I AM A CHILD": POETRY AFTER BRUCE ANDREWS AND ROBERT DUNCAN
The poet is the one with eyes closed, counting backwards from a hundred.
What is ontology? A sophisticated game of hide and seek. . . . Revolution—a bruising "king of the hill."
As we grow older our games develop into more complex ones (philosophy, journalism, music), but we are always at some level engaged in the games of childhood. We pretend to be sophisticated, experienced in the ways of the world, but we continue to play the hide and seek of quotidian adult existence, to throw our jacks and knuckle bones agressively across bedroom, boardroom, battlefield.
Language is a game for the child, and remains a game for the poet, save that for poet winning is no longer possible—there is only the hope of performing well.
Robert Duncan and Bruce Andrews have both, in their different and original ways, clued into this conjunction of childhood and poetry. The babble of infancy, the outbursts of kindergarten, juvenile habit— precocious, sentimental, delinquent—the games and languages (and most importantly the language games) of youth, permeate their poetry, perfect themselves as poetics.
§ father administers / dead infantilism — B.A.
There is no theme that argues more insistently for precedence in Robert Duncan's work than that of the child. From the "Baby" "charmd by the bells ringing," "Little cross-eyed king held / secure in the center of all things" of "The Venice Poem," to the "Child, not of Our Father, but of the Abyss" of "Illustrative Lines," the word "Child" (or "Baby," or "Youth". . .) is spoken like the proper name of a concept that haunts Duncan's poetry, even as the ghosts of fathers and mothers—abruptly gone or never known—haunt the poet. "Child" and its various diminutive forms, the various surnames that mark "Child" as already wedded to adulthood, as given to its own adulthood (child of night, desire, capital, revolution, God . . .), this registry of proper names, this circle of concepts singing in play alone admits entry into the meadow "whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words," the "field" where Duncan's work opens itself to the reader, a garden of earthly and unearthly delight "whose secret we see in a children's game."
Child of the abyss, the no place, the nightmare utopia ruled by beasts under the bed, the maw where nonexistent teeth chew up the dark and leave us stranded at daybreak, alone with our memory of sleep: Memory, mother of the muses: Sleep, twin of waking life.
When the child wakes from a disturbing dream he or she is always alone, the fantastic loneliness of the only child—and every child is, in his or her imagination, not simply "an" but the only child—:
There will never be time or space for another—:
The medium said: "Your mother is here."
"I could only think of my adopted mother who was alive, who was not there. "What color hair has she?" I askd.
"She is fair," the voice in the medium said. "She is in the light. There, there is joyful singing. There, they are happy. She watches over you."
The poet is an orphan who inherits his or her family, Duncan for instance, an adopted child, son of two mothers, a boy bereft of mother and yet bequeathed in compensation an excess of parentage.
How long my mother waited for me, all her life long, like someone waiting at last to see once more a friend or a son coming from afar before she dies. No, the second mother, waiting in doubt and in hope for me six months when I was hidden. She must have all but disbelieved that a son had been born as she had been told he would be. . .
And so the poet, according to a childish logic, bears the mother who nevertheless bears responsibility for birth . . . who cuts the cord between grief and celebration, to coronate Orpheus anew, the cross-eyed prince in waiting, center-to-be of all things:
The gist of the story I've known perhaps among the first stories I heard, that she died when I was born. Did they say it was in childbirth, because my head was too big, tearing my way through her agony to life? Or was it because of the fever? She died in the flu epidemic of 1919 in the aftermath of the war.
(In this same epidemic the poet H.D. nearly died giving birth to her daughter Perdita.)
The death of the mother is a wound, reopening when touched; when touched (or said), "Child" can't help but flow. Indeed, in Duncan's work, a vivid clot of writing gives itself to be seen at this exposed place.
Yet Dear Mother could catch at my heart to say
—and did when I was a child, as you
are now a child among shades—
as if the words betrayd
a painful nearness and separation.
Do we not hear, for instance, in this "gist" of Duncan's "story"—a bedtime story—the echo of another tale he tells, another myth of origins, this one about his initiation into the community of the poem? Duncan hearing his high school English teacher, Miss Keough, reciting H.D.'s "Heat," an epiphany, for at that moment
All the status of appreciation and knowing about things seemed nothing . . . compared with the alliance life might make in love with other lives revealed in men's works.
In H.D.'s poem the heat of composition struggles to give birth to a conception too big, almost, for the form, and the intensity of the moment, of its articulation, thus threatens to die, or fall from grace, Daring the disregard or scorn of conventional readers . . .
The way the poet H.D. admitted, let-in, to her self through the poem, and then, in a double sense, admitted to the listener or reader, being almost a victim of the thickness of air, the bluntness of fruit—let life use you this way—this was not shameful (as crying out, "O Wind, rend open the heat", being intense about trivial things like pears, threatened the composure of household, gang, school and city or state, and was shamed, put down, as one must put away childish things), to propose the truth of what was felt, to articulate just the emotion that was most vulnerable and in need, took courage.
An amazing passage! For if we understand H.D.'s poem—and more than that, its recitation by H.D.'s surrogate, the teacher—as an allegory of Duncan's mother's difficult birth (for we say it this way: the mother undergoes birth), if we understand "Heat" as an image of the death that uttered Duncan into the world, as an allegory that allows Duncan to understand this death, this birth, to experience again (in language, for instance) with courage, and without shame, the extravagant drama that attended his arrival into the world, if we accept this poem as a recollection of these things, in particular a re-collection of the mothers (the "real" mother, who continues to speak through the medium of all the others, and the many "poetic" mothers—H.D., Gertrude Stein, Laura Riding . . .—)
. . . then the poet's freedom from what domesticates imagination actually places imagination in the service of a truer, more powerful domesticity. Or rather, imagination is the replacement of home, for instance, and classroom, church, government—with poetry. So that the poet, fleeing society, actually rediscovers it. Or as Duncan declares in a late poem:
And "I" come forward to gaze into the downpouring glass,
the black crystal in which I find the world
looking for "me". I hide in my looking.
If we understand H.D.'s "Heat" and the story of Duncan's first hearing of that poem as an allegory of birth, then far from threatening the composure of "household, gang, school and city or state," the allegory preserves it, preserves this series (the serial poem!), this chain of referrals beginning "household" and ending "state," preserves them in the face of all dispersal.
Writes Duncan in a notebook entry:
The Christians thot of the lion as Christ the King: because the lion was a terrible power and at the same time a beast of great beauty.  For me, the Lion is the Child, the unfetterd intellect that knows that in his nobility none of the convictions and dogmas which human mind inflicts itself with—
We might briefly list the following stations in our perhaps too-passionate fable of Duncan's poetics:
A language of infancy, the first language, the body's, and at the same time, an infancy where language is first given, an initiation into adult orders of comprehension. (See, in particular, the essay "Poetry Before Language.")
The games and books of youth, essential texts of the imagination, "a made place, created by light / . . . a place of first permission, / everlasting omen of what is," the playing field or field of play where the poet first learns and becomes habituated to the rules of his or her vocation. (What Duncan learned from the painter and collagist Jess, and to a lesser extent from his 1950s apprenticeship to Gertrude Stein, a gnosis best put forward in The Truth and Life of Myth, and in the first part of The H.D. Book, "Beginnings.")
The outpouring of feeling whose writing is often called "purple, " associated with adolescence, a poetry girlish rather than manly, sentimental, philosophizing, "the very questionable pitch of the outcry . . . that gives resonance to the extremity of the emotions." (A remarkable defense of "poesy" best articulated in the 1972 preface to Caesar's Gate.)
Forgotten in this schema is the character of childhood as Duncan tells it, not always directly. Not only innocent, not only free in its play to create a whole new universe (as Spicer put it), to gather in play a world scattered by adults (as signs and as rubble, as mother's sigh and father's stubble, bright colors, sharp outlines . . .), the child, for Duncan, is also in bondage, already guilty, wicked, sexual, destroying, is Freud's child, aroused by uncertain desires, inexplicably anxious, seeking across language, across sensuality, across all known feelings, the intensity of birth, the irretrievable origin never truly known, expressed as well in the gothic as the romantic, an hysteria, a horror giving birth to an emerging apprehension of the social, and so inevitably a politics.
The child, as child, is a soldier in the war of each against all
As Duncan recalls in "Man's Fulfillment in Order and Strife":
One thing I remember of this sinister possibility in language is that I discovered early how I could exploit the powers of it to fascinate. My older cousins related the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and poems like "Lenore," "The Raven" or "Ulalume" to us, my sister and me, and I found that there was an intense delight in sensations of horror when it was fantastic, as later I would relish the very Poesque passages of Eliot's Waste Land, the bats with baby faces in the violet light of "What the Thunder Said." There was a way of stirring the nerve ends in apprehension of depths that were only entertained not released into the real. Men created an Unreal or Irreal, as the painter Redon called it. And I found then, repeating these stories of Poe "for thrills," giving myself over to the sinister anticipation of the story, I could "hold" a little group of my contemporaries "spell-bound," reducing them to a screaming hysteria—the hysteria, though I didn't know it, of a repressed early puberty—in which their susceptibility to the emerging horrible idea exceeded their pleasure, before I myself was overcome. I could ride the wave of adrenaline and the reality of the horror story would increase to the state where it became a present reality all but unbearable, my fiendish little eyes watching the listeners advance into hysterics from my own actively focused hysteria in the telling. Now this is a very early acquaintance with a power of language that can release the demonic in politics, an almost innocent rapture in the exploitation of guilt and fear.
§ the boy I was / calls out to me / here the man I am "Look! // I've been where you // most fear to be —R.D.
Childhood makes no similar claim in the work of Bruce Andrews. Here the emphasis is on a theory and practice that would be an aesthetics and a politics, a poetics whose harangue remains attuned to the demands of a peculiarly adult art, a modernism disdainful of the world, a world so wholly withdrawn from innocence that we are drawn to doubt the very possibility of childhood. Andrews's is a world of monsters who find no innocent bedtime to disturb, who are themselves disturbed by the random play of angry dwarves, a world shivered into splinters by pitiless sprites, lewd New York dolls shouting "sterile spinsters are making us clean our plates in a pieta / position," maddened Pucks, now senile, who "could / would scan the crowd for pampers." ("Too bad you met my dad.") For Andrews, the child is at best a child of ideology. The emphasis in Andrews's work on questions of form, on social structures and regimes of sign, on the subject's initiation into orders of cognition more powerful than those of Oz, of London Bridge Is Falling Down, makes mock of the delight, the erotic pleasure, the creative potential of those innocents who live in us as modernism's bad conscience, a romanticism more disciplined than cared for. Never mind that for Duncan the child is a far from innocent creature, is promiscuous, cat-like in its cruelty, society's familiar, and never mind that Duncan's conception of the imagination would not suffer from comparison with what Andrews calls "social praxis":
We hear occasionally about `the death of meaning' within society, not just within certain schools of poetry. Meaning clearly didn't die. But it's possible that instead of remaining as a content that's relatively freely and easily appropriated, it's become the limits of method within a social order. . . .
The praxis involves a contextualizing of the text, a pointing of the text beyond itself, and a re-mapping of the subject (the position of the author, the position of the reader) in terms of that larger interaction between writing and the social body (of meaning).
Andrews' polemic, his hew and cry, his endlessly generative violence, a negative dialectic forever synthesizing new targets for assault, language begetting itself in a bloody celebration of its own demise, the doddering old age of meaning committed to care by sense, this project, this vindicative enterprise, this business of art, this scandal, does not allow itself to be understood according to a childish poetics or poetics of the child, what Duncan calls a practice of the pre-rational. Or does it?
"Here we are now entertain us, I feel stupid and contagious"—St. Cobain
For men who declare themselves partisans of the rational mind at war with all other possibilities of being, the pre-rational or the irrational appears as an enemy within. It was not only the Poet, but Mother and Father, that Plato would exclude from his Republic. In the extreme of the rationalist presumption, the nursery is not the nursery of an eternal child but of a grown-up, a rational man. Common sense and good sense exist in an armed citadel surrounded by the threatening country-side of phantasy, childishness, madness, irrationality, irresponsibility*an exile and despised humanity. In that city where Reason has preserved itself by retreating from the totality of the self, infants must play not with things of the imagination nor entertain the lies of the poets but play house, government, business, philosophy or war.
§ DAD, COME BACK. DIE AGAIN —B.A.
. . . so that even in the poems of old age, in Ground Work, for instance, "shaking the rattling gourd of infancy's play," childhood returns as a theme, a recollection, a station in the ontologcal passion of a discovery of what language raises in us, domesticates like a housecat, or clothes in the dress-up make believe games of unconcealment:
As in Oz or in fairyland, the fruits of that
arbor are ever changing.
All the flowering specters of my childhood and manhood
come into and fade into that presence
Imagination is or occurs upon a crossing of realities, is an X that calls attention "to anything remarkable in a passage" (in a rite of passage) and is as such a chrestomathy, "a collection of passages so markt." Sonneries of the Rose Cross: the imagination is a cross playmate, a crossed-eyed bear, a crotch of gold at the end of the rainbow, an Adonis in Lacrosse. "I'm wet, but you are Christ," and indeed, in Duncan's work, regard for the Other is itself crucified, stigmatized upon the chiasma of a certain writing, as we learn for instance in "the earnest mimesis of a classroom exposition," Passages 15, "Spelling." There the recitation of words founded upon the chord of a single letter includes the directive that we see the forms the poet recites, that we see the chi, written X in the Greek alphabet, as we hear its veils and valencies, its typos or topos of ambiguity be told. Thus, "In performing the poem, passages in bold face . . . should be written on a blackboard as they arise in the course of the dance of words and phrasings," as when the poet-teacher says:
Xaire, rejoice Xaos, the yawning abyss. Xarakter,
the mark engraved, the intaglio of a man.
Xaris, Xaritas grace, favor.
I want to see the sound of the names
§ A child can be an artist, he can be a poet. But can a child be a banker? —R.D.
If childhood doesn't exist for Andrews, claims precedence as neither word nor concept, it's because the child is an ideological construct, a role that society foists, not only upon the young, but on all subjects; childhood for Andrews, if anything, is a meaningless word, a concept without rigor, a social practice determined by adult orders whose rejection, nevertheless, childhood alone is reserved for, in popular imagination anyhow. "How extreme youth is," as Duncan remarks in Writing Writing, his book of "Stein Imitations." And certainly extremity has a place in Andrews' work.
But understood thusly, hasn't childhood a place after all in Andrews' work, a role to play, a function to fulfill?
Can we interpret Andrews' revolutionary rhetoric—after a fashion—as the chanting of children, can we read his work as the work of children, a manifesto of baby-talk taped to the fridge, a babble susceptible of adult interpretation, whereby all the violence or abusive neglect of the family is revealed, the violence also of school, of the powers that dictate—even before imagination has had its say—what childhood will be?
Here and there, to be sure, a childish voice or childish presence asserts itself, especially in the later work. Or a vocabulary of childhood suddenly clarifies the polemic. A few examples will suffice:
Hardy Boys relinquish organ putter groove
$10.00 to be painted as naptha pacifier   While society
stutters in the prompter's box
Fact's self facsimile
racists give birth where this behavior is more beautiful—
become passively aware of the outside world. Saint tamer
be growed brood
in homicide, with the batmobile; bunny drum, fuck you
reputation & teen club snorting St. Josephs cherry asprin,
[dust on the
masturbation lowers S.A.T. scores and causes environ-
loose in my day care
Pumpkins make me puke—it's your face that's dis
- torted, not the mirror; they stuck it in
the money orifice
should break our legs so we could go to school—sashay
spilt milk—we could be disabled, Egg McMuffins on the old
range, delicate pink shade of sunset going down on our
The child who is not a child, who is an agency of violence, who is also property, a possession, a thing that violence can be directed against, this is what Duncan calls "flamey threads of firstness," a primogeniture of revolution. And here, where all that is soiled melts into air, with these "soiled" threads "of firstness" in heat, Andrews would weave the personae of his work, with this loom his industrial revolution begins.
§ That's right, I want permission to kill the unborn in / my womb—B.A.
Extreme vulnerability is the price the child pays for its refusal to be an adult, for its insistence that it is a child.
And here Andrews and Duncan begin to resemble each other, hideously perhaps, as if reflected in a funhouse mirror:
Okeanos roars, / wild oceanic father, visage compounded of fury and of wind
kids are such a joy, let's eat them
§ What do you see, my little one? / I see an owl hung in a tree / among the letters whispering there, / a tongue of speech that beats / the passages of mere air —R.D.
Reading Andrews through Duncan we discern the same three stages which Duncan called infancy, youth, adolescence:
INFANCY. The babble of syllable, sound like spilled milk, liquid and opaque, not to be drunk, only for crying over, the so-called nonreferential, where adult speech, mimicked, corrupted, has a bodily function, becomes what Duncan called "Poetry as it was before words, or signs, or eternity, or meaning." Much of Andrews' early work can be read in this light. Certainly texts like Jeopardy, Factura, parts of Love Songs are open to this interpretation, and the collaboration with John M. Bennett too, Joint Words, where we read, for instance, solid on a white card—
Also, a child's pretend adult world, fragmented and missing the kind of guiding principles that are necessitated by adult insistence on logical explanation ("Who's responsible for this . . . ?").
YOUTH. Supposedly "grown-up" games*performance pieces, words and sounds used to invent places and to map the orders that rule them. Primarily these kinds of texts have been collaborations—with the dancer Sally Silvers, for instance—but Love Songs, with its overt directions for performance, also fits this category. And to an extent all of Andrews' writings are games and performances. Texts for performance but also the performance of a game, the telling of it, some inarticulate or out-of-breath runaway on the hotline narrating his dungeons and dragons sewer life in some unnamed metropolis—
curtained, into your
hands at's catch because spinning & warming
only transpose — intact, loneliness, a hint of
positionism — waits, speaks through us
As we read these texts we become accomplices, partners with Andrews in the game that he is playing with language, playing with our heads.
ADOLESCENCE. The rant, the temper tantrum, the terrible twos, which don't truly occur until the teenage years, a child's insistence on self and on entry into the social world as an equal, as a self-determining entity. Unfortunately for both parent and child, this entry is not often a pleasant one, is fraught with pain, suffering, frustration, an unappeasable appetite for retribution, the rehearsal of grievance, an all consuming, all destroying quest for selfhood, perpetrated by a self hooded by style, by B-Boy, punk, metal head, nerd, preppy, deb, hacker, J.A.P. Much of Andrews' work in the last ten or fifteen years—"Confidence Trick," I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism)—has engaged this question of how enter into the socially fantasized reality of language, a work barely recognizable as poetic, instead outrageous, hilarious, furious, sinister as Burroughs, libertine as Lydia Lunch or Acker—
Fassbinder was sucking the Hegel out of Habermas. Dialing nice ribs through dollars: my life as a photo oportunity, limp prom shaking quakers, torturing household pets until they confess. Educate the missile dread in pole fuzz, read meters to deny his sovereignty. Leaky primal blood chiclet homilies, religion would be just as self-indulgent, engage your furs without feeling, come in & smother a roommate.
Girls were slugging boys & scratching one another
monopoly tick to bleed, atheist on all fours in the kotex
reminder. I sport a 45 spindle as a semi-permanent body
feature, Soviet exile delivering his tanks and rockets: smear
me, spot me . . .
. . .Ecclesiastic kit includes four adults & up to 30 ponies
from pregnant male. Why corporate America was a toilet in a
public building. I'll go punk. .
I do feel smothered, gold in dyke squirt with gray mat-
ter . . .
§ enjoy squeamish kingdom // spatial postulate // liminal noise—B.A.
A child finger painting with the colors of words instead of paint. Those colors are vowels, painted with a laugh, a burble, a sudden sob, a shadow chased along "physical / corridors of the imagination":
B-b-b-b-b went the lips on their own, deliting, delited too to please the ear in spite of the brain. Trickle-trickle-trickle-trickle sang the stomach Thump thump thump thump the heart beat at night and the ear listened or the hand moved in pace to make a counterpoint to the sound.
From a nursing tit language gives succor. Or language is that breast, that comfort. Thus Duncan sips, in his "Dante Etudes,"
"draughts of the sweetest   honey-milk",
from the language we first heard
infant song and revery
a world we wanted   to go out into
§ His stiff prick bears its head to the music—R.D.
Andrews is like those cadets in Taps who take arms to protect their pseudo-empire, the military "academy" which the government of dads would close forever. Or he's like the dads. As we read in Shut Up, "A name is an institution
& we like it & you have to have / one." To wrest his "name" ("institution") ("poetry") back from those brats who would usurp it, who would absorb its resources and make them their own, he becomes (not!) a child and takes up arms. Takes "gun" in hand to have his fun . . . shoots his mouth off (Boys Town).
§ not is not not / your snake bird mud red shut symptom —B.A.
Duncan, from "Descriptions of Imaginary Poetries":
Where giant wordlings interrupt the stuttering machingun wit; the pale insensible bland body phrases loom, as islands in the line of fire. Not targets, but meaningless casualties. Luminous blobs in a splattered night scene. Too accidental for inspiration, too clumsy for lyric
§ youth spurts —R.D.
Andrews' early work gasped and bawled (or balled) with an effort to return to the womb, where sounds and rhythms soothed and fed, or seemed to, engendering us as their syntax. To regain this state, a kind of linguistic liquidity, a contentment, contentless, echoing against walls that were the very substance of the self, a reliance upon the word as sound/shape was required. Writing thus became a relationship to the body rather than a [cover photo and four pages of FACTURA inserted here] more complex (developmentally speaking) inter-relationship of abstract objects, Fisher Price alphabets made meaningful socially through "accepted" modes of meaning—through acceptance.
But embarking upon this project a strange if not violent reversal occurred: the mother was turned inside-out, the child's environment became the exposed place—a strangeness and violence that perhaps explains the coldness and alienation of the work, its seemingly nonhuman aspect (alien nation).
The radicality of this procedure has in retrospect less to do with the advancement of art we associate with Andrews' avant-gardism than a startling regression to language "as it was before words, or signs, before beauty, or eternity, or meaning were" (Duncan). Andrews' radicality lies just here, in his attempt to position the childish realm (the semiotic) on the surface and the maternal (information) inside, hidden by the flow and marks of the semiotic, now realized through ink on the page. According to this structure, the text's information (and by this we are inclined to mean those things responsible for the work—the work's intention, its theory, its echoes of past instruction, its family history) is not just hidden, but repressed and only made apparent (into parents! mothers and fathers of sense) through the shadow of forms showing through the opaque acoustic and visual patterns of the page. This kind of shadow play of responsible art-making becomes most observable in works like Factura where Andrews' pages bear the marks of a visually gestural poetics, mimetic in that unschooled sense Walter Benjamin describes in "Doctrine of the Similar":
Nature produces similarities—one need only think of mimicry. Human beings, however, possess the very highest capability to produce similarities. Indeed, there may not be a single one of the higher human functions which is not decisively co-determined by the mimetic faculty. This faculty, however, has a history, both philogenetically and ontogenetically. With respect to the latter, it is in many ways formed by play. To begin with, children's games are everywhere interlaced with mimetic modes of behavior, and their range is not limited at all to what one human being imitates from another. A child not only plays at being a grocer or a teacher, but also at being a windmill or a train.
And not only a windmill or a train. Before the child is old enough to recognize these forms, while still in its cradle, the stray shapes of smiling and frowning faces, unrecognized as such, bend the newborn toward the task of mimesis, this high capability for producing similarities. Programming the representational engine of the mind, the mind which is (among other things) windmill or train.
Andrews points with his words, drawing with letters as his pixils. We are led from one page to another, told to turn the page, not by a narrative per se, but rather by the fact of the words . . . the image of the letters. We are given the opportunity to see the words instead of reading them, to see the page as a symbol and not just collection of symbols. Arrows of text direct us from one page to another until we are jammed into a linguistic corner where the arrows break down and we are forced to re-read them as words rather than images.
The quote grownup games unquote of Love Songs. Rules for performance and stage directions, guidelines for the players, these directives of the work transform poetry into play, even as childhood games make of play a performance, a grand exhibition of childishness itself:
(Performance for six people or simultaneous tapes. Physically separated in a large space. Time, 10 to 30 seconds, to be cued by cards or clock for a simultaneous ending. Performers say or call out the words anytime during the time period. Fairly loud. For lengthening the piece, words can be transformed or repeated or an arragement can be made to exchange lists. For tape, two people can overlay three tracks, etc.)
An act of tumbling in a sing-song of a stocking.
Thin arms.   So?
"I am not a crook": Don't go straight, go forward (r.i.p. Tricky Dick)
Games, games, and more games. "Calling names / Names as nouns": Staying up late: Andrews' fascination with thrills, gore and special FX fast-forwards Film Noir with a kind of innocence that belies the supposed content of that genre . . . a text more Saturday morning than Friday night, Roger Rabbit rather than Alphaville (not to mention Double Indemnity). His work is always exploring and exploding language, flouting the letter while adhering to the spirit of the law of the arcade, the anti-school, the last refuge of the would-be orphan angry at the world . . . testing the game's viability like a young boy at a computer endlessly replaying Doom or Wolfenstein 3D . . . hacking his way into the superstructure and changing the parameters to suit his own purposes.
The hunting down of Piggy in Lord of the Flies. Rules, gestures, voices ringing through the jungle. Patriot game to be played without winners, without goal (though not always without gaol), no purpose other than performance.
Poetics of the flung word. The flagrantly insignificant. A barbed wire cat's cradle, an electrified jumprope. Play me or trade me. The psychiatrist is "IN." Or as a young bard has recently whined:
ima loozer baby so why dontcha kill me
§ The toys of the nursery are not trivial but first given instruments of an extension in consciousness, our creative life. —R.D.
A child finger painting with words instead of colors. Lacking, or more appropriately sidestepping, a solidly codified (socially as well as emotionally) vision that too often chains adults' perceptions as well as their understanding. Andrews is able to use words in differently shaped syntaxes that in many ways are innocent of their own social content and connotations.
Innocence in this sense has to do with freedom rather than ignorance. The child who understands but doesn't hear is far more dangerous than the one who hears without understanding. To hear requires less cleverness than to ignore. Andrews, of course, has managed to errase the distinction.
In the preface to Caesar's Gate Duncan defends his earliest work in its clumsiest, most embarrassing aspect, its most foppish attire. Against the depradations of the critic, "the would-be mentor of our standards and tastes in poetry," he upholds even "despised and outcast modes of adolescence." At issue is the poem "Dream Data," itself only the portion of a longer sequence in Roots and Branches:
To be in love! Don't you remember how the whole world is governd
by a fact that embraces
everything that happens?
rendering tender and more real
the details of the crowded dressing-room, backstage,
a closet off the hall, an office or
among file cabinets—but with what joy of disclosure!
every gesture was
over-filld, more than sensible?
And youth in love with youth!
For the critic, "the girlish outcry . . . and sentimental philosophizing of the ensuing lines" mark an "emptily facile" "shift" of attentions in the poem. For the poet—who wonders if it isn't, in fact, the girlishness that so dismays, the data of the dream, sentimental to be sure, and not variance of tone, that disturbs the critic—dismay is precisely the point. Indeed, for poet and critic alike, though for different reasons and to different degrees, the disturbance of dream and poem, its risk and its claim, induces "a certain depression that may recall the embarrassment and depressions of adolescence."
Composing this poem, Duncan tells us, "dismay lingered where it had been awakened in . . . personal consciousness, even as the use of that dismay led into the sequence of emotions that were to satisfy the formal demand." The bittersweetness of young love thus found its proper expression*for better or worse*in the bittersweetness of a doubly difficult writing's accomp-lishment.
It is part of the social reality back of my original dismay that the very shifts of feeling, verging, as they did, upon despised and outcast modes of adolescence, that so troubled me and so deeply imprinted themselves that not only in dream but in my daily conscience and in my creative imagination they rehearsed their message, that these shifts of feeling in failure were sure to be seen as "emptily facile." In this they ran true to form, for the claims of adolescent passion were in the first place found, in the eyes of the adult world, to be without sufficient ground in experience, "emptily facile."
It's not simply a matter here of recognizing in the juvenilia of 1949 and 1950 a sign of the maturer work to follow. For one thing, "Dream Data" is not an early poem. For another, Duncan's defense of poetry is in large part a recognition that his juvenilia is and will always be the source of his maturity, "The Hint of an Infinite Regression." As he says in the preface, "I am not done then with Caesar's Gate. As I have gathered its contents together and indicated something of their order, that order extends to shake the strings upon which I would sing tomorrow."And out of the past disorder also, in particular the fragments of a disordered devotion, of devotions whose orders were never obeyed, let alone sung. And thus
Such is the sickness of many a good thing
that now into my life from long ago this
refusing to say I love you has bound
the weeping, the yielding, the
yearning to be taken again,
into a knot, a waiting, a string
so taut it taunts the song,
it resists the touch. It grows dark
to draw down the lover's hand
from its lightness to what's
§ to rage there / at the edge of the Child —R.D.
Rant and rant and rant as you want, you're not getting your way. End of story. Tantrum poetics at its best, Shut Up gives us a tantrum on a social scale. Society here is reduced to the red faced state of a yowling baby, the stammered frustration of a teen angel fallen into drug use and prostitution. Incoherent ranting and raving all because society's will (etude or generale) is always already in conflict with the rules (though they are self-imposed, these rules are nevertheless unchangeable, fully binding). What we see is an angry child raging at constraints. The anger of child directed at everything and at nothing so much as the child's own inability to deal with his/her frustration, his/her parents, teachers, bosses, the closed door that every adult face seemingly becomes.
— pure fog
tries harder flycatchers of revolt, heartbreak of simple-minded
parents. . . .
some people are nervous about the future of the family, about
the nuclear family — well, they can just go get fucked.
We are drawn through a din of language that invariably stuns our psyche into submission, the guitar grunge of garage bands and their now immortalized, but ever so self-destructive messiah Kurt Cobain, a shout, a jest, a noisy span, an "arrest warrant for / Peter Pan."
Shut Up is a series of 100 three-page pieces arranged alphabetically (a support structure—it seems "even Mighty Mouse needs group / support"), a bizarre version of an abecedarium, a punk ABC. But here the organization ends, or rather becomes a plan solely for gathering socio-sexual data, a bore sampling of the American idiom (New York version). Nothing is left out, no matter how mundane and trivial, no joke or sub-reference or collapsed phraseology is turned out, at least not on grounds of taste or beauty or quality of expression, from "little television / on the prairie" to "I had a UFO baby" or "Eisenhower met space aliens in / 1954," the method seems to be reefer madness or logorrhea's reef. Some of the language is just plain offensive ("What's the future of the pope's dick? Let's turn it into a wallet / — pope penis-skin wallets, wholesale Huns").Andrews is the serial poem killer here. He takes the particularly American form of the serial poem and infuses it with the language and thematic incoherence of the tabloids and television rendering the form itself devoid of its outmoded literary significance and repositioning it under a culturally far more significant rubric: that of the mass media. Each of the poems in Shut Up is like a moment on t.v. . . all of t.v. What we'd get if we could receive all channels at once, a giant multi-screen concert monstrosity gone bad . . . de-tuned, so that each of the component screens was showing a different channel . . . a channel surfer's vision of the world let loose upon all of those normal Joes . . . Duncan's Santa Cruz surf-pup, stoned and on the couch, wishing the swell was from the south-west on the point, and vacantly using the remote. . . . In fact the entire book can be read just as one watches t.v.—with a remote: open the book, read a little, flip the pages (forwards or back), read a little more, flip the pages, and so forth. (What happened on Bay Watch last night, anyway?) The book becomes entirely quotable, like a garbled I Ching . . . tell your fortune for the day by reading the first line you see, it will have some bearing, somehow. Shut Up moves from the trivial and banal into regions of the sacred, where Gods broadcast 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (including Xristmas and New Year's), the ramblings of a headless hairshirt, mad and incoherent, holy nonetheless. "Christ should die again for a better date on our holidays." Not a sermon for doubters, but a doubter's sermon:
First of all, atheists can roast. I was an anal virgin until last night. Crystal shudder industry financed formaldehyde vindi- cation so relax cooking requirements for tuberculosis-infected hogs. Collects sap from large nurses in neo-Nazi groups. Fly, beards fly; pander drift. Data entity danger laze in slavery togs, ex-nun's vagina sewn up to be a dwarf in heat. My mind shall fight for me.
§ help retarded children overthrow the government—B.A.
Cipher is the baptism of the residual —Steve McCaffery
On December 8, 1978, Robert Duncan pushed Barrett Watten off the stage at the San Francisco Art Institute. The occasion was a memorial evening for Louis Zukofsky sponsored by The Poetry Center. Watten was in the midst of a discussion of Zukofsky—a careful, even scientific presentation—when Duncan, possessed by a suddenly infuriated antipathy, bounded from his seat in the audience.
Duncan's strangely inarticulate words, directed, apparently, at himself, were transcribed from a tape by David Levi Strauss and published 5 years after the fact in Poetry Flash: . . . you could hear me yelpin' out where my mind is frequently when we come to the possibilities that are suggested . . .
Provoked by the recounting of this event in Poetry Flash, Duncan McNaughton would write:
Dante's pride stands out among his self-acknowledged degradations. Among the poets, qua pride, pride of perception, most monstrous of all forms of pride, secures the perennial lack of affect of the poem and the conduct of the poet. In the endeavor to reveal simply decent potentialities of human association, poetry in the U.S. plays no other part than a recreational one, an ornament in its success to the structures of brute force; and in its failure only its uselessness comes across. It is the poets themselves, and none else, who are responsible for the utter compromise of the vocation. I am one of them.
David Levi Strauss's article about this now infamous evening and the letters to Poetry Flash that followed allow us to piece together a general picture of what transpired. Early in the program, Robert Duncan had introduced a screening of outtakes from an NET film about Zukofsky. Duncan, given primacy of place, had spoken anecdotally about Zukofsky the person and informally about Zukofsky's work. Then, the clips were shown, and after that, without intermission, Tom Mandel, the director of the Poetry Center introduced Watten.
Watten, according to Ron Silliman,
had done some homework and was attempting to describe how Zukofsky actually wrote the works for which we take this interest in the person. In particular, he was beginning to focus on a critically important, but little understood, aspect of Zukofsky's method: his ability to translate forms taken from other parts of the universe, such as science, into such brilliant poetry.
"Watten," continues Silliman," was never permitted to give this talk."
Perceiving Zukofsky as having come under attack (for reasons still obscure), Duncan decided to retake the stage; there Duncan launched—as Strauss reports it—"a furiously impassioned defense of Zukofsky's work, around a reading of the last poem in Zukofsky's last book, 80 Flowers." The last word indeed!
But here all agreement breaks down and contradictory impressions rule the narrative. Watten was impressive, was tedious; his presentation "was perhaps well-meaning . . . but did do real violence to the work" (Strauss). Duncan was "arrogant and annoying to those in the crowd (many) listening to the connections being proposed" (Stephen Rodefer); his retaking the stage was instead "an . . . attempt to open up the discourse and let some air in" (Carl Grundberg).
Poetry (capital "P") succumbing to its own power in the face of imagined enemies. A vicious bit of theater scripted by insecurity. Rudeness overruling camaraderie out of boredom.
Or—"behind the mask of authentic arrogance," "the sacrilege of cowardice" (Duncan McNaughton).
For the purpose of our present essay, one interpretation in particular stands out.
That on December 8, 1978, Robert Duncan succeeded, by a circuitous route, in finally becoming a child.
"Old Age, shrunken by a good foot from her former stature, was portrayed next. She was so old, so far into her second childhood, that she could hardly feed herself "—Roman de la rose
"The Self in Post-modern Poetry" records the following strange defense of such desires, of childish selfishness and embarrassing behavior:
I would not reprove the child in me in my also being adolescent. . . . Hence I seek out and fortify even embarrassing sentiments. . . . In a country with no kings, I keep, from folk tale and epic, like George MacDonald's Princess and Curdie, mysteries and devotions having to do with father and king. Me-Myself-and-I, then, comes into the play . . .
And as Duncan once wrote in a notebook, in a passage published in The New American Poetry:
To be a child is not an affair of how old one is. "Child" like "angel" is a concept, a realm of possible being. Many children have never been allowed to stray into childhood. Sometimes I dream of at last becoming a child.
Wrote Jacqueline Cantwell, a member of the audience that night, "In 1978, the `language' poets were `taking over.' Books and magazines were being published by writers included under the `Language' classification. . . . Duncan's theatrical facility permitted him to upstage Watten, but showed Duncan to be threatened by a new generation." And Silliman again:
Yet if Duncan was, in Silliman's recollection, "an hysterical old man," he was also, paradoxically, a child, or perhaps better said, had entered into his second childhood. Infant, adolescent, father, king . . . for Duncan, a fundamental series, its logic animating folk tale and epic, mysteries and devotions of Me-Myself-and-I. To become king, begin as child. If unkinged, retake the hill, replay the game.
As an event it was saddening. Here was one of the finest poets of the last half-century reduced to an hysterical old man afraid of being shown up by a poet 30 years his junior.
Silliman's words, carefully or quick-ly chosen, are worth scrutinizing: Barrett Watten, the good student (the one who "had done some homework"), is silenced—denied permission to speak—by the bad student, the prodigal son. And Duncan, whose "cheap theatrical stunt" is described by Silliman as a "tantrum," has in that very silencing of the younger writer himself become "reduced," made small again, shrinking in hysteria back into the shape of Child. (O Infant Joy that in Desire burns bright! / . . . All the doors of Life's wounds I have long closed in me / break open. . . .) Moreover, Duncan's discussion of 80 Flowers—"the most extraordinary display of an active poetics . . . I'd ever seen" (Strauss)— in Silliman's account seems
an impromptu reading that I remember thinking at the time was no better than the sort of exegesis one might expect from an under-graduate hurriedly scrib-bling in a bluebook.
Duncan, roused in his fury by Watten's "extreme of . . . rationalist presumption" (as we might imagine Duncan perceived it), in Silliman's account is transformed into an "undergraduate," an extreme of rationalist pretension.
The preface to Caesar's Gate offered forewarning. There Duncan had written:
I had wanted, I think, a fatefulness in my poetry, an inevitability to its course, an autocracy, as if, indeed, in the person of the poet in writing, I were in the person of an "I" who created my life and world, in the enormity of a governing intent, as the content of a poetry or creation. . . .
The infant emperor in his autistic universe or empire is taunted by critical voices of the poem, by alien spaces emptied [and by Spicer's Martians voided] in their not being his, by reverberations and omens of an impending revolution from within or of an invasion from without.
What interests us, at present, is not the content of this particular "invasion from without," this cause celebre, but the possibility that the invasion can be understood as (in Silliman's words) a tantrum: a childish logic, propounded solely for the sake of transforming poet into "infant emperor in his autistic universe." The result: what Andrews calls "social romanticism." A loud Shut Up.
Santa doze, big 7th
Day Adventist observation tower overlooks the rape victim,
littering is filthy & selfish so it suits you quite well. Just
menthol means landgrab regard foe with bliss. Spinal dogs
crowd the driveway but your car has left.
Bad faith works wonders — exit purports them, with
traction at least they know they've been castrated.
Napolyanna wanna cracker
We will not rehearse here the after-effects of this perhaps too-childish-not-to-be-fabled event (its history, in any case, has been told before, in tabloid and in scholarly journal), nor will we give an accounting of the elaborate justifications and condemnations, the various explanations—psychological, sociological, poetic—since offered, set like dominos in the path of that traumatic event, as if to extend its momentum, and so assure for "December 8, 1978" a certain authority in the history of Bay Area poetry.. . .
Before and after all substantive issues have been raised or decided, there is —defensibly or indefensibly, with or without coherence—the sheer fact of an outburst, a juvenile rage attributed, peculiarly enough, to the volatile emotions of an old man, of a great poet stirred by the presence of youth, of a younger man in his first maturity.
Might not such an outburst demand its own poetics? A poetics native to neither of that night's participants, that neither Watten nor Duncan could have then articulated or would have dared celebrate, especially on that night, December 8, 1978, when under the name of Zukofsky they each put on stage a priority of address—dubious authority!—each the vanguard of his own poetics, equally preoccupied by grownup concerns (by their mutual mourning, for instance, of a dead teacher) . . .
and might not this poetics of the outburst have given Duncan over to a power of poetry terrible to behold, violent even in its erudition, a territorial pissing, a childish statecraft, a poetics closer to that of Bruce Andrews than Louis Zukofsky . . .
forcing Watten (who had "done some homework," as Silliman says) into the less-delicious but no doubt equally necessary role of the good son, the abused servant, the unwitting, unwilling stooge of the abusive master who would usurp the place of the apprentice, the student, the child, in order to teach the poverty of all teaching—
Teacher! your temper teaches.
The gesture is living: so many forms present
about the table-tipping of a moment.
The old man is like a city
laid waste by war. He is noble.
He is pathetic. He is an old nuisance
with his fits of fury, tipping over the pisspot.
He is a bombd house, falling away from us,
reappearing in his own light,
a spiritual refinement. . . .
Blood, urine, shit—draining away.
And we who had admired his pride see
that pride is not eternal.