Owen Bullock Reviews Rachel Blau DuPlessis

1 November 2018

And, though discussing the artwork of Amze Emmons, this passage of prose is intriguing for the way in which it suggests the reasoning behind DuPlessis’ writing:

He has power cords snaking through his work – he never shows the outlets where they’re plugged in. The places he describes in these prints are neither inside nor outside; they are tents and they are huts, temporary encampments, people needing to flee, trash left where they lay down to rest and then decamped to flee some more.

The idea that the artist should reveal the outlets and inlets and not hide them seems to be important. If the artist in question resists describing the outlets, DuPlessis is at pains to do so, but does she really describe the inlets, the personal element? She seems to me far more concerned with the external and with power structures. And perhaps the relative silence around the ‘inlets’ reflects Pandora’s capacity to speak contrasted with her actual silence. Later, in the poem ‘Proverbs’, we encounter the advice: ‘Write with the threads visible’ which perhaps suggests an emphasis on the process of writing (as ‘threads’) rather than the inner world of the author.

I agree with the text ‘that the domain of the ethical // is also / the domain / of the ordinary’. Why, then, can the text not allow more ordinary and effective language to shine through (in detail, anecdote and plain-speaking); to evoke the enlightened and endarkened ‘filled silence’ that it also celebrates? When concrete detail or specific situations are narrated in the text, one realises how lacking they’ve been hitherto. For example, the story of a man whose wife peeled peaches for him because he loved them but hated the furry skin is one of few anecdotes, but is strangely moving, as is the story of the boy who had been harassed because of his Jewishness. Surely such examples are also part of the encyclopaedic vision DuPlessis refers to. They are punchier in their specificity and more insightful than the repeated philosophical musings over disparate and disorientating aspects of contemporary life. They look outwards in interesting ways to the human drama (and still manage to comment on power structures).

In many cases, just when topics seem to be couched in more concrete language they quickly become abstract again, for example, in reference to the edges of a book. Something similar happens to the plain-speaking of the writing about the environment which highlights specific sites of degradation and human action, but where the final paragraph seems to undercut what’s gone before by questioning its own ‘rhetoric’. I’m afraid this loses me as a reader. Ezra Pound once cautioned ‘go in fear of abstraction’, and I think it’s an injunction that still has value. There tend to be assumptions of shared understanding around the use of abstract terms. But detailed descriptions of events, ideas and emotions place the reader at the nexus of topics with far more success. Abstractions need to be unpacked by specificity, or at least used sparingly.

Some statements in Days and Works are simply baffling. What is meant, for example, by: ‘if one cannot throw a text-filled shard down as a limit, there will be a final obliteration’? Certainly ‘a text-filled shard’ is a poetic image, but what obliteration are we talking about? And what is meant by ‘the exegete can be transformed by the practice of the exegesis’? An example would do wonders to illustrate the idea. Though a hanging question might seem to fulfil the objective of collage, it concerns particularly abstract concepts (the exegete and exegesis) that could do with unpacking, and the questions have become wearying and un-illuminating. Another presumption of understanding, ‘Which is why I am mentioning it’, also has an alienating effect. Having said that, other statements are wonderfully direct and challenging, such as ‘The examined life is too complicated to live’, paraphrasing and reappraising Plato. Some juxtapositions leave one musing contentedly, such as the two sets of information on p. 43, one mocking Exodus and the other an example of yarnbombing.

As the book progresses, it seems less like a collage and more like a multi-faceted representation of a single mind, and, as mentioned, more fully related to thinking than feeling. There’s a unity to the snippets and different forms of text which interrogates the functions and limitations of language.

DuPlessis’s work has something in common with the hybridity of Hélène Cixous, and its philosophical bases. The periodic preoccupation with poetics means that the writing of Lyn Hejinian or even William Carlos Williams might also come to mind as literary ancestors. On the whole, though, the book doesn’t seem preoccupied with poetry so much as with the disparate, and the vehicle seems less important than content: the aesthetics of poetry give way to the broken narrative. Blau DuPlessis’s preoccupation is both with what can be said and how much of the plethora can be referred to in the same work, or on the same day of writing (which link back pretty well to the opening epigrams). Such issues are germane to any text, and poetry seems a relatively incidental inclusion when it is used.

In 2008 DuPlessis took part in the Tapa Notebook project hosted by the University of Auckland. In her contribution, she writes, ‘A poem is a formed object in/of language in lines that is culturally read as a poem’. This is a familiar enough idea, but succinctly put. She extends the idea with the thought that poetry is a ‘pretty intentional but also somewhat accidental mode of practice’. This is fascinating, but begs the question, can one rely on accident to produce poetry? Though initially willing to suspend preconceptions about poetry, I found myself longing increasingly for a greater sense of the poetic whilst reading Days and Works.

The book’s main statement seems to be that there is a lot going on at once. Blau DuPlessis juxtaposes examples in interesting ways, but is this enough to constitute a book of poetry? Is it worth publishing? As I’ve said, the diary form can appeal greatly, and I suspect almost anyone’s diary could be worth reading, since diaries frequently offer insight into human nature. But I don’t feel this work does offer much insight, in contrast, again, with a contemporary like Rankine. Alan Loney’s idea of the ‘unfinished and unfinishable business’ of writing also comes to mind when reading Days and Works. Yes, writing is unfinishable, and I’ve heard many poets agree with Paul Valery that a poem is never finished, just abandoned. But, in practice, poets with Loney’s skill manage to produce poems which move the emotions and reconfigure one’s thinking about the world without seeming unfinished.

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