What She Does, Not What Is Done To Her

My favorite Dada artist is Leonor Fini. I discovered her about ten years ago when I dashed into a NYC gallery to get out of the rain. I was wandering around the furniture/carpet district and the gallery was tucked in a alley behind ABC. The gallery had some small paintings by Fini, and I was drawn to the strong, feline women she portrayed. The attendant told me a bit about her, but the one thing I remember him saying was that she wasn’t as well known as the other Dadaists, and some critics considered her a minor artist because she was a woman painting women. While categorized as a surrealist, Fini rejected the label, primarily because Breton considered her the “muse” of the Surrealist movement, not a partcipant in it. Though Fini’s work is remarkable, it is hard to find anything written about her on the web that doesn’t make mention – in the first or second paragraph – of the Cartier-Bresson photo of her that famously sold for over $300,000 in 2007. While Fini was fiercely independent, her 1996 obituaries focused just as much on the men she slept with as they did on her work. It bothers me a bit that the artist is often considered in relation to the influences and interactions with men in her life and I wonder if their obituaries would identify them in relation to Fini.

I bring this up because we’re reading about Dadaism and its relationship to digital poetry, but I’m also thinking about Rachel Blau Duplessis and her relationship to Brian Kim Stefans and his poem The Dreamlife of Letters. Kim Stefans’ poem was written in response to Duplessis’ response to an essay by Dodi Bellamy. Stefans created an animated, topographic, very beautiful, very witty poem by taking the words in Duplessis’ response and alphabetizing them. While there is a lot of discussion about what Stefans’ poem does to Duplessis’ work (i.e. masculinizes it by enforcing an artifical order, etc.), I’d rather think about what Duplessis’ response does to Kim Stefans’ work.

The Dreamlife of Letters is derivative. Does it exist as a poem without the backstory, without the context of its creation? No. When a reader/viewer clicks on its initial screen, a pop-up window comes up with the backstory. While it is possible to then click on the link that will run the poem without reading the backstory, it is the creator’s intention that we read it, and it is hard to escape the backstory with both the ELC introduction and the Kim Stefans’ introduction.

Once the reader/viewer has access to the poem, it’s impossible to experience it without experiencing its shadow poem (though I think it’s interesting to note that while it’s very easy to google and find Kim Stefans’ The Dreamlife of Letters, I haven’t been able to locate Duplessis’ original response online. Even the link that Kim Stefans’ provides is broken). Though calling Duplessis response the “shadow poem” is misleading. If any work is the shadow, it is The Dreamlife of Letters. If the reader/viewer has read Duplessis’ response, she can’t help but make associations between Kim Stefans’ work and the original. Each recontextualized word echoes and reconstructs the first contextualization. If a reader/viewer hasn’t read Duplessis’ response, then she is constantly wondering about the original context in which the words of Kim Stefans’ poem appear.

Kim Stefans’ work was engendered by Duplessis’ response, and “The Dreamlife of Letters” cannot exist without the original piece written by Duplessis. It’s existence is based on the interplay between itself and its mothertext. It was born from Duplessis’ work, but the umbilical cord has not been severed. It is dependent on Duplessis’ response to have meaning.

That isn’t to say the Kim Stefans’ work doesn’t recreate meaning. It does. I especially like the screen in which “cinders” burns down into an ash that regenerates into “Cixous,” as if the French feminist theorist is a Phoenix, reborn from the ashes of attempted order! What I am asserting is the difference between recreating meaning and creating meaning. Without Duplessis’ original text, her work, her thoughts, her art, Kim Stefans could not create this piece. Duplessis made The Dreamlife of Letters possible, and instead of considering Dreamlife as a work that has transformed Duplessis’ writing, that has “acted on” Duplessis’ art, I propose that we consider the matriarchal power that has enabled Kim Stefans’ poem to exist.

Duplessis does address Kim Stefans’ poem in her poem “Draft 59”, and it’s interesting to note that she isn’t invested in the “original text” as a museum piece, not to be tampered with. She doesn’t consider Kim Stefans’ work an assault but rather an appropriation. And what she questions is not his right to order her words, but his choice to order them alphabetically. She investigates his aesthetic decisions. I like to think that if Duplessis were to write Kim Stefans’ obituary, she would focus on the choices he made with his art, not whose bed his art shared.



  1. JP Craig said

    The poems/essays by Bellamy and DuPlessis can be found in the archives of the SUNY Poetics mailing list. They are in September (the 30th) of 2000.

    • mcbattiste said

      Thanks so much for the tip, JP. I’ll definitely check them out.

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