Days and Works
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Following the 26-year poetic odyssey of her long poem Drafts, Rachel Blau DuPlessis invites readers, with Days and Works, to embark with her on not just one but a plurality of voyages. In 2014, drawing on a 1914 translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days appearing at the beginning of World War I, DuPlessis began to write, bent on dealing—as did Hesiod—with the insoluble oddity of being in the world and in our time. Both works are built of evocative awe and practical “life” advice, in which conflicting sensations of the textures of historical time, personal time, cosmological time all fold together, in all their contradictions and vectors of stimuli—desired and painful. DuPlessis’s work, with rips of feeling, newspaper clippings, and senses of historical fate, represents the oddity of all these registers involving us in different emotional twists. How can so many opposite things and washes of multiple emotions occupy the same daily space? Are these movements through the highly saturated consciousness of modern life “a lexicon? A listing, a relocation?” DuPlessis answers in both form and language—with a sense of the generative and constant “between” in this work expanding the everyday into a mini-encyclopedic poem on an intimate scale. The text offers an evocative political poetics including feminist, eco-poetical and anti-war thinking. It is an intense and generous book. Days Days Days
He died, a young and ambitious artist, of a cocaine OD and the related heart attack.
It was a long flight, strong headwinds.
If you read Standing in Another Man’s Grave in bed, what kind of dreams do you expect?
“What am I doing?”
“You’re eating sweet things; you’re eating sugar. It always happens after a death.”
I understand, as if from every angle, the Dante-word that means dazed, dazzled, confused, vertiginous, undone, stunned and awe-struck : smarrito. At the beginning. At the end. And punctually in between.
Sing through the scintillate deeps of sky, pulse mists with huffs and beeps, and bounce sweet booms off a sublimity that’s packed so tight and wrapped so round, it shimmers, shakes and sometimes downright laughs with its own vast, unreadable astonishment.
“I can pick up the alphabet!” she said. And, as from an artesian well, the other end of the writing came up.
Copyright © 2017 by Rachel Blau DuPlessis
A 2002 Pew Fellow in the Arts, and a recipient of poetry fellowships from Djerassi and The Rockefeller Foundation (Bellagio), Rachel Blau DuPlessis is the author of the critically acclaimed long poem Drafts (1986-2012) in 114 cantos. Days and Works is one of her “interstitial” books, a group that includes Interstices (Subpress, 2014), Graphic Novella (Xexoxial Editions, 2015), the collage-poem Numbers (forthcoming from Materialist Press), and Eurydics (forthcoming from Further Other Book Works). DuPlessis has written a trilogy of critical essays on gender and poetics: The Pink Guitar, Blue Studios and Purple Passages, and several other critical books, as well as editing The Selected Letters of George Oppen (1990). She has embarked on a 21st–century long poem, called Traces.
I write book-length poems—individual and individuated works that all explore being in language. The goal is political, spiritual, ontological and literary—this drawing on my several examples and mentors—the objectivist clarities and intransigence of George Oppen; the stubborn elegance of women modernists like Moore, H.D., Woolf, Stein; the endless commitment to poesis of writers of poems both very long and very short--like Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley, and my contemporaries and avatars for whom the long, endless poem is the challenge and the necessity—Williams, Olson, Pound, Mackey, Waldman, Notley, Silliman.
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My poetic work is known for a commitment to serial poems, to book-length explorations in language and genre, and most of all to the mode and activity of the long poem in the 20th and 21st centuries. All writing yearns to explore, enlighten, inhabit one’s small time with meanings; this drive involve a sense of social and literary history, the humility of of collaboration with former ways of writing and seeing, and a habitation of a space-time, asking what it might generate. No “answer” is given beforehand—we are not talking about commercial writing but writing from necessity. I did not know what writing Drafts or any of the interstitial works would entail when I began. It was all a throw of the dice. The throws were heuristic—into a space I was making by walking into it. At every throw was chance or mischance—where was this oeuvre going? what had I just done? would I continue that pattern? what were the stakes? why was the project of Drafts fascinating enough and exigent enough to constitute my whole poetic output and practice for over twenty-five years. The dice were thrown over 115 times—114 and one “unnumbered.” How did the impulse to construct books (rather than individual poems or artifacts) not lose its propulsion? Can one count occasions of risk in making art? For every line written, moved, revised, and produced is a risk and a question, a suspicion, an entrance into a terrain that has been carved and seeded by that attempt to inhabit it (like sculpting the ladder on which you are standing). In this, the long poem—any work over such time as 25 years, but with “product along the way”—is a risk.
Writing a long poem (Drafts) and making its recent companions (like Days and Works, like collage poems such as Graphic Novella, Numbers and Life in Handkerchiefs) have interwoven private and public temporalities. Because of the variables set in play, one has (as a producer) deeply to desire that kind of activity in time. It’s a kind of erotic charge as well as an ambition—both expressing excess and need—a longing and a sense of a vow. That is, long poems, endless poems are a passionate activity, constituted to engage various personal and historical necessities via poesis. It isn’t so much making a big Thing, but entering into a continuing situation of responsiveness, a compact with that desire. It is a literary desire—and something larger.
I take long poems—it is virtually an unarguable assumption—to concern things that are too large in relation to things that are too small—this is work in an excessive scale far beyond any humanist tempering. By too large I mean the universe, the earth, our history and politics, the sense of the past, and the more febrile sense of the future: in short, plethora, hyper-stimulation, an overwhelmedness to which one responds. The tension between control and beyond control is a condition of one’s employment.
The poem “wants” to be created as more of itself, with you as the medium. There is always a next thing, a next move that feels idiomatic to what went before—in tone, in structure (if not in specific forms or genres), in your conviction about it, or in your habit of specific accumulations. And you want more of it, more saturation in it, because it has become itself (with a life of its own) and has been illuminated by doubling your life. It's a double act of socio-aesthetic citizenship—real citizenship and citizenship in your own self-invented "site."
Finished and unfinished have nothing to do with this. The operable terms for the long poem are activity (praxis or poesis—the practice or the making) and desire. Of course one wants to manifest “craft” and wit and knowledge and artfulness, one wants to create a cunning version of the interesting and pleasurable—that all goes without saying. But fundamentally, the long poems, the serial poems, the book length works show a desire or drive to be endlessly making something “all about everything,” inside poesis itself. The desire to be in your own poetic universe, to create a parallel world of form and word accounting for this world, are the pursuits that pursues you. The blessing is poesis. Who can want to mark or to experience “the end”?
Days and Works is an ecology of the everyday. Its central focus is the feeling of overloaded curiosity: How can so many opposite things and washes of multiple emotion and event occupy the same daily space? The book resonates with the insoluble oddity of being in the world and in our time. It’s a lyrical documentary in which everyday life, mixed feelings, dreams, death, a skeptical spirituality, amusement and conflicts are all folded together. It’s not quite a journal, not quite a scrapbook, not quite an almanac, not quite a compendium but a little of all of these, and more. This work expands the everyday into a mini-encyclopedic poem on an intimate scale. This work enacts how joy, bafflement, ethical demands, wonder and investigation of experience all occur simultaneously, all part of implacable, unanswerable life.
In my Days and Works, branching out from Hesiod’s ancient text of myth and advice (called Works and Days), clips of news reports—tragic, weird, touching, enraging—are constantly irrupting into our "days," presented in this book as meditations in poetry or prose. These news clippings are collaged into the text and create a pulsing, mobile texture, tacking visually and poetically between my words and newspaper reportage. Days and Works is the overflowing of the poem into an ethical aesthetics. I intended it to be an intense and generous book, like a wondering blessing.
I’ve always been quite smitten by collage (as a modern visual art practice), and I try to make a parallel dynamic page space in all my poetic work. Then about ten years ago, I began extending my own poetic practice by sometimes making collage poems, or visual texts with writing. This was a big step into a hybrid mode. Days and Works is a poetic work with smaller texts not just cited in them, but glued, in their original form, onto the page. Bits of newspaper articles on many topics—advice, ecological crises, human kindness, human horrors, cosmological thinking about the origins of our universe, questions of economic crisis and poverty—all these topics and more come into the text, most often as a parallel bit of text, interrupting something else and complicating it. Sometimes you can’t tell which is the “central” text—it’s all happening simultaneously, all days and the workings of various events. My intention in placing clippings with poems is rarely ironic (contrasting ideal and real, for instance); it’s more like the bewildering interest of “all these things happening inside the same moments” (and on the same page). It is literally dazzling (awesome and awful)—and precisely this double feeling leads to the meditative intensity of this work.
When I was finishing this book, I was lucky enough to be chosen for an artist residency. The California site of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program comes into this text because it has an important forest of redwood trees. Visiting these redwoods, reading about them, trying to understand their amazing ecology and their resilience made a palpable contribution to this book. The space I experienced (as well as the saturated sense of time) emerge in this text.
This bafflement about processing so many different things happening at once is based on the form (or non-form) of the odd book by the ancient poet Hesiod. His Works and Days is a spiritual/practical advice book directed to a lazy relative. It reads myth to distinguish strife and struggle of two kinds—war (bad), hard work (good). Then it is a farmer’s almanac. It also presents a couple of vital Greek myths: Pandora and Prometheus. In short, it’s a surprising compendium, hardly focused and “classical,” and also something like an “everything book”—a totality without unity. That oddball mix of genres and purposes is also one goal of modern and contemporary hybrid writing, the essay-poem, the lyrical documentary, the collage poem, the page-space performance. You can see why I was tempted! My Days and Works is not a reversal or an overwriting of his Works and Days—it’s a parallel engagement with the everyday based on a sense of mixed genres and multiple goals.
I also wanted to distinguish struggle (work) from strife (war). My use of Hesiod was further provoked by a hundred year coincidence. The translation of Hesiod that I found on the web (by Hugh G. Evelyn-White) was first published in 1914—the year World War I began. Often thought of as the shockingly willful and unnecessary war, this horrible event nonetheless filled the Western world with all kinds of destruction and grief with large implications for the whole world in the twentieth century. In 2014, at the time I finished this work, the same kind of damaging political conditions were always lurking. And those parallel damaging political and ethical conditions are made palpable by my use of newspaper clippings collaged into my text.
This book was begun after my long poem called Drafts, begun in 1986, folded up (not ended) in 2012. In response to writing such a long poem for twenty-six years, I began to test myself by making shorter books. For example, Interstices (Subpress, 2014), is a book of epistles written as if "to" letters of the alphabet and to amalgams of people. These twenty-six Letters are paired with twenty-six Ledgers--soundings in our time. Then Graphic Novella (Xexoxial Editions, 2015) is a work of collage and rumination--stating we don't need the avantgarde "new" so much as we need the "news." You can see how Days and Works follows from a commitment to writing about our time and our feelings in daily life and historical time. In this case, it’s the motif of simultaneity and everyday overload: “everything happening at once.” I wanted to show all these disparate and conflicting feelings and events without making artful claims that I could master their meanings.