A Syntax of Contrariety
(on Bruce Andrews)
published in Aerial 9 (1997): 234-38
In the journal he was keeping in the early 1970s, when he was still a graduate student at Harvard,Â Bruce Andrews was already drawing up those word lists that have since become a signature and that would soon become full-fledged â€œpoems.â€Â Â Hereâ€™s one:
Itâ€™s the sort of list detractors of Language poetry have loved to make fun of: the catalogue of unrelated items strung together for no reason except the poetâ€™s whim.Â Anyone could (and does!) do it, right?
Andrewsâ€™s admirers usually counter by citing his pronouncements in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book and elsewhere.Â For example, â€œReferentiality is diminished by organizing the language around other features or axes, around features which make present to us wordsâ€™ lack of transparency, their physicality, their refusal to be motivated along schematic lines by frames exterior to themselves.â€  Or again,Â â€œLanguage is disseminated through the text, that â€˜methodological field,â€™ climaxing in play, not achored by but in fact shattering the demands of our seemingly-liberating-but-actually-repressive genres of expression.Â Beyond the rule-governed transpositions is the self-differentiation of language, away from the universalized, commodity-like qualities so often trumpeted.â€ 
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E theory on this order is by now familiar material; indeed it has perhaps been excessively codified.Â Â Meanwhile the texts themselves remain elusive, especially when theyâ€™re as difficult as Bruce Andrewsâ€™s.Â And since we can see his poetic mode crystallizing in the notebook poems, now twenty years old, collected in Divestiture and Executive Summary, I want to take a close look at the early â€œlistings.â€
To begin then: consider the visual layout of the word list cited above.Â Â Since each word gets a line of its own, we have the skeleton of 8 + 6 lines, the perfect form (octave + sestet) of the Petrarchan sonnet.Â Â Then a third unit, this time a septet (rhyme royal?) followed by a three-word (or three-line) â€œenvoy.â€Â The allusion, it seems, is to Italian late medieval and renaissance lyric–a poetry which we know as theÂ quintessence, of â€œhighâ€ lyric form. Italian also plays a role in the inclusion of the wordsÂ â€œperoâ€ (â€œhoweverâ€ in Italian) and â€œavvevaâ€ (the third-person singular past tense of the verb for â€œbeginâ€), as well as in the operatic references to the â€œtrebleâ€ discourse of high romance plot.Â Â For example: â€œIn this night of exotic (â€œislamâ€) longing,Â I kiss the hem of my belovedâ€™s dress and drop anemones into her lap, begging her to be mine but to no avail.Â My heart skips a beat; there is a gulf between us; as reveille sounds, the violent mobs are at the gate (the exit),Â Â My parafin candle flickers, the cicadas chirp, I coax her to come to me, but she has been pushed to the brink and falls into a deep coma.â€
Even â€œpelvisâ€ could be worked into the story, motivated as it is by what George Oppen called in Discrete Series â€œlove / at the pelvis.â€Â That takes care of all the words listed except forÂ â€œgypâ€ and â€œpowâ€–words that relate to a different kind of violence–namely that of war.Â â€œPowâ€ is not only onomatopoeic for the sound of gunshot but the acronym for â€œprisoner of war.â€Â Â And this note, coupled with the slang of â€œgypâ€ (â€œWhat a gyp!â€ or â€œIâ€™ve been gypped!â€) provides a different context for â€œreveilleâ€ (the morning call), â€œmobs,â€ â€œavail,â€ and â€œviolent.â€.Â The â€œgulfâ€ may be the Tonkin Gulf,Â and it may be the â€œbrinksmanship (â€œbrinkâ€) of the early 70s that brought us to this mental â€œcoma.â€Â From â€œcoaxâ€ to â€œcomaâ€:Â it is just one letter, after all, that has to be changed and the â€œaâ€ has to be moved slightly.
â€œThe purpose of popular culture,â€ says William Gass in a sentence Andrews quotes on the page of Divestitute-E preceding this list, â€œis to keep people from understanding what is really happening to them.â€Â Andrewsâ€™s skeleton sonnet cum septet cum envoy illustrates this point obliquely and elegantly.Â Our vocabulary, this catalogue implies, is not adequate to what happens around us.Â Stuck in obsolete operatic arias, our discourse canâ€™t cope with the realities of war.Â With the onset of that final â€œcoma,â€ the whole structure collapses.Â Note in this connection that sound linkageÂ also breaks down.Â â€œBegâ€ /â€gypâ€, for example, is united by â€œgâ€; â€œgypâ€/ â€œpowâ€ by â€œp,â€ and so on.Â Â But that final open vowel of â€œcomaâ€ leads nowhere, except possible to the missing â€œaâ€ of the poemâ€™s first word–â€ahem.â€
A few pages further along, Andrews quotes Carl Andre: â€œWell, in poems Iâ€™ve attempted to treat words as equivalent and independent elements as much as possible.Â Thatâ€™s impossible within language; I know, but Iâ€™ve tried to create non-grammatical sequences of words, believing with Whorf that the crypto-structures of language carry as much of the message as the semantics.â€Â Â Here is a key to Andrewsâ€™s own methodology, his own construction of crypto-structures that can be read variably, the reader having to do an unusual amount of work in constructing the text.Â Â Too much work, some readers, notably Bob Perelman, have objected.Â â€œIf language is made up of units,â€ writes Perelman, â€œbroken apart as all things are by capitalism, and if nothing new is created beyond the horizon of the phrase or the sentence, then these new, charged units would still depend on capital for energy to band together in momentary transgression.â€Â Â And again, â€œwhen every word launches an attack, such attacks tend to reify their target as least as much as they explode it.â€ 
One can counter this charge by pointing out that despite Andrewsâ€™s consistent commitment to the theory that â€œAuthor dies, writing beginsâ€ (â€œCode Words,â€ LB 54), Â Â Â Â Â Â his catalogues are in fact highly personal.Â On the page preceding â€œhem / pero / avveva,â€ there is a list that reads â€œsallipesh / morked / had / his / lampix/ bliffles / when/ baslurker / the/ the/ ciptally / plomy / and / up / felmed / coofed / the.â€Â The Andrews signature manifests itself in the curious alternation of coinages like morked, felmed, coofed –coinages that sound like Anglo-Saxon word particles with harsh consonantal endings–with linguistic hybrids like the French + Anglo-Saxon baslurker, suffixes in search of root morphemes, as in ciptally, and absolutely ordinary prepositions and articles–in this case three instances of the along with and, up, and when.Â Compared to Andrewsâ€™s language, Perelmanâ€™s own is much more â€œnormalâ€ and â€œeveryday,â€ as is Ron Sillimanâ€™s.Â Â And whereas Charles Bernstein, to take another example, draws heavily on professional discourses (medical, legal, journalise), on colloquial speech, and citation, Andrews operates in the stark, stripped landscape that stretches from BladerunnerÂ to Pinterâ€™s Mountain Language– a landscape in which words regularly appear as wounds–lacerated objects.
In the poetry of the early eighties–for example in Wobbling– the word lists of the notebooksÂ give way to more complex phrase catalogues that carry on this highly individualized, â€œnativistâ€ language of laceration.Â Here is the title poem:
Leaping Documents Afraid
Anything Else Knots Are Shadow
Buoy Only Nor Berserk On Water Wonâ€™t Loosen
Your Learning Bombs To Watermarks Sudden City
Molding Lit Only Against Compass Split Is Bigger
Doubt Curves Politic Tourist
Each Dents White By Clock Debt Can Surprise
The Gown Page Without Loss Almost Between And In Is Light
Hoax Empties Me Caked Open Ample Picture Privately
Cone The Words
Moth a Guest Measuring Have Knob Word
Was I Waxed But Wants Outlined It Hold
Is Demanding With Curb Disappearing Looping
Such Spiked Pulls Awry Linen Memory To Be Beams
Marbling Each Alphabet Difficult Waken To
Vents Taught Hushed Time Uncorrected In Dunce Outvote
Everything Taller Jolts For Itâ€™s Invented Trust Expose
Hexes Will Stay
Thicken Is Disabled Still
Reciting How Nylon A Grid Does Each Not
A Sorting Have Survived
Fuselage The Witness PerfumeÂ Â Â (Wobbling [New York: Roof Books, 1981], p. 85)
It reads (and especially sounds) at first like some form of aphasia–an ability to place words in â€œmeaningfulâ€ sentences.Â Adjectives fail to modify the nouns theyâ€™re attached to, verbs are not only not transitive but seem quite unrelated to the nouns they follow.Â The vocabulary seems to relate to urban life–â€Documents,â€ â€City,â€ â€œBombs,â€ â€œDents,â€ â€œTourist,â€ â€œCurb,â€ â€œGridâ€–but even this context is not certain since the references to â€œknots,â€ â€œshadow,â€ â€œBuoy,â€ â€œWater,â€ â€œCompass,â€ â€œCurves,â€ and so on could just as well point to an isolated locale upstate as to New York.Â In either case,Â the twenty-two lines of what might be called mini-headlines seem to refer to something that happens to an unknown woman–murder? rape?Â suicide?– there being a complex of words like â€œLeaping,â€ â€œafraid,â€ â€œBerserk,â€Â â€œSudden,â€ â€œSplit,â€ â€œPrivately,â€ â€œCurves,â€ â€œGown,â€ â€œLinen,â€ â€œNylon,â€ and â€œPerfume,â€ that point to a possible â€œTouristâ€ to whom something terrible has been done.Â The poem also refers to a potential â€œWitness,â€ to â€œTrust,â€ â€œExpose,â€ and something â€œUncorrected.â€
But this is only one plot possibility and readers can no doubt supply others.Â What, then, makes â€œWobblingâ€ more than a random set of words and phrases?Â Here the sound structure provides a key.Â For the dominant feature of this poem–a highly unusual one for poetry–is its almost total absence of word repetition even as sound repetition is foregrounded.Â Except for filler words like â€œOnly,â€ â€œEach,â€ â€œIs,â€ and â€œThe,â€ each of the poemâ€™s words make a single appearance.Â Take those â€œDocumentsâ€ of line 1 or the â€œShadowâ€ of line 2.Â They never reappear but are replaced by â€œWatermarksâ€ and â€œDents,â€Â a â€œClockâ€ and a â€œCompass.â€Â Each phrase, each line is thus characterized by its radical difference, its separation, so to speak,Â from all other words.Â Indeed, the only one among the poemâ€™s nouns that appears more than once is, not coincidentally, Word(s) which is used twice.
At the same time, sound rounds up the not-usual suspects and provides them with an odd group identity.Â Alliteration, assonance, and consonance are powerfully present.Â Take the catalogue of wâ€™s in â€œWater,â€ â€œWont,â€ â€œWatermarks,â€ â€œWhite,â€ â€œWithout,â€ â€œWords,â€ â€œWas,â€ â€œWaxed,â€Wants,â€With,â€Waken,â€ â€œWill,â€ â€œWitness.â€Â Or the short iâ€™s in the single line â€œThicken Is Disabled Still.â€Â Â Or the d endings of â€œAfraid,â€ â€œSudden,â€ â€œCaked,â€ â€œWord,â€ â€œWaxed,â€ â€œOutlined,â€ â€œHold,â€ â€œDemanding,â€ â€œUncorrected,â€ â€œDisabled,â€ â€œGrid,â€ â€œSurvived.â€Â Â And further:Â we have here, as in the list from Divestiture cited above, the consonance of harsh monosyllabic guttural words-â€debt,â€ â€œdent,â€ â€œdoubt,â€ â€œknot,â€ Waxed,â€ â€œJolts,â€ â€œGrid,â€ â€œHoax,â€ â€œHold,â€ and so on.
So what does this all add up to?Â â€œWobbling,â€ I would argue, is a searing critique of contemporary dislocation and fragmentation, of the ways information (or rather disinformation) is disseminated in our culture.Â Words are literally â€œbombs,â€ thrown at the listener for effect; their sounds connect, proferring the possibility for some sort of coherent meaning, but no sooner are semantic units adumbrated than deferral takes place.Â This is the â€œWobbling,â€ of the title, the desperate search for the â€œWitnessâ€ (the poet himself?) to make sense of the â€œsortingâ€ that has â€œsurvived.â€Â Â Â In its oblique, uncompromising, and passionate way,Â this quintessential Andrews poem forces us to come to terms with a very particular form of dislocation– the fear and frustration produced by those â€œword woundsâ€ we receive every day.Â Â I know of no other poet writing right now who can duplicate this very palpable (and in fact, very personal, as in â€œitâ€™s happening to meâ€) sense of pain.
 Bruce Andrews, Divestitute—E (Buffalo, Leave Books, 1993), unpaginated.Â Subsequently cited in the text as DIVE.
 Bruce Andrews, â€œText and Contextâ€ (1977), rpt. in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), p. 33.Â This book is subsequently cited in the text as LB.
 Bruce Andrews, â€œCode Words,â€ LB 55.
 Bob Perelman, â€œBuilding a More Powerful Vocabulary: Bruce Andrews and the World (Trade Center),â€ unpublished ms. forthcoming in Princeton book??, pp. 15, 6.