Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Michael Heller: On "Mantis"

We know that Zukofsky was deeply influenced by Marx at the time of writing "Mantis." His relationship to Marx's thought, however, was marked by a dialectical dilemma of the very sort that Marx himself invokes in his famous aphorism concerning the philosopher whose job is no longer to describe the world but to change it. The dilemma, as it arises in Zukofsky, concerns, of course, the question of the poet's role as either reflector of the world or as instrument of change. Written during a period when most Marxist-oriented poets were following the mandate of a "socialist realist" poetry for the masses, "Mantis," far from being a piece of propaganda or a purely Marxist "proof," is an example of Zukofsky's poetics at work--especially as given in statements like "An Objective." That is, the poem itself appears to be governed by a poetics of open and unfinished composition, one that cannot be tamed to a philosophical conception. Such a poetics is clearly enjoined in Zukofsky's epigraph from the Latin to "Mantis, An Interpretation," that "names are sequent to the things named," and in Zukofsky's use, almost as a litany of Dante's and Cavalcanti's sense of poetry, of "la battalgia degli diversi pensieri," "the battle of diverse thoughts," "thought's torsion."

Like Crane's The Bridge, Zukofsky's poem, too, is a drama of the struggle of myth over and against the word. The utopocalyptic "moment" of the poem, the pressures brought to bear on poetic composition, here concerns not only the political status of the poem or poet, but the nature of words in relation to art and reality, especially as a totalized worldview, one form of which is Marxism's attempts to subordinate all human activity to its categories and analyses.

In a sense, Zukofsky's poem reminds us of the antagonism between high modernist art and the impulse to provide meaningful social commentary. "The growing oppression of the poor," Zukofsky writes in the "Interpretation," "is the situation most pertinent to us." If this is so, then, for poets of the thirties, as I have described above, the condition of this oppression is bound up, not only in external political relations about which one could propagandize via one's poetry, but in the very nature of poetic activity. The poem tries, on one level, to resolve these tensions. It is part formal plaint for the poor, as in the sestina's last lines, unmistakably hortatory, which read: "Fly Mantis, on the poor, arise like leaves / The armies of the poor, strength: stone on stone / And build the new world in your eyes. Save it!" At the same time, much of its modernist tendencies and idiosyncracies, its obeisance to "making it new," are contained in the "Interpretation," the "open-form explanation" that partly explicates the sestina while reminding us that "our world will not stand it, / the implications of a too-regular form."

Now you will recall that Zukofsky elsewhere has stated that the poem has a function--is a "job," as he puts it. In this case, the job of the poem is not only a call to alleviate the condition of the poor, but, as I believe the "Interpretation" makes clear, to resist the strictures which a purely sociopolitical view would impose on the poem. To do this, Zukofsky must honor and be faithful to the starting point of the incident that, in effect, generated the poem, the gratuitous occasion of the mantis in the subway, an occasion that sets into motion ("movement") a series of thoughts and associations creating an order of relations faithful to the initial experience and contrary to the expected usages of the incident as symbolical ("no human being wishes to become / An insect for the sake of a symbol") of the poor's oppression or of the demonization of capital. In other words, the poem’s turn is to be toward "an incident, compelling any writing" rather than the typical politicized use of language as propaganda or "message." By staying with "thought's torsions" wherever they will lead, Zukofsky places his trust, not in political rhetoric, but in something having "enough worth if the emotions can equate it," in this case, from "Provencal myth" to "airships" or comments by the "British Admiralty." "Mantis," in effect, offers its own felt series of interrelationships, a counter-continuity, one not made up of Marxist analyses but of intuitive connections established by having been faithful, as Zukofsky insists, to the "original shock still persisting." This is not so much a new making as a constant desiring, beyond a political schema, to be in touch with a social world. "So that," Zukofsky writes


    the invoked collective

Does not subdue the senses' awareness,

The longing for touch to an idea, or

To a use function of the material:

The original emotion remaining,

    like the collective,

Unprompted, real, as propaganda.


In effect, Zukofsky is trying here to find a way of refusing the hard conceptualizations of ideology and theory, so that he may return the act of poem-making to something that is simultaneously open-ended and analytical--not so much to deny his own Marxist insights as to prevent any "philosophy" from having a hegemonic hold over existence. Because the world in its entirety is beyond a single conception, so the poem must find its own unified form. The complexity of that form demands that the poem strive, as Zukofsky says in the brilliant final strophe of "Mantis" to hold "the simultaneous, / the diaphanous, historical / in one head."

Stephen Fredman: On "(In Alsace) from "Route""

Taking into account Oppen’s experience of World War II and his connection to Heidegger, a strong case can be made for thinking of him as an existentialist rather than as an Objectivist--or else we must open our definition of Objectivism to include much more than the pallid epithet "second-generation imagism.") One index of the difference it makes when we think of Oppen this way concerns his commitment to "the real" or "the actual." Is it enough to assume that these terms return to the imagist hygiene prescribing the accurate visual representation of things or that they draw upon the impressionist equation of visual data with emotional states? During an interview with the Oppens in which Kevin Power engages them in a discussion of Camus, Sartre, and Heidegger (Power 196-97), he asks George to "talk about 'actualness' and how that enters the poem." George replies, "Well there's that prose section of Pierre Adam in 'Route' when he tells me about his experience. I was conscious, when I wrote that, that any of the Existentialists could have written it. I wrote it, nevertheless, because it was actually what he said to me. Existential in the sense that you do what you do and that is the answer... Simply that you are yourself" (197). The story Oppen alludes to was told to him in Alsace, where he was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. Many Alsatian men, upon learning they had been drafted into the German army, dug themselves holes in the ground, in which they hid for as long as two or three years. When the Germans learned that men were in hiding, they made reprisals, killing family members and sending wives to the army brothels in Germany. Pierre fed and assisted the men in the holes. "Men would come to Pierre and they would say: I am thinking of making a hole. Pierre would say: yes. They would say then: but if I do they will kill my parents; or: they will take my wife and my children. Then Pierre would say, he told me: if you dig a hole, I will help you" (Oppen, Collected Poems 187-88).

For Oppen, this kind of terrifying existential choice defines the realm of "the actual" Such was the actuality French resistance fighters like Sartre and Camus faced, and it remained the (often unstated) background for their existential philosophies. In his essay "The Resistance," Charles Olson provides something like a gloss on Pierre Adam's story, asserting that the horrors of World War II have rendered the body as the only meaningful instrument of resistance: "When man is reduced to so much fat for soap, superphosphate for soil, fillings and shoes for sale, he has, to begin again, one answer. . . . It is his body that is his answer" (Human Universe 47). By bodily acts of resistance, such as those practiced by the Alsatians against the Nazis, Olson claims that human beings can learn to think concretely through the body rather than through the dangerous abstractions such as nation, race, and class. In "Causal Mythology" Olson avers, "I don't believe in cultures myself. I think that's a lot of hung up stuff like organized anything. I believe there is simply ourselves, and where we are has a particularity which we'd better use because that's about all we've got. . . . Put an end to nation, put an end to culture, put an end to divisions of all sorts" (Muthologos 94). This notion that large abstractions are dangerous and that what we think and do must be grounded instead in who we actually are jibes perfectly with Oppen's statement that his recounting of Pierre Adam's story was "Existential in the sense that you do what you do and that is the answer.... Simply that you are yourself."

Norman Finkelstein: On "Holocaust"

That Reznikoff's world is one of endless wreckage becomes all too clear in his long poems, Testimony and Holocaust. In both, "wreckage upon wreckage" are hurled at our feet. The poems, particularly Holocaust, could be regarded as the endpoint of Objectivism's testimonial strain, as the subjectivity and presence of the poet virtually disappears, replaced by the dispassionate court records from which the texts are drawn. Like the angel of history, we can only stare, aghast at the sight of human violence and depravity as we are blown into an ever-worsening future. Yet this is not to say, as does Robert Alter, that "this is an extended exercise in masochism conducted under the cover of an act of testimony."According to Alter, "History, it would seem, had become a hypnotic vision of unrestrained murderous impulse for the poet: the ultimate breakdown of his whole problematic relation to the past is starkly evident in the flattened landscapes of disaster that take the place of round imagined worlds in these two long poems of his old age." Granted, Reznikoff's relation to the past is problematic, but Holocaust does not constitute a "breakdown." It is, I believe, a confrontation with history set at the limit of Reznikoff's art:

The bodies were thrown out quickly

for other transports were coming:

bodies blue, wet with sweat and urine, legs covered with excrement,

and everywhere the bodies of babies and children.

Two dozen workers were busy

opening the mouths of the dead with iron hooks

and with chisels taking out teeth with golden caps;

and elsewhere other workers were tearing open the dead

and looking for money or jewels that might have been swallowed.

And all the bodies were then thrown into the large pits dug near the gas chambers

to be covered with sand. (Holocaust 46)

Holocaust offers so radical a challenge to the conventional category of poetry (or, perhaps, of the aesthetic) that in reading it we must put aside most of our assumptions about literary texts and historical representation. Drawn entirely from records of the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, Reznikoff’s poem demands a sort of religious silence from its readers, in much the same way that witnessing the event of the Shoah itself demands silence of those in the presence of such testimony. As George Steiner says in "Postscript" (1967), his essay on witnessing and representing the Holocaust, "The best now, after so much has been set forth, is, perhaps, to be silent; not to add the trivia of literary, sociological debate, to the unspeakable." By contrast, Steiner is critical of the dramatized, but still largely accurate, account of events in the French study Treblinka:

But because that evidence is mastered by the literary talent of the writer, because a narrative persona full of distinct rage and stylistic force interposes between the insane fact and the profoundly exciting economy, hence order, of the book, a certain unreality obtrudes. Where it is represented with such skill, intricate modulations affect the hideous truth. It becomes more graphic, more terribly defined, but also has more acceptable, conventional lodging in the imagination. We believe; yet do not believe intolerably, for we draw breath at the recognition of a literary device, of a stylistic stroke not finally dissimilar from what we have met in a novel. The aesthetic makes endurable.

In composing Holocaust, Reznikoff seems to intuit that "The aesthetic makes endurable," and yet given his understanding of the testimonial role of poetry, he is still obliged to produce a text in which what Steiner would call "a narrative persona"--that is, the voice of the poetic subject--faintly lingers. The order of the sections of Holocaust moves in a loosely chronological fashion, from "Deportation" and "Invasion," through "Massacres," "Gas Chambers and Gas Trucks," and "Children" to the last sections, "Marches" and "Escapes." The poem ends with an account of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the escape of six thousand Danish Jews to Sweden with the help of their gentile fellow citizens. In other words, Reznikoff proceeds from the beginning of this saison d'enfer, to its darkest moments, to the new beginning of a period of struggle, hope, and recovery. Furthermore, a horrible irony can sometimes be heard just below the surface of the narration, as in this last stanza from the section called "Entertainment":

On Sundays there was no work and Jews would be placed in a row:

each had a bottle on his head

and the S. S. men amused themselves by shooting at the bottles.

If a bottle was hit,

the man lived;

but if the bottle landed below,

well, the man had it.

The ironic resignation of that "well" in the final line can only belong to a narrative voice that cannot lose itself entirely in the univers concentrationnaire.

Reading Holocaust throws us back on the rest of Reznikoff’s poetry with a renewed sense of his cultural predicament. As we have seen, identifying with Jewish history means suffering the loss of Jewish tradition. Compelled to bear the historical burden of Jewish identity without the inner strength provided by the continuity of Jewish faith, secular Jews like Reznikoff experience the intertwined processes of secularization and assimilation as a full-blown crisis of transmission.

Charles Bernstein: On "Holocaust"

Dear Jean-Paul Auxeméry,

[. . .]

I won't ever forget the first night, and first morning, of this year's Jewish New Year, where we celebrated the work of Reznikoff in a former Christian abbey at Royaumont, near Paris. I won’t forget that our Reznikoff panel ended with your overwhelming reading of Holocaust--your French translation of a work barely known in its native land. My own intervention had focused not only on Reznikoff's Testimony, as you note, but also more particularly on his Complete Poems. What I remember thinking was that Holocaust had never sounded so necessary, so appropriate (in your sense that Reznikoff always found the most "apropos" words). Yes, I have had my difficulties with Holocaust--the most unrelentingly painful to read of Reznikoff’s work, about the most unmitigated horror of our common, "modern" history. I think I must have said this work was about a problem specifically European; I could not have meant that it was "solely" European, however, since the destruction of the European Jews is of the most urgent relevance to all Americans, to all Jews, indeed to all humans. I think I must have suggested that Holocaust is necessarily Reznikoff's most problematic work at a technical--in the sense of aesthetic or formal--level, in the sense that no American work of poetry had found a form to adequately acknowledge that which is beyond adequate acknowledgment; so that Holocaust stands apart and beyond the achievement of Reznikoff’s Poems and Testimony.

I say specifically European for a very practical, literal reason that you, with your remarkable involvement with Olson, would certainly appreciate the implications of Reznikoff's work, apart from Holocaust and his biblical poems and talmudic "collages," has been a profound investigation of "American" materials: it is work immersed in the local and particular details of this place that he found himself in, first generation in his family, and also of a language, English, that was an intrinsic part of that emplacement. One of my favorite Reznikoff remarks is one he made to Marie Syrkin, his wife, in explaining why he would not go to Palestine with her in 1933; he told her that "he had not yet explored Central Park to the full." Indeed Reznikoff never left North America or English (an "American" English of course) in real life or in his poems, with the primary exception of Holocaust, which not only involved a European site or place (lieu) but also for the first time working with documentary materials not originally in English. For me, what was so striking about your reading of Holocaust in French was that one could imagine those incidents happening near the place, even Royaumont; we were close by the scene.

Reznikoff’s Complete Poems and Testimony explore the tragedy and violence that is the grounding of this Republic, call it United States. It is not a story that Americans are familiar with or, even now, ready to acknowledge. Each poem of Reznikoff's, always placed in series, shocks by its recognition of something otherwise unstated or unsaid: say, unacknowledged or repressed or denied or suppressed. Testimony, while a litany of sorrows, finds new avenues to locate the transgression of dominance against the human spirit.

By contrast, the violence, the repulsiveness, of the incidents in Holocaust are always and already known, hence preclude the insinuating subtlety of Testimony. And, for Americans, always and already projected outward to the German, to the Nazi, to a European story. If it does not hit home, it is because the story of World War II has been the greatest source for American self-congratulation: we defeated the Nazi monsters. NOT: the Nazi monsters in us, which go on, largely on the loose. This is like saying, North America has not had a twentieth-century war on its soil. Reznikoff shows otherwise. The Complete Poems and Testimony testify to a system of domination and disregard that has won; Holocaust to a system of explicit violence that, at least on the face, lost.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis: On "The Poem as Mask"

Explicitly antimythological, ["The Poem as Mask"] is also an act of self-criticism, written in direct opposition to an earlier "Orpheus." The older poem, constructed like a court masque of the English tradition, uses the power of music as organizing symbol, centers on a static drama of transformation, and ends with a song of unity. The figure of Orpheus -- the poet reborn as a god, the fragments of the human reunited as the divine, a transcendent experience that gives power to the self -- is a motif of great resonance for Rukeyser. Yet, in "The Poem as Mask," she brings her earlier poem into question by deliberate acts of self-criticism, showing that the myth she had so lovingly chosen and carefully shaped is an impediment to her quest. "The Poem as Mask" states that she had censored her feelings, writing him, god, myth, when she meant me, human, my life. As a woman, she had been unable to affirm her "torn life" -- the loss of love, a dangerous birth, the rescue of self and newborn child. Her former use of the myth blunted her sense of personal reality; it was a "mask" of covering, not a "masque" of unity and joy. So she makes a vow at the end of the poem: "No more masks! No more mythologies!" But while this vow is understandably antimythological, a cry against alien patterns imposed on women’s lives, the poem’s final lines present a renewed myth based on concrete feelings of peace, blessing, and wholeness. The new myth comes from within the self, as the orphic experiences in the historical life of the poet that offer inspiration and rebirth.

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.