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Barbara Cole

Bruce Andrews’s Venus:

Paying Lip Service to Écriture Féminine

This piece is 4,200 words or about ten 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.

There are some men (all too few) who aren’t afraid of femininity.
                  — Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’

Bruce Andrews has been compared to a veritable Who’s Who of the twentieth-century avant-garde, beginning with Joyce and including everyone from Williams, Pound, Eliot, Céline, Bakhtin, and Beckett to Oppen, Burroughs, Barthes, Mac Low, Foucault, Olson, Creeley, Duncan, Ashbery, Jameson, and Susan Howe not to mention Abbie Hoffman, Robert Mapplethorpe, the Sex Pistols, Velvet Underground and The Clash [Note 1], to name just a few. And yet, despite how clear it is to any of us sitting here tonight that Bruce Andrews deservedly rises to such stature as an innovator, nonetheless, the work remains shockingly unrecognized.

I am not the first to notice. Hank Lazer begins his essay on the writing of Andrews by confessing: ‘I am puzzled by the fact that Bruce Andrews’ poetry is not better known’ (Lazer 32). I want to echo the despair of this admission though I find it less of a puzzlement because, after all, it seems clear that Andrews’s work resists the critic’s routine of explication through close reading.

Rather, he is quite well known BUT PEOPLE DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH THAT KNOWLEDGE. (Barrett Watten)

Ben Friedlander writes that Andrews is ‘a revolutionist in poet’s uniform. . . . [using] pop culture the way a torturer uses cigarettes — to calm down, to inflict pain, to create an illusion of boredom, to show that what is most awful and strange is actually simple, easy as the flick of an ash’ (Friedlander 62).

The dilemma seems to come down to how to differentiate between the content — which we find problematic (even if we acknowledge that this is the nature of the project) — from the form — which we find brilliantly innovative. How to approach the work without a reductive separation of form and content? Even more, how do we, as critics, excerpt concise, illuminating quotations to efficiently prove our thesis when the work deliberately defies this desire for a ‘clean’ syntax or a single ‘tidy’ passage which screams: ‘here’s the point?’

And yet, I think there is still another reason why Bruce Andrews’s work has been predominantly overlooked. As reductive as it may sound, it is my contention that this work is not better known because it is written by a man.

In the landmark essay, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (first published in French in 1975 before being revised and translated into English in 1976), Hélène Cixous calls for a writing practice which proves politically subversive, deliberately transgressive and ambitiously complex. The first claim came in the directive to ‘[w]rite your self. Your body must be heard’ (338). This call-to-write-the-body was issued as an unmistakable alternative-call-to-arms:

Write, let no one hold you back, let nothing stop you: not man; not the imbecilic capitalist machinery, in which publishing houses are the crafty, obsequious relayers of imperatives handed down by an economy that works against us and off our backs; and not yourself. Smug-faced readers, managing editors, and big bosses don’t like the true texts of women — female-sexed texts. That kind scares them (Cixous 335).

If écriture féminine is that which scares readers and publishers alike, then Andrews’s poetry seems a prime example. From the beginning, Cixous employed the language of capitalism, of market values and assessed earnings, to speak of the need for a radical new writing which would explode from within.

Because the ‘economy’ of her drives is prodigious, she cannot fail, in seizing the occasion to speak, to transform directly and indirectly all systems of exchange based on masculine thrift. Her libido will produce far more radical effects of political and social change than some might like to think. . . .  (339).

Why, then, is it not simply logical to imagine that Bruce Andrews, who spent the summer of 1968 in Paris, whose ‘earliest poetry’ Craig Dworkin emphasizes ‘significantly — dates from the moment immediately following the Situationist-inspired revolution of May ‘68,’ who, in 1975 when Cixous was birthing ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ was finishing his dissertation comparing ‘French colonialism in Indo-China and American aggression in Vietnam’ (Davies / Derksen 6), why, considering these alignments, wouldn’t we see the connection with Cixous as nothing if not obvious? [Note 2]

In the twenty-five years since Cixous offered her mandate, we seem all too often to have forgotten that this writing of the body was not merely a command to women, not solely about a gender war, but rather was directly connected to the larger sociopolitical and global sphere:

she will bring about a mutation in human relation, in thought, in all praxis. . . . [she] must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes, [she] must submerge, cut through, get beyond the ultimate reserve-discourse (340; 342; emphasis mine).

For ‘she’ here, I read ‘Andrews’ for it is clear that Andrews’s poetics is one which has accepted Cixous’s challenge to ‘write a poetry of the body’ which ‘will make the old single-grooved mother tongue reverberate with more than one language’ (342). What remains unclear is why it has taken so long to recognize this aspect of Andrews’s work.

If we are to step back from the current bastardization of French feminism and its incestuous North American cousin, indeed, any reader or critic truly interested in engaging the notion of écriture féminine would have to admit that Bruce Andrews’s work is one of the most explicit and innovative enactments of Cixous’s call. Indeed, to ignore Lip Service is to ignore feminine writing. To ignore Andrews’s poetics of écriture féminine is to reinforce the marginalization, erasure, and silencing that feminism sought to stop. Despite all of the subtle analyses of the opacity and dissonance which other critics have offered, despite the endless wringing-of-hands over the ‘difficulty’ and ‘offensive’ language in Andrews’s work, I wish to offer the much more cynical hypothesis that actually it is the gender of the writer himself which we find so difficult, so offensive, so impossible to swallow.

What does it mean that perhaps the most challenging example of écriture féminine in contemporary poetry is written by a man? Even more troubling, what does it mean that we find the very idea that feminism might have reached beyond the gals and dames to be so inconceivable? How successfully have we absorbed feminist politics if we continue to seek out a poetics of écriture féminine exclusively in works written by women? Does physiology really count more than praxis?

That’s a little tendentious. Why not say: One challenging example of ec-fem has been written by a man. But so what? Men have always been given the right to appropriate the feminine and feminine strategies. What ARE these strategies as Bruce uses them? (Rachel Blau DuPlessis)

In fairness, I should point out that Cixous herself is partially to blame for this essentialist thinking. In ‘The Laugh of the Medusa,’ Cixous first drew the dividing line by announcing: ‘I write woman: woman must write woman. And man, man’ (335).

But in 2002 we recognize quite easily that this separation is self-defeating. Andrews demonstrates that writing woman is no longer the burden of that outdated creature: the poetess. So, too, Lip Service demonstrates that male writers no longer need to be confined to the masculinist margins as patriarchal party-poopers who female readers (are supposed to) find alienating.

And aren’t we glad? If the situation stayed women-writing-women and men-writing-men, what would have been the effect of feminism as a sociopolitical movement? Could there have been any ‘progress?’ The writers have caught up. The critics? Not so much. Discussing Lip Service, Andrews emphasized that the work he was doing as far back as 1986 specifically engaged ‘intimacy, the body, relationships, gender socialization, sex, & feminist theory’ (‘Paradise & Method’ 251). But one would hope that we — close readers and careful critics that we are — would not require such a direct nudge. After all, the poem itself seems hint enough. With lines like

effigy bimbo-colored state-of-the-tart sandwich meat.

                              Adrienne Rich is quite an omission  —  (99)

— how much more of a hint do we need that Andrews is directly addressing feminism?

It is not surprising that the Venus section of Lip Service proves especially pregnant with provocations grappling with issues of feminine sexuality. ‘Venus 7,’ for example, which corresponds to the ninth canto of Dante’s Paradiso, includes gems such as ‘c’mere let’s squirt and ooze / the mercurochrome of pinch’ or ‘penis dentato puffy when wet worker mouth / cheek bedecked fiend nymphetamines’ (121). It should be noted that one of the great joys (and agonies) of Lip Service is that one can find explosive sound bites like these on every page. The question is how we negotiate them.

Do we conclude that this is Andrews’s voice, positioning these slightly misogynistic jabs, endlessly describing engorged orifices engaged in sexual acts? Are these merely the private fantasies of a lyric, penile ‘I?’ Clearly not. Andrews’s speaker explicitly states:

I am but the loudspeaker
                 of a symptom. (50)

About that loudspeaker: the great cliché of Bruce Andrews Studies is that the writing’s just an enhanced edit of the daily feed, amplifying the distortion and dissonance that continually assault us from the million-plus Clear Channel versions of global-cap’s message of sameness. . . . But Bruce has both political and philosophical commitments beyond that weak version of mimetic citation. What if the line about the loudspeaker is itself a symptom? (Nick Lawrence)

And the symptom — or symptoms — never end, cataloging an incessant list of social ills including abortion and domestic abuse; poverty and homelessness; HIV and homophobia. The polyphonic voices of the poem remind us at every turn that all of these larger issues concern a pervasive discomfort with the body.

Andrews does not merely pay lip service to Cixous’s call to write the body — he takes the directive literally, writing not just about lips and eyes — the cleaned-up pristine body we can appreciate with Ken Starr decorum — but the actualized, physical body complete with anus and hymen, enemas and pap smears, cocks as well as cleavages, real gen-u-wine fluidity including oozing, dribbling, and hemorrhaging. For all of our feminist-inspired theorizing of the body, why, then, do we find Andrews’s writing the literal body — as opposed to some conceptual abstraction — so uncomfortable?

Peter Quartermain writes:

by and large, women in this poem. . . . are, like women in advertisements, unreflective and largely uncritical creatures whose major interests and passions revolve around cosmetics, breast implants, sexual performance and social standing; vain, manipulative, inconstant, they seem by and large to participate more or less willingly in a life which is, by any standards, undesirable and indeed dehumanised — as the poem proceeds, its title comes among other things to suggest joyless oral sex. This paradise is a Hell in which women are more or less willingly complicit in their own damnation.

But I wish to extend Quartermain’s claim to emphasize that it is not only women but also men who are complicit in this hell. Despite other readings of Andrews’s poetics as inviting an autonomous relationship with the reader, it would be an over-polite oversight to ignore the fact that this is no genteel invitation. Marjorie Perloff describes his mode as ‘a searing critique of contemporary dislocation and fragmentation’ in which ‘[w]ords are literally ‘bombs’, thrown at the listener for effect’ (160). In other words, Andrews, as the host and creator of paradise in Lip Service, is not invested in making us feel ‘right at home’ in the poem because it is this fallacy of feeling ‘at ease’ in language which he deliberately disrupts. Andrews makes us aware that we are already painfully comfortable in language — even as we may claim to be outside of its accusatory glare, far away in the safe prisons, er, confines of our offices. We are not supposed to construct hermeneutical interpretations of the poem, are not supposed to seek out the plot-driven narrative, are not supposed to feel comfortable with our knee-jerk ‘recognitions’ of specifically-gendered speakers.

She invented writing
                 auditory abandon could get
imperfectibly, swell overstuffed nightmare moisten
syllable-less peek  —  is it even remotely conceivable
that a woman could have written this?

respond reverse detoothing at cruising altitude
                                    (256; emphasis added).

Here, Andrews forces us to consider the essentialist fallacy of écriture féminine. Cixous’s delineation of feminine writing referred to a mode that would be in counter-distinction to the then-prevailing-patriarchal model with its rigid syntax and normalized style. But, of course, if we read carefully, it is quite clear that the category of feminine writing is not restricted solely to women — especially considering that the specific writers Cixous identifies in ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ are Jean Genet and James Joyce. Cixous’s emphasis on a fluid writing-of-the-body which would upend convention and allow for sexuality envisioned an attention to language previously silenced. Foolishly, we have reduced this notion to the most simplistic privileging of the writer before the work. Instead of changing how we write and how we read, we must admit that our application of écriture féminine has merely changed who we read and who we write about.

Fortunately, however, there is Mr. Bruce Andrews — écriture féminine practitioner extraordinaire, doing what so many of his female contemporaries have not dared to do: daring to break syntactic convention; daring to write without, in Cixous’s words, ‘that scission, that division made by the common man between the logic of oral speech and the logic of the text. . . . From which proceeds the niggardly lip service which engages only the tiniest part of the body, plus the mask’ (338-9). How appropriate that Andrews embraces this same notion of ‘lip service’ as the title of his Dantean epic — an ironic homage to the oral beginnings of poetry and a simultaneous rejection of the notion of paying lip service, of using language as an artificial tool of social manipulation and control. Andrews echoes Cixous’s rejection of paying lip service to the body and dares to truly compose a poetics of écriture féminine.

First, how to hook up the eruptions of gender you cite with the total form and logic of the poem (a larger framework starts to come into focus around the notion of ‘lip service’, but is that merely an associational hit or a fully thematized reading?) (Barrett Watten)

What we can’t digest in Andrews’s poetry is what the speakers themselves have trouble swallowing. These voices — or perhaps more aptly, these lip syncers — repeat what every hole has already absorbed.

But what transforms these lip synced sound bites beyond mere ventriloquy is the genius of Lip Service’s fluid vibrations and stop-cut undulations. The sexuality — in content and form — is undeniable at every step of the way but, certainly, this is a cerebral sexuality. Indeed, Andrews gives new meaning to the notion of ‘giving head.’

In the quarter century since Cixous first unfurled her French Feminist femifesto, écriture féminine has seemingly seeped into the different corners of writing. From Audre Lorde and bell hooks to Oprah’s book club. . . . But before I get swept away in a facile french-fluid-fest, Virginia Slims-style ‘you’ve-come-a-long-way-baby’ self-congratulatory romanticizing of feminism’s successes, it is no doubt wise to pay careful attention to feminism’s failures: that is, the regressive insistence that women writers must write fluidly, femininely, feministly, and that male writers must remain relegated to the bad-boy tsk-tsk territory of patriarchy, penises, and power.

‘Hélène Cixous has obviously changed the critical landscape, but more by the passion of her advocacy and her individual judgments than the logic of her arguments. For if her theories can be applied to men as well as women, well, then, why call such a theorist a ‘feminist’? . . . Why not just most radical, most daring? — and yes, the body really matters, but men have bodies too, so why is this ‘feminist’? Maybe Bruce is just more radical, more uncompromising, more intransigent than most poets. And difficult! People have a hard time with that. Increasingly, what is wanted is Lang-poetry-lite.’ (Marjorie Perloff)

The speaker of Lip Service warns against becoming too complacent:

We have not come a long way & we are not babies (168)

The logic seems to be that, because we’ve had our fill of white heterosexual males in the canon for too long; there is room for no more. So pack it up boys! We’ve had enough of you! If a man acknowledged this, he’d be tarred and feathered. This has been the failure of feminism thus far: the regressive expectation that women critics should write on women writers and male critics on primarily male writers (with 1 or 2 ladies thrown in the mix as a nod to political correctness and professionalized pressures). I emphasize thus far because it is my hope that the poetics of writers such as Bruce Andrews and long poems such as Lip Service might demonstrate the blind-sighted omissions and self-defeating essentialism of looking only to poems written for-women-by-women as indicative of feminist politics. Andrews’s work — going back almost as far as Cixous’s first publications — demonstrates profoundly — even more profoundly than many of his woman-writer peers (especially within the community known as ‘Language Poets’) one of the basic tenets of French feminism: that this subversive, avant-garde writing praxis works specifically to disrupt, disturb, and displace reductive simplifications of women=x and men=y.

Perhaps the most provocative aspect of Cixous’s essay is her re-imagining the mythological figure of Medusa, the demon notoriously capable of killing those who looked at her. Cixous ponders:

Wouldn’t the worst be, isn’t the worst, in truth, that women aren’t castrated, that they have only to stop listening to the Sirens. . . . You only have to look at the medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing (Cixous 342).

Ironically, it seems to me that this image proves particularly relevant in considering Lip Service — a text which, in truth, is not problematic but which points out that which is problematic in our own tokenized lip service to feminist thinking. In the Venus section in particular, there are repeated allusions to cliché Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus-type assumptions: ‘M use intimacy to get sex, W use sex to get intimacy’ (128) but it becomes obvious, as one speaker points out, that ‘when all disorders are taken into account, M and W / are about equally troubled’ (129). The lesson of écriture féminine was to recognize a difference between masculine writing — that which upholds and adheres to strict conventions of syntactic regularity and linear narrative in order to preserve patriarchal power — and feminine writing — which revels in fluid discontinuities and alternative modes. The point was not to erect binaries or hierarchies but to appreciate difference, to focus on multiplicities and in-betweens. We have, for the most part, sadly missed this point, reading texts with predetermined expectations based on the sexual identity of the writer.

Andrews’s poetics is indeed still phallic if we think in terms of a head like a battering ram, butting up against oppositional walls and spewing forth an oozing deluge of language; however, at the same time, this poetics is equally vaginal in its multiplicities, its folds of language, its fluid movements. But this notion of delineating clear categories of ‘vaginal’ and ‘phallic’, ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’, is precisely what Andrews works to blur. In one of the last sections of Lip Service, the speaker poses the question:

the women’s language seems to have
prevailed — true or false? (362)

To think in such simplistic terms is of course laughable. This is one of the brilliant aspects of the poem. In productively problematizing the sociopolitically-charged categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ subjectivities as well as conventional lyric tropes such as ‘he’ and ‘she’ poetic speakers, Andrews forces readers and, perhaps more controversially, forces critics to consider in what ways we have sufficiently absorbed French feminist theorizings of écriture féminine. To begin assigning literal meanings to ‘he’ and ‘she’ voices, to read in terms of ‘his’ and ‘hers’ is to be made the fool. And, in this case, the laughing medusa is Mr. Bruce Andrews.

Works Cited

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

Cixous, Hélène. ‘The Laugh of the Medusa.’ Trans. Keith Cohen & Paula Cohen. Warhol, Robyn R. and Diane Price Herndl, eds. Feminisms: an anthology of literary theory and criticism. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1996. 334-49.

Darragh, Tina. ‘Confession and the Work of Bruce Andrews.’ In Aerial 9. 102.

Davies, Kevin and Jeff Derksen. ‘Bruce Andrews Interview: May 1990, Vancouver.’ In Aerial 9. 5-17.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. ‘Surface Tension: Thinking About Andrews.’ In Aerial 9. 49-61.

Dworkin, Craig. ‘Bruce Andrews’ (encyclopedia entry). Fitzray Dearborn’s Encyclopedia of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century 2001; Eric Haralson, editor.

Friedlander, Benjamin. ‘‘Social Romanticism’.’ In Aerial 9. 62.

Lazer, Hank. ‘‘To Make Equality less Drab’: The Writing of Bruce Andrews.’ In Aerial 9. 32-48.

Perloff, Marjorie. ‘A Syntax of Contrariety.’ In Aerial 9. 156-60.

Quartermain, Peter. ‘Paradise as Praxis: A preliminary Note on Bruce Andrews’s Lip Service.’

Rasula, Jed. ‘Andrews Extremities Bruce.’ In Aerial 9. 23-27.

Sala, Jerome. ‘Talking About Shut Up.’ In Aerial 9. 28-31.

Smith, Rod, ed. ‘introduction.’ Aerial 9. Washington D. C.: Edge Books, 1999. v.

Tejada, Roberto. ‘The Clash. Funkadelic. Bruce Andrews: Introduction.’ Weds@4 Poetry Reading Series. Buffalo, NY. November 28, 2001.


[Note 1] These lists have been culled from a variety of critical essays and reviews. The following list attributes the alignment with the source: Andrews’s work has been compared to that of Beckett (Smith) and Joyce (Smith), Mac Low (Smith), Burroughs (Smith), Debord (Smith), Bakhtin (Rasula), Jameson (Sala), Mapplethorpe (Sala), Celine (Sala), the Sex Pistols (Sala) Foucault (Lazer), Ashbery, Eliot, Pound (Lazer), Williams (DuPlessis), Wagner (DuPlessis), Susan Howe (DuPlessis), Oppen (DuPlessis), Creeley (DuPlessis), Barthes (Hejinian), Klee (Hejinian), Bartok (Hejinian), and The Clash (Tejada).

[Note 2] As it turns out, I’m not the first to begin to make this connection. Rachel Blau DuPlessis noted that Andrews’s essay, ‘Text and Context,’ (which originally appeared in 1977) ‘seems to call for a feminine writing strategy influenced by, or in tandem with, work by French and francophone (e.g. Quebecoise) feminism’ (DuPlessis 55). But still, neither DuPlessis nor any one else has sufficiently explored the feminist aspect of Andrews’s project.
      Tina Darragh gestures towards this predicament in her mini-confessional anecdote about first hearing Andrews read in 1972 at her Catholic girls school (a scenario in itself that is rather fun to imagine). Darragh relates that the other women ‘had a far different reaction to Andrews’ work,’ finding it autocratic whereas she found it freeing. Nearing her conclusion, Darragh notes that ‘[i]t continues to bother me that I feel a kinship with work that my friends identified as oppressive’ (102) but rather than exploring the gender-inflected reasons for this dismissal, Darragh moves on. ‘At the time it seemed like a gender issue, but now both women and men critique ‘unreadable texts’ as unintelligible abstractions that silence dissent and promotes the status quo’ (Darragh 102). On the one hand, I appreciate Darragh’s attempt to complexify the critical reception of ‘difficult’ texts; however, I wish we could pause more extensively than a mere 1 or 2 sentences on the gender question.

This paper was originally written for the MLA 2002 Conference held in New York City as part of a panel devoted to Andrews’s work entitled ‘Bruce Andrews and the Social Politics of the Avant-Garde.’ With no irony, the author wishes to emphasize that this piece was composed with the oral performance at this particular context foremost in her thinking. Subsequent responses to the paper  — informal and formal — have been included here with permission of the individual respondents. The author wishes to extend sincerest thanks to each one for meticulous critique and careful response.

. . . . The thesis — that Bruce’s version of écriture féminine gets no play because of his gender — is addressed to an academic audience with a view to getting BA wider acceptance there. So your observation that the work remains ‘shockingly unrecognized’ limits itself to the terms of academic recognition, and is basically grounded in a reading of what you see as the regressive identity politics of the academy. — Nick Lawrence

‘Addressing’ yes, or at least addressing a feminist poet — and what is he saying to feminism or about it. . . . Addressing might also mean yelling at, criticizing, being in the face of. —  Rachel Blau DuPlessis

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