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Surge: Drafts 96-114

Book Reviewed by Dorothy Chan

Surge: Drafts 96-114 by Rachel Blau DuPlessis is one of the best contemporary answers to poetics and critical theory. Be forewarned: dense material ahead—definitely not a lazy Sunday read. Surge is one of those books that’s perfect for poets studying process writing. Process writing is where you add layers to a single poem and inevitably end up with multiple poems, or even a full collection. This process is linked to the study of forms, exploring the way in which different structures can work off each other, accentuating and enriching a larger collection. I’ll also dare to say that Surge is for the more ambitious poets who think free verse is lazy and prefer to experiment with an elegy or sonnet crown.

“Each poem of the whole project can be read individually as a separate work,” DuPlessis explained the raw essence of her work during a recent interview. “Poems can also be read in any order. But they are joined together by all being ‘drafts.’”

Surge: Drafts is really a continuation of DuPlessis’ earlier works, including Drafts 1-38, Toll (Wesleyan 2001), DRAFTS, Drafts 39-57, Pledge with Drafts, Unnumbered: Précis (Salt Publishing, 2004), Torques: Drafts 58-76 (Salt Publishing, 2007), Pitch: Drafts 77-95 (Salt Publishing, 2010). The Collage Poems of Drafts appeared early in 2011, and finally, Surge: Drafts 96-114 was published by Salt in 2013.

Surge is of course, an ambitious project, and length in poetry is a daring feat. However, DuPlessis makes the distinction that Surge: Drafts 96-114 is not a long poem in itself, but drafts 96-114 come together as a collection. When 96-114 is linked to the 1-95 works that precede it, the result is a longer, and richly textured poem. This is where process writing comes into play. As writers, we are always looking for the relationship among all our previous works. What common themes are explored? Is there a hidden agenda that links all these works together? Strictly speaking, where poetry is concerned, how does form come into play?

DuPlessis lists genres, such as odes, elegies, proverbs, ballads, and haiku as having influenced her work. These forms help create a beautiful musicality in her work; for instance, Draft 98 is titled “Canzone,” also known as an Italian song or ballad. In “Canzone” and throughout her book, DuPlessis achieves a whimsical musicality with the juxtaposition of her words: “pass into a mirroring account of alphabets” and “…though at first it had seemed fenced off—Vietato l’ingresso.”

DuPlessis also grapples with the larger juxtaposition of musicality and analytical intensity. In her preface, she explains the theory behind her decisions in Surge: Drafts. Traces of these concepts can be found embedded within the poems themselves. For example, the sixth stanza of “Draft 100: Gap” reads, “______. The poem, unwritten/is concealed by the poem.” First off, the gap in the line adds another dimension to this draft. The intensity of “gap” is emphasized by this preceding physical gap. The idea of poems concealing other poems can be traced back to the preface when DuPlessis states that poems in collections work as a collage, and no poem ever feels “whole.” “Draft 99: Intransitive” also reflects this: “The complete is never complete.”

Because of this musicality and analytical intensity, reading the poems out of order becomes a fun task. It’s interesting to evaluate the unity of a collection based on whether the overall “story” of the poems still holds true out of order. Besides order and form, Surge raises the even more important issue of the long poem’s role in literature—think Chaucer, Milton, Eliot, Pound, etc. All these poets created works that are immortalized to this day, so there begs the question: where is the long poem of today’s world? In addition, how does the long poem of modern society distinguish itself from its predecessors? What forms(s) would that poem take? Does the poem fill one book or multiple books? Poets, are used to writing works of breadth yet depth, but it is very rare that they are satisfied with a longer poem. The task in itself is daunting.

Thus, DuPlessis’ Surge: Drafts 96-114 should be acknowledged as an important study. It’s a work that needs to be read several times to fully absorb everything. A meticulous reading of the preface will provide useful hints and strategies for absorbing this collection’s intricate content. Don’t be afraid. Daring readers will be rewarded, and perhaps even inspired to take on a much more ambitious work. And it’s about time that critical theory meshed with the contemporary long poem.