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Bob Perelman

This Just In: Past Haunts Lip Service

This piece is 4,300 words or about ten printed pages long.

Now that the World Trade Center Towers have been knocked down, the first paragraph of my chapter on Bruce Andrews in The Marginalization of Poetry reads with the unintentional irony that only history working in the broadest daylight can produce. I wrote:

Not many days after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the New York Times ran an article discussing the structure of the building and the possibilities of its being brought down by a larger and more thoughtfully placed explosion. It turns out not to be easy: apparently, each tower is built to withstand the impact of a fully loaded jet liner taking off. In addition to the strength of the structure, attackers would have to confront its complexity: there are twenty-one load-bearing pillars and they could not be reached simultaneously by the force of an explosion. In being destroyed, a particular section would in fact shield other areas by absorbing the impact. The timing and placement of the article is interesting in itself: it was a rapid-response anodyne to the spiral of geopolitical urban trauma while at the same time, under the cover of a discussion of engineering, it invited its readers to participate in transgressive calculations of how the Trade Center towers might actually be brought down. (90)

Andrews’s then-new book, I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism), marked a dramatic intensification of the in-your-face strand of his work. It was powerful and provocative, but his attempt to unite the poetic and the political, supported in his contemporaneous essays, demonstrated what felt to me like a crucial impasse. Trying to present this with something of the book’s intensity, I began with a reverse dramatization — as if Andrews’s call for the complete politicization of poetics was imaginary, analogous (on a smaller scale and in a different social dimension) to imagining the World Trade Center destroyed. Not that six real people didn’t die in the ’93 bombing, but at the time the project of knocking down the towers seemed imaginary.

Shut Up is crammed with inflammatory use of geopolitics, news and group names — ‘attack phrases’ as I termed them, with the attack not seeming on the surface to come from any specific political direction: ‘Vietnam — land of the enema maintenance fig’ (244); ‘Kill Jeanne Kirkpatrick, shave the beard off our rabbis are often finite space pushovers’ (248); or, to cite some sentences I discussed in my chapter, ‘Sharon Tate is not worth the math’ (308); ‘Africans would just be Caucasians in heat’ (223); ‘sink the boat people!’ (102); ‘Where’s a battered woman — I want to beat her up?’ (193). In the Marginalization chapter I argued, to put it briefly, that such subversive violence ultimately had to rest in an aesthetic frame. For these not simply to be violent slurs, they must be detourned slurs. But such detournement of all social categories differs from Judith Butler’s notion of specific subversive redeployment of oppressive labels. Writing ‘sink the boat people!’ doesn’t work toward the liberation of fleeing refugees, except in an extremely mediated sense of using pedagogic irony to attack capitalism. Shut Up collages many such moments; in fact, ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’ isn’t a bad description of the book. In saying this, I am not rejecting the writing but am dissenting from Andrews’s poetic analysis: Shut Up’s politics, I wrote, ‘were either literary or improbable’ (108). ‘Literary’ is not an insult.

How different Andrews’s new book, Lip Service, is from its predecessor is a complicated question. Its use of Dante’s Paradiso as a template is a major difference, with structural ramifications that have some effect on the local texture of the writing. But then again, that local texture is tenacious, and excerpts from both books will resemble one another. In overall look the books are quite similar as well: Shut Up is a dense, discontinuous but homogenous poem of over three hundred pages divided into one hundred similar sections; Lip Service is a dense, discontinuous but homogenous poem of almost four hundred pages divided into one hundred similar sections. Wherever the reading eye glances there is energetic syntactic displacement, subversion, shock, Althusserian analysis crumbled amid tossed street and media talk; nowhere is there any sense of even minimal continuity:

My roots, no thanks. Are we ready for surgery yet? Habit is
the great leveller; theory poops
the suburbs — drive-in tabloid mothers & Muscle Gram
spit forensic . . . Intercepted? Panties supreme with me jack-
boot that barbecues the Trekkies. Walk, fast, think
slow . . . cement fits. (Shut Up, 187)

Labial mental hairdresser underground
pubic assistance bisect attention, hands
and backs floating posed
slow skid invite all limb-like close as pages in a book  —
false lick feint soft! fast!  —
winking vinegar florid ever
dream clocks in at butter; ensign pariah physical slush
swine mutters, time out for tears  —
those babyfood lips
leave me with impugnity  —
there you go, bleeding again. (Lip Service, 233)

At a glance, Lip Service seems no closer to the Paradiso than Shut Up. But a more extensive look will reveal differences that can be connected with Andrews’s use of Dante, though how meaningful that use is remains a question.

A major difference only becomes apparent on a large scale: Lip Service contains almost no attack-phrases. But it does contain material that reads as erotic address from an implied I to an implied you; and there is nothing like this in Shut Up. Another large-scale distinction lies in the way the books are organized. In Shut Up the first line or phrase of each section services as a title, so that the reader encounters the writing’s aggressive twists immediately: ‘Oh, Glaze Me Big!’; ‘Revolution Means Stability’; ‘Who Has The Pliers To Doubt It.’ The sections are ordered alphabetically by the first word of the title, but otherwise there is no forward motion from beginning to end. But the section titles in Lip Service are orderly and archaic, counting to ten for each of the ten Ptolemaic spheres: ‘Earth 1,’ Earth 2.’ on through ‘Primum Mobile 9,’ ‘Primum Mobile 10.’ Despite Andrews’s often expressed distaste for narrative, the sequence Earth, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Fixed Stars, Primum Mobile recapitulates the narrative of Dante’s journey in the Paradiso as he travels from the top of Mount Purgatory up through the heavens toward God. This suggests some kind of narrative in Lip Service, but if it’s there it’s attenuated and dispersed, more a matter of statistics than anything else. If 10% of the poem suggests narrative, can the poem as a whole be called narrative? What about 1%, or 1/10%?

It seems counterintuitive for Andrews to use any armature and using Dante’s work seems an especially odd choice. But Andrews has followed the Paradiso assiduously, he tells us, providing great detail about his coordinating procedures in his talk ‘Paradise and Method: A Transcript.’ He first sorted years of his accumulated writing according to various outlines organized around schemes such as A) Epistemology, B) Existential Action, C) Explanation, etc. He matched this with Dante, based on ‘the thematics of the outlines & on resonances’ between his writing and ‘topics or imagery in Dante.’ Andrews claims a more specific relation when he says, ‘Using the shifts & stanza structure of Dante’s cantos . . . I then figured out where the breaks between [my] poems would come.’ E.g., ‘Fixed Stars 1’ ‘equals’ (it’s Andrews’s verb) Dante’s Canto 24, lines 1-51. Andrews’s ‘punctuation and paragraphing [is based] strictly on Dante’s punctuation and tercet structure’ (253).

This is a stronger claim on Dante than Pound’s attentive homage, which only went so far as to use heaven and hell as categories and to call each section a Canto; it didn’t dictate any specific writing choice. But to account for the sequence of Dante’s lines, even the sequence of the punctuation is to make another text initial and integral to what one is writing. In this respect at least, Lip Service is more like the Zukofskys’ Catullus or a Mac Low or Cage writing-through project, where no word of the original can be ignored.

But I confess I’m dubious about the results of Andrews’s matching procedures. If the openings of ‘Fixed Stars 1’ and Canto 24 are compared, there’s little connection — though the first words match. Andrews’s original writing on note cards pre-existed the sorting-out, so it would be an unthinkably remote coincidence for his roughly 100,000 words to be sortable into a pattern that matched the Paradiso in any significant way. Some of the vocabulary in the following excerpt — ‘Grand scene,’ ‘twinkling,’ ‘stars,’ ‘eternity’ — could be claimed as heavenly. But this is at such a general level that a connection could be made to any passage in the Paradiso. Are the following passages equivalent?

‘O fellowship that has been chosen for
the Blessed Lamb’s great supper, where He feeds
you so as always to fulfill your need,
since by the grace of God, this man receives
foretaste of something fallen from your table
before death has assigned his time its limit,
direct your mind to his immense desire,
quench him somewhat: you who forever drink
from that Source which his thought and longing seek.’
So Beatrice; and these delighted souls
formed companies of spheres around fixed poles,
flaming as they revolved, as comets glow.

Oh these more cheekbone grand scene
a preunion interestingly crowned uncondition-
ally submit without the fleur-de-lis twinkling caliber signs,
sheer tongue nixes
boast self-tinting
fuse binder stars hello
is not eternity equally unvarnished sugarplum
teeming magenta version inverts itself,
rose alloy milk gotcha devoting
it into sensation lure capsizes turquoisoid sheen impersonating
tinsel cajoled remission prize
for covertancy — wax was woozy
pensive Biddin’ On A Beauty
antennae for all types prescribe. (296)

According to ‘Paradise and Method’ ‘Fixed Stars 1,’ a roughly 160-line poem, is equivalent to lines 1-54 of Canto 24, and thus the ratio is about 3:1. So, though I’ve quoted the opening at greater length, the Andrews excerpt ‘equals’ only the first 5 or 6 lines of the Dante. But what it really equals is Andrews.

In a sense, it’s a commodifying gesture to say the writing of Lip Service seems like Andrews but the attempted coordination with Dante does not. Both the writing and the plan are his work. Can’t writers change? And doesn’t the project of using another, quite other, text as an armature suggest that questions of authorial provenance don’t matter? But the differences between the two poets are profound; poetically, politically, and ethically, they are antithetical. Andrews writes that Lip Service organizes poetic materials on ‘love, erotic intimacy, gender socialization & the body’ and that it ‘reverberates with the romance and utopia-saturated materials of Dante’s Paradiso’; but the Paradiso most emphatically dismisses ‘erotic intimacy, gender socialization & the body.’ An antihierarchical poetics and politics are central to Andrews’s project; Dante is committed to a hierarchical poetics and cosmology of a rigor that makes a 20th-century would-be hierarch like Ezra Pound look like Harpo Marx. No socialization underlies the genders of Dante and Beatrice.

If a large-scale antique template were needed, wouldn’t, say, Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura make for less strain? Lucretius was a materialist; his atomism was a passionately held doctrine to combat superstitious phobias: death needn’t be feared; the gods aren’t concerned with human matters; our lives are our own. Doesn’t this seem closer to Andrews’s liberatory poetics than Dante? ‘In His will is our peace’ (Canto III, 85) is one way to sum up Dante’s ethical imperative. This line was one of Matthew Arnold’s touchstones of poetry: i.e., it was a transhistorical criterion. Andrews is a sworn enemy of transhistorical criteria of poetic quality, and of the capital H in ‘His will, and of the quietism of ‘our peace.’ When Andrews writes of ‘the violent false front of totality — all its monuments and rituals and gift wrappings and intricate methodologies of control designed to secure bodies and serve the logic of inequality and domination and accumulation and technocratic thinking that protects its hierarchies of worth and reward’ (PM, 217), isn’t that an apt description of Dante, whose terza rima and Aquinian categories of sin and virtue are ‘intricate methodologies of control’ and whose Heaven rewards ‘hierarchies of worth’?

If Dante had to supply the template, wouldn’t the Purgatorio have been a better fit? In any version of the Marxist narrative, the dynamics of history are rather Dantescan: the past is a hell of unredeemed oppression, the present involves the struggle to overcome that oppression; and the full flowering of social equality lies ahead in some future beyond the comprehension of our contemporary terms. Couldn’t the political effect of Andrews’s steady assault on social and poetic decorum be thought of as purgation? In so far as the following lines make syntactic, referential sense aren’t they purgatorial? ‘hooked on Other damage / cannot do without red blood. / Intimate enough clandestine chafe chides / never labors / pearl-handled stiletto / in back, between the fourth & fifth ribs / spilled face into disjointed’; ‘with that fly in your cup so let fuck now strain at courtesy’ (‘Venus 5,’ 117). Dante’s Paradise is above such things, but his Purgatory still presents unsanctioned human behavior:

No sooner is their friendly greeting done
than each shade tries to outcry the rest
even before he starts to move ahead,

the new group shouting: ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’;
the other: ‘That the bull may hurry toward
her lust, Pasiphaï hides in the cow.’ (Purgatory 26, 37-42)

Not that such things are validated in the Purgatorio, of course: these are the shouts of groups of redeemed souls purging themselves of lust; the hetero- and homosexuals are moving in opposite directions; this is not a celebration of a polymorphous sexual continuum. But even though the content is recontained by the narrative, the Purgatorio resembles Andrews’s world in one basic way: both are arenas of struggle to achieve a better state.

But perhaps love and erotic intimacy are already paradisal. My impression is that towards the latter part of Lip Service moments of utopian sexuality and general elevation are increasingly frequent. The overall texture of a whole section, or even a whole page, wouldn’t continue this tone, however. It’s only a suggestion, 1/10% so to speak.

And adrenal slap, you’re back: profuse liquid waist
sensation, my partisans of other
gift joy self’s hoping parasite worth under crack
abandoned me to my betterment —
ambrosial kisses — perhaps against the night I want
the knees to start perspiring guiltless contact      (‘Fixed Stars 7,’ 322)

I find these lines to be, for the most part,  almost tender, suggesting a night of ecstatic sex, fully desired and guiltless — at least they can be construed that way: ‘adrenal slap, you’re back’ indicating the speaker’s adrenalin rush when the addressee appears; ‘profuse liquid waist / sensation’ describing sex; the final three lines almost straightforward in their erotic declaration. A few more examples:

Oh Say grace warrants Promise — a certain brand of abandon
germinate sensations of independence call a heart a heart
flush with closer swans expire,
Privilege finite eternalizing ardor enabling (‘Primum Mobile 9,’ 375)

Oh let’s have socialism relentlessly gentle
praxis singed undoing most distant
privacy overreacts, parachuting the past (‘Primum Mobile 10,’ 379)

& out of sight, out of mind — lap me in fold apotheosis
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
site binds: I do not see through words
sight as dream gratefully certain. (‘Primum Mobile 10,’ 377)

But with a poem as quick, fractured, continuous and extended as this, generalizing from excerpts is a shaky business. Reading from the same book, Peter Quartermain’s conclusions are very different: ‘If Lip Service is, like Dante’s Paradiso, a portrayal of the Beloved then that portrayal of the Beloved is pretty horrific. . . . The explicit sexual language, the events referred to (“I took a shit in the bed”) are horrible’ (2). The excerpt I characterized as ‘almost tender’ could be construed oppositely: ‘slap’ could be hitting one’s partner; ‘profuse liquid’ blood or piss; ‘parasite’ and ‘crack / abandoned me’ don’t have nice connotations; and ‘ambrosial kisses’ could be read as bitterly ironic — in fact, how could Andrews write such a phrase unironically?

This bumps into the passé notion of authorial intention. The innovative consensus has been in place for decades: Privileging the author’s intention makes for monologic reading and make the reader a servant or at best a detective; better that the writer and reader co-produce meaning, using words that are sites of active history to construct polysemous writing. This second approach is clearly valid for Andrews’s writing, especially at the word and phrase level. Isn’t it pointless to ascribe an intended, singular meaning to the line in the center of the ‘almost tender’ excerpt? ‘gift joy self’s hoping parasite worth under crack’ can be construed many ways — and it also resists any construal, breaking into individual words. Doesn’t the polysemy of this line suggest that the passage as a whole is polysemous, at once horrific and tenderly ecstatic and whatever else?

But making polysemy the definitive horizon of reading makes for a peculiar link between poetry and the world. It grants the writing project as a whole a locatable politics, while any single moment of writing is beyond specific statement. Any potential friction between the whole and a local phrase or passage is eliminated. It’s a convenient idealism.

The terms of the contestation over the last few decades have been lines drawn in the sand: conservative/innovative, retrograde/progressive. In his criticism Andrews draws these lines as sharply as anyone, targeting reference, transparency, normative syntax, and narrative as facets of a single object of attack. Conversely, a good description of the qualities he wants in writing occurs in ‘Paradise  and Method’:

an associative, or drifting, lacework of thematic argument; polyphonies of utterance, shapes of talk, of streams of consciousness & preconsciousness; a drastic constructivism of syntax: with twists & turns, normative tilts & detonations, with interruptions as grammar; fluidities & tiny magnetizings of word-to-word relations, attractions, pushes & pulls; with acoustic echoes & lyricisms as bridgework over its dissimilarities or as contrasts & highlighting juxtaposition. (253-4)

But this high-lyric methodology glides above the historical particularities of the words, phrasing, and tone of his writing. In his essays, Andrews often refers to Brecht’s V-effect as one precursor of the refusal of communicative transparency that he is aiming for. However, intended effects are dependent on contexts of reception, and the passage of time plays havoc with contexts of reception. Pound’s phrase sounds nice, but no work will always be news that stays news.  Or if it continues to be news, the news won’t be the same. The phrase encodes a great conservatism: Each generation finds something new in Virgil, etc. Many of the terms of the above description — lacework, polyphonies, streams, fluidities — could have been used to describe Georgian poets, Whistler’s Nocturnes, or Pollock’s mature work.

Andrews’s great commitment to the here and now makes him continually quote from the present, as a way of insisting on the transformative social nature of his writing.

it’s time to mutate always
is always erotic web-spinning sonar
a present-tense exhalation is within
marginal legible above nerve memory
site binds: I do not see through words

But history gives and reclaims relevance. The semi-sweet truth of writing is that, once written, it doesn’t mutate, happily keeping up with the times. To write is to place letters and other marks in fixed sequences, but what’s around those sequences changes: the impact of the style, the world to which the words are referential, semireferential or nonreferential. Since Andrews wrote these lines (more or less in 1990/1, he tells us in ‘Paradise and Method’), the level of syntactic disruption in Lip Service has become normative in a number of innovative scenes. And the battle against transparent language, in my opinion at least, has become less urgent, given the muddy polysemy or non-ysemy of the U.S. fundamentalist junta.

When it’s taken in isolation, I find it hard to read ‘I do not see through words’ as anything other than Andrews didactically underscoring his commitment to an anti-transparent materiality of language. But when it’s connected with the following line something else happens: ‘I do not see through words / sight as dream gratefully certain.’ This can be construed more or less like this: I insist on simply reading the words, not peering through, behind or beneath them. What I see when I do this is a sight as certain as a dream, for which I’m grateful.

This seems a little too normative and obvious to be a reading of Andrews’s writing, but the words of those two lines keep seeming to point that way. The case is similar to the ‘ambrosial kisses’ problem. Perhaps Andrews has used the Paradiso as an entry to areas of romance and suggestiveness that, according to his poetics, should be off-limits:

The night’s body embosses favor ultra to reravish
adhesive felicity, positive, simultaneous
polkadots & moonbeams leave alive,
radical moisture luxus, plea eclipsed, walk on air & more
infinitely narcotic nerve shine insured. (368)

I’m in doubt as to how far to push this notion. These romantic passages are, to my reading at least, salient but they’re not representative. The tentativeness of this conclusion matches the tentativeness of how I read the title. On the web these days, Lip Service often means blow job. But Andrews is not writing pornography. The older slang meaning of the phrase is a hollow sarcastic obedience. But it would be incredibly cumbersome to try to read the book as Andrews merely paying Lip Service to Dante, i.e., writing a satire. The increasingly frequent ‘paradisal’ bits in the latter pages suggest a tenuous, more innocent third reading: that the poem is a service, a kind of liturgy, produced via speech rhythms. There are various erotic suggestions here as well: the writing is using lips, servicing lips.

The suggestiveness that I’m reading here undoes a strict adherence to the anti-transparent, material text. Instead, it links to the most old-fashioned poetic tropes, where the poem acts like a door, a camera obscura, a magic carpet — very unfashionable tropes.

In the opening canto of the Paradiso Dante tells his readers to look beyond the words:

O godly force, if you so lend yourself
to me, that I might show the shadow of
the blessed realm inscribed within my mind,
then you would see me underneath the tree
you love; there I shall take as crown the leaves
of which my theme and you shall make me worthy. [22-27]

Shakespeare does this at the beginning of Henry V:

Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.

All the messenger speeches in Greek tragedies work like this. The murders, suicides, and apotheoses are never presented on the stage, they’re always encoded in the descriptions.
In his headnote to ‘Paradise & Method: A Transcript,’ Andrews writes that he’s working ‘toward an Other or an Outside which is both a “not us” and a “not yet”’ (251). For Andrews, this Outside may be a redeemed future; I feel that it’s been a feature of poetry for quite some time.


Andrews’s use of Dante suggested the following procedure, where I used a well-known ‘paradisal’ passage from Pound as my template. Rather than loosely following resonances, I tried to copy the movement of the lines and phrase rhythms closely while detourning the sad obnoxiousness of Pound’s ridiculous certainties. (I omitted two lines by accident.)

Le Paradis n’est pas artificiel

but is jagged,
For a flash,
for an hour,
Then agony,
then an hour,
then agony,
Hilary stumbles, but the Divine Mind is abundant
and that the lice turned from the manifest;
overlooking the detail
and their filth now observes mere dynamic;
That the Pontifex ceased to be holy
B that was in Caesar’s time B
who was buggar’d
and the coin ceased to be holy,
and, of course,
they worshiped the emperor. [640]

My Pound Decoder Ring

Le Poetry n’isn’t an art facial,
but jag steps,
words on,
then sucks,
Agèd jokes, but the Reading Horizon is agile
not what you thought
over the top
so that: the meter readers turned to their manuals,
connecting the detachments
and their institutionalization now dishes up more panorama;
so that: the present ceased to be legible
B that was in the Stein Era B
who had sex
and new sense stopped making sense,
and, of course,
they re-ordered the anthologies.

Works Cited

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

— . Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1996.

— .I Don’t Have Any Paper, So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism). Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1992.

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Perelman, Bob. The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1993.

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

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