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Sherry Brennan

On Lip Service to Paradise

This piece is 8,100 words or about eighteen printed pages long.

Endnotes are given at the end of this file. Click on the note to be taken to it; likewise to return to the text.

‘I do not see through words’

East Village June 1, 2002

As vegetables or fruit are things — ‘lemons piled on a doorstep’ [Note 1] so words are things. This would be my basic contention. Or this could be said to be true in a certain sense, the sense in which these words on your screen or on the page can not be sensed by your body except they are materially visible, materially physical, singular things and so mattered. Mattered as your body, or as a fruit. Yet.

Words shape the world. Or, to be more precise, words and the world shape each other the composition of words and of the world follows the same order, as we know from reading Spinoza: ‘The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things’ (Ethics 2P7, 119) [Note 2]. This order and connection is not itself material or physical in any sense by which we understand the words ‘material’ or ‘physical.’

Thus words carry both a thingly materiality and an order or composition that is not strictly speaking material, that might instead be quasi-material or even perhaps a sort of immateriality, in the way that certain forms of body might be said to be dynamic or kinetic and thus not strictly speaking material. Linguistic sense, like worldly or bodily sense, is made up of both of these arrays: the thingly weighted quality of words and of the world, and their immaterial dynamic and kinetic orderings.

Yet there are other seeings or sensings of words beyond their linguistic sense, that also operate on and through the things of words and their immaterial orderings. There is a sense to language that is not linguistic. This sense happens out of the relations between orderings. As Bruce Andrews writes in Lip Service, ‘I do not see through words’ (377). Words carry a certain opaque unintelligibility among their sensible bodies. Thus, I literally cannot see through words, first, because of their thingly opacity, which resists seeing or meaning-making. I sense them as things, and not only as signifiers. Secondly, and at the same time, I do not see through or by means of words or their referentiality because I see, instead, directly by means of the compositional orderings among my body, words and things. You might say I see around the words. If, that is, ‘I’ could be said to see at all. I see through the relation that (in)coheres between words and my body, and through all those (in)sensible relations tangible and intangible, mine and not-mine that inhere among words and things, including bodies. Thus, while words do have linguistic sense and shape in the world, it is also true that, with our bodies and other things, they participate in the dynamic orderings and thingly compositions that make up non-linguistic sense. They cannot be seen through.

The Word-Object in Dreams

Centre Hall June 8, 2002

Infrequently, poems appear on printed pages in my dreams, usually briefly, never long enough for the words themselves to be read or remembered. But in one case, the words formed a long sinuous shape down the length of a page that slowly morphed into the brown mold of a forest floor covered with daffodils where before there had been a black and white page of words. The daffodils were still words, however, not flowers. The word ‘daffodil’ did not appear; rather, the shapes of the daffodils seemed as if words, in the dream. That is not quite precise. It was not the shapes that were words. Rather, the daffodils in themselves were words and these daffodil-words were daffodils. These daffodil-words did not mean the word ‘daffodil.’ They were as tangible as daffodils in spring, and that tangibility expressed the thing that is daffodil. As if the daffodil were expressed in itself as tangible or visible or sensible. As if its body were both tongue and word.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud writes, ‘It is true in general that words are treated in dreams as though they were concrete things, and for that reason they are apt to be combined in just the same way as presentations of concrete things’ (330). In this chapter on ‘The Dream-Work,’ Freud has just traced out his strategy for interpreting the manifest content, what he calls the ‘dream-content,’ of dreams by elaborating its relation to an underlying latent content, or, the ‘dream-thoughts.’

In the initial discussion of his approach towards interpretation in this chapter, Freud speaks of the relationship between dream-content and dream-thoughts as a kind of transposition of expression across two languages. I quote at some length from the beginning of the chapter:

The dream-thoughts and the dream-content are presented to us like two versions of the same subject-matter in two different languages. Or, more properly, the dream-content seems like a transcript of the dream-thoughts into another mode of expression, whose characters and syntactic laws it is our business to discover by comparing the original and the translation. The dream-thoughts are immediately comprehensible, as soon as we have learnt them. The dream-content, on the other hand, is expressed as it were in a pictographic script, the characters of which have to be transposed individually into the language of the dream-thoughts. If we attempted to read these characters according to their pictorial value instead of according to their symbolic relation, we should clearly be led into error. (311–12)

It is interesting to note that Freud does not compare the relation between dream-content and dream-thoughts to the relation between language and the world of things it is said to represent. Instead, for him, both dream-content and dream-thoughts fall already into the realm of expression. On this read, the task of the interpreter is to compare the two versions or modes of expression and, on the basis of the comparison, detect the laws or patterns of the underlying dream-thoughts. These laws or patterns of expression, then, are not immediately apparent, despite the fact that, for Freud, the dream-thoughts might make perfect sense once the pattern is discovered.

In fact, when he turns from his discussion of interpretation to an analysis of the construction of dreams, he argues that in the construction of dreams the relation between dream-content and dream-thoughts does not at all follow a one-to-one representational structure:

Thus a dream is not constructed by each individual dream-thought, or group of dream-thoughts finding (in abbreviated form) separate representation in the content of the dream — in the kind of way in which an electorate chooses parliamentary representatives; a dream is constructed, rather, by the whole mass of dream-thoughts being submitted to a sort of manipulative process. (318)

The dream is not constructed by means of a one-to-one correspondence between the underlying structure of latent dream-thoughts and the overarching elements in the manifest dream-content. Instead, the underlying mass of dream-thoughts is distributed across the elements of the dream, such that the dream-thoughts stand in multiple relation to the dream-content. The dream-thoughts propagate themselves throughout the dream-content in irregular patterns.

The construction Freud describes seems less like a double-layered structure organized according to correspondences and, instead, rather more like a flat surface across which both dream-thoughts and dream-content are scattered the dream-thoughts acting as a dynamic network of connectors that randomly coalesce or manifest themselves here and there as the elements of the dream-content.

His seemingly trite translation metaphor for the interpretation of dreams becomes much more interesting when read against this description of the dream’s a-representational construction. When he writes speaking of the interpreter’s task that ‘the dream-content seems like a transcript of the dream-thoughts into another mode of expression, whose characters and syntactic laws it is our business to discover,’ it becomes more clear that the task he is describing is not simply that of discovering one-to-one correspondences between the elements of the dream-content and the underlying dream-thoughts. Instead, one must analyze the particular patterns, i.e., the ‘characters and syntactic laws,’ according to which the dream-thoughts have become expressed as the dream. The dream follows patterns of grapheme, grammar and syntax that are different from but related to those of the underlying dream-thoughts. Thus, there are two interwoven systems, and while each system is composed according to differing modes of expression that do not stand in representational relation to each other, nevertheless, there are describable relationships between the elements of each, such that the order of the dream-thoughts can be uncovered through an analysis of the order of the dream-content.

Such, I would argue, is the relation between the order of things and the order of ideas in the world. Language allows us to participate in both orderings in that it crosses and re-crosses the boundaries between the two, if we can even describe them as separable orderings with delimitable boundaries. Or, rather, I might describe the orderings of things and of ideas as this same kind of singular flat surface across which both systems are distributed in permeable, interconnected networks. Language, then, is that by which we move between the orderings of things and of ideas. And words participate in both orders, as things and as ideas.
This is why it becomes interesting when Freud writes that in dreams words themselves are often treated as if they were concrete things. If, as dream-content, word-objects in dreams do not stand in a one-to-one relation to the underlying dream-thoughts, then they cannot be interpreted as simply or conventionally referential. Nor can the interpreter appeal to the context of the dream-content to elucidate an underlying meaning intended by the word-objects. Instead, the interpreter must correlate the ordering of the dream-thoughts with the ordering of the dream-content in order to understand how the dream-thoughts produce or converge in the word-object. No word ‘means’ a dream-thought; rather, the word-object is produced as a convergence or coalescence within the network of dream-thoughts it expresses. The word-object, like any other element of the dream-content, displays or expresses the dream-thoughts otherwise. Thus, the interpretation of words in dreams requires some other understanding of the relationship between words and things, some relationship other than the traditional relation according to which words primarily function within language as meaning-making or referential.

This becomes more clear if we look at an example Freud gives immediately following his description of the interpreter’s task, an example of the method for decoding a rebus:

Suppose I have a picture-puzzle, a rebus, in front of me. It depicts a house with a boat on its roof, a single letter of the alphabet, the figure of a running man whose head has been conjured away, and so on. Now I might be misled into raising objections and declaring that the picture as a whole and its component parts are nonsensical. A boat has no business to be on the roof of a house, and a headless man cannot run. Moreover, the man is bigger than the house; and if the whole picture is intended to represent a landscape, letters of the alphabet are out of place in it since such objects do not occur in nature. But obviously we can only form a proper judgement of the rebus if we put aside criticisms such as these of the whole composition and its parts and if, instead, we try to replace each separate element by a syllable or word that can be represented by that element in some way or other. The words which are put together in this way are no longer nonsensical but may form a poetical phrase of the greatest beauty and significance. (312)

It would be easy, of course, to see this precisely as an example of representational thinking, according to which the rebus is interpreted by replacing each element by another element that is representative of it. If, however, we take Freud’s assertions seriously that dream-content as constructed does not stand in a one-to-one representational relationship to the dream-thoughts, and that, instead, ‘the elements of the dream are constructed out of the whole mass of dream-thoughts,’ then we are forced into another interpretive stance according to which the task of the interpreter is precisely to allow each element of the rebus to stand in differing relations to the elements of the phrase it depicts or expresses.

The letter of the alphabet ‘means’ in exactly the same way as does the figure of the headless man, as one element of the system of the rebus which is to be put into relation(s) with the system of the phrase. Thus the linguistic element in this case, a single letter does not come to meaning by some different mode of relation than the non-linguistic elements. The resulting decipherment of the dream certainly does have meaning and sense, but that meaning and sense is not made up of what we traditionally understand as composing linguistic sense a unitary representational correspondence imposed from above or below the elements. Rather, meaning is composed of the relations that can be described or patterned among the elements of the two systems and, as well, across or between the systems. There is no meaning other than the multiple relations themselves. The puzzle produces and is made up of these relations.

Lip Service to Paradise

East Village June 16, 2002 — Centre Hall June 23, 2002

The multifarious relations between Bruce Andrews’ Lip Service and Dante’s Paradiso present a similar kind of puzzle. In his essay ‘Paradise and Method: A Transcript,’ Andrews talks explicitly about the ways that the structure and organization of Lip Service is modeled on the Dante right down to the level of the sentence, where the poem follows the punctuation of the Paradiso. Andrews does not merely model or organize his poem according to the Paradiso, however. There is an active engagement of the languages available to the two poems that, as he writes in Primum Mobile 10, is ‘less to write paraphrased hyperbole retraversal than it us ‘. Andrews is not rewriting or mimicking or even critiquing Dante. He is not writing ‘paraphrased hyperbole retraversal.’ Rather, much like the ways that planetary bodies when in conjunction with the stars are said to produce strange effects on earthly bodies, so the two poems read in conjunction produce other ways of understanding the multiple relations between our bodies, our languages and our social orders.

In this essay, I will focus on two specific aspects of Dante’s work that become inflected in interesting ways by Andrews’ poem. The first is the positioning and elaboration of the physical body in the The Divine Comedy in general, and Paradiso in particular. The second is Dante’s emphatic use of the vernacular, posited as a temporal, social body. I am particularly interested in the specific ways these issues of body and the social get written into the language of both poems such that the language itself begins to circulate as a social body, much as do heavenly bodies in Dante.

In the The Divine Comedy, Dante’s physical body descends into hell and then begins the long process of purification and ascent up into the heavens. Throughout the text, there is a noticeable emphasis on the fact of his physical body, especially in contradistinction to the immaterial souls he meets along the way. [Note 3] Throughout purgatory, in particular, there are a series of rituals designed to purify his physical body so that he may see Beatrice and cross the passageway prior to the final ascent into paradise. In the Paradiso, as he begins this ascent, he no longer knows whether he is soul or body, nor does he attempt to fully explicate the status of his body, as he writes, ‘The passing beyond humanity may not be set forth in words’ (1.70-71).

Nevertheless, he questions the status of his body, wondering from the first whether he is now wholly soul, ‘Whether I was but that part of me which Thou didst create last, O Love’ (1.73-74), and then asking Beatrice how it could be that his body can pass through the light bodies of the heavens (1.97-99). He continues to wonder about the status of his body, without resolving the question one way or the other. For instance, upon his entry into the first star, he writes, ‘If I was body (and if here we conceive not how one bulk could brook another, which must be if body enters body), the more should longing enkindle us to see that Essence wherein we behold how our nature and God united themselves. There that which we hold by faith shall be seen, not demonstrated, but known of itself’ (2.37-42). In the end, though, the questions about his body seem to become immaterial, as his senses are increasingly purified to the point that his progress is no longer impeded by his body. His sense of sight, especially, is progressively purified and strengthened, until, when he reaches the final heaven, the mortal, physical barriers have been removed from his sight and, in the last canto, he is given a vision of the Supreme Light.

It is not difficult to see, immediately upon opening Lip Service, how Andrews’ emphasis upon the material body renders any such purification and ensuing ascent to faith utterly impossible. One can open up the book almost at random and find lines that insist on the physicality and materiality of the body: ‘think that throw that / at what those legs can do to fists / to iron skin upwards; apply myself / to come on the ropes / rasping uncommitted sexualism? stuttered Law / kelvinatored eros reducermania’ (Moon 6, 45). This insistence on the material body is always linked in some way to a concomitant insistence on the social presence of the body, so that, for example, while in the quote above from Moon 6, the leg, fist and skin perhaps compose an ‘uncommitted sexualism,’ a ‘kelvinatored eros,’ elsewhere in Moon 6 the hand and head are those of the homeless panhandler and the ankles those of insensitive passersby: ‘ankles that vote helpless head down hand out / violence,’ and a few lines later, ‘outcast hunch hand in’ (Moon 6, 44-45).

At one level, then, Andrews’ Lip Service makes Dante’s entire project impossible. Instead of a conceptual, allegorial framework leading Dante up into the unifying vision of God as the Supreme Pleasure, there is only the unpurified, physical body tied to the social in all its gross materiality. Yet, at another level, I think there are important ways in which the strange conjunction of Paradis o and Lip Service makes possible another understanding of the relations between bodies, language and the social. To get there, we will need to make a brief detour through Dante’s poetics of the vernacular.

In his essay De vulgari eloquentia Dante sketches out a powerful argument for the use of the vernacular in poetry. The vernacular is more noble than Latin, he argues, because it is acquired naturally in childhood from other people, as is milk from one’s nurse; whereas fewer people can speak a language such as Latin, which must be learned through much study and is thus artificial (1.1). He argues that unlike angels, who can communicate directly without audible speech, and unlike animals, who do not communicate rationally at all, humans need a form of communication that is both rational and perceptible. As it carries both sound and meaning, language provides this rational and sensible means of communication (1.3).

He goes on to demonstrate the fact that vernacular language, like human society, changes over time: ‘since human beings are highly unstable and variable animals, our language can be neither durable nor consistent with itself; but, like everything else that belongs to us (such as manners and customs), it must vary according to distances of space and time’ (1.9.6).  Latin, on the other hand, maintains a false permanence. In fact, he defines grammar as the fixing of language: ‘This was the point from which the inventors of the art of grammar began; for their gramatica is nothing less than a certain immutable identity of language in different times and places. Its rules having been formulated with the common consent of many peoples, it can be subject to no individual will; and, as a result, it cannot change’ (1.9.11).

Thus, while Latin is useful, in that it allows us to preserve the writings of the ancients in a form we can continue to read and allows us to communicate with people who do not share our own vernacular, it seems clear that, for Dante as poet, Latin labors under two primary impediments: first, it is fixed and unchanging, and second, as it must be acquired through much study, not everyone can understand it. Although he does not argue from this premise that poetry should be written in the vernacular, it seems clear that this reasoning underlies his decision to write in the vernacular. Italian, for Dante, is a changing, variable material that varies with cultural and social changes over both time and space and is understood by the people alive in his own time and place.

This would seem a strange preface to a poetry of paradise. And while Dante’s narrative may seem otherwordly to our post-medieval minds, the The Divine Comedy, much like Andrews’ poem, is distinctly contemporary, designed to have political and temporal effects in Dante’s world. But while Dante’s political, temporal effects are primarily achieved through the many contemporary characters, places and stories that people his poem, and by the overt moral of the narrative, Andrews’ effects happen primarily at the level of language rather than at the narrative level. To come at this, I would like to turn to a comparison between the last 33 sentences of Paradiso, Canto 33, and the last 33 sentences of Lip Service, in Primum Mobile 9 and 10.

In Canto 32, Beatrice has just ascended to her throne in the uppermost rows of the heavens. She leaves Dante with Bernard, whose task is to request the Virgin Mary to grant grace and mercy so that Dante may see the Supreme Light in all its glory and live to recall his journey and tell what he saw. Canto 33 is composed of Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin and Dante’s final vision.

Bernard begins: ‘Virgin Mary, daughter of thy son.’ Andrews re-writes: ‘Dearless creature, social spiral units, disaster-.’ Here, and in the next sentence we immediately find an open-faced-sandwich kind of parody operating between the Dante and Andrews. The second sentence of Dante: ‘In thy womb was rekindled the Love under whose warmth this flower in the eternal peace has thus unfolded (germinato).’ Andrews: ‘Oh Say grace warrants Promise a certain brand of abandon / germinate sensations of independence call a heart a heart / flush with closer swans expire.’ It is not difficult to see the ways in which individual words in Andrews, such as ‘grace,’ ‘promise,’ or ‘germinate,’ mimic and parody Dante’s vocabulary of ‘Love,’ ‘peace,’ and in the Italian ‘germinato.’ The phrasing, too, feels parodic: Dante’s ‘In thy womb was rekindled’ transmutates into ‘Oh Say grace warrants Promise;’ ‘the Love under whose warmth’ becomes ‘a certain brand of abandon;’ ‘eternal peace ... unfolded’ becomes ‘closer swans expire,’ and so on. It is not difficult to see Andrews’ nonsensical, hyper-erotic-parodic language undercutting Dante’s super-etherialized religious narrative.

At the same time, in a very real way, it is difficult to tell which of these sentences makes more ‘sense’ just how does Dante’s metaphoric structure work, according to which the Virgin Mary’s womb rekindles a Love under whose warmth, like the warmth of the sun, the flower of the converted church has unfolded in eternal peace, when the Virgin herself is appealed to from the first as the daughter of the son born from that womb? It hardly seems parodic of Andrews to counter this nonsense with the phrases ‘social spiral units, disaster-’ or ‘higher machine omnibus / nature animal pull up the tart, everyman nameplate / to make dominion bed.’ There is a kind of nonsensical beauty to the relations in and between Andrews’ and Dante’s text here such that the relation moves beyond that of parody or sense. In each text there is more going on than sense (or nonsense) or parody. In the way that Freud would understand dream-content by means of an independent and yet related circulation of the associated dream-thoughts, and much like the property that allows Dante’s body to enter the light bodies of the stars, there is a certain (im)material bodily weighting of the words ‘grace’ and ‘promise,’ ‘love,’ ‘flower,’ ‘womb,’ ‘peace,’ ‘heart’ and ‘swan,’ that allows the words in both texts to circulate independently of their linguistic sense. The material movement of the words themselves produces effects that are to some extent independent of the linguistic, grammatic or metaphoric sense of the sentences.

To return to the narrative of Canto 33, Bernard’s prayer works, and Dante’s vision fixes itself on the light. He then prays to the Supreme Light to leave his memory intact after the vision, so that he can convey the vision in his poem. I will quote at some length from Dante here, and follow it immediately with the corollary sentences in Andrews:

Thenceforward my vision was greater than speech can show, which fails at such a sight, and at such excess memory fails. As is he who dreaming sees, and after the dream the passion remains imprinted (la passione impressa) and the rest returns not to the mind; such am I, for my vision almost wholly fades away, yet does the sweetness that was born of it still drop within my heart. ... O Light Supreme that art so far uplifted above mortal conceiving, relend to my mind a little of what Thou didst appear, and give my tongue (lingua) such power, that it may leave only a single spark of Thy glory for the folk to come; for, by returning somewhat to my memory and by sounding (per sonare) a little in these lines, more of Thy victory shall be conceived.

Earning its satin scramble under / phraseless difference defeat speech / glory took heat reconvening orchid pages / splendid hyperbolic innocence. / Dreambulatory script off passion impresses gesture cure / no reckoning, the dream spawns / the truth the cell is / strictly a nostalgic thing for me now, / sugar raised revved posthumous / sensible space cancels before impossible / speed under canon limelit to ample zero hush. / ... & out of sight, out of mind -- lap me in fold apotheosised / to a yesplus lingua(l) anti-never, news is a book / whitened out abandon; / it’s time to mutate always / is always erotic web-spinning sonar / a present-tense exhalation is within / marginal legible above nerve memory heart / site binds: I do not see through words / sight as dreams gratefully certain.

Once again, perhaps one notices first the repetition of single words: ‘speech,’ ‘passion,’ ‘impresses (impressa),’ ‘dream,’ ‘sight,’ ‘mind,’ ‘lingua,’ ‘glory,’ ‘memory,’ and ‘sonar (sonare).’ It is also not difficult to take a certain path through the two passages, again finding very close echoes: Dante’s ‘greater than speech can show’ at right angles to Andrews’ ‘phraseless difference defeat speech;’ Dante, ‘at such excess memory fails’ to Andrews, ‘splendid hyperbolic innocence;’ ‘As is he who dreaming sees, and after the dream the passion remains imprinted and the rest returns not to the mind’ to ‘Dreambulatory script off passion impresses gesture cure / no reckoning, the dream spawns;’ ‘such am I, for my vision almost wholly fades away, yet does the sweetness that was born of it still drop within my heart’ to ‘strictly a nostalgic thing for me now, / sugar raised revved posthumous;’ and so on.

But I would like to point out here just how Andrews’ text functions both with and against Dante, partially by miming Dante’s vocabulary and sense, partly by overlapping or resisting Dante’s vocabulary with contemporary language and gestures that follow orders and relations of sense other than the strictly linguistic. Let me take one series of phrases in particular. Dante writes, ‘As is he who dreaming sees, and after the dream the passion remains imprinted and the rest returns not to the mind.’ Andrews writes, ‘Dreambulatory script off passion impresses gesture cure / no reckoning, the dream spawns.’ Dante reads something like this: One dreams. In the dream, one sees. After the dream, one retains the imprint of the passion or affect of the dream, but the sensed vision itself disappears from the mind. The Andrews, perhaps surprisingly, carries roughly the same ‘meaning’ reading something like this: The dream walks. The script disappears but the passion impresses a gesture. A cure. Not a reckoning or memory. The dream generates or produces.

At this level, the two texts agree: neither represents dream memory as making possible linguistic sense, or even visual sense. For both, the passion or affect generated by the dream impresses or imprints itself on the mind directly, producing something other than representational memory or sense or visual imagery. The affect retained or impressed is other than representation and is productive directly. It is not a memory or script or reckoning.

Yet while the two texts agree here, their process or way of making meaning diverges dramatically. As we would expect, Dante’s sentence is grammatically clear, narratively unified. While he wants to claim that the vision cannot be represented, his poem in fact does represent his vision and what he makes of it. Andrews’ sentence if we can call it that proceeds otherwise. There are at least several subjects (‘Dreambulatory,’ ‘passion,’ and ‘dream’), the neologism (‘Dreambulatory’), a noun that may be functioning as a verb (‘script’), two nouns in the place of a direct object (‘gesture cure’), and so on a general grammatical disorder. Yet the words manage to carry sense and interact in ways that produce meaning. They also circulate in ways that produce some other remainder they produce the affect gesture cure that the sentence describes. The script and vision, the narrative, even the grammar what we usually think of as producing ‘meaning’ have all dissolved, but the imprint or impress remains and carries sense.

This remainder, this imprint or impress gesture, is the sense that words carry that is not linguistic sense. It functions as a kind of mutation or transmutation as ‘the truth the cell is.’ As Andrews goes on to write, ‘it’s time to mutate always / is always erotic web-spinning sonar / a present-tense exhalation is within / marginal legible above nerve memory heart / site binds: I do not see through words / sight as dreams gratefully certain.’ I would read this as roughly continuing the contention that while speech fails the vision, and the vision fades, fails memory, a certain kind of morphological remains remain a ‘present-tense exhalation’ or ‘marginal legible’ imprint of the passion for Andrews a ‘site’ rather than ‘sight,’ a sweetness retained in the heart.

But whether constituted as ‘site’ or ‘sight’, the poet’s vision or dream presents the same dilemma for both Dante and Andrews: if the poet’s vision of the thingly world is larger than language, if the power or affect of the vision burns through the ability of poet and language to convey that affect, just how or what does the poet write? Dante’s response is to appeal to the Supreme Light to give his tongue just enough power to leave one spark of the light, of the glory, to convey to his readers. Andrews, of course, will not be appealing to the Supreme Light for power. Instead, he appeals to that remainder as location or coalescence of power otherwise, elsewhere than in some transcendant Supreme Light, perhaps nearer and at the same time farther, neither internal nor transcendant: an ‘always erotic web-spinning sonar,’ ‘a present-tense exhalation,’ a ‘marginal legible above nerve memory heart / site.’ In this way, for Andrews, it seems, site as coalescence or relation binds language and the world of things together. Vision, speech and even subjectivity fail, yes ‘I do not see through words’ yet, there is this possibility of the word-object itself mutating, spinning, exhaling, binding a certain legible margin to the nerve/memory/heart site of language, body and the social.

And while Dante would locate this nerve/memory/heart sight in the poet, as a vision the affect of which the poet feels and must struggle to convey to the reader with the help of divine light, Andrews resists locating this affect or its poetic imperatives in the subject-poet. For Dante, the sweetness of the affect remains and will allow him, he hopes, to write a poem about his vision. For Andrews, however, there is the real danger that the lingering affect in Dante (or in any passion) might be ‘strictly a nostalgic thing for me now.’ Here is where the two diverge most critically, it seems to me.

In what remains of Canto 33, Dante speaks of his vision, the vision of the ‘simple light,’ the universal knot that gathers the leaves of the book of the universe together into one single volume; a circling movement that appears as a reflected light depicting the image of humanity. Dante’s wish is to see how that image of humanity conforms to the circling universe and how it has its place in that circling movement. His mortal body is insufficient to see this clearly, but in a flash he feels his affect and his will revolved in that circling ‘by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.’

Andrews, on the other hand, in what remains of Primum Mobile 10, hammers away at any notion of individual affect: ‘anacoluthon me some harmonious totalities,’ he writes; or ‘I shall always want everything, I / got the tongue out of my throat / ... Point neither promise without intoxication / it’s not inevitable, it’s sweet; overall sudden / ‘meta trade off’ is the whole body pure assertive melt / flesh for itself, no ceiling?... kisses / leap without beyond will & nill impossible immersion in / chronic redundant hope; / closure, such vanity ‘ Not much tolerance here for the sentimental quality of Dante’s ‘farewell-soaked farewell.’ Not much patience for the ‘we’re in the happy neutral counter-automata Dreamsdo- / cometrue matriarchal matrix be anything / to annex willing total all is one / end of the world dance luscious by-the-book’ that is Dante’s vision.

Instead, Andrews turns to another form of hope, echoing Dante’s perorations in the last few pages of the book. Dante’s ‘O how scant is speech, and how feeble to my conception!’ becomes Andrews’ ‘Oh let’s have socialism relentlessly gentle / praxis singed undoing most distant / privacy overreacts, parachuting the past.’ Dante’s ‘O Light Eternal, who alone abidest in Thyself ...’ becomes Andrews ‘Oh deign some spinning works its norm / precipitated in a moment / wait for the book enarmed unionizing future.’

There is no doubt here though there is no faith either that at this juncture, here at the turn of the twenty-first century, the future hope is something other than an individualistic ‘whole body pure assertive melt / flesh for itself.’ Is something, I would argue, like a materialist cosmology of the affective social body. Is a kind of justice of the body. There is a way in which, once Andrews strips away what has in the intervening centuries since Dante wrote congealed into a sentimentalized unitary author-subject, one is left precisely with such an affective social body: the physical, vernacular Dante-body-of-language rising through the heavens. This is the stuff of paradise, of poetry and of Andrews’ lip service to the two. It is material. And social. It is a material affect. A materialist cosmology.

Brute Glory

Centre Hall July 27, 2002

In summing up Dante’s achievement in the Paradiso, Charles Williams, in The Figure of Beatrice, remarks in passing on what Dante’s poem does not and cannot express. ‘Much of the true glory of the human form remains to be patterned,’ he writes (215). Precisely what Andrews achieves in Lip Service is this patterning of the true glory of the human form though perhaps not in a way Williams would have imagined. Yet this remains the brillance of Andrews’ poem its implacable display of the human body in all its brute glory.

In its insistence on the materiality of the human figure, Lip Service disconcertingly doubles the Paradiso, setting the reading at edge. For if Dante’s body is most material and yet ever increasingly lifted out of its earthly ties to materiality and into greater purity, and if his paeans to Beatrice become increasingly rarified, the body of both ‘author’ and ‘character’ in Lip Service remains irretrievably bound to the earth, to the street, to its sex and gender, its desires, its clothes and habitus, in all its materiality. This binding to the earth induces a tension in the disjunction between the vision of Dante and the material fact in Andrews:

Personal & epidermal / ... / single plush, I paw into / the affected decking up of naked bunk. / Self-therapy for the butter / murmur garment, this muscled pant of view — / ribbed hilt heart beats like a hammer: / heat balk gated pulse quickened germ / elusive chaste throbs / ... / are beautiful and I am miserable, / shelving piece ball’s between impress / the knees express a crush wanked ever / swizzle’s regret look viscera: / her hands were unheated lofts, promises — / don’t touch a stranger. / And error to torment / ... / Prone bunt semened gag goned grief / spread over-costumed / insult snitch misunderstandings surpass all forbidding: / tow that hymen! loving complaint’ (Venus 2, 110–111)

The striking difference in tone between this poetry and Dante’s complaints of love becomes ridiculous almost, humorous, while the picture Lip Service paints of the brute fact of the body and its relations to other bodies is unnerving, disconcerting violent, even. Yet it is also at the same time unutterably moving. In many ways, we are never far from Dante’s idiom of glory. The poem inhabits Dante’s vision of glory, in its faithfulness to the necessity of the human body, even in hell, even in paradise, so that the gross materiality of the human body with all its cultural and linguistic baggage with its vulgar mother tongue is indeed glorified in a most insistent and peculiarly effective manner.

‘but a societal embodiment’

Centre Hall July 7 & 27, 2002

Andrews or, the recent Andrews is not at all solely interested in destroying or dismantling significatory language, grammatical syntax or the subject, as a reading of the 1991 essay on Lip Service, ‘Paradise & Method,’ makes clear. In fact, in the essay he appeals to notions of the infinite, the (reading) subject, meaning and sense, as well as paradise. ‘The hope,’ he writes: ‘to see how we might recast Reading/Subject/Dialog within different contextual horizons. These stagings & restagings make up a body of meanings. This body, like all bodies, is social’ (236).

In ‘Paradise & Method,’ Andrews opens up questions of power and the production of power and meaning in language, which he calls ‘Discourse,’ after Michel Foucault [Note 4]

Power is the surplus of the sign: what the sign cannot account for in its generic, minimum terms. For instance, that Meaning depends on Discourse. ... discourse can acknowledge power; it can admit, or it can allow us to see, a structuring of its content by power — by unequal power relations. Signification pulses through Discourse; its flows are activating. Yet this more bulked up, socialized version of the ground for meaning will be much harder to challenge. ... It may require the construction of a positively valued vehicle for mediation for it (Discourse) to be open to frontal challenge. (229)

Andrews here elaborates a ‘more bulked up’ notion of the constitution of meaning, a notion that allows for the social flows of power, as well as signification. This stronger notion of language as discursive power means that social or political institutions, including language, cannot be dismantled simply by an oppositional critique, nor by a poetry that is simply oppositional. A negative critique will not have a permanent impact on discursive structures, as Discourse will be able to incorporate the critique within its flows/power.

Instead, Andrews calls for the construction of a ‘positively valued vehicle’ that will be capable of assaulting Discourse and its institutional structures from within, by inhabiting its interstices and flows. This positively valued vehicle could be composed of the very material, social body of language, as Andrews makes clear in a series of disjunctive sentences describing language and its material ability to mobilize power and/through the body in the next paragraph: ‘Materiality as a precondition.’ ‘Graphic immediacies as vehicles of meaning.’ ‘Sign gains fluidity by passing through a disorder of bodies, a field of flux & constantly negotiated positions & relative weightings of hegemonic & counterhegemonic forces, or tintings, or re-invention. The mobilizing of the body by meaning’s insinuation into our horizon. Embodiment is transformation. Words fleshlike within a body of meaning. Moebius’ (229-30).

The task of the poet, then, is to ‘articulate the production of sense’ (235) by mobilizing this body of language. The poet must ask questions about the production of sense and meaning, questions that are attentive to the material and social bodies of language, such that an effective contemporary poetry would become something other than mere disjunction for the sake of disjunction: ‘How to generate meaning if we don’t merely explode the surface? How is sense produced, reproduced, developed, curving, or what trajectory does it have? How is it embodied, mediated, articulated, made sudden?’ (231). These questions and the resultant poetics interrogate the ways in which language is structured by power, in order to challenge those power relations inherent in our languages, our societies and bodies.

I do not get the sense that Andrews is using the term ‘social body’ allegorically or metaphorically. Bodies including language are, by nature, social in their very materiality. Darwin is perhaps the best source for teasing out this notion. Let me refer, only briefly, to one section in the chapter ‘Natural Selection’ in The Origin of Species. Darwin here is discussing the ways in which physical changes in the environment, such as alterations in climate or food supplies, create the necessary conditions for species change by forcing the affected inhabitants to move:

[Take] the case of a country undergoing some physical change, for instance, of climate. The proportional numbers of its inhabitants would almost immediately undergo a change, and some species might become extinct. We may conclude, from what we have seen of the intimate and complex manner in which the inhabitants of each country are bound together, that any change in the numerical proportions of some of the inhabitants, independently of the change of climate itself, would most seriously affect many of the others. If the country were open on its borders, new forms would certainly immigrate, and this would also seriously disturb the relations of some of the former inhabitants. (131)

When he speaks of change affecting the inhabitants here, Darwin is not concerned with effects on individual animals; rather he is stressing the effects that the movements of bodies have on the proportional relations between species, and the subsequent species change that occurs. Species change does not result merely from environmental change, he emphasizes. Species change mass bodily variation occurs as a result of a species’ relations to the migrations and perorations of many other species.

Variation is not the response of an individual organism to physical change or exigency; rather ‘these principles come into play only by bringing organisms into new relations with each other, and in a lesser degree with the surrounding physical conditions’ (Origin 348). Thus organic bodies vary when they move into new relations with each other and with the inorganic environment. It is the propensity of the organic body to vary in relation to other bodies that produces species change. The body is social, literally.

Language, too, is a social body and as such is subject to change and variation. This is Dante’s argument in De vulgari eloquentia. One ingests one’s mother tongue with the breastmilk of one’s nurse. Like all bodies, that tongue is impinged upon by other bodies, and is thus subject to change and variation across geographic space and time. Unlike Latin, which in Dante’s time was already the static language of the Catholic church and state in Italy, the vernacular language for Dante is temporal, of the world. Thus, it is the responsibility of the poet to make use of this propensity of language to vary, in order to create a poetry that is temporal, of the world.

If language is that which crosses or composes the multiple boundaries and interactions between bodies and ideas, then it is not solely in the service of power, but neither can it be wrested free of power. The body of language is intimately bound up with the social body and its social relations. This is what we learn from Andrews (and from Michel Foucault). Yet its very materiality its propensity to vary can be used to open out or fray those social relations that make up power and its inequalities. Language varies at the junction of meaning and matter where its movements allow it to make both linguistic sense and a non-linguistic sensed or embodied sense. This is the junction Freud appeals to when he observes that the word-object in dreams is treated as a concrete thing. This is the point where sense is produced otherwise (im)materially. That sense is social and is directly productive of and produced by both social and political power. It is the juncture that Foucault’s work teases out so insistently where power’s subjection of bodies makes so much ‘sense’ that the subjection itself becomes invisible. To make that immaterial juncture appear materially, as visible is a task for poets. Something like the physical touch in Star Trek: The Next Generation that makes an invisible force field momentarily visible. The poet’s attention and attraction to the invisible production of sense within the body of language can make visible the social production and circulation of power and its impingements upon and through our bodies.

Here, I think, is where Dante and Andrews articulate very similar projects for poetry as a responsibility to make visible in the body of language the material fact of our bodies in the world and their socio-temporal configurations, which in turn makes it possible for us to see and then effect social and political change.

I will close with a final citation from Andrews’ ‘Paradise & Method’: ‘Infinity or paradise leads us to its home, our reference, outside of the confines of any tight system’ (228). Andrews’ willingness to use the word infinity is curious to me, here. I like it. For the social body must dream, and hope, and bear about itself all the intangibility of soul, of an unconscious psyche. This is the affective body of language perhaps a kind of social unconscious or perhaps a justice of the body. Though I don’t know what that might be or where it might lead towards . Some other paradise, perhaps a ‘softer sly occasional paradise: what gentles’ (Jupiter 6) perhaps. Or perhaps ‘Infinity ‘ ‘its home’, ‘not circumscribed & all circumscribbled / words things mate unless otherwise carnal rejoinder / discards melody, brackets electricity eclipse’ (Mars 1).

Rather than the closure of image and truth within the circle that ends the Paradiso in a revolution of Dante’s will and desire ‘like a wheel that is evenly moved, by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars,’ perhaps we will instead find our paradise outside the confines of any closed system, in an open revolution of infinity that nevertheless cannot be disentangled from the body as the ending of Lip Service itself counters and repeats Dante’s vision infinitely: ‘for hope lay still late / let’s start all over stars.’

Works Cited

Andrews, Bruce. Lip Service. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2001.

Andrews, Bruce. ‘Paradise and Method.’ Aerial 9. Washington, D.C.: Aerial/Edge, 1999. 221-240. Reprinted in Andrews, Bruce. Paradise & Method: Poetics and Praxis. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1996.

Baraka, Amiri. ‘Black Art.’ The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader. Ed. William J. Harris. New York, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991. 219-220.

Dante, Alighieri. The Divine Comedy. Trans. Charles S. Singleton. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Dante, Alighieri. De vulgari eloquentia. Ed. and Trans. Steven Botterill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. Ed. J.W. Burrow. London: Penguin Books, 1968.

Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense. Trans. Mark Lester. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Avon Books/Bard, 1998.

Sylvester, David. The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon. 3rd Ed, rpt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1990.

de Spinoza, Benedict. ‘The Ethics.’ A Spinoza Reader. Ed and Trans. Edwin Curley. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994. 85-265.

Williams, Charles. The Figure of Beatrice. London: Faber and Faber, 1943.


[Note 1] Amiri Baraka, ‘Black Art.’

[Note 2] This essay comprises the fifth segment in a book-length project. The earlier essays present more substantial discussions of Spinoza’s ‘Ethics.’ In particular, I argue that Spinoza’s flattening of the orders of ideas and things allows us to consider language as a kind of shuttling movement or energy between bodies worldly, physical bodies and immaterial, dynamic bodies (i.e., souls). Both my reading of Spinoza and of the word ‘sense,’ I might note, rely heavily on Gilles Deleuze’s work, particularly in the first several chapters of The Logic of Sense, where he suggests the possibility of two languages: one language of designation or representation that allows us to measure and determine the world of words and things, and a second language of movement and kinesis that is neither word nor thing. Sense is this second language, which for Deleuze troubles representation and pervades all signification, manifestation and denotation. He locates sense as a fourth dimension underlying denotation, manifestation and signification, and following the Stoics, proposes sense as an incorporeal frontier or boundary passing between things and propositions: ‘For we may not even say that sense exists either in things or in the mind; it has neither physical nor mental existence’ (20). It seems to me that such contemporary attention to the connections or orderings among systems and bodies, rather than to systems and bodies in themselves, would have been impossible to think without Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things. In particular, his historical analyses of systemic changes as they cut across the disciplines of linquistics, economics and biology have allowed me to read Darwin and Saussure, for example, as materially and necessarily related to questions of poetics and the social.  

[Note 3] This is particularly apparent in Purgatorio, as I have discussed at more length elsewhere: ‘Often, these signs of his living body cause confusion among the dead, as in Canto 2: ‘The souls, who had perceived from my breathing that I was yet alive, marveling grew pale’ (2.67-9). Most often, the sign that Dante carries a material body is the fact that it ‘breaks the light,’ casting a shadow, ‘When those in front saw the light broken on the ground at my right side, so that my shadow was from me to the cliff, they halted and drew back somewhat’ (3.88-91). This astonishment and wonder continually focus the reader's attention on Dante's bodily presence in the afterlife. Throughout The Divine Comedy, this weightedness or bodiliness of Dante as narrator in hell, purgatory and in paradise serves as a sign of his temporality. He is just passing through. As many another first person narrator Ishmael in Moby Dick, or the ancient mariner, for instance Dante cannot relate what he sees unless he returns to tell his tale. So from the moment he passes through the portal of the Inferno, the condition of the poem coming to be sung at all is the safe conduct of Dante's living body through the worlds of the afterlife.’ (‘On Light’ at ReadMe (, Ed. Gary Sullivan. No. 3, 2000.)

[Note 4] Foucault is most succinct in defining his use of the word discourse in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: ‘We must conceive discourse as a series of discontinuous segments whose tactical function is neither uniform nor stable. To be more precise, we must not imagine a world of discourse divided between accepted discourse and excluded discourse, or between the dominant discourse and the dominated one; but as a multiplicity of discursive elements that can come into play in various strategies. It is this distribution that we must reconstruct. ... Discourses are not once and for all subservient to power or raised up against it, any more than silences are. We must make allowance for the complex and unstable process whereby discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling-block a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy. Dicourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it.’ (100-101).
      In many ways Lip Service operates as a particularly effective reading of Foucault’s arguments here that power is multiple and networked, that individuals themselves both body and mind are social and subject to the shifting fragmented multiplicity of power, and that effective resistance depends on producing resistant coalescences or transformations in these shifts or swarms: ‘[O]ne is dealing with mobile and transitory points of resistance, producing cleavages in a society that shift about, fracturing unities and effecting regroupings, furrowing across individuals themselves, cutting them up and remolding them, marking off irreducible regions in them, in their bodies and minds. Just as the network of power relations ends by forming a dense web that passes through apparatuses and institutions, without being exactly localized in them, so too the swarm of points of resistance traverses social stratifications and individual unities. And it is doubtless the strategic codification of these points of resistance that makes a revolution possible’ (96). ‘Relations of power-knowledge are not static forms of distribution, they are ‘matrices of transformations’’ (99). See also Part 1, and pages 23, 70.
      I would also like to thank Nick Lawrence for having referred me to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s essay, ‘The Dream-Work Does Not Think,’ which discusses the notion of language and Freud’s chapter on ‘Dream-Work,’ in The Interpretation of Dreams. Although somewhat abbreviated in this particular essay, Lyotard’s discussion of the relations between figure, dream and words in Freud was useful in helping me to think about the human figure and language.

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