“‘Origami Foldits’: Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts 1-38, Toll

Harriet Tarlo



Holding and reading Rachel DuPlessis’s drafts gathered together in one solid and serious volume confirms a conundrum about her draft-work. There is the provisionality of this writing, running through it at all levels, and there is the completeness of each draft, each fold, each individual volume [1] and, now, the culmination of one volume. The contradiction or tension between these apparent oppositions creates an endless series of questions as to how to read the writing presented here. On the one hand, there is no pretence in DuPlessis’s writing to perfection or closure, simply a commitment to continuation and to provisionality. We can read the drafts then as a continuous work in process of the kind DuPlessis, in her essay, “Manifests,” suggests might provide an escape from conventionally gendered genres:

The notion of writing a long poem forever, or as long as it takes to explore memory and its losses, enters here if only to cast myself off into a space whose terms can be a generic manifold, and certainly entail ‘something larger.’ [2]  

On the other hand, each draft can also be read as a whole, spiralling around its own centre, returning to and repeating material, yet maintaining a sense of a beginning and an end. Often at the beginning of a draft, we feel as if a space for performance is being cleared. “Draft 26: M-m-ry,” for instance, begins:

                     That the airy opening hung somber,/ that the moon
trapezoid/ on the floor be thus, be/ here,
                                                   that musical/ logic in
                the hypnogogic space/ come waves rush/
                                                                     crosswise, athwart.... (166)

Here is the space for action, a theatre, a page, a white space in which voices, marks, words and letters will move, sound and think in a dynamical performance. Throughout this draft and others I am struck by the cosmological sense of the bigness of this space in contrast to the fragmentary smallness of words, objects and tiny narratives which appear within it. Once again though, at the end of the draft there is almost always a sense of partial resolution, of closure.

Textually, the mechanism of the fold, by which the final nineteen folds refer back to the previous nineteen, formalises the self-referential nature of DuPlessis’s writing and creates yet another shape or structure, another way through the writing. Here we become involved in a constant re-reading of the work. Yet, however closely we follow the folds of the drafts, however many connections we draw, the effect is that of moving in a series of concentric circles, a spiral which gradually homes in to the place where we are, but which never gets there. This endless desiring deferral of presence enacts its own brand of différance. The enfolded nature of the work prevents us from settling into reading the drafts either as a seamless whole or as a series of discrete pieces. Instead we find that we have a continual, overlapping sense of beginning again and again: we are always “incipit” (the title of the twentieth draft). Equally, “(the end ends up) every/ where,” as DuPlessis says in “Writing,” the prelude poem to the drafts. [3] The endings of drafts often imply this re-turning, re-folding, constant and simultaneous ending and beginning again “Draft 26: M-m-ry,” whose beginning is cited above, ends:

Take it all as a loss.
Begin anywhere. (168) 

Perhaps most fittingly for the whole project, “Draft 14: Conjunctions,” which was the final draft in DuPlessis’s second book of drafts ends: 

I throw it all as far as I can,
and it blows back, blows black,

“a certainty based on the acceptance of doubt”
in “texts at once perfect and incomplete.” (99)

Being the reader of such a challenging work is not a passive affair as we leaf back and forth through the texts: “…the reader is at large, as the poet is. We are strained companions,” says DuPlessis in her “notes on ‘Writing. [4] We, like the writer, must work to enact the performance, to make the writing “work”. We join in the Georgics, the poetic husbandry, of the “land of poetry” (“Draft 38: Georgics and Shadow,” 262). This ethos of poetry as work dominates this final draft and its fold, “Draft 9: Working Conditions.” “Work” implies seriousness, as does the weight of the title, “Toll.” This is all part of the “strain” of an open text which opens up the relationship between producer and receiver and blurs the division between them. It also poses another conundrum, for the drafts are also sites of “play.”  

The playfulness of DuPlessis’s poetry, a lightness of touch reminiscent of Gertrude Stein, drew me to her work from the start. It is a “play splice” of word and letter slippage, the slip between letter and word; a love of the little word and the conjunction, a playing out of metonymic games, of punning, homophones and homonyms, an eager and “errant” exposure of the unstable nature of language. DuPlessis creates a metonymic field around almost every word she uses, surrounding words by a range of connoted words, associated both sonically and semantically. This is part of a longstanding experiment in plumbing the depths of the arbitrariness of the relationship between sign and referent. In DuPlessis’s writing, all language becomes “other,” foreign and strange, all writing and reading an act of translation, an image which recurs frequently in the drafts. As we read, language becomes so vibrant, or we become so aware of language that, even where only one word is used, we see more than one.  

Reader and writer act as “companions” as we begin to recognise the full aura of words around each word we use. “Sentence” for instance often functions in both its grammatical and legal sense, whilst “letters” is used to refer to alphabetical letters and to correspondence and hence communication. [5] These words, as so often, are themselves related to writing practice, thus demonstrating once again the self-reflexivity of DuPlessis’s linguistic and literary practice. The titles of the later drafts confirm this, referring to the language of the book space itself, “recto” and “verso.” These suggest an opening up and looking behind the page, behind literary language and genres. So we learn new ways of reading, as DuPlessis constantly creates new ways of writing, opening up the space on the page, using the alphabet, the points of the compass, the rhythm of renga to create arbitrary yet meaningful structures. Yet she is working all the time within the dynamics of the page, as the following from “Draft 4: In” confirms:

                                inside the ruminant middle.
read through the other, not so much over but the
simultaneous conflictual overloaded presences for which even
“palimpsest” is too structured a docket. Three dimensional
page, a page place or plage, a plage space, a play splice
the flimsy drops of scrim through which they filter, shapes
and lights
                    I make the gesture
                                                  comes through me
                                        A perfectly calm practice it is this
yet there is the tension of making a strange train. (26-7)

These lines speak self-reflexively of the page as a playful and open space, a “three dimensional” force field for action. The images of shapes and lights suggest the page as a material space, rather than a flat sheet, a space rushed through by language. Yet, the emboldened text also suggests the body, ”the ruminant middle,” as the tunnel through which the language of the train comes. These readings co-exist and shift between plain and bold text, as in these final lines of “In”:

a traveller thru are the senses of dark holes tunneling grainy paper.
Gathering all because of being in it,
I am getting the force of it, in. (27) 

Here and throughout the drafts the page space is an eroticised physical space. The physicality of that space has always been associated in DuPlessis’s work with the female body, in particular the specifically feminine fluids of blood and milk, which run through the drafts like veins, and which “Draft 2: She” urges us to draw on, to drink from:

Draw drafts of “milk” these words
are milk the point of this is
drink. (18) 

The idea of “writing the body” was undoubtedly a seed point for DuPlessis as she embarked on a career of innovation within language and, as “Manifests” suggests, within genre. A new old language is the prize and remains an important idea and ideal to DuPlessis from her early writings on the Etruscans to “Draft 36: Cento” which explores the failure of Esperanto. Though the drafts are never utopian, there are peaks of joy and release, and the whole suffused with the fluidity that gives hope of access to difference. 

Although DuPlessis is most commonly known as a gender theorist or “French Feminist,” she has always been her own theorist and artist and she continues to engage with a wide range of European and American ideas. Gender theory remains unresolved but alive in her inter-related theoretical and poetic work. On the first page of her early, much anthologised essay, “For the Etruscans,” she wrote, “Fish on one foot, hook on the other, angling for ourselves.” [6] This statement has always seemed to me emblematic of DuPlessis’s quest for a different and feminine aesthetic within a post-structuralist economics of desire, the hook. The tenor of the phrase captures the texture of her writing, witty, performative and painful. The fish and the hook are placed awkwardly, piercingly, yet comically, within the body. The body — of the woman and of the writing — is the site of the quest. The phrase can also be read as a joke on the idea of “writing the body” which becomes here ungainly, hazardous, nigh impossible, and yet still deeply desirable. At the same time, DuPlessis’s simultaneous desire to write the female body, yet to resist what she names the “trans-historical theorisation” of the female body remains and is inevitably part of an implicit and explicit debate with “French Feminist” theorists. [7] In both the enfolded poems, “Draft 2: She” and “Draft 21: Cardinals” feminine selfhood is only attainable against an edge of socially-constructed gender and marginalisation of the feminine, hence the use of the word “selvedge” which appears in “Cardinals” and forms the title of a pre-drafts poem in Tabula Rosa. “Selvedge,” defined in the dictionary as the edge, border, or margin of a woven piece of material, suggests the edge or border of self but also a self that can only exist on the margins of the social sphere. [8]

DuPlessis’s “origami foldits,” although multi or trans generic, ”the avant-garde at its best,” as Wesleyan’s press release proclaims, refuses to pretend that constraints do not exist, be they are cultural or literary. Containment and categorisation cannot be written out of the text. Genre and Gender then, and their genuses, their histories, concern her, as do time and place, another categorisation, and how language is broken up and categorised from punctuation on the page to sound in the voice or ear ... and all this gets into the draft writing: 

                                                A genre:
                                                                              Ballet blanc:
“The most poetical subject                                gauze, tulle,
is the death of a beautiful woman”                         gossamer
the floating wedge upside down             golems of passion.
that works by electricity. 
                                             (“Draft X: Letters”, 66) 

Here “G.” is genre, but immediately also gender, the gender of genre and genre of gender seamlessly knit, yet the seamless is, as we have seen cut across, spaced and severed into “segmentivity,” which is all DuPlessis decides we can say poetry is. [9] The choice is made for poetry, even as she upturns its pretty expectations: “brekkkl they brekk the lyric ruck” (“Draft 3: Of”, 19). The work toward a new language is carried out in between and within the constrictions presented by the literary and gendered world.  

The space of the enfolded page is not only a site of erotic joy, but is, as frequently, a dark or black or threatening and enormous space: 

tolled sky writing:

and it was wide and it was
a blue A
byss, ab
cess, am

em space. 
                          (“Draft 7: Me,” 40) 

Here we see how page space can also be a space of pain, death, loss and repression, as the falling movement of A/byss, ab/cess, am/bush suggests. The journey of the draft is also an entering in to the “gap,” as one of the drafts is entitled, the quest of a poet into the past, as the phrase from “Manifests,” “memory and its losses,” suggests. Memory, both limitation and liberation, haunts and is courted by these re-draftings, this over -and-over writing.  

This sense of the past in the drafts is strongly, though not explicitly, associated with the skeletons shadowing western conscience, in particular the loss, the toll, of the Holocaust. Present and past, life and death are written over each other, plaited together and there is a call to witness this: 

walks thru the daily                               walk thru the dead
to write the dead                                   to tell the living.
(“Draft 4: In”, 24)                                 (“Draft 6: Midrush”, 37) 

The need to for the past to be “tolled” grows stronger, if anything, throughout the draft-journey. The “point” of “Renga” and other later drafts reinforces the sense of the pain of the past, but also the importance of pointing to it, of language as a pointer, as the “deixis” of how we say “look! there!” one to another. It raises questions about philosophy in its most basic sense of how to live; as DuPlessis writes on into the later drafts epigrammatic statements are offered which encapsulate, if not resolve, these questions: 

Catching the brunt of time
Given the memory of the site
Should we be grateful or angry?
Glad to submit or glad to be spared it?

There is ladder and chain, binding and knife. 


The point is — not to question what you are given;
The knife is, you can’t help it.
                                       (“Draft 32: Renga”, 217-8) 

So it is that through the journey into the past, the “langdscape” of “historical and contemporary particulars” that DuPlessis goes beyond the gender issues with which she was at first associated and enters the wider world of cultural politics. Gender is never discarded, but becomes instead part of a complex criss-crossing of cultural issues. She is always exploring the question of “how to speak that which is/ ‘repressed’” (“Writing,” Rosa 72). The “repressed” here refers not only to the Freudian unconscious, but also to the political unconscious, buried in and under language. Twice, in texts written some years apart, DuPlessis refers to a line from a review of Aaron Siskind’s photographs, “the social world drained from his work,” in such a way that it seems to encapsulate one of her greatest fears. [10] Marginalisation is at the centre of her work; the realpolitik is always present, but always examined through linguistic interrogation, rather than polemics. The consumer society, with “malls a homey homeless home/ ahung with things” is a linguistic “gridlock of possessives,” and it is the “(geopolitical, material, narrative)” signs of the Chinese jumper on sale in the mall that reveal the power of credit (“Schwa,” Drafts 3-14, 68). At times the sense of global exploitation, war and the disapora of scattered peoples becomes a diaspora of scattered words living in and on the waste of our culture. Just as it takes joy in the dance of words, so at times, the drafts are haunted by the fear that they can do nothing to “change the course of events” but “profiteering, prophesying, sighing,” so that letters become a string of sounds, a scream of pain, not play: 

                                            […] The A repeated useless over
                and over lolling doped
                                                  uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh ayh ayh
                 turning to I I I I aye aye aye ai ai ai ai
scattered by one, one, one waste pretense....
                                                                      (“Draft 12: Diasporas,” 84). 

Language in this context is abject, inadequate, shattered fragments, waste, smudge, stain, excess: “ the debris! the refuse!” (“Draft X: Letters,” 62). Each word and letter is then both meaningless waste and incalculable value: 

No worth. No form.

Just are. Or is. The the. A a. And what are
they? “What words they throw
                          (“Draft 8: The,” 51) 

“Draft 12: Diasporas” struggles with how language functions here and now but ends with this:

“It means 

seize hold of a memory 

as it flashes up 

at a moment of danger.” 

hole of a memory 

Get real! (86) 

Here Walter Benjamin’s “seizing hold” is grasped but only to become DuPlessis’s “hole of a memory,” the abyss of history, through which our own contemporary falls into the gap or abyss. Both hole and hold are present however in the later “Draft 14: Conjunctions,” a draft which celebrates little words and allows a joke to play around the idea of hole/hold, even as it frames yet another conundrum:

The articulation of previous silences,  

the invention of memory, and, and but

the hole, again I said hold,

I have in my head,… (93)

The call to seize, to “Get real!” stands, and if there were to be one homage to DuPlessis here it would be precisely this determination to stoically hold on to her big project, her work, and to keep grasping the difficult but important “points,” however little, to let no thing, no “shard” go: 

So jump, mote, into the dancing whirl, despite powerlessness.

And work until it tolls

And work until it tolls

(“Draft 38: Georgics and Shadow”, 267) 


[1]     Tabula Rosa, Drafts 3-14 and Drafts 15-XXX, The Fold (Elmwood, CT: Potes and Poets Press, 1987, 1991 and 1997 respectively).

[2]     “Manifests,” Diacritics (Fall 1996): 49.

[3]     Tabula Rosa, 68.

[4]     Tabula Rosa, 84. “Writing” is DuPlessis’ only unnumbered draft and, since it precedes all others, I have always read it as a prologue to this body of work, almost a declaration of intent. It does not however appear in Drafts 1-38, Toll.

[5]     See “Draft 8: The,” and “Draft 23: Findings,” especially section 10.

[6]     “For the Etruscans,” The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (New York and London: Routledge, 1990) 1.

[7]     See DuPlessis’s “Manifests,” especially page 41 where DuPlessis critiques Hélène Cixous for the “transhistorical” implications of her concept of “vatic bisexuality.”

[8]     In its closely woven context, the “red selvedge” of the final line of “S” in “Draft 21: Cardinals” also suggests the edge of a sanitary napkin or dress, see p. 138.

[9]     See “Manifests,” 51.

[10]    “Draft 14: Conjunctions,” 94 and “Draft 27: Athwart,” 172.

Bio: Harriet Tarlo teaches English and Creative Writing at Bretton Hall College, a college of the University of Leeds.  Her Ph.D was on H.D.’s long poem, Helen in Egypt, and she writes on H.D., Lorine Niedecker and other twentieth-century poets.


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