The most beautiful book would be that which it would not be possible to consider as a book
— Francis Picabia
Poetry is an art of constitution. Not only plastic "composition." But not a graceful maneuvering of representations or descriptions or stories or denotations, all of which teeter precariously on the brink of fetish.
— Bruce Andrews "Constitution/Writing"
One of the problems with language writing is that it works too well, in that it destabilizes language to the point that it becomes difficult to give a normative critical reading of it. This is particularly true in the case of much of Bruce Andrews's work. So much so that normative reading is problematized to the extent that a close critical reading becomes much more difficult than looking at the work in general and making broad statements about how it fits into a poetics or politics (and there may not be any difference between the two in reality). Part of the reason behind this overt problematization of a close critical reading of language writing is that language wetting resists translation . . . in all its forms. Language writing resists being translated from the page through normative reading to meaning. There is no Jamesean window here in Andrews's work, even in the more prose like pieces from say Shut Up, Divestiture — A, or Strictly Confidential, but rather the opaque surface of language which does not lend itself to any great normative accrual of meaning. So, as a consequence the value of the language as commodity -- as a marker in a system of reading-transmission-translation -- is severely limited. What then is left of poetry, of writing? Sound and form and rhythm and image. Narrative just isn't the point, no matter what the capitalist political machine would like us to think. Poetry is word play and word game; it is "wordness" first, and "meaning" is secondary to the physical being of the word -- exactly those qualities which we see as getting in the way of our close reading. But what we don't acknowledge is the fact that what makes so much of poetry poetic is that which is not story, not narrative, but the bits of language that constitute its tenor or its feel. The "poetry" of Shakespeare, for instance, stems not primarily from his story-telling (after all, his plots are mostly borrowed), but from his diction and his formal sensibilities, the way he puts his words together. His poetics has less to do with what he says than with how he says. Poetry-as-constitution implies the constitution of both the speaker and the spoken. A simultaneous constitution of language and the body. I speak the body, the body speaks. Poetry-as-constitution also implies a self conscious awareness of the process. To be constituted demands an awareness of the fact (or is this just some Cartesian fallacy?).
What I would like to do here is to examine some of Bruce Andrews's earlier works and try to come up with ways to give a series of close readings of the texts in such a way as to point to what makes these works poetic, rather than try to reinvest them with meaning in any Jamesean way or to fit them into some model of how I see the world (or Andrews's body of work) working.
Because of his particular poetic methodology(s), much of his work necessitates a different kind of reading than what we are accustomed to (by this I mean different from both a normal physical reading -- left to right, top to bottom -- and from the dominant critical emphasis on how poems "mean"). This problematic stance seems to be the norm, if I can call it that, for most of the language poets -- the work of each poet requires a different style of reading based on how that poet addresses the relationship between the political goals of language poetry and the essentially poetic character of language itself. The method of reading that I here propose may or may not work with other poets, depending on whether the relationship between goal and method in their writing coincides more or less with the form which this relationship assumes in Andrews's writing.
A useful place to begin to look at Andrews's work is a one line poem that appeared in The Paris Review in 1972:
Bananas are an example.
This is pretty fringy stuff, even for a reductivist poem. As Robert Pinsky says in The Situation of Poetry:
"Comic and reductive, Andrews's poem calls attention to the somewhat arbitrary nature of any connection between specific examples and general ideas...[bananas] might be made to exemplify nearly anything." (88)
This to me seems to be exactly the point. But then Pinsky goes on to try to pigeon-hole Andrews's work into an historical tradition that restricts the levels at which "Bananas" can mean and thus control an otherwise completely out of control poem, as he tries "to show (a) how a crazy-looking poem can be extremely traditional, in the sense that its manner and matter can be understood only through their historical background, and (b) an example of the nominalist dilemma reduced to a kind of Absolute Zero" (90). Pinsky is stuck in traditional modes of interpretation that leave no room for open-ended-ness, whereas Andrews's one-line poem requires truly new ways of reading.
What the poem does do is set up a tension, an unfulfilled expectation, and this is the real poetry of the sentence, this lack of a unified voice. "Bananas are an example" of what? The poem itself does not tell us the answer, and any answer that we come up with is our answer, and not the answer. When the poem denies us an answer, it fragments itself in our minds and leaves us with the residual tension. Reading the poem over doesn't help us decipher its "meaning" because its meaning is already inside us. The dynamic of the unfulfilled linguistic expectation opens the language of the line up rather than shutting it down; it becomes poetry.
A second work that can help us get to the meat of Andrews's poetics is a collaborative effort that appeared in 1979, when Andrews, with John M. Bennett, put together Joint Words, a packet of fourteen 2.5"x4" thin cardstock cards published in a small envelope. In the center of each card are two words, all of them different except for the onomatopoeic repetition "BOOM BOOM" on one card. The pairs of words are not semantically linked; they do not necessitate each other in any logical syllogistic chain; they just inhabit the same card in a very interesting way. The fourteen cards, pointedly in no particular order, are as follows: "KAAK STUNT", "BOOM BOOM", "SEND LINKS", "WHITE PULP", "STIFF EACH", "WORD KAK", "SHEET NESS", "METER AXES", "LOCK QUART", "ACTUALLY CLEAVES", "YET HAND", "SLOW FLOOR", "THAT UNIT", and "SAME RATION".
These words lack any sort of context that might give them meaning. They swim from one place to another just as the cards themselves do, and we are never allowed to see them in any fixed, codified environment. The cards fix two words together, and as a consequence they make the basic semantic unit of this piece a group of two words (i.e. "YET HAND"), but there are no "grammatical" rules determining "right" and "wrong" ways to order these units. Rather all possible combinations are "correct." In effect the cards constitute a kind of language which can generate 14! (14 factorial--about 80 some odd billion) possible "sentences" (assuming we use each card in every "sentence," for if we do not use all of the cards each time there are even more possibilities). So, these 14! "sentences" constitute the context within which any particular card can "mean". The relationships among the cards as they are randomly played/spoken/read become linguistic connections that begin to produce denotations of their own.
So, what we have is a finite number of units (14 cards) making up, in mathematical terms, a countably infinite (although it is physically possible to count the combinations, for all practical purposes they are infinite ) number of possible combinations, and as a consequence an equal number (as a bare minimum) of possible readings that I alone might perform at any given instant. But where do I start any sort of critical reading?
One possible method might be some sort of statistical analysis based on grammatical categories: verb tense/conjugation, noun declension, and adjectival declension. But there simply isn't enough data for such an analysis to be useful. Another problem with a statistical approach is that the words themselves are far too indeterminate for the analysis. Words like "LINKS," "PULP," "SHEET," "METER," "AXES," "LOCK," "HAND," "FLOOR," and "RATION" all move from verbs to nouns and back with very little trouble, and all of them but "AXES" work as adjectives as well. Other words like "NESS," "KAAK," and "KAK" problematize even this degree of codification. "NESS" may be the suffix meaning something like being-quality; or it may be a proper name meaning something like person/place; or, more likely, it may function like some combination of the two. And both "KAAK" and "KAK" resist even this associatively derived meaning.
So, a grammatical analysis won't work. What will? What is going on with the cards individually? The top card on my stack (I seem to be resistant to the formless jumble and need to control it by keeping them all in a stack) right now is "WHITE PULP." This is a very powerful grouping. Here in the State of Maine it seems particularly moving. White pulp paper mills...wood pulp bleached white and pressed into paper. But there is more than just this image resident within these two words; to me there is a kind of dark foreboding feeling associated with an image of some sort of crushed larval insect. This feeling juxtaposed with the pulp of the paper that these words are printed on makes a complex and compact image that resists a firm label. This is truly an imagistic poem.
It seems that several of the other cards also function as "metacards" that overtly bring the objectness of the cards into the poetry. "SHEET NESS," "STIFF EACH," and "YET HAND" are working at this metacard level. "EACH" of these cards is "STIFF", and they all have a "SHEET NESS" about them. Our body's relationship with the cards is most clearly demonstrated by "YET HAND." Much of my life is spent looking at either the backs or the palms of my hands, and as I read this card which is "YET" in my "HAND," it unlocks a myriad of images of time, place, and body culminating in this moment--an image of a poem, mid-read.
Some of these cards have additional imagistic possibilities. Each pair of words is working with a kind of absence--a question. What is "STIFF"? "STIFF" who? Which "EACH"? "HAND" what? What "HAND"? These questions are not answered by the cards, and they will not be answered by the other cards in any fixed way; but at the same time these questions create possibilities for images, a wealth of images. "SHEET NESS" brings to my mind a calm lake, a woman in bed, the being of this card. All at once these images flash in my mind, and I come back to the words "SHEET NESS." Likewise "STIFF EACH" produces a slew of images, but of a different quality: a line of soldiers standing at attention all with erections, we are all screwed by the government, walking out on a dinner bill, and the being of this card. Images tumbling around my mind, sexual and potent, images of power and power relationships all coming from these two simple words.
It doesn't seem possible to reconcile the images brought forth through the questions provoked be each of these cards. We are forced to confront a jumble of dissimilar images, views, and quite possibly viewpoints. What we get is the Buddha of the Haiku, the suspension of a univocal viewpoint for just a moment.
Each of these cards, then, seems to function as a small poem creating the potential for groups of juxtaposed images. So what happens when this whole series of small poems is stacked on top of each other? There is really no "right" reading of the cards; rather any random arrangement creates a series of multi dimensional links among the cards.
For example, the stack as it is arranged beside my computer at this moment reads like this:
METER AXES / YET HAND / SLOW FLOOR / WORD KAK / SHEET NESS / WHITE PULP / KAAK STUNT / SAME RATION / STIFF EACH / BOOM BOOM / SEND LINKS / LOCK QUART / ACTUALLY CLEAVES / THAT UNIT
Semi-semantic connections begin to develop between the cards, and in some instances grammatically correct sentences result ("LOCK QUART / ACTUALLY CLEAVES / THAT UNIT"). But beneath this level of connectedness the questions and images still remain. Connections begin to congeal out of this pool. It is as if a great violence has been done to the language of the cards, and slowly the emphasis shifts from grammatical connections to imagistic ones. The sequencing of the images begins to work like an Eisenstein montage, or maybe a [Duran Duran] music video, with the images adding up to more than what they are separately. "METER AXES / YET HAND" is a good example of this. As we read the cards, we are forced to confront each card's set of images individually, and only then do we see them as a chain. "METER AXES" generates an amalgam of violence in my mind. So, juxtaposing these images of calculated destruction with "YET HAND" is very disturbing. I see Lady Macbeth scrubbing away, trying to wash the guilt from my hands.In a more conventional poem, the strongest links form between lines/words that are in immediate proximity to each other. Such proximity works as a linear form of bonding. By substituting chance relationships for such linear links, these cards, in effect, produce an interweaving pattern of relationships that goes beyond either a one to one correspondence in a denotative mapping or a link in some syllogistic chain. After each reading the relationships are both strengthened and renewed, and in the end the cards begin to define their own meanings. The cards and the relationships that link them together constitute truly a poetic language, a language of poems. So, codification is not just impossible but completely beside the point. The work is dynamic expression, but an expression outside of the bounds of English per se, insofar as it relies on a set of internally derived syntactic and semantic possibilities that may or may not have anything to do with English.
LOVE SONGS, although published in 1982, consists mainly of works from several years earlier. The sequence includes an eclectic assortment of one line poems, word lists, word/letter montages, jumbles, diagrams, puzzles, matrices, and mappings, many of which are given with directions and choreographic notes for performance. Throughout the sequence, though, Andrews is primarily dealing with words as words, not as communication.
Andrews's fascination with words themselves comes through clearly in this sequence. Some poems consist of lists of words/phrases to be read by multiple voices at variable tempos. For example, "Song No. 3" is to be read by two voices, one reading two phrases every ten seconds and the other reading five phrases every thirty seconds. Such texts let the individual words or phrases resonate independently as well as within the context of their surroundings. The forced slow pace of many of the pieces places particular emphasis on the individual unit outside of its context, letting a larger picture grow more slowly. In "Song No. 3," the two lists are primarily movie titles, mainly B grade exploitation films of the fifties and Sixties. The first list mainly includes horror and sci fi, while the second is comprised of titles with the word "love" or "lover" in them. As these are read over the approximate ten minute duration of the piece, each title resonates with its own linguistic and phonetic power. But as with JOINT WORDS the overall effect of the piece is different each time it is performed, even if it is performed by the same two people. Even though Andrews "wrote" this text, the specific form it assumes in any given performance is in large measure the result of chance, which governs the way the two lists intersect.
Sound patterns are created and broken continuously throughout each of the performance pieces. The wordness of the words is sometimes lost in their sounds; with multiple voices overlaying words on top of each other, the sounds themselves become the focus of our attention and in the end are infused with a kind of meaning outside of both their connotations and denotations. However, the pieces in Love Songs not explicitly directed for performance seem to be easier to talk about in specific terms. So, at this point I will turn to some examples of this second kind of text.
Andrews is looking at wordness and sound in all of these pieces. He wants us to see/hear/feel the medium and not just the message. For example, "No 127" consists of several word clusters separated on the page by an asterisk, the third such cluster consists of the three words "bayonet / treasury / scholars." Here Andrews wants us to see the wordness of these words double spaced down the page. They are interesting words; they look intriguing, and they sound provocative. But they also resound with connotative and denotative power. All three words are socially and politically charged. So, a tension develops between the "meanings" of each of these words and their "objectness," their wordness, their sound. They are not linked overtly to any narrative or logical chain. Any linkages that we see among them are largely due to our wanting one to be there. For example, we might hypothesize that war brings stability and a kind of prosperity that leads to the inscribing of a history by the winners, but this sort of interpretive retelling, although calming to the ego, in the end only obscures the text itself and leads to a dangerous kind of falsification. Thus the semantic implications of the words themselves are at odds with the words' visual and auditory qualities--although such a tension may be one of the fundamental traits of language itself.
At this point I would like to take a close look at three of the poems in LOVE SONGS: "NO 70," "SONG NO 13," and "SONG NO 1." These three poems exhibit certain qualities in common with each other and furthermore exemplify several trends that I see in Andrews's work in general. Rhythms, patterns, and relationships among the words are the order of the day. Andrews uses all of these to get at the words themselves in order to make the language fresh and unexpected, and to focus our attention on the means of production: i.e. our bodies.
All three of these poems, to one degree or another, have helical structures, the most overtly helical being "SONG NO 1." In addition, all three poems foreground and problematize syntax, word position, and sound. These three elements, along with reference, generate meaning in language; but because Andrews's texts bracket reference, the syntactic relations among words, the position of the words, and the sound of the phonemes in large part create the meaning of each of these texts.
One of the most striking things about "SONG NO 1" is its overtly helical pattern on the page. This swaying pattern sets up a rhythm of sorts before we even begin to read the words. The relationships among the words develop in a non-linear fashion, flowing organically back and forth across the page (the helix, or rather the double helix, being the root of all that is organic) in a two-dimensional mapping of a three-dimensional form.
The spatial relationships among the words on the page give them contextual meaning, syntax. They, in their own way, become pixels of the image that is the poem. But, more than that, the placement of the words influences the way we read them. The rhythm of the text, the way we sound it out through our voices or in our minds, is shaped by the spatial relationships on the page. The words that are placed in distinct groups, the tightest of these groups being "judge/lake," are read as almost overlapping. For me they seem to coexist in my mind in a weirdly cinematic way, a dissolve...almost a match dissolve, as I read them almost simultaneously.
The words grouped in lines are read in a linear fashion that, like so much of Andrews's poetry, problematizes itself. The line works as a kind of mathematical critical point in the curve that is the poem. The anomaly of a flat point in a curve and the degenerative nature of the poem's curve seem to be reflected in the non-linear nature of both of the longer lines ("hindrance..." and "had pretty..."). Their refusal to fit into any sort of logical sense belies their linear format, and in the end ruptures the stability (read "ego cushion") that this format implies.
"rake / plunked / linen", this is a sentence--subject-verb-direct object (maybe the DO is "linen / humor / air"? I don't know). This cluster works as a discursive sequence, one that fits together through acoustic links as well as grammatical ones. The group calls up strange and oddly disconcerting images that don't entirely make sense. These images might be described as surreal, I suppose, although they don't have the solidity of surrealist images.
"rake" "plunked" these words are linked through their almost awkward "k" sounds. The "a" vowel in "rake" also modulates into the "uh" of "plunked." As we pronounce the "ake" and the "unk," the position of our mouths subtly changes, which focuses our attention on the pronunciation itself, and also blends the two words together in an interesting blurred continuum. The blurring continues with the next word; "lun" and "lin" seem to be just as closely related and work again to focus our attention on how we are producing the words ("plunked" and "linen") rather than what they may mean per se. "linen" itself reenforces this pattern with its internal repetition of the "n" sound, so that the word almost echoes itself and is invariably trapped in our mouths as we enunciate it over again. But here the blurring ends. "humor" seems to be a sharp break with the various sounds that link the first three words together. As such, it sets up the next sequence of sounds and in a way acts as a sign post, much like a period followed by a capital letter, to signal that the discourse is changing slightly here. "humor"'s "or" is transformed into "air" and then back to the true rhyme of "bloomer" (as I pronounce it anyway...thus again Andrews's text focuses my attention on the fact that it is my body that is producing the sounds and in the end the meaning of the poem). "bloomer" also tends to call us back to "plunked," linking the two acoustic sentences.
"egg" becomes, then, a very interesting word. It is at once acoustically foreign to the poem and discursively linked to at least one of the denotations of "bloomer" (not underwear, but rather a life giving flower, a late bloomer, etc.). Its odd sound and short length both tend to make me pause as I read it to marvel at its sheer strangeness ("egg" is one of the few words that I know of in the English language which has two final "g"'s in a row . . . another is "yegg" which very well may be related) . The "g"'s in "egg" also serve to set us up for the pronounced "g" in "edgewise" and later in "judge". Oddly enough, though, "egg" gives us no preparation whatsoever for "slat".
"slat" has such ugly onomatopoetic undertones that it really sticks out, even amongst all of these other oddities. Although the word contains both an "l" and the same "a" sound that is in "air," it refuses to be positioned with any of the words that those sounds might link it to. The combination of "slat"'s harsh, ugly "a" and its abrupt ending disrupt/fragment the connections that both an "a" and a "t" might suggest by themselves. In fact it remains completely alien to all of the words in the poem. It alone seems to be outside of the acoustic context of the poem, and as such it becomes a focal point for the poem and its patterning (I think that I should also note that "slat" occurs almost exactly on the theoretic projection of the axis of the poem's helix). The ugly, alien nature of the word is then reflected onto the "meanings" that we are forced to remember ("slat..., slat..., can I slat?, can I be slat?, what is a slat?...a slat in a window"). What we get is an odd mix of image and feeling overlaying each other in a confusing and almost incoherent way. The word, in essence, shocks us out of reading the poem and forces us to read the word, sound it out, consider the ramifications both of our vocalizing it and that vocalization's connotive/emotive impact on us, so that in the end we see ink on the page without meaning other than what we give it. The word becomes a poem in and of itself, outside of the context of poem as a whole, but paradoxically the word can take on this status only within the poem, and it is finally unable to divorce itself from the context of the page.
"edgewise" within the context of the poem serves to bridge the gap created by "slat," as the physical and acoustic relationships between "egg" and "edge" draw the two together, almost bypassing "slat" entirely. The words "egg" and "edge" look alike (or at least to me with my dyslexic vision they look alike--the "d" in "edge" sometimes looks almost exactly like a "g" to me, especially when I am tired), and their repetitious "e"'s and "g"'s bind them in a way that differs from the links between other words. This strong bond tends to marginalize "slat" and furthers "slat"'s alienation from the rest of the poem (several times when I have read through the poem I have caught myself skipping over "slat" entirely without intending to do so).
"ochre" then sets up a fourth acoustic sentence, also comprising three words ("ochre", "memory", and "flocking"). The initial "och" of "ochre" seems to establish the pattern that the group follows. The "o" is repeated in "memory", and the "ch" sound is repeated in "flocking," with a slightly altered "o" sound. Like so much of this poem these shifts point us not to the words, but to the production of these words. The vowel shift in particular firmly roots this group in our bodies.
"memory", on the other hand, seems to be primarily a link to the other acoustic groupings. The internal "mor" of "memory," if you will pardon the term, remembers the rhyme of "humor," and "bloomer," and as such maintains the acoustic chain of the poem.
In the next line(s) something entirely different is happening though. "judge/lake" is a different sort of beast. The words are strongly linked together, not by sound/pronounciation, but rather by a semantic link that is produced by the words fitting together the way we expect words to fit together (left to right, top to bottom, etc.). Thus the position pointer tells us that these two words should be read as one unit. This is a significant shift in the poem's movement.
Before this point in the poem the semantic unit has consistently remained at or below the word level. But in this (these) line(s) the unit is clearly two words. Whether "judge/lake" is read as a person, place, or action (or all three simultaneously) it remains a single unit; it does not fragment the way "ochre"/"memory" does (even with its potential adjective-noun constitution), perhaps because of the difference in the position pointers that relate the words inside each of the two groups.
The next line, however, returns to the acoustic rhythms of the previous portion of the poem. The first two words, "hindrance send," rhyme in a fairly complex way ("in"/"an"/"en"); thus the link between the words is formed through their acoustic relationship, not through position or semantic links. The two words are in a longer, readable line, but this fact in some ways hinders [ha] our ability to slow down and link the two outside of the context of the rest of the line. The position pointers pressure us to read the words as a continuous unit, but the lack of any syntactic link exerts a counter pressure. It is only when we get past these counter pressures that we can see the rhyme which bonds these words. The next three words ("so worn traps") are pushed together into one unit, the pointers forcing us on to the next line. But the vowel repetition in "so" and "worn" pulls us back to those two words, leaving "traps" lost somewhere out there.
"carry"'s trite half rhyme with "memory" almost bridges the rupture that "judge/lake" represents in the acoustic pattern, but not quite. The word seems empty and its rhyming bond weak because of its position outside of the previous, coherent line, and in the end it seems also to fall by the wayside.
In fact, "carry"'s alienation is so complete that I find myself skipping it for the acoustic reversal that happens between "split" and "traps." The way that my mouth moves from the "sp" of "split" to the "ps" of "traps" becomes the focus of this area of the poem for me; the two words' relationship sets up all sorts of interesting discursive connections (traps-split, split-traps, traps carry split chocolate). But as a consequence the acoustic sentence of the early portion of the poem is beginning to break down.
Here, "split chocolate" may be working like "judge/lake," but not quite as powerfully. "split chocolate" is more powerful as a coherent image than "judge/lake," and that may be why it doesnŐt quite work as well. Part of "judge/lake"'s power comes from its mutability, and "split chocolate" is quite stable by comparison; giving us a much more coherent group of images and impressions of candy bars and sultry circumstances. As a consequence the pair just doesn't have the linguistic life that "judge/lake" does.
As the page ends the fragmentation continues with "pone," "uprights," and "wed." The words are spaced quite far apart and become islands of language. Even though both "pone" and "uprights" are linked to "split" through their "p"'s, neither exhibits the kinds of strong linguistic bonds that most of the other acoustic groupings have (i.e. the "och"-"ock" of "ochre" and "flocking"). The degeneration of the acoustical patterning in some ways seems to be preparing us for the second page. "wed" has a fairly weak connection with "worn" as well as "edgewise," just because of its initial "w"; but this connection also seems to be disintegrating even as it forms. Things are just coming undone here. The openness of the end of the page seems to allow all of the coherence simply to fall out of the bottom.
So, to continue reading, we must turn the page over. To get to the rest of the poem our bodies must act, and in so doing they write the rest of the poem. The rhythm is disrupted as we turn the page, and at the top of the next page we begin again, in essence erasing the visual slate and blanking our minds.
"papered," though, pulls us back across the page boundary with an echoing "p"; for we must turn the page back to see "pone," "split," "uprights," and "traps." But as we read on there is something very different going on. The discursive unit has switched back to the two word grouping. With "papered hands" and "ahead bullet" we are no longer in the realm of acoustic coupling. We are suddenly in the world of JOINT WORDS. Now on this page the norm seems to be this kind of discourse, with groupings such as "saking kino," "capital bats," "had pretty," and "snake cone" (these last two are problematic in that they occupy the same line; rhythmically, though, when I read them, they break up into two distinct groups which is reenforced by the alliterative "k" sound in "snake cone"). So, we have flipped from acoustics to images. But as soon as we recognize this shift, it is immediately problematized by "wonderful," with its acoustic connections to the first page and its lack of any companion word (or direct image connotation . . . what is "wonderful" either in the sense of to what can we apply "wonderful," or in the sense of what is "wonderful." Then the line "heat hinge mind" further problematizes our reading by throwing us back to the first section of the poem, which was controlled by three word acoustic sentences. "heat hinge mind" seems to work as one of the best acoustic sentences with its captivating alliteration, slight vowel shifts, and echoes of "edgewise." As a consequence, "saking kino," with its internal acoustic repetitions, seems to shift the poem's poetic discourse back and forth between an acoustic one and an imagistic one. The alliterative qualities of the words overpower the images of movie houses, saki, and coming/seeking at one moment only to be overpowered themselves the next. The words off by themselves situated in one word lines seem especially powerful to me: "vagrancy," "foal," "scrimshaw," and "parcheesi" are all acoustically rich and to an extent onomatopoetic ("foal" seems to be the least).
This continual mixing seems to be typical of Andrews's poetics in general. He juxtaposes acoustics and images so that both are present in any given reading at the same time or in rapidly changing frames so that they tend to blur together and form a complex interlace of the two.
In "SONG NO 13" the helix is still here. In fact, we get another piece of information about the helix: that it turns on an axis. The words are grouped around the axis like the two dimensional projection of a three dimensional model of a helical molecule. The pronounced axis running the length of both pages of text is a significant piece of information, not for what it tells us, but rather for what it makes us question. Andrews has "non-referentially organized" the poem along this vertical axis ("Text and Context" 33). Each time I read this poem I have to make the decision whether I am going to give preference to the position pointers that tell me to read across the page in lines ("lathering / miff / akimbo...") or those that tell me to read down the page in columns ("lathering / akimbo / mete..."). Thus even before we can approach the text we must first recognize and wrestle with some of the sub-textual elements of the poem as written language (i.e. "How do I read this?" ).
The words themselves make little or no syntactic sense. They are not part of some narrative structure that proceeds logically from one word to another in any sort of predictable way. Rather, as we read we make sense out of them through both rhythmic and spatial relationships that the words set up. Each word's sound and meaning flip-flops within the rhythm of the poem, creating images and musical intonations that combine with those evoked by the other words. Together this mixture of images and sounds reflects the physical manifestation of the words on the page. Words that we are familiar with become increasingly unfamiliar with each reading as they are removed further and further from their sensical context. We are forced to see the words as if we had never encountered them before and to work out their meanings slowly within our minds as their sound echoes. Combinations like "labiodental mum" juxtapose within the rhythm of the poem the overly common with the uncommon in a way that freshens both of the words and gives them a kind of significance otherwise unattainable (or maybe just unnoticed) in ordinary speech patterns. This piling up of newness, making the common uncommon again, although romantic in its origin, makes for "good" poetry and an interesting revitalization of the language.
"SONG NO 13," like so much of Andrews's work, may look like just so many randomly selected and cobbled together words. But this appearance is misleading. What results is a kind of flowing rhythm that spills over into our reading of the poem. Andrews is using a full repertory of poetic devices like alliteration, assonance, consonance, rhyme, half-rhyme, eye-rhyme, slant-rhyme, and subtle vowel shifts to hold these words together in a variety of different ways. Setting aside for the moment my desire to read this poem in two columns and moving down the poem as a whole, the first device/technique that begins to lend coherence to the text (other than the shape that I spoke of earlier) is Andrews's attention to the sound of the vowels in the first few words. He forges acoustic links between the words with an interweaving vowel shift that starts with the short "a" in "lathering" and continues in "akimbo", and "garland". "miff"'s short "i" echoes the "i" of "lathering" and continues in "akimbo". The short "o" in "akimbo" pulls "slope" into the vowel group as well. Consonantal structures seem to be working alliteratively as well. The "l" in "lathering", "garland", and "slope" works the same way to firmly bring these words into a significant relationship with each other. The similarity in the sounds of the words in effect becomes a kind of logical chain. We are set up for a certain group of sounds by "lathering," and as we read those sounds recur in the following words in a very controlled way, and as a consequence the first five words function as a kind of acoustic sentence.
However, the next word, "mete," breaks out of this pattern with its harsh alveolar "t." The word is nonetheless related to "miff" (the "m"'s) and to an extent the "e" in "lathering" (although the connection here is a bit far fetched), and I would say that the silent "e" works as a kind of visual rhyme linking "slope", "mete", and "cuisse".
"cuisse" is truly the first word in the sequence that has little or no relationship to the words preceding it (outside of the eye-rhyme and that, admittedly, is fairly tenuous). It is the first word with obviously French (Norman) origins, and to me that makes it the answer to the Sesame Street song/game ("one of these things is not like the others, one of these thing just doesn't belong..."). This word disrupts the acoustic chain that Andrews has inscribed in the previous words. It is the unexpected, and as such it problematizes any reading of the text. On a different level, the word functions as a cue for the most powerful eye-rhyme of the poem ("wise"-"promise"). The slant eye-rhyme that it represents ("isse"-"ise") serves to set us up for the main rhyme of the first page.
This type of acoustic cueing seems to be characteristic of much of Andrews's work, cueing both through single phonemes and groups of phonemes. In his discussion of Wobbling, Ron Silliman identifies such cueing as characteristic of Andrews's work:
At the level of sound, Andrews's unit of composition is the allophone: i.e., never th e phoneme alone, but always the phoneme-in-context, in contact with other phonemes. Thus the d in a term such as hard might "set up" a chain such as rod, dram, edge and bedridden.. . . Sounding is important also because it makes the reader conscious of the presence of his own body within the reading of the poem, as the literal site of the manifestation of its meanings (which, on the page, remain in a state of latency, readiness, but never actual), and because it focuses attention very close to the individual word. This latter effect is essential, for without it the reader is apt to pass over the way(s) in which word integrates with word -- or fails to -- the process of meaning itself, which is continually the subject (and at risk) in these poems. (Review of Wobbling 156-7)
As an example of the way Andrews centers our attention on the words themselves and forces us to see the words as manifestations of our own bodies, we might consider his use of rhyme. The eye-rhyme of "wise"-"promise" works to disrupt the across-the-page reading and reenforce a columnar one; it also provides a visually stable point in an area of the poem that has a lot of words that don't fit. But "wise" and "promise," while they look like they should rhyme, do not, as we discover when we pronounce them. By this means we are forced to realize that our bodies are producing difference that the letters on the page don't point to. The not-rhyme is entirely due to our pronunciation, and thus our bodies. Our expectations are ruptured, not by the words on the page, but by our bodies' formation of the words, and we must then come to grips with the fact that our bodies are producing meaning. Our bodies not the text or even Andrews, our bodies.
I could go on about these visual and acoustic relationships almost indefinitely, but instead I will just look at some of the more interesting ones. Throughout the poem I see networks of rhyme and halfrhyme that link three or more words together. One of the most interesting ones is "ladylike"-"babyish"-"parish"-"cherish". Here "babylike" is the key to the scheme as well as the lead-in. The "baby"-"lady" half rhyme links the two words outside of their meaning, but when we look at them together semantic connections begin to emerge. Our bodies put them in perspective through the sound we give the words, and through our relationship to their meanings. Thus when we read "parish centavos," the multiple meanings of "parish" are immediately added to this scheme of relationships through the rhyme with "babyish". Thematically, the discourse continues (parish children?), and with the addition of the word "cherish" a few lines later it is reenforced. Significantly, there is a page break between the third and fourth elements in the rhyme, so that we must flip back and forth from one side of the page to the other to re-read the rhyme (and to reassure our selves that there is indeed a connection going on). This act of turning the page makes us again aware of our body creating the connections. We must physically manipulate the page in order to read the rhyme in its entirety. An overtly physical intervention which we have been trained to ignore, however here we are forced to notice it again and again.
As I read through the poem again I see that everything seems to fit together into this sort of pattern. Either the word fits in with its surroundings through its acoustical pattern, or it fits into a rhyming/transformational scheme (or more likely both). These words aren't what they originally appeared to be, each word in this poem is carefully crafted to look and feel interesting and to conceal the connections among the words, thus focusing our attention upon the words themselves. And the words also flow together into a coherent pattern of sound, rhythm, and rhyme.
"NO 70," while still loosely helical in shape, is open to the point of emptiness, of "whiteness." The words themselves are positioned on the page as if they were sliding "voiceless / headlong information." "NO 70" is not quite the same kind of listing of words that we saw in "SONG NO 13;" instead this poem seems to be "about" something: specifically the action of reading it. This text places primary importance upon how we interpret position. Ordinarily, we snake through a text with our eyes, concerned only with the information that the words "contain," but this poem forces us to notice how words look on the page and how they sound out loud.
Andrews is using the page as a field (primarily I mean a mathematical field although other agrarian and professional meanings of the word may also apply ). Placing words at various locations on the page gives them a value that has nothing to do with what they "mean." Position values (topness, firstness, inbetweenness, lastness, aboveness, etc.) seem to have pointers attached to them; either consciously or not, these points function in part as a socialized form of ordering/lineation. But they also contain in them a kind of socialized value judgement (i.e. first = best) that tongues into the meaning of the word.
By ordering/lineation I am referring to the formal qualities of written language that shape the way we read. What you are reading now is a linearly ordered group of words that "add up" to a larger discursive group that "means" independently of (or maybe codependently with) the individual words themselves. It is ordered along conventional patterns (left to right, top to bottom, filling a block of space completely). If I were to suddenly start writing in verse, this would be a clue to you that I wanted you to notice the line breaks and the internal rhythms of the passage and to look for meaning within those formal devices themselves; as Charles Bernstein says "line breaks, acoustic/patterns, syntax, etc., are meaningful"(12). So, by writing in prose form I am "meaning" something here (if only that the line breaks should be, if not transparent, at least ignored as either some function of my computer or some arcane ritual of the printer). And within this scheme the words' positions on the page "mean" by signalling in what order they are to be read. In effect when I place these words together in a block of prose the words and their formal meaning-qualities should ideally fade into the background so that the "true meaning" of my discourse can shine through unfiltered. The placing of a word at the end of the line implies no particular emphasis, for both you and I assume that your eyes will wrap around to the next line without a pause for breath or a hesitation that might interrupt the flow of the discourse. The word just before the end of the line signals that your eyes should be preparing to make such an unnoticed move; the word at the end of the page signals that you should prepare to turn the page, again without interrupting the flow of the discourse; and each word in the chain signals, "Keep going until you come to a." Interruptions in this flow are uncomfortable and often disconcerting. They break up the sense of the chain and threaten to obscure the "true meaning" through their sheer visibility. Our concepts of beginning, middle, and end are also linked to places on the page. The first word of a text is the beginning, and we in many ways are expected to treat it as the primordial beginning of language. Before the text there is no language, and the discourse must build itself over and over with each "new" beginning. The end of the text, likewise, is the end of the discourse, the end of language. A one page text then becomes an interesting little capsule of language, where position equates to a kind of meaning in a socially absolute way. Beginning, middle, and end of language.
Value judgments seem to occupy a different level of meaning, though. The first words in a chain seem more important than the middle ones or the end ones merely because we see them as being first (and thus in some way superior), just as words on the top of the page seem more important than those at the bottom. When I look at a page of text and try not to read it, just look at it, I find myself looking at the edges and not at the middle; the words in the middle are somehow lost among all of those others.
Sometimes, though, the shapes of certain words stand out even in the middle of the page, and these words draw my eye to them unerringly. They in turn fascinate me more than they ever would if I had just read through the page (a diamond in the rough?). Sometimes I will sound them out slowly and listen to their tones. They become a kind of poetry, the words that don't fit. In these poems Andrews seems to be taking a whole bunch of these words that don't fit and putting them together in non-sensical chains that work in quite unexpected ways.
In a chain of nonsense we give primary importance to the first few words in an effort to make sense out of nonsense. But as the chain continues and our efforts to contain the words in some sort of semantic grouping fail, the words seem to blend together in a way that ruptures their individual power and eventually forces us either to slow down or to start over. A chain of nonsense in fact is only differently sensical in that even though it resists normative codified sense making patterns, the effort to read the language produces non-linear links, patterns of meaning semantically, visually, and accoustically, and in the end produces a sense of a kind . . . just not that of a more normative text.
I can now return specifically to a discussion of "NO 70." There are clearly two different discursive groupings going on here. The first ("marry / flap / whiteness", "flap / marry / whiteness", "marry / whiteness / flap") works in several ways to create an almost sentence and in several others to create a strangely dipolar almost-image. The positioning of the words in an open, non-linear order problematizes the act of reading here. The positional pointers of the words are all in conflict because they are strewn about the page in a way which seems to stretch their connectedness and rupture the integrity of their pointers. Do we read "flap" first, or "marry"? Do we read across or down? This uncertainty presents several possible reading orders, all of which seem to be validated by the text. "marry" - "whiteness", there is an obvious connection here, almost a command. The bride wore white. In our culture "whiteness" is a symbol of purity and virtue, two qualities that all brides are supposed to have, so the act of marriage is firmly linked with "whiteness." But where does "flap" fit in to this? "flap" - "whiteness" also seems vaguely like a command, but this time to clean the sheets; or it may be a description of the wind blowing through the curtains. But then where does "marry" fit in? When "marry" and "whiteness" are linked, "flap," with its ominous, almost ugly, onomatopoetic qualities, seems to disrupt the purity of the moment and the crisp quality of the sound of "whiteness," setting up a kind of balance between the two along the center of the page. Both "whiteness" and "marry" seem to have relatively stable denotative/connotative patterns, but "flap" works as a chaotic blend of a whole bunch of things (a movement, an altercation, a dance, a piece of something [flap of skin], useless speech [flap ones lip], etc.). This seems to reenforce the axial split in the page with its balancing of values on either side.place "marry" with "flap" - "whiteness" seems doomed to end in anxiety. To "marry" "flap"-"whitness" seems to go against all of our cultural notions of marriage in an oddly scary kind of way; it brings to mind marriages based on false knowledge, failed before they begin. Neither of these two readings seems to be preferred by the text, and as I look at the poem again I can see still more possible readings of these three words. In each such reading, the words come together in weird proto-sentences that struggle to "make sense," but fall just short of the mark, and what we are left with are these uneasy images and feelings of unrest.
The second grouping seems much less complicated, but just as unsettling. The text presents us with a definite pattern to read; we are not confused by the spaces around the words, but rather we are given a sweeping gesture ("sight / voiceless / headlong information"), which draws our eyes along a parabolic curve, with "information" as the eventual goal. The words and their positions collaborate to rush us on "headlong" through the cluster. The shape of the curve is the path that almost every falling object takes as it descends towards the earth (very rarely does something fall without any horizontal impetus). The rhythm of the words reflects the discursive connections of the proto-sentence; we rush along, processing information faster than we could ever hope to voice it. These four words call up a kind of apocalyptic vision of the times, a depressed science fiction of the present.
These words also suggest a condition of reading. We read for information, and the dominant modes of reading seem to rush "headlong" towards this goal. In some ways, then, this cluster is working on the same sort of meta-textual level that "WHITE PULP" and "SHEET NESS" were working at. This cluster is speaking to the process that we are engaged in at the moment of reading the cluster itself. The positioning of the elements reenforces what they are suggesting: conventional texts tend to accelerate the pace at which information is transmitted through referents, thus blurring the landscape of the text itself.
Together, these two clusters are logically/discursively very different. Placing them together within one work foregrounds their juxtaposition and, if anything, reenforces their differences. As we read them, we have no way of reconciling these differences and are eventually left with a sense of unease.
In short, each of the three Love Songs here discussed has foregrounded "meaning"-making elements other than reference. They are all working to one degree or another with position, sound, and syntax, and it seems that by paying attention to these elements we can begin to understand how Andrews is using language. Andrews has made the language tangible. We are seeing the words and not just the reference chains that become the focus for our attention in a more conventional poetics.
It seems important to talk a little about the politics here or more particularly the implications of the politics of what Andrews is doing. Certainly, by implication, this project is not one devoid of political thought, there is a concerted effort here to dismantle language through fracture and disjunction, but the language itself is not without coherence or obvious connectivity. As I have said before, we see the words, we see the sounds and the way that they interrelate beyond any referential relationship that they might develop. Both in LOVE SONGS and in his collaborative project with Bennett, Andrews has cut to the root of poetry. He has given the word a voice (ours), or at least made us aware of its voice. We see the roots of his politicized poetics of the body. As we read, we are forced over and over to see/hear our own production of the texts. Reading as dance, reading as environment, reading as awareness of language, not as commodity consumerism, not as absorptive activity, not as communication. This presents us with an interesting possibility: far from being meaningless, these texts become specific instantiations of a political practice, one bent on removing normative meaning and its coextant capitalist consumerist qualities from language. But by succeeding here, Andrews invests the work with a political meaning far beyond the scope of the language itself. This points to a kind of romanticism that is far from reductive, far from a retrograde poetics, it is firmly revolutionary in that all revolution stems from the romantic notion that things could be better. And to read Andrews's work then we need to acknowledge a kind of social romanticism in the work itself. And we must acknowledge the means of production of language: namely us, our bodies. As we do this the referents are still there, but we can see past them to another kind of "meaning." What is important is the words themselves, their shape, their sound, their position, their relationships. The words are the poetry, the words and our production of them. And to read Andrews's poetry we must read the words.
Andrews, Bruce, "Bananas are an example.", The Paris Review, 53 (1972): 162.
---, "Constitution/Writing, Politics, Language, and the Body." Open Letter 5th ser. 1 (winter 1982): 154-165.
---, Divestiture — A. New York: Drogue Press, 1994.
---, I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism). Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1992.
--- with John Bennett, Joint Words. Columbus, OH: Luna Bisonte Prods, 1979.
---, ed. with Charles Bernstein, The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1984.
---, Love Songs. New York: Roof Books, 1982.
---, SONNETS (Momento Mori). Berkeley, CA: This Press, 1980.
---, Strictly Confidential. Gran Caneria: Zasterle Press, 1994.
---, "Text And Context." The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1984. 31-38.
Bernstein, Charles, A Poetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992.
Olson, Charles & Cid Corman, Charles Olson & Cid Corman Complete Correspondence. Volume 1. ed. George Evans. Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1987.
Silliman, Ron, The New Sentence. New York: Roof Books, 1987.
---, Rev. of Wobbling by Bruce Andrews. Sagetrieb 1.1 (spring 1982): 155-160.
Pinsky, Robert, The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions. Princeton, Princeton Univ. Press, 1976.
Watten, Barrett, Total Syntax. Carbondale and Edwardsville, Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1985.