Pieces of Bruce

'Bruce Boone Dismembered'

Dancing maenad on ancient greek pottery, Python the painter, c. 330–320 BCE. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Bruce Boone Dismembered: Poems, Stories, and Essays

Bruce Boone Dismembered: Poems, Stories, and Essays

Bruce Boone, ed. Rob Halpern

Nightboat Books 2020, 424 pages, $24.95 ISBN 978-1937658588

I wouldn’t want anyone’s heart to stop beating except that for the first time this might unite us — Bruce Boone[1]

Why call a collected Dismembered? Boone says the title points to Acéphale, “headless,” Georges Bataille’s name for his secret society in the thirties that braced for the coming dark with mysterious rites of sympathetic magic. Buddha’s there too, in the meditator’s state of acéphalité: “no more head, no more personality, no more selfness.”[2]

Boone’s translated Bataille and meditated with Issan Dorsey, then Philip Whalen at the Hartford Street Zen Center near his home in San Francisco, so both frames fit. But I hear too in Dismembered the shrieks and gongs of the Maenads, tearing their god-king apart in a frenzy that lifts them above the numbing confines of ordinary life. A collection like this, stitched together from fifty years of poems, essays, fiction, and reviews, is bound to have a mortuary air, embalming the writer’s life and times for future readers to consume or inter on library shelves. If he’s got to go, Boone wants to give us a spectacle on the way out, a good old-fashioned Greek sparagmos to yoke us in the cultic bond of readership, Bruce our headless Orpheus, “the host to be eaten” so the social body might live.[3]

Now that he’s submitted to being collected, “do the parts make up the partners?” (158). And what do they bring to the party? Either “Party Haha” or card-carrying “Party Profession” — two sides of “the group idea of writers (writers as a collectivity)” that’s one of Boone’s home concerns (277). The search for new partners, new forms of collective life for writers to meld with, lends Dismembered the flow and feel of a novel, taking us from Boone’s hippie self (“I was unable / to be myself, and I became you” [6]) to late-life bereavement (“the dismantling of the Jamie-Bruce love machine, part by part” [388]). 

Along the way, the ongoing drama of identity — of writing as a way to assemble, dissemble, dismember a self through group bonds — pulls Boone’s varied interests into a cohesive body of work. “My perverse parts,” he writes, “are my partners, they are plural” (169). And where there’s a plural, there’s a politics. So “Party Haha” and “Party Profession” end up being partners. “I’m thinking of Mirage as party,” he says of Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy’s famed poetry zine, “because I think it’s quite possible that’s the only way there is of being what’s called a writer now … in Late Capitalism” (277).

But group life’s not always a party, as any writer can tell you. It gives and it takes, and it bleeds at the edges that exclude and define. Boone’s remarkable mid-eighties run of essays on Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, and Jack Spicer explore the thrill and sacrifice involved in communal address. “The idea of gay writers getting together and forming a band of some kind is exciting,” says Boone, and in the poetics of the Berkeley Renaissance, “the group’s sense of itself is key” (310). Being a poet meant that “you belong to a caste, have a genealogy or lineage”: Kantorowicz or Brunetto Latini, Lorca or Stein or H.D. (Spicer’s opening line to Duncan: “What do you know about the Albigensians?”). It meant a respect for writing as rite, a force that “has something to do with words actually causing things” (313). The regard for poems as charms or spells had a communal side too, since “magic assumes an ability to speak for something larger. If you’re part of a community, these verbal patterns will help defeat enemies, you trust” (314).

So: a gay band linked by a shared sense of lineage; by the modernist inheritance; by the libidinal bonds of an ‘outlaw’ sexuality; by an enchantment with scholarly learning free from “all the misappropriations of the university”; and by a feeling for poems as magical rites, so that “the basis of this community is in the Other World” (310). The parts all in place for a literary coterie (312). But once the band got together, how far could its boundaries extend? And does it still have room for us? Boone works out his own peculiar literary politics — rooted in the intimate but scaled to the cosmic — by teasing out the complex affective geometries of his predecessors in the Berkeley Renaissance.

As “the most pro-community” of the bunch, says Boone, Robert Duncan rejected “a particular ‘small-group’ way of acting” on the grounds that “you have to maintain a measure of respect — a real one — for the social whole” (300). Since he expected the poet to “share in the creation of a human community good — the recognition of fellow-manhood,” it’s easy to see how Duncan could feel that “being part of a small group is part of the problem, not a solution” (317). His lifelong quest for a voice that could speak from “the hearth stone, the lamp light,” not “the crevice in the ground … breathing fumes of what is deadly to know” (300) drew Duncan toward “a program of inclusiveness that hopes to be exhaustive” until finally, in his mystically charged phrase, “in the composite of all members we see no duality but the variety of the one” (330). Duncan’s gnostic insight — that partners are parts of the One — echoes across Dismembered, even where Boone opts for the oracle’s fumes.

Boone puts Spicer in the same group as Duncan, but on a darker frequency. More “crevice in the ground” than hearth stone or lamp light — more Dionysius than Apollo — he’s not indifferent to the pull of community. He tells a friend about his letters: “I measure their success by how well I can succeed in being deeply personal and deeply public at the same time. Like my poems” (297). Boone reads Spicer’s use of “awkward or plastic … religious junk” — Martians and Oz, ghosts and grails, baseball diamonds and Billy the Kid — as a means to make the personal “deeply public.” He saw that “if there was going to be a collective activity, a transpersonal kind, it would only take place in what was at hand” (284). (Spicer himself puts it more grumpily in the Vancouver Lectures: “You are stuck with language, you are stuck with words, you are stuck with the things you know.”[4]) What Boone learns from Spicer is that the poet finds his way to a common language — a connection with something like Duncan’s ‘social whole’ — “by using popular symbols, at the level of Catholicism or Oz, for quite sophisticated work” (284).

But Spicer’s own vision of party and polis — of collective social life — is an unreachable ideal at a polar remove from Duncan’s earthy hearth stone (301). Just as he believed that “a really perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary”[5] — ideally, no words at all — Spicer pictured collective life as the negative “after-image” of a city, with its ghost inhabitants and derelict slums, in contrast to the “fullness” of a site like Olson’s Gloucester, so carefully rooted in geography and time.[6] For Spicer, Nothingness becomes the “beloved other” that turns presences to ghosts, the present to a future conceived “as no, as apparently, as as if” (293). It’s a Utopia — a no-place — whose purity lies in its negativity. “A childishness,” Boone calls it, “that wants to be against” (283).

Through spite, says Boone, Spicer kept faith with his ghosts, who’d otherwise fly off to circle as signs or commodities or bloodless abstractions (“To combat an abstract level of existence, they need you — the body” [294]). He thwarts the attenuation language suffers as it loops, repeats, and gets exchanged with a canceling aggression that “releases the texts from over-universalism” (282). In Spicer’s poetry, Boone finds:

A response — solicited — is then made impossible. Is the current commodity nature of writing recognized here, its necessity? An impulse to go beyond this is factored in, in spite of everything. …This poetry is against you (a non-mystical thought expressed mystically) because it’s first of all for you (286).

So even at his most negative, Spicer has a ‘you’ in mind: “the ghosts of community, or community of ghosts.” He doesn’t reject a utopia like Olson’s Gloucester — that “fullness” of place when grasped in its mythic and temporal dimensions — but “deepens it,” Boone tells us, “gives it a future” by recognizing “that the key to this idea of a city lies in its after-image” (293). It’s Gloucester as seen from the oracle’s fissure, Duncan’s “crevice in the ground … breathing fumes of what is deadly to know.” But the oracle’s vision of the future can only register on the present as a subtraction, an “after-image” of what the living think they know. A negative.

Elsewhere in Dismembered Boone calls this negative brand of wisdom “the Dark,” the backweave of the Enlightenment’s universal, all-seeing utopia that got us into our collective bind and is now at the end of its rope (301). Anything that blocks words’ incessant circulation —“really a transmission of information, not a real communication” — helps free the polis from its self-imposed delusion: world like words, lucid, rational, frictionless. Writing can release us when it addresses us, like the oracles did, as future ghosts: “You write poetry,” says Spicer, For dead persons” (295).

Boone’s own politics in Dismembered follow the same threads of language, negativity, and utopia he finds in the Berkeley Renaissance. In a magnificent 1985 interview with Charles Bernstein, around the time of the Spicer essays, he makes the case for “a dynamic of negativity that’s erotic” (189). Like his Language poet peers, he wants an oppositional writing, one that can critique the “colonization” of “emotion and subjectivity and sexuality and religion” under “commodity capitalism” (187). But Boone’s with Spicer in thinking that “the languages that are around today to work with are all we have, and you can only speak in your own language after all” (192). If you don’t, communication falters — you break the link with collective life. Or with life itself: “One can’t turn one’s back on society and live. The perils being obvious — Dionysius” (319). For Boone, the trick is to talk in our compromised, dirt-common, commodified language while you “cancel” the message at the same time. Tease, then interrupt (“A response — solicited — is then made impossible.”). And “there has to be an erotic dimension” to that “because we’ll have to make the people like what’s happening” (189). No community, no communication. He explains it for Bernstein like this: 

The communication is the axis of eros which is reaching out and touching somebody and making contact and asserting continuity underneath difference. The other side is the aggression and negativity and that’s the side that recognizes that in spite of your best efforts in fact you are taking place in a commodity medium (198).

For people to want a writing like that, enough to let it keep doing its work, the writer-reader coupling needs to be consensual: “there is or has to be a love underneath.” But it’s “a kind of spider dance of love” for Boone — a giving and a taking, an exchange with a sting (190). Like the sexy smack of “doubleness” that confronts you in an Acker or a Baudelaire, with their sulfurous “sense of eros and aggression taking place at the same time.” To oppose the status quo yet still manage to communicate, to reach a community, “you always have to be doing both those things at once” (200).

Boone’s call for a writing that can love you and leave you, that speaks in a vernacular it cancels, is “a bit of a paradox” (185). To help us grasp it, he borrows an image familiar from his work on Spicer: “What I would like my art to be and anyone’s art, in some way, is a communication with the dead” (184). Not the zombie dead, capital’s pet image for the collective [7], or the “immortal dead” of literary forebears. Boone’s dead are on one level our necessarily compromised, commodified selves, lapping up literary products like Dismembered. That’s one way to “make sense of how you can say I want to communicate and yet the people I’m communicating with are dead” (185). 

But Boone’s dead are also dismembered, headless, acéphale — free from the noonday glare of reason and ripe for the utopian potential of the Dark. Why else would a writer want to reach them (“there is or has to be a love underneath”)? Boone’s canceling is a way of balancing. Too much light and you “over-universalize”— the Duncan problem. Too dark and the circuit goes dead, Spicer’s poem of “no words at all.” Communication with the dead, says Boone, means that one checks the other: “The ‘dead’ part contains the negativity and the ‘communication’ part contains the eros” (197). Light meets Dark. 

Think of H.D.’s luminous wreckage in Trilogy, where London’s ruins tear open a door to revelations. “The brightness of it,” Boone says of her writing, “proportionately excludes any clarity — the intensity and imprecision going together” (353, italics mine). Or look at “the way the dirty and the ecstatic coincide” in Beverly Dahlen’s Egyptian Poems, where the vatic’s knack for seeing “beyond the present and the here and now into something more human that awaits us” (357) stays grounded in a world of plastic bags and public buses, the “whole inventory of smaller darknesses” apparent in the “urban desolation” of the Mission District (355). Dahlen sees, and sees through: the oracle’s double vision. A negative overlay of what’s here with what could be. “Yes, this world is truly a place of desolation,” Boone writes. “But to the vatic soul, like Bev’s, this opens on another that, while other, coincides with it. It is not separate” (356). Sex, writing, politics, the vatic — they ‘are not separate’ in Dismembered. Each mirrors and refracts the others, all of them orbiting the big Boone question: “Can I-am-not-you be a relation, not just a separation?” (225).

Boone’s urge to see “how the Other becomes the self” — how separation can also be a relation — takes its wildest, most visionary form in his 1997 talk on “The Queen Beats,” previously unpublished and “lovingly edited” with Rob Halpern for this collection (318). In it Bob Kaufman, Valerie Solanas, Jack Spicer, and John Weiners serve Boone as “dark stars” lighting the way to a “spiritual-negative-future writing” whose failures stay “faithful to the coming non-existence of the world” (348). It’s a vatic revelation — an oracular after-image of the future — in which losing, cancellation, and a redeeming negativity overcome the “I-am-not-you” that keeps us from seeing that “everything is linked.” 

The Gnostics, Boone reminds us, thought the seven starry planets were “openings” — punctures in the spheres to let in “probability waves” of originary Light. Their analogues in language are the seven Greek vowels, rounding the mouth with “oooohs” and “aaahs” that mimic the body’s seven orifices. Holes are also gates, and the transmissions that pass through them “rhyme from smaller … to constantly expanding bigger sounds” (345). Willing to be zeroes instead of Number One — to be narrated, acéphale, canceled — Boone’s “spiritual losers” find a power in their resonating emptiness. Receiving the gnostic harmonies, they transmit the “luminescent darkness” of a “shining negativity.” Their light reaches us, like a “comet of the future,” through the force of their abjection, “violently penetrating new holes in the shells of stars surrounding us” (347).

Boone’s rhyming gnostic holes are like Spicer’s Oz or Dahlen’s Egypt, glittering elsewheres that sit in the trash of right here. They’re the impossibly heavy, impastoed void of Jay Defeo’s “The Rose” and the urinal at the Hole in the Wall in San Francisco. They’re the “O” the mouth makes in fellatio and the shiv wounds Solanis imagined making in men’s chests. They’re the bottom’s asshole and the masochist’s gaping whine — “reduced to a vowel, an opening” (348). “The capacity to do poetry,” Boone tells us in an earlier essay, “has something intrinsic to do with receptivity as a stance or attitude toward the world” (327). In “The Queen Beats” Boone embraces a cosmic receptivity beyond the capacity of any language to contain it. “There are no more words,” he writes, “such as you used to know but only yowls now. The yowls are all vowels — that is passages” (348). The poem, like the poet, is canceled in order to transmit. Broken apart, they illuminate. Their glamour is the light they leave for us. 

That’s why the collected has to be Dismembered. Orpheus knew it, singing his heart out while the Maenads tore away. So does Bruce. “Writing should be sacrifice,” he tells us, and the poet-god’s role is to oblige (167). It’s a Boone-like loss though, hiding a win: “Meaning breaks down. Out of that comes a connection” (333). The Dark is there to show us the way to Utopia, that “place of crossover” (211) we only enter by crossing ourselves —“a place where the thing or event and its cancelled and linked self pass each other going in different directions” (303). It’s the no-place Boone’s been writing us toward for over fifty years. The parts now together, gathered in Dismembered, their afterlife depends on their coming apart. Like Nosferatu’s coffin being shipped down the Rhine in Murnau’s silent: “Won’t the pieces of that same Dracula be propagated to the entire world?” asks Bruce. “I shiver with delighted anticipation” (313).

1. Bruce Boone, Bruce Boone Dismembered, ed. Rob Halpern (New York: Nightboat Books, 2020), 262.

2. Evan Kennedy, “Bruce Boone,” BOMB,  no. 151, April 6, 2020.

3. Kennedy, “Bruce Boone.”

4. Jack Spicer, “Excerpt from the Vancouver Lectures,” in The Poetics of the New American Poetry, ed. Donald Allen (New York: Grove Press, 1973), 229.

5. “Jack Spicer to Federico García Lorca,” in The Poetics of the New American Poetry, 228.

6. “Poets in / America with nothing to believe in except maybe the ships / in Glouchester Harbor or the snow fall.” Jack Spicer, “Ten Poems for Downbeat,” in The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1989), 263.

7. “How can I — the Berkeley Renaissance writers could have thought — say I’m part of you, the same as you, and still claim a knowledge that the zombie doesn’t have?” (297).