“Little Words and Redemptive Criticism: Some Points On Drafts

Libbie Rifkin


We know the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however.
— Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” [1]

We were asked to “respond” to Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts 1-38, Toll. My response(s): awe, admiration, flood of associations, conviction of vast significance, desire for more time. Moments of rich, plumbable density give way to depths that are much more difficult to fathom; they reach back through, now, sixteen years of the work’s composition and into the tangle of DuPlessis’ modernist roots. The best commentaries on the Drafts project — Lynn Keller’s chapter on DuPlessis and Beverly Dahlen’s feminist revisioning of seriality and collage, Hank Lazer’s discussion of early “Drafts” in terms of the multiplication of lyric, and DuPlessis’ own statements on her work’s parataxis and span — have mapped Drafts’ complex horizontal landscape; I want to begin examining the nature and stakes of its verticality. [2] These coordinates are DuPlessis’, drawn from her unsurpassed 1981 discussion of Pound’s political deviations from the objectivist base he shared with George Oppen. [3] A more complete version of the reading I’m here sketching would hope to situate Drafts with respect to A Draft of XXX Cantos and Oppen’s long serial poems according to these coordinates, in particular to clarify the gains DuPlessis’ thickly literary and reverberative poetics make over a certain flatness in Objectivist documentation, and to distinguish her verticality from the “hierarchy of evaluation” and “didactic intention” that undid Pound. [4] In what follows, I’ll address the first of these concerns by beginning to differentiate DuPlessis’ work with “little words” from Oppen’s. My epigraph suggests one way of understanding the latter problem: where the Cantos staked their claim for coherence on the future apotheosis of Pound’s political and aesthetic values, Drafts enacts a remembrance that DuPlessis has identified as a facet of her writing’s “creolized Jewishness”: finding redemptive possibility in a melancholic return to the debris of personal, cultural, and literary history. [5]


In “Draft 33: Deixis,” DuPlessis assembles a miniature canon of contemporary poetry around a series of representative deictic gestures — those demonstratives, like “this” and “that,” that point something out, show it, prove it directly. Her collection of citations from Stevens, Hejinian/Breton, Oppen, Creeley, and Lauterbach is remarkable for the pinpoint accuracy of its sampling, for the vast swath of poetic history navigable along the axes of little words. This is a nodal point in Drafts 1-38, Toll, one of many, surely. In a work draped formally around the figure of the “fold,” it would be more appropriate, perhaps, to talk of seams than nodes.

But the languorous spatiality of the “fold” doesn’t adequately express the punctual energies of DuPlessis’ writing. Drafts’ critical task is to manage the rhetoric of temporality: to generate or “seize hold of” those instants in language where “memory…flashes up in a moment of danger.” [6] The ghosts of Paul De Man and Benjamin enter here to initiate my effort to describe Drafts’ deictic poetics. I want to gauge the weight that DuPlessis’ language bears in time, the long back story inhering in the little words also charged with the “now” of the poem’s being on the page and in the act of reading. The “flash” and “shock” of Benjamin’s dialectics at a standstill and the iterative regress of De Man’s allegorical sign adorn opposite faces of the rhetorical coin that DuPlessis has called “the strange doubleness of deixis,” by which she means its status as both a pointer and a shifter (the way pointing — here! — depends on a transactional, social context for its legibility). [7] DuPlessis has built her long poem around the cultivation of these depth-charges; they emerge in the method of retrieving and commenting upon fugitive fragments that she calls “midrash,” and that we might also call, following Benjamin, “redemptive criticism.” [8]

The moment from “Draft 33: Deixis” shows one version of this method at work. Excerpting it is a challenge, however, and for reasons that begin to mark DuPlessis’ difference from Oppen, whose bi-directional line endings and “forward-pulsing” syntax creates the interminable press of connection that DuPlessis has named the “poetry of affiliation” and deemed “as difficult to excerpt as any poet I know.” [9] If Oppen’s unbound thought makes it hard to parse his poems’ spatial fields, DuPlessis’ allusiveness creates temporal binds that are equally difficult to sever. “Deixis” is an essay in verse in which lines of poetry are accompanied on the page by footnotes, the only “Draft” in a volume littered with quoted language to include the juridico-exegetical apparatus of citation within the field of the poem itself. The other thirty-seven drafts rely on endnotes, but in “Deixis” the footnotes are simultaneous with the sense of the passage, and so I’ll cite it by reproducing both pages here:



While the best way to refer to this moment in Drafts is to copy the pages that it is on, the best way to read it is with reference to those other pages to which it refers. [10] The passage thus extends the “sense certainty” scenario in the Phenomenology of Spirit (cited in “Deixis,” not incidentally, in footnote 4, pg. 223), in which Hegel tests the truth of the phenomenological claim “Now is Night” by writing those words down and then finding them to be “empty” the next noon. What is “true,” if unspeakable, is the materiality of the writing itself; DuPlessis calls it “yet another space, in space that’s / neither Night nor Now.” We might call it “this piece of paper” (223). [11] Iterability renders Hegel’s deictic “now” empty. DuPlessis’ text goes some distance towards resisting that function of language by bringing its context everywhere it goes, thereby insisting on its facticity as a page of writing even as it acknowledges dependence on a broad apparatus of literary usage. [12]

This insistence is “the inaugural act of reference [from which] all other forms of reference will flow” (Wlad Godzich, cited in DuPlessis’ footnote 24, 234). In DuPlessis’ case, the other acts of reference are other poets’, but they get newly animated by their placement in her poem, beginning with the two words that end Wallace Stevens’ “Man on the Dump”: “the the.” In “translating” “the the” into “that that,” DuPlessis finds in both the definite article and Stevens’ poem an “emphatic” quality that may have been there all along. “That that,” to extrapolate from an argument DuPlessis cites in a footnote attached to a later passage in “Deixis,” can be read further as “look! look!” DuPlessis’ version has the otherwise jaded Stevens answering his question, “Where was it one first heard of the truth?” in the present tense of his poem, with a primal cry for connection.

The other cited deictics are notable for the way their crystallized poetics “bear[s] the indication of the person” into DuPlessis’ text (Note 13, above). The play of proximity and distance in the mutual formation of both love and self is, of course, Creeley’s great theme, and enjambment one of his most powerful instruments. Placing his three lines on her one, DuPlessis both flattens his affect and pays homage to his urgency, which is especially keen when compared with Lauterbach’s more self-conscious use of both deictics and slashes as the title of a poem.

“That they are there!” enters DuPlessis’ text unaltered, a kind of manifesto writ small for Oppen’s particular poetics of little words. The phrase comes from “Psalm,” a poem whose most famous lines are its final ones: “The small nouns / Crying faith / In this in which the wild deer / Startle, and stare out” (New Collected Poems, 99). In “Psalm,” the line DuPlessis excerpts hews closely to the object of its pointing: “The wild deer bedding down.” From the perspective of the “small nouns,” then, the key word in “That they are there!” is “they.” But “that,” I think, is what catches DuPlessis’ interest. Not a typical deictic in this instance, but a kind of conjunction, it introduces a dependent clause and suggests the elision of a pivotal phrase in the principle one: “I am certain that” and “the fact that” are two of the more likely candidates. [13] In both cases, “that” alludes to a persuasive rhetorical scene where knowing and sharing knowledge, even convincing others of it, are linked.

“That they are there!” is thus the “instance of discourse that bears[s] the indication” not of those wild deer, but of Oppen’s person — his voiceprint — into “Deixis” and Drafts as a whole, where it joins many other such instances and indications (Note 13). DuPlessis creates her long poem as the medium of such joining, which she names “It.” “The problem,” she writes a little later in “Draft 33,” is “how to make poetry / constructed of It” (231). In a more critical register, we might identify this medium with what DuPlessis has called the “transactional” facet of “the strange doubleness of deixis”: “Pointing needs to be accompanied by a sense of sociality, of the transaction, while speaking and understanding require abilities to decode and appreciate contexts,” she writes. [14] Flashes of insight are dependent on a large-scale social and literary apparatuses, which include the history of prior pointings. Drafts incorporates these contexts, and becomes one itself.


There is a difference between poetry in which “it” is “constituted as a topic” (229), and “poetry constructed of It.” Both present thorny and worthy problems for writing; DuPlessis’ achievement is to produce Drafts structurally as the latter. The long poem begins with “it” as a topic. In the first Drafts, indeed in the first lines of the first Draft, DuPlessis launches a poetic of encountered objects, in the high Objectivist sense that includes words and letters in the encounter. “Draft 1: It” begins graphically, with typed and then handwritten repetitions of “N.” As if following that letter’s peaky movements, the page continues as a kind of polygraph of consciousness. Jotting is the poet’s mode:

and something spinning in the bushes     The past

                                        dismembered                            sweetest

                      dizzy chunk of song

                                                                      one possible: there is a

       in another                                                         strange erosion and

       dready fast flash            all the sugar is reconstituted:


       silver backed                                        as “stem”: sugar as dirt.

       light this

       governed being:     it?      that? (Drafts, 1) 

A little later in “Draft 1,” Duplessis notes, “To reinvent ‘attention’ is narrow tho tempting. / Doesn’t get the folding” (4). This first page doesn’t exactly reinvent attention, but it does recreate the dazed moment in which an awakening consciousness first tests its powers. Glints and tips of sensory experience and the light and sound of the natural world’s initial processes slowly merge with the social, here composed of vague memory, “song,” the “silver backed” mirror that first forms the self-consciousness of “governed being[s],” and, perhaps, Gertrude Stein. DuPlessis names her later in the “Draft,” and I can’t help but read “sugar as dirt” as a telegraphic combination of Tender Buttons’ “sugar is not a vegetable” and “dirt is clean when there is volume.” “Draft 1” isn’t built on the structure of allusion and citation, but we’re in an elemental universe already beset by distinctions of convention and etiquette — Stein’s — and it makes sense that even DuPlessis’ most primitive records of awareness would include her.

From the beginning, there are dangers associated with poetry in which “‘it’ is constituted as a topic.” Without constant vigilance, the poetry of encounter and documentation can blossom into what DuPlessis calls “postcard poetry,” by which she means the metaphorics of conventional lyric: “a this a that like / a boat like a dog” (4). Though she began Drafts as “an investigation of some ‘little words’ — pronouns and pronomials,” [15] DuPlessis recoils from the diminutive in its feminized form as the stuff of lyric beauty: “Well now what’s / to speak what is / to speak when that / Object (pronoun) / squeaks its little song in its bright white / dear dead dark” (5). “It”’s vocal limits are set by what DuPlessis calls the “foundational cluster” of the lyric, where female figures are either “dear” or “dead” or “dark” and women poets squeak, or perhaps “peep” or maybe even “twit.” [16]

In “Haibun: ‘Draw Your Draft,’” DuPlessis recalls her early resistance to the “perfection of lyric” as embodied in H.D.: “I did not want the…purity of lyric…Thus my allegiance to the Objectivist purities, because they offered some way of skepticism and quasi-refusal, some method of documentary” (115). In “It,” and throughout Drafts, the Objectivist purities, if by this we mean the “data of experience” in Oppen’s sense, also feel insufficient. [17] While the Objectivist stance provides a baseline ethics of poetic observation extending into intersubjective encounter and even a politics, DuPlessis presses words for something more, a reach beyond reference and into the mystical thicket of language itself. [18] We feel this first sketched in “Draft 1” in a “note to self” that reads as a kind of benediction: “Let silence / In the form of words’ / in. IT”(6).

“The form of words’ in” imagines the poetics that Drafts realizes as it accumulates, for which “even / palimpsest is too structured a docket” (27). It takes time: how words are dense, what their interiors might contain, these are difficult questions to fathom. Early on in Drafts, this difficulty prompts a refiguration of the materials of writing: “The mark is dark, the page / dark / is the first imagination of this drawing, this drafting / these draughts” (26). “Getting the force of it, in” is represented as a matter of physical exertion, as if the pen’s tip on “tunneling grainy paper” might press through to the palpable core of language and bolding words render their meaning self-evident. DuPlessis returns again and again to the page and its markings in an effort to ground the work, aware, certainly, that these moments remain the most resolutely figurative.

“I have nothing to say, / only to show,” DuPlessis’ slightly modified version of Benjamin’s statement of method for the Arcades Project, would seem to underwrite this (abyssal) poetics of linguistic self-evidence (62). But “Draft X: Letters,” where DuPlessis cites Benjamin’s statement, takes a more in-depth approach to “the form of words’ in,” imagining letters’ inner lives through a set of remarkable riffs on the typewriter’s “qwerty” alphabet. DuPlessis’ typewriter is a very different machine from the one Charles Olson commandeered to facilitate the “immediate” transfer of “energy” from poet to reader in “Projective Verse.” If the keys on Olson’s typewriter functioned as a “stave” for the poet’s breath, on DuPlessis’ they’re a store for her memory:


Vermillion, muttering, it was
that voyage also framed the vulva,
that day vexed it, vibrant and articulated.
It had black velvet strings drawn tight
bound like the piping around upholstery
knots tied to hold forward or down
aglow astripe!                                 All seasons. Her lymph gland
                                      swollen like a volleyball “white
                               territory?” not white it has a verdigris
                               black long screen a square of blackened
                               import it
                             has a purple mottle wounded friction
                                       a white as green as bluish gripping grey
                                       as the skin of a strange valediction (72).

This “Draft” is dedicated to “I.M.E.W.B. June 19, 1914-May 3, 1990” and DuPlessis has said that it includes words from her mother as she was dying of breast cancer. Here, the mother may not speak, but the language “bears the indication of [her] person” in the lushness of its colors and textures, and an indication of the poet in the enjambed flow of her mournful attempts to describe. These indications remain vague; the deictic gestures in this passage — all those its and thats — point to a set of contexts that remain personal, hermetic to those of us who weren’t there.

But “V” is also resolutely poetic, by which I mean social, transactional, and historical in the senses I’ve been discussing with respect to Drafts’ deictic poetics — its urgency has depth. “V” looks and feels like a sonnet that got distorted, just slightly, when it was pressed onto the page. And while Drafts resists elegy as a form of the lyric “trading in transcendence and turn,” [19] “Draft X” is unabashedly elegiac — flowers are strewn, ashes are scattered, seasons change, stones sing. It closes with an alternative to traditional elegy’s variations on Christian apotheosis: a Jewish messianic image of shattered glass, the breaking that points to the possibility of tikkun olam, repairing the world. DuPlessis’ glass isn’t joyfully crushed under a groom’s stomped foot, though, it’s “smashed against a wall, a door, / thrown against the inoperable sealed-up exit;” mournful movement towards consolation mingles with melancholic intransigence. Drafts incorporates the entire nexus. This “human shard” is not Charles Reznikoff’s talismanic Objectivist fragment “still itself among the rubbish.” [20] By which I mean it is not self-evident, nor extractable, not an emblem of mute integrity. This is an alphabet of loss with a long literary history as well as a keen personal significance; the letter on the page marks the site of their ongoing mediation. This, in other words, is It.


“Drafts” 14, 38, and 52 repeat the question, “What, then, is the size of the/this loss?” and as Drafts accumulates, the answer becomes increasingly apparent. As DuPlessis puts it in “Draft 17: Unnamed”: “it is not ‘the Jews’ / (though of course it’s the Jews) / but Jews as an iterated sign of this site” (111). Drafts is haunted throughout by remembrance, at a distance, of the Holocaust; tracing DuPlessis’ treatment of this specific content deserves sustained critical attention. I’ve been interested more generally in her midrashic or redemptive-critical activity of selecting, glossing, and incorporating shards of “the loss” — of the mother, of poetic forebears like Oppen, of “the Jews,” of the immediacy of pointing — in all of its layered urgency. DuPlessis meditates repeatedly on the hubris whereby, for instance, a Philadelphia Inquirer story about a woman who “stood at the pit / where/ this 50 years/ 155 Jews were shot,” gets into her poem, even as the woman herself left the “dozens of notes and addresses / tossed away / moments before their deaths,” at the site where they lay (110). DuPlessis’ act of writing “is not elegy,” she says, though we know that it is elegiac, nor is it poetry, at least not the kind Adorno proclaimed “impossible,” “barbaric” after Auschwitz. It is the deictic “social agreement that something can be pointed to,” even if that something is catastrophic and no one is left to bear witness (234).

In “Draft 52: Midrash,” an unpublished “Draft” finished this May, DuPlessis confronts the Adornian prohibition directly, or rather indirectly, through the “gridded series of embeddings and strange angles” that make up her by turns angry, questioning, conciliatory, defiant essay in verse. DuPlessis’ burden in “Draft 52” must at some level be to justify her own vocation and daily practice, and she doesn’t shy away from it. Each of the numbered sections mediates Adorno’s position differently: from parsing his language, to identifying with him, to uncovering apparently contradictory statements elsewhere in his oeuvre. Perhaps “poetry” meant to him “only affirmative décor…tears at graves, / female visitants”?—this is, after all, the foundational cluster of the lyric that DuPlessis has so successfully resisted. Might Adorno’s call, in Minima Moralia, for “perspectives” that reveal the world “to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light” be a summons to poetry? But then, trying to write, what can a poem be, after Auschwitz? “There is no accurate lexicon,” she concedes, “The only poem is blackened, barred-out lines.”

Early on in “Draft 52,” a moment of seeming defeat points, negatively, to Drafts’ answer to Adorno:


and face What Is, that it is, that this
happened. As such. The finger points —
     troubling toll through sediment —
     at unspeakable untellable yod,
     wood, leather, fabric, organic char, ash of ash, then
     also            there is the tiredness
of pursuing        anything
like this.

After Auschwitz, a certain poetry of witness — of occurrence and documentation — fails. The “this” that happened is impossible to point to “as such.” “That it is,” which echoes one of Oppen’s grounding statements on the poetics of sincerity, is not adequate either, especially if it opens onto a poetry in which “it” is “constituted as a topic” and multiplied haplessly to include “wood, leather, fabric, organic char, ash of ash,” etc. [21] What is needed instead may be what Drafts continues painstakingly to provide: both the shock and the context, the loss and — imbedded therein — the long and specific history of failed efforts to speak it. As DuPlessis puts it at the close of “Draft 52”: “One little scrap where something is. / Incommensurate.”


[1]     Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1968) 264.

[2]     Keller, Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems By Women, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997) 239-301; Lazer, Opposing Poetries, Volume II: Readings, (Chicago: Northwestern Press, 1996); DuPlessis, “On Drafts: A Memorandum of Understanding,” Onward: Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, ed. Peter Baker (New York: Peter Lang, 1996) 143-162.

[3]     DuPlessis, “Objectivist Poetics and Political Vision: A Study of Oppen and Pound,” George Oppen: Man and Poet, ed. Burton Hatlen, (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1981) 123-48.

[4]     Ibid. 140.

[5]     DuPlessis, “Haibun: Draw Your Draft,” H.D. and Poets After, ed. Donna Krolik Hollenberg, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000) 126, and “On Drafts.” I’m grateful to Barrett Watten for suggesting I not avoid the obvious comparison with Pound and helping me clarify the critical distinction between the Cantos’ trajectory and Drafts’ unique movement. There is obviously much more to be said on the subject.

[6]     Illuminations, 255. See similar formulations in “N: On The Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress,” The Arcades Project, 462.

[7]     DuPlessis, “A few more thoughts about deixis,” unpublished essay. Thanks to the author.

[8]     Benjamin formulates a version of the method of redemptive criticism in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, where it involves “mortification of the works” — tarrying among the ruins and decayed remains of culture in order to uncover their salvational potential. The historical materialist imperative to “brush history against the grain” in order to rescue the “now-times” from the homogenizing path of progress is a later version of the same method. For my developing understanding of the deep connections between Benjamin’s materialism and his theology, I depend on Richard Wolin’s Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). The German Tragic Drama reference is cited on page 29.

[9]     “Objectivist Poetics,” 143-4.

[10]    In the title poem of The Marginalization of Poetry, Bob Perelman notes of innovative poems in the tradition of Pound and Olson: “to quote them / you need a photocopier not a word processor” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) 7. Though I’ll discuss a few moments in Drafts that “tend,” in Perelman’s terms, “toward the pictoral and the gestural,” in this instance the difficulty in excerpting derives from the fact that the work adheres closely to the typographical and referential standards of criticism, but demands to be “close read” and referred to like poetry.

[11]    The Hegel I’m referring to here is de Man’s, in his essay “Hypogram and Inscription,” The Resistance to Theory, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986). On what writing down “now is night” does to sense certainty, de Man writes: “because he wrote it down, the existence of a here and a now of Hegel’s text is undeniable as well as totally blank. It reduces, for example, the entire text of the Phenomenology to the endlessly repeated stutter: this piece of paper, this piece of paper, and so on” (42).

[12]    Perelman cites the same moment in the Phenomenology to elucidate what might be called the deictic dilemmas in Robert Grenier’s work — from his collaboration with Barrett Watten on This magazine through his more recent experiments. In Perelman’s reading, Grenier’s work “manifests a desire to escape all literary historical grids and to make direct contact with the world via pen and paper” (Marginalization, 38). The Phenomenology passage evidences language’s failure to coincide with the present and points to a certain tragic humor in Grenier’s efforts. My reading of Drafts suggests DuPlessis’ more affirmative approach to the deictic dilemma — her concerted proliferation of the vast “grids” underlying pointing’s immediacy.

[13]    I’m sampling from two of the seemingly infinite uses of “that” on OED online, www.oed.com.

[14]    DuPlessis, “A few more thoughts about deixis.”

[15]    DuPlessis, “On Drafts: A Memorandum of Understanding” 147

[16]    In “Drafts X: Letters,” another lyric bird spins in a bush: “sparrow upstart in a bush, / whose eager range-drenched beak / (peep peep) / thru unguent amber, calls, / and resonates / with undertexts” (61). The “twit” is Eliot’s Philomel.

[17]    Oppen, “The Mind’s Own Place,” Montemora 1 (Fall, 1975), cited in DuPlessis, “Objectivist Poetics and Political Vision” at 126.

[18]    DuPlessis and Oppen apparently discussed their disagreement over the necessity of reference. See Oppen’s October 1965 letter to DuPlessis in The Selected Letters of George Oppen, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ed., (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1990) 123.

[19]    From “Draft 52: Midrash” (unpublished).

[20]    In “Reznikoff’s Nearness,” Charles Bernstein describes the particular luminousness of Reznikoff’s details: “The part for the (w)holy…Kabbalism rejects the allegorical for the symbolic, where allegory — the representation of an expressible something by another expressible something is akin to the literary conceits and symbolism that Reznikoff rejected.” The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics, eds., Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999) 224-5. I’m arguing that DuPlessis’ fragments are allegorical, shard-like tips of an infinitely long history of “profane” references and signs. At the very least, they are repetitions of “something[s]” already expressed in Drafts itself.

[21]    Peter Nicholls cites Oppen as claiming “that it is” to be the foundation of a poetics of sincerity in “Oppen: Of Being Ethical,” The Objectivist Nexus, 245. Oppen’s statement can be found in “An Adequate Vision: A George Oppen Daybook,” ed. Michael Davidson, Ironwood 26 (1985).


Bio: Libbie Rifkin is the author of Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofksy, Berrigan and the Avant-Garde (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000). She runs the poetry program at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, and is helping the Library of Congress develop special collections in twentieth-century American poetry.

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