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Ahsahta Press, 2017

The title of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s new book is a reversal of Hesiod’s Works and Days, which introduced the character of Pandora to the world. At the front of the book, before even the title page, is the statement ‘We are living in late catapultism’. The paraphrasing of Frederic Jameson immediately locates DuPlessis’ work as a postmodern artefact. It’s a fun bit of word play, and I hope to find out more about catapultism and the role it plays in the book. On the opposing page, another introductory fragment refers to uncanniness and then breaks the word ‘uncanni-/ness’ as if to emphasise its meaninglessness (especially since canny and uncanny are one of those strange pairings that can have the same meaning). Except for more of the uncanny, only ephemera can answer uncanniness, the text suggests – an overtly postmodern perspective (which celebrates the fragment rather than decrying, as did the Romantics, its implied loss). The text further sets up its preoccupations with the use of epigrams from Gertrude Stein and DuPlessis herself. They refer to the problem of how to speak when so much needs to be said – which is such a problem that the newspaper seems the best form – and of what can be real within so much diversity. These multiple references, in common with many other works from writers as diverse as T.S. Eliot and Leslie Scalapino, suggest the collage as vehicle.

Days and Works responds to these concerns in various forms, using prose and lineated sections, mostly without titles, in one long work. It was written during a single month when DuPlessis was resident in the Artist Program of the Djerassi Foundation in California. Newspaper clippings pop up with regularity, alongside concerns about the form of the book. The text begins with the topic of the origin of life, with a newspaper snippet about neutrinos and beside it, in lineated form, DuPlessis’s own response about ‘5 kinds of sex’, ending in some nonsense words. One creature’s excreta is another’s nutrition, and all is an ‘attempt at / sustained / resonance.’ The first full-page lineated poem begins with the line, ‘Swamp walk by the ocean’, suggesting an earlier point of evolution as well as its ongoing sense. Ending with the lovely, Joycean hybrid ‘Pentacoast’, it asserts an ecological rather than religious explanation for existence.

Blau DuPlessis follows this with a justification for writing bound up with desire and the philosophy of language use, outlined in ways reminiscent of a number of writers from Beckett onwards. This problem ends with her question: ‘How can so many things occupy the same space?’, which, I suppose, prompts further questions around how and when things do occupy the same space. I seem to remember distant philosophical arguments that part of what defines objects is their mutual exclusivity in terms of space, yet dual occupation is not only possible but has been observed scientifically as a living paradox. A poem about a dream concerns a walk on Rangitoto just off the coast of Auckland. It ends with the intriguing line ‘I was walking into time’. It is resonant for me having recently visited the island, where the evidence of frozen lava fields suggests that the past is indeed extraordinarily present.

The voice of the text comments self-consciously: ‘It named erasure and coping and performed that.’ It asks, ‘Is this a scrapbook?’, confirming collage as vehicle, with an attendant sense of incompleteness and contingency. Unfortunately, some of the prose doesn’t attempt to weed out cliché, as if that is another found element. It would be difficult to describe much of the prose as prose poetry, since it generally lacks use of poetic idiom. Some of the interjections are worrying, such as ‘And it takes so long even to write bad poems’, as if the text has given up on that enterprise; or, ‘why did he think she was producing gibberish / when she was only working a level of language’, which sounds like an excuse for writing ineffectively. Days and Works certainly doesn’t have the poetic drive of, say, Claudia Rankine’s recent works, despite some similarities in the fusion of poetry and nonfiction, and I suspect it doesn’t want to have. It raises the question, can a text (which is advertised as poetry – the publisher refers to the book as ‘a mini-encyclopedic poem on an intimate scale’) be unpoetic or pragmatic and get away with it?

But that doesn’t mean the text is without charm, aesthetic phrases or poetic ideas, such as ‘I’ve got to get out of this year.’ Statements like ‘So what if I am having an aesthetic crisis’ are not accompanied by any kind of poetic dramatisation or depiction of such a crisis. But they give a relaxed and easy tone and the feeling that one is reading a kind of diary as much as a scrapbook. And I’m very happy reading diaries by poets. They are often poetic. For now, I’ll put aside thinking about labels which assert whether the text is itself ‘poetry’. Phrases like ‘biscuit conditional’ and ‘sidereal time’, and paragrams like ‘googol’ keep me interested at the level of the poetic. The prose beginning, ‘The page was shadowed by stars’ offers rather more than most. It is oddly confessional, but of the mind and its philosophical questioning, rather than embodied experience. The book is often comprised of philosophical musing, sometimes with arguments trailing away, and not really engaging as arguments, for example, in the reference to children dying from gun violence. In fact, the prose asks a great many questions. It would be more original if now and again there was also an attempt to answer some of them. Perhaps the text asserts that the questions are not answerable, but the trope becomes somewhat monotonous.

The publisher blurb asserts this is a political book. (The book came with no press release, but the website outlines its strategies.) Despite a number of allusions to what might be termed political issues, I didn’t really feel this was the case. At least not until the two newspaper excerpts concerning police brutality. (The story of water contamination highlighted on p. 53 also gets across a powerful message.) The reproductions of clippings about this issue seemed to constitute a protest, in the same way that videoing acts of police violence does, and acts as a moral statement even where the video is technically illegal: it champions the moral duty of citizens to sometimes defy such a law.

Method is important to DuPlessis. One of the lineated poems offers an explanation for method when it declares:

I want to know which is margin, which is text,
which is writing, which is gloss
and I won’t

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