Rachel Blau DuPlessis

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The Darkest Gush: Emily Dickinson And The Textual Mark

In August and September 1978, in the final stage of a long struggle to complete and shape my first book, Wells (Montemora 1980), I wrote a poem called "Oil." It carried a dedicatory note, "bei Dickinson." The "bei"--which I meant to be Yiddish even more than German--was particularly impudent, coming from the unassimilated immigrant language of my cultural Judaism, punning on "by," as if Emily Dickinson were the author of my work, but supposedly just meaning "near" or "next to." When the poem appeared in Wells (1980), it faced a poem called "Nessie," about the Loch Ness monster, another poem about female power, this one subtitled "for Woolf."

"Oil" was meant seriously and from its inception as direct homage to Dickinson's textual practices. "Tremendous idea about 'Oil' [I recorded in my journal in September 1978]--write it in two versions! Do an 'alternative'--a second ending just like Dickinson." The "tremendousness" of the idea was not, as it turned out, just cloying or self-cheering overstatement. It was an idea with many implications that has continued to affect my work and reverberate within it.

I was a little tentative about the double ending and remember talking to my friend, Frances Jaffer, who, when faced with my delicate query about the two endings I proposed, cut through my fear, reflected my risk back to me, and agreed "to use both." With the dual ending, I got a text which did two equally authoritative things, and which therefore ruptured a unitary telos, or end, and refused single-minded ending. It charms me now to remember that this was about the time that I was constructing the thesis for Writing Beyond the Ending (Indiana UP 1985), with its interest in how specific cultural mechanisms like narrative sequence, telos, gender ideology, and heterosexual assumptions produce and fabricate hegemonic plot. Further, the double ending of the Dickinson poem made (a) poem(s) that isn't/aren't either "one" (unified) or "two" (separate) poems--thus oscillating between and across one and two, creating partial tones and new integers. Because of the powerful structural and cultural ideas foregrounded by the poem, when I completed it, I felt as if a whole ton of coal had been poured noisily down my basement chute. There was a lot to "burn," and, as it turned out, for a long time.

I began to question why I thought Dickinson made such texts, and to follow the logic of Dickinson's textual critique in my own poems. This work was joined with and implicated in my own feminism. The poems I wrote with both disturbance of the culture and the page in mind are not indebted solely or totally to Dickinson: William Carlos Williams, George Oppen, H.D., other modernist writers, and contemporary innovative writers are all sources. But I considered my page space practices as a feminism of the text because of their disturbance of poetry-as-usual, because the struggle for the page is made visible, because conflicting and parallel alternatives try to exist on the same page space. For this, Dickinson is indeed a palpable source.

In Dickinson's oeuvre, there are a number of texts which destabilize the idea of final or master text and, by virtue of the textual practices, foreground the materiality of the visual text. Some (though in fact hardly all) of Emily Dickinson's poems, as we learned from the Thomas Johnson edition, propose variant words, sometimes variant lines, and, I think only once, a variant stanza. At certain key moments, she seemed fascinated to note a different word. Some are virtually synonymous; some are definitely not; some seem more radical; and some, more nice alternatives, perhaps projected with different readers in mind. In Emily Dickinson: A Poet's Grammar (Harvard UP 1987), Cristanne Miller notes that some variants offer contrastive, even contradictory information. And in My Emily Dickinson (North Atlantic Books 1985), "Women and Their Effect in the Distance" (Ironwood 28 [1986]: 58-91), and "These Flames and Generosities of the Heart: Emily Dickinson and the Illogic of Sumptuary Values" (Sulfur 28 [1991]: 134-155), Susan Howe has stated that the list of alternative words at the end of the poems make a strange shadow text, poetic in its mysterious import.

In proposing, recording, registering the alternative words (whether synonymous or contrastive), Dickinson was registering several deep facts about the profession or practices of poetry. First, when writing, one is intensely inside language. Playing with the medium, one admires both it and one's own power in seeing how individual words change weights, balances, forces, and vectors. Not for nothing did Dickinson note to Higginson that her companion was Noah Webster. The dictionary, perhaps, was her mysterious Master.

Second, as the theoretical statements of Roman Jakobson in "Linguistics and Poetics" (Language and Literature, eds. Pomorska and Rudy, Harvard UP 1987) so succinctly propose: poetry moves material from the axis of selection/substitution to the axis of contiguity/combination by the principle of equivalence. These practices of Dickinson play with substitution and play with equivalence--two of the core acts or assessments involved in poetic practice.

I became convinced that Dickinson wanted the alternative as such. By disturbing the axis of selection and the notion of equivalence, she wanted to break the iconicity of a one-way text. Of course a (normal) poem must have only one word in any one spot! Of course a (real) poem couldn't have two words in one place! Yet Dickinson's did. In a poem, every mark has meaning. If there are alternative marks for the same place in the poem, meaning is destabilized, rendered at least momentarily undecidable, jostled, made both more complex and even permanently unfixed.

In my view, Emily Dickinson made a critique of authority and the authoritative in her textual practices. She denied copy text by her alternative words and lines, even as she produced a kind of personal book in the fascicles. She deliberately constructed an approach to her text that plays havoc with the finality of "final intention" and the authority of "author's ultimate choice." It seemed to me that the graduate school question (circa 1965) of "which was the better alternative" for certain Dickinson words was peculiarly limited, for of course it made a hierarchy of good, better, best, pointing toward copy text (the final text ratified by the author). And when the author "couldn't" or "didn't" decide for herself, the editor "naturally" had to exercise his good sense. The question is not which one or the other word does Dickinson "really" want, but what does it mean that she often provided both this word and another? What do these pockets of plurality mean? I thought that Dickinson sometimes eschewed (on principle) the authorial function of choice, being more fascinated by the wobble she could create than the authority of which she was clearly, decisively capable. She worked (very hard, like Penelope) to undo the work she had worked. What had she wrought? She wrought the non-authoritative author--certainly a criticism of patriarchal practices of authorship, practices that persist and flourish to this very day. By doubling some of her meanings, Dickinson seemed, even, to be playing with an edge of un-meaning, as if the poem were a cliff from which she almost jumped.

The controlled moments of textual plurality in her work have their thematic analogue in plurisignification. For even in the poems which have "only one" choice of a word for any "one" spot, Dickinson still works language by fecund tactics of duplicity. Like her multiple word choices, her polyvalent poems perform an astonishing critical feat for and in poetic language. Plurisignification comes in the enormous doubled and duplicitous metaphors of her work. Is this poem mainly about God or a love? Is it spoken as a male or a female? Is it about marriage or death? Is it a poem of teensy-weensy minority or a poem of gargantuan and dionysiac authority? Is it a poem of romantic thralldom or a poem of ecstatic poetic power? Is it hungry or is it full? When one considers Dickinson's poem at any length, the word or is always called into question.

A lyric poem has been critically treated as an icon, not as a praxis. An icon usually is taken as a whole, a unit (or postulated as unitary). Dickinson's textual tactic breaks the iconicity of the lyric poem, troubles it, with these textual practices, destablilizing its wholeness. Therefore it also breaks the iconicity of the beautiful object. For her poems as beautiful objects have deliberately placed "flaws," these double words. Why do I say "flaws"? I say it ironically, laughing at beauty. Her offering two times as much goodness and beauty as normal poetry demands will camp up "normal poetry." Such a tactic is a subtle but intense critique of poetry-as-usual.

So I think that Dickinson was altering the poem as icon by making competing words enter the poem and mutually challenge each other. The "master narrative" of textual choices by whose light we study poetry renders invisible the physical or material aspects of a text, and swallows and digests the marks of its choices. By physical or material aspects one might mean--the long "y" tails and sprouting surfaces of letters in some of Blake's plates, and the placement of the poem amid illustration (see Thomas Vogler, "'Now We Live in Kit's House'," Sulfur27 [Fall 1990]: 156-172). One might mean the crease of white between the gloss and the ballad in S.T. Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." One might mean the notes in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. These observations of the feel, look and image of the visual text cut against a ruling assumption of "immateriality" for the text of the poem. This critical assumption itself corresponds to the New Critical tenets of "immateriality" for the biography, historical circumstances, gender, race, and social markings of or on the writer. "Immateriality" meant that one was supposed not to notice how poems might look in anthologies, all squinched together on the page with martinet-metronome line numbers further pacing one's pleasure. "Immateriality" meant that one took T.S. Eliot's footnotes to The Waste Land at face value, as a kind of exalted information about the text, and not as one genre of this heterogeneric work. "Immateriality" meant that one was supposed not to notice how the writer's origin in a patriarchal family or as a doubter in a religious time, might have affected her work. The only biographical bytes that were not immaterial for women writers were their marital and sexual status and their sanity (especially if suicide was in question)--curious gendered exceptions to the rule of immateriality.

Much current language theory talks about gap or lack or loss. It is hard to get away from this. The word is taken as a substitute for the thing, a replacement for some unbridgeable loss. Maybe this is one reason to use double words. To use double endings. To double materials in the same page space, one proposes excessive language activities (instead of one word--put two, put three!). And thereby one finesses the theory itself. Perhaps even answers it. Words are unstoppable, they create intersecting realities and are not just bridges into one. A further answer would "suggest that the word should be understood not only along the axes of its relationship to other words but in the context of its functioning within the dialogic relationships between the speaker and listener." "The sign...is thus always socially formed. Its actual use and meaning, in the case of language, is reciprocally determined by whose word it is and for whom it is meant" (Tony Bennet, Formalism and Marxism, Methuen 1979). As I suggested, the source of Dickinson's alternatives might well have been projected imagination of persons with whom she might have shared the works, or imagined the sharing. The vectors of connotation are always social.

Dickinson's poetic acts may be seen as presenting some of the strategies for writing disruptive of hegemonic processes which Irigaray proposes in This Sex Which Is Not One (Cornell UP 1985). Irigaray has argued that toppling, reversing, or other methods of directly attacking power will not solve the problem of dominance, including master texts and master narratives. To undermine those practices whereby everything is reduced to "the same" (for example, familiar practices of how poems look), Irigaray proposes to "subvert the discursive mechanism" in several ways: by the attempt to express an excessive (what she calls female) pleasure; by the creation of a disruptive excess; and by the overrunning of dichotomies, so that in this case such notions as wrong word/right word, or chosen word/discarded word would be criss-crossed and come undone. Certainly Dickinson's double words perform all these functions.

When I was preparing Tabula Rosa for publication in 1987 (Potes & Poets Press), I decided to reprint "Oil" in my second book of poems. This repetition was a fairly wayward and unconventional act which again signaled the seminal/germinal quality of this text. "Oil" and Dickinson were thereby given a curious status--as link, as doubled statement in two different positions in two different books. Why did I choose to repeat the poem "Oil"? It was the seed of both kinds of cultural work in Tabula Rosa (pun on "tabula rasa," a phrase that implies a theory of mind and a description of a writing surface; my changed phrase implied that both mind and writing space are infused and inflected with gender in manifold ways; the page is never blank; it is already written with conventions, prior texts, and cultural ideas; my task as a writer is to face this complicated page). Tabula Rosa: the critical rupturing of the lyric tradition, and the formal rupturing of page space.

Two main tactics of representation in Tabula Rosa occur in each of the two parts. In the section sub-titled "The 'History of Poetry'" I reinterpret the past. I invent a history of poetry by making counterfactual poems. Considering, citing, deforming the lyric tradition, I criticized the notions of the lyric based on the silences, beauties, and muse-functions of women. These poems are based on my pretense that at all ages there were women writers (some real, like Sappho, Praxilla, Dickinson; some my inventions, like the "Crowbar"-- not trobar--poet). These women writers wrote a poetry inflected with, and commenting upon their position in the lyric tradition. This is a thematic experiment, an experiment in voice, and in citation strategy, the souped-up appropriations of the already-written (as running Keats' "Ode to Psyche" backwards through my poem "Moth"). This is a "new anthology," and as with every anthology, there is both suspicious adjustment and respectful intervention into "canons." Of course, Dickinson has her place in this anthology.

The work of the second part of Tabula Rosa is called "Drafts", and continues in my third book, Drafts 3-14 (Potes & Poets Press 1991). In the Drafts there is an attempt simply to ignore the lyric and the issues of beauty, unity, finish and the female positions within these, and to instead articulate the claims and questions of Otherness--"she" or "it" or "gap" or "the." Drafts is also a way of ignoring binary systems of limit: subject/object; male/female; speech/silence; Jew/non- Jew; dead/living; lyric beauty/encyclopedic inclusion; memory/invention.

The work of this second part of Tabula Rosa was initiated in 1984-85, when I composed a 28-section serial poem called "Writing." In some sections, I put handwriting (my own) into the poem, something alarmingly taboo, for it brings the sloppy mark of the writer right into the book. This poem too has an indebtedness to Dickinson in its "fascicle" presentation of the hand of the poet there sullying or entering the technologically-contained printed text. And again, strongly in this poem, alternative or doubled marks enter the same page space, rupturing the unitary reading of a page. The various discourses were set in a page space like a stage with "things just happening on the side": it is as if there were no more center, just pulls in various directions. These two sections occur towards the beginning of the poem.

My Drafts are done to produce heterogeneric work which calls attention to, or mimics, the non-iconic quality of drafts themselves. The principle contained in the title proposes that the works (which of course aim at being quite well-wrought) behave as if they were provisional, that is, as if they were "drafts" of some other, or of some larger, work. It is a peculiarity of a draft, generically speaking, that a line, a phrase, a word, a sentence or statement can be temporarily placed in any of several positions within the text. Naturally, the impact of that element will alter, depending on its context or position. I wrote poems which use some of the same units of language and materials in different contexts. Images, lines, phrases from one "Draft" may enter others freely, as if they had not found a final home in any one poem, or as if they enjoyed the processes of circulation. The poems have a strong acceptance of the unfinished, and make allusions to changeability and incompleteness.

And many of the "Drafts" are built on impressionistic simultaneity. Nothing is centered, everything is marginal to everything else; it is all happening on the side. In many poems, there are in fact two sides, or simultaneous alternative passages in the same page space. This clearly is still a heritage of "Oil" and Dickinson. Another of their features, in which I again see the shadow of Dickinson (along with other modernist page practices) is the way all the works make visual and textual allusion to marks and markings, marks which are normally invisible, and are rarely used as a part of the language of poetry. There are incipit initials, palimpsested words, bracketed material as if "cut," contrasting typography. There are censored (blackened) rectangles covering unreadable parts. There are odd signs on the page--a child-written letter, a hieroglyphic eye. There are many poems with a kind of binary page, an irregular fissure down the middle, the two sides operating like two hands in piano music-rubati and registers passing with intense sensual tension, from side to side. All these visual and discursive gestures are meant to bring the physical codes of writing and presentation up to scrutiny.

Tactics which deny or subvert the authoritative text have haunted me. I wanted polyphony; I wanted excess. I wanted to achieve uncontrollable elements. I wanted to layer and propose discontinuities until there was almost no "poem"--no "art object." Ever since "For the Etruscans" (1979; rpt. The Pink Guitar, Routledge 1991), and even before, I proposed on my page the contradictory. The unfinished. The processual. Multiple beginnings, multiple middles, and eroded endings. The simultaneous discharge of materials. The wayward and unpredictable epiphany which can be caused by anything understressed, obtuse, destabilizing. The polyphonic. the polygynous--married to many female subject positions. To make a work as if undone. My words: borderlines of the unutterable pluralities of a gushing text.

This is the poem "Draft 5: Gap." (A note on the following text: "The little child self" from Mallarme's The Tomb of Anatole, specifically Paul Auster's translation. "An activity. . ." is Regina Schwartz explaining interpretation; the notion of memory as interpretation recently in Mary Jacobus. "It is proper" from Irigaray. The black books are by Anselm Kiefer. "Someone" is the dancer Sharon Friedler; "the form" occurs in Japanese music: "jo"--introduction, "ha"--the scattering, and "kyu"--the rush to finish.)

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