Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Rachel Blau DePlessis on: "Diving into the Wreck"

In this poem of journey and transformation Rich is tapping the energies and plots of myth, while re-envisioning the content. While there is a hero, a quest, and a buried treasure, the hero is a woman; the quest is a critique of old myths; the treasure is knowledge: the whole buried knowledge of the personal and cultural foundering of the relations between the sexes, and a self-knowledge that can be won only through the act of criticism.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis: On "The Young Housewife"

The cluster female-feminine-woman has different meanings to the poets: a woman poet is more likely to find, in the feminine, various problems. Williams’ 1950 statement about "The Young Housewife" indicates some of his long-term investments in the foundational cluster central to poetry: that beautiful women often inspire the poetry that it is men’s task to create. H. D. early modified this issue: some beauty is still important, but it is the dramatic, violent beauty that emerges when femininity as a site is ripped apart. This creation of an "anti-feminine" position is generally not sought by the male poets; judging from Williams, they want a pro-female (possibly pro-feminine) but anti-effeminate position.

Williams suggests that, for male writers, poetry is a reparation to women for their beauty, which is culturally appropriated by men for their poetry via the mechanism of "the gaze" (Mulvey 1989). This polemical concept of gaze, itself the product of the hyperbrave binarist stage of gynocritical thought, may have serious uses for the analysis of lyric poetry in helping to identify elements of the diegetic relations depicted. Mulvey proposes two key moves, both of which have their analogue in many poems in Western culture, voyeuristic investigation/demystification of the female figure, and overvaluation of the figure turned into a fetish. Williams in general demystifies women, a tough-minded, realist strategy, but the possessive and appropriative aspects of "poesy" intermingle with demystification in a poem such as "The Young Housewife" (1916) (Williams 1986, 57).

In this poem, by virtue of his responsibility of compensation, a male speaker is paradoxically both freer and more constrained than the depicted woman. He has the power to resist, yet remark on, the sexual undertext when she, "uncorseted" and "in negligee," "comes to the curb / to call the ice-man, fish-man . . . ." In a sense, she hails these chapmen into their position of (semi-sexualized) service to her, but the speaker-observer then "calls" her into her new calling as housewife. For of the wispy young female, the Williams-speaker states — with great power in his deliberateness and connoisseurship -- "I compare her / to a fallen leaf." The "fallen leaf / fallen woman" image, read via a social philology, indicates social debate. The "fallen leaf" metaphor of use and loss is a poetic post carpe diem allusion, a link of woman to nature, fatalistic in implication. But it also draws upon the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century tendentious comparisons of marriage to "parasitism and prostitution" (in Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Olive Schreiner for instance, and echoed in Mina Loy ‘s "Feminist Manifesto"). This "leaf" metaphor also follows from "the wooden walls of her husband’s house," sympathetic lines suggesting her mild imprisonment and the husband’s clumsy stolidity.

Williams proposes the fate of that one leaf in an implacable image of destruction (corresponding to Mulvey’s findings that one punishes the demystified object), as

The noiseless wheels of my car

rush with a crackling sound over

dead leaves as I bow and pass smiling

The speaker, destroying her for her evocation of sexual desire in him, has the control of two subject places, both the destructive "wheels of my car" and his rueful dismissive nod from within it. The poignancy of traditional gender cluster undergirding poetry has been reaffirmed in this work about the relation of female beauty to male power.

From Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934. Ó 2001 Cambridge University Press.

Rachel Blau Duplessis: On "In a Station of the Metro"

Female beauty; vulnerable beauty exert a magnetic force in another of the seminal poems of modernism. Pound’s "In a Station of the Metro" (1913), occurs, he explains, when in Paris he "saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another; and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to be worthy; or as lovely as that sudden emotion" (Pound [1918] 1970, 86-87). The terms of the inspiration are well within the foundational cluster beauty/woman/child/lovely/[poetry], plus the sentimental choking up at his inadequacy, but Pound resists and attempts to erode the tactic of "symbolist’ and "representational" art and their gender ideologies by the invention of an abstracting tactic that resists the gender materials.

The poem from this struggle between realism/symbolism and abstraction is well known; in my analysis, the formal poise of the poem -- its haiku confrontation of one line against another, seen through the lens of social philology, is motivated by a dual answer to debates about the gender cluster in poetry.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd

Petals, on a wet, black bough.

The first noun, "the apparition" condenses the bidirectional tension of this poem; the word ranges between its transrealist meaning of specter or ghost (and the corresponding etymological charge from the abstraction—epiphany), and its meaning of a sudden or unusual sight, a realist observation. "These faces in the crowd’ is a realist evocation of urban multiplicity. The symbolist or metaphoric leap is "Petals, on a wet, black bough" equated with faces. The word "Petals" may he said to deliver the "feminine"; at least it evokes all the loveliness and vulnerability of faces seen by chance. Two discourses -- documentary/social (which is abstract or realist) and lyric /poetic (symbolist) are brought into one configuration and are made to interact. "The ‘one-image poem’ is a form of superposition, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another" (89). One idea is that beauty /the feminine matters in the construction of poetry; the other is that it does not. Hence part of the force of the juxtaposition that constructs this brief work comes from the simultaneous affirmation and denial of the foundational cluster in a poised contradiction.

From Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934. Ó 2001 Cambridge University Press.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis: On "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

The Congo, called by Lindsay the "Mistrel River," and astir with cannibals and witch-doctors, is reinterpreted as a pastoral, nourishing, maternal setting in Hughes: "I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep." "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" was composed in 1920 on the train to Mexico when Hughes was still in his teens (eighteen to be exact), and published a year later in Crisis. This poem was written as an internal dialogue with his father whose "strange dislike of his own people" baffled and disturbed Hughes, and, of course, implicated his son as object of that dislike (Hughes 1940, 54-56; Rampersand 1986, 37-40). In this poem, Hughes joins affirmative blackness to a universal human quest, by putting into a global context the racial stresses and demands of the United States.

The poem (as is well known) lists four key rivers, all "ancient as the world (Hughes 1926, 51; dedicated in Weary Blues to W. E. B. Du Bois). Three of the four flow through regions of colored peoples; they are "rivers in our past"—the word "our" is marked (Hughes 1940, 55). The fourth is a river still reverberating with the past hundred years of American history; it is the river on which, Hughes says, Lincoln "had seen slavery at its worst, and had decided within himself that it should be removed from American life (ibid.). With an "I" strongly indebted to Whitman as mediated by Sandburg, and with a diction drawn from spirituals, Hughes describes the the Mississippi down which he was traveling as he wrote the poem, as having a strong racialized meaning both by its often brown appearance ("I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset"), by the possibility of a cross-race mixing or single-race affirmation of different colors ("muddy" turns more "golden" -- a word appearing in "The Congo" as well), and by its historical meaning under slavery.

Thus Hughes journey doubles Lincoln’s, and the concern with slavery, in the context of Hughes relationship with his father discloses a crisis of autonomy on a personal level, and a political rejection of a black man identifying with whites, for a white man (Lincoln) identifying with blacks. In contrast to the voyeuristic fantasies of "The Congo," this poem is a statement about vocation, an emancipation into blackness: "My soul has grown deep like the rivers" (Hughes 1926, 51).

From Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934. Ó 2001 Cambridge University Press.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis: On the Poems from H.D.’s First Volume, Sea Garden

"The minimal unit of poetic language is at least double, not in the sense of the signifier/signified dyad, but rather, in terms of one and another." This, from Julia Kristeva [Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art], confronts us with the I/you relationship, resonant for H.D.’s work throughout, but peculiarly isolated in her intense, ritualistic early poems. Where to "put" erotic energy, how to negotiate "one and another" changes during the early works.

From H.D.: The Career of That Struggle. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. 12-13. Copyright © 1986 by Rachel Blau DuPlessis.