Bruce Andrews: 'Debauching the Sine Wave'

“tipped / lobes”

Corona was the first book by Bruce Andrews that I read, circa 1976. I was drawn to it for its strict, if oblique, economies, but also because its exclusions reveal as much as its manifest content. I suppose my primary “rubric” for poetry is that it not assume a place for itself, but rather that it construct such a place in fidelity to the contingent logic that requires it to be as it is and not otherwise. For better and worse, as they say.

No less intriguing, however, was the sense that Andrews was building — that is, batching and sorting “mouth signatures” via “all kinds / of robbery” — a scalable vocabulary for the work to come, albeit I had no idea of how capacious that scale would soon become. Was the magisterial mayhem of The Millennium Project already present in nuces in the “tipped / lobes” of Corona?In hindsight, apparently so.

We can now adduce from its opening poem the method — “peel off” and “dislodge” — the métier — “inner vortex” — and the politics — “passport venom” — that have informed and enlivened his work ever since. Despite their precocity, then — a feature we know to distrust — the radical formalism of these early poems was, and remains, compelling.

“nitric burr”

Earlier still, as I soon discovered, Edge had declared the topographic feature that Andrews’s work continues to map, hone, bash, blunt, blur, blend, parse, nick, tease, test, limn, vex, query, fuse, fondle, fray, erase, and realign. And though edges may define a spectrum of entities that ranges from the edges of the known universe to the famously edgy behavior of quantum particles — it is to the intractably human, anxiously social, fractiously discursive, and multiphonically audible portions of that spectrum that his work directs our attention. And does so with wicked abandon.

Wicked? Yes. As in “wicked good.” As in “fierce” and “mischievous.” As in “reckless.” And — for those whose shibboleths it skewers — as in “morally offensive” as well. Poor dears, as if any poem, including Andrews’s lexical tsunamis, were obliged to pander to, much less be policed by, consensus-driven catechists of whatever dispensation. Yet, they too are among the company of readers that his work ineluctably addresses, more and less directly. So, “If thy ears offend thee, get the wax out.” Or, as Mr. T might have said, had the “A” of “The A-Team” stood for Althusser: “Interpellate this, fool.”

Hoodoo the polis in divers voices

You will forgive the musty allusion to Eliot, but the undead are a nuisance — wrapped as they are in their verities and pieties, and for whose neoliberal spawn “the Reverend Eliot” will serve as well as any other empty signifier. Happily, Andrews’s work provides the requisite prophylaxis: a lifetime supply of goofer dust — part powdered rock of ages, part stone-ground memes — which can be had for a veritable song and, as a matter of praxis, if not of fact, will induce “the paroxysm of the one recurring every day.”

Apropos such paroxysms, in deploded view, Andrews’s work presents a palimpsest or thick depiction of “the American idiom” (now plural) in the raw — while its obverse or exploded view reveals a disarticulated, randomly distributed, noisomely fulminant body-politic. But, not to worry. This, too, shall “compose itself” and be reanimated in a kaleidoscopic montage of speaking and writing subjects, purposively unmoored from the subjectivities their idioms instantiate. Their own mothers wouldn’t recognize them, and in that sense never did. The outcome of all this hoodoo, then, is a cagey “mutilation for whose benefit” any resemblance to actuality is no coincidence at all.

“antique faith”

–ak (the root of “edge”) denotes something “sharp” or “pointed” in proto-Indo-European. From which all manner of metaphors spring, to include “the cutting edge” so dear to marketing directors, as well as such temperaments as we call “edgy” and the “sharp tongues” we associate with them. As Washington Irving once observed, “A sharp tongue is the only edge tool that grows keener with constant use.” So it isn’t Andrews’s acknowledged place at the “cutting edge” of culture that concerns me here. Rather, it’s his commitment to the “ragged edge” of compositional practice, which, as we know, is always already a social as well as an aesthetic site — a contested site — of production brought forth in dissensus, where risk has consequences that far exceed the whimsies of cultural capital.

What I’m getting at is compassion — his in specific — though that’s not a concept one often (ever?) hears in discussions of his work. But I fear I must insist. It’s easy enough to be pissed off at the endlessly proliferating depredations of, and acquiescence that enables, globalized capitalism. But to simultaneously sustain that anger and transform it into art — especially art that makes by no means easy psycho-affective demands on its readers — requires a visceral belief that our current social arrangements could (and should) be radically otherwise. Given that Andrews’s work expresses its compassion for the suffering wrought by social injustice in relentlessly confrontational ways, its singular (signature) admixture of political anger and poetic jouissance is honestly and thoughtfully come by — as is its (allegedly) utopian casting of its lot with the premise that the materiality of language matters (a fundamental premise of Language writing).

Of course “the ragged edge” can be more technically rendered as “the theoretical limit of traction.” On analogy with a racing line, when a poetic line (broadly understood) exceeds 10/10ths of its limit — which is the only way it can discover that limit — the possible outcomes are few: you can back off, spin out, crash, or gain an edge. And every writer knows these outcomes from experience. But, since it’s the last of these that warrants taking the risk, the salient question becomes over what or whom does one seek an edge? And that, or so I think that Andrews’s work argues, is a political question no less than a poetic one. And, as I think it also argues, a question of jouissance.

Direct address

Dear Bruce: 2,800 road miles and a half-tank of gas say I won’t be attending the symposium on Friday, much as I’d like to be there. Instead, come the appointed hour — Happy Happy Hour, as Keats might say — I’ll raise a glass in your honor. After all, in former times, symposia were drinking parties (and I wish that they still were).

Grateful as I am for the work you’ve done, and the trove of plausibilities (“this is called catharsis”) that it masterfully unearths, it seems rather silly to thank you for having done what you were damn well going to do regardless. So I’ll thank you instead for the pleasure I anticipate from the work, yet to be done, you will have done. Meanwhile, keep on steppin’ and remember: Por el tango, el abrazo es más importante que al paso.

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Editorial note: This essay was written for a symposium on Bruce Andrews that took place in New York on December 7, 2012. Page two of the event website published five poems that Andrews read at the event, four of which were previously unpublished. There is currently a wealth of information on both the symposium and Andrews at this Fordham University website. We are grateful to Jeff Hansen and Ted Pearson for making Pearson’s piece available to the readers of Jacket2.