A Syntax of Contrariety

(on Bruce Andrews)

Marjorie Perloff

published in Aerial 9 (1997): 234-38

In the journal he was keeping in the early 1970s, when he was still a graduate student at Harvard,  Bruce Andrews was already drawing up those word lists that have since become a signature and that would soon become full-fledged “poems.”   Here’s one:[1]

























It’s the sort of list detractors of Language poetry have loved to make fun of: the catalogue of unrelated items strung together for no reason except the poet’s whim.  Anyone could (and does!) do it, right?

Andrews’s admirers usually counter by citing his pronouncements in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book and elsewhere.  For example, “Referentiality is diminished by organizing the language around other features or axes, around features which make present to us words’ lack of transparency, their physicality, their refusal to be motivated along schematic lines by frames exterior to themselves.” [2] Or again,  “Language is disseminated through the text, that ‘methodological field,’ climaxing in play, not achored by but in fact shattering the demands of our seemingly-liberating-but-actually-repressive genres of expression.  Beyond the rule-governed transpositions is the self-differentiation of language, away from the universalized, commodity-like qualities so often trumpeted.” [3]

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E theory on this order is by now familiar material; indeed it has perhaps been excessively codified.   Meanwhile the texts themselves remain elusive, especially when they’re as difficult as Bruce Andrews’s.  And since we can see his poetic mode crystallizing in the notebook poems, now twenty years old, collected in Divestiture and Executive Summary, I want to take a close look at the early “listings.”

To begin then: consider the visual layout of the word list cited above.   Since each word gets a line of its own, we have the skeleton of 8 + 6 lines, the perfect form (octave + sestet) of the Petrarchan sonnet.   Then a third unit, this time a septet (rhyme royal?) followed by a three-word (or three-line) “envoy.”  The allusion, it seems, is to Italian late medieval and renaissance lyric–a poetry which we know as the  quintessence, of “high” lyric form. Italian also plays a role in the inclusion of the words  “pero” (“however” in Italian) and “avveva” (the third-person singular past tense of the verb for “begin”), as well as in the operatic references to the “treble” discourse of high romance plot.   For example: “In this night of exotic (“islam”) longing,  I kiss the hem of my beloved’s dress and drop anemones into her lap, begging her to be mine but to no avail.  My heart skips a beat; there is a gulf between us; as reveille sounds, the violent mobs are at the gate (the exit),   My parafin candle flickers, the cicadas chirp, I coax her to come to me, but she has been pushed to the brink and falls into a deep coma.”

Even “pelvis” could be worked into the story, motivated as it is by what George Oppen called in Discrete Series “love / at the pelvis.”  That takes care of all the words listed except for  “gyp” and “pow”–words that relate to a different kind of violence–namely that of war.  “Pow” is not only onomatopoeic for the sound of gunshot but the acronym for “prisoner of war.”   And this note, coupled with the slang of “gyp” (“What a gyp!” or “I’ve been gypped!”) provides a different context for “reveille” (the morning call), “mobs,” “avail,” and “violent.”.  The “gulf” may be the Tonkin Gulf,  and it may be the “brinksmanship (“brink”) of the early 70s that brought us to this mental “coma.”  From “coax” to “coma”:  it is just one letter, after all, that has to be changed and the “a” has to be moved slightly.

“The purpose of popular culture,” says William Gass in a sentence Andrews quotes on the page of Divestitute-E preceding this list, “is to keep people from understanding what is really happening to them.”  Andrews’s skeleton sonnet cum septet cum envoy illustrates this point obliquely and elegantly.  Our vocabulary, this catalogue implies, is not adequate to what happens around us.  Stuck in obsolete operatic arias, our discourse can’t cope with the realities of war.  With the onset of that final “coma,” the whole structure collapses.  Note in this connection that sound linkage  also breaks down.  “Beg” /”gyp”, for example, is united by “g”; “gyp”/ “pow” by “p,” and so on.   But that final open vowel of “coma” leads nowhere, except possible to the missing “a” of the poem’s first word–”ahem.”

A few pages further along, Andrews quotes Carl Andre: “Well, in poems I’ve attempted to treat words as equivalent and independent elements as much as possible.  That’s impossible within language; I know, but I’ve tried to create non-grammatical sequences of words, believing with Whorf that the crypto-structures of language carry as much of the message as the semantics.”   Here is a key to Andrews’s own methodology, his own construction of crypto-structures that can be read variably, the reader having to do an unusual amount of work in constructing the text.   Too much work, some readers, notably Bob Perelman, have objected.  “If language is made up of units,” writes Perelman, “broken apart as all things are by capitalism, and if nothing new is created beyond the horizon of the phrase or the sentence, then these new, charged units would still depend on capital for energy to band together in momentary transgression.”   And again, “when every word launches an attack, such attacks tend to reify their target as least as much as they explode it.” [4]

One can counter this charge by pointing out that despite Andrews’s consistent commitment to the theory that “Author dies, writing begins” (“Code Words,” LB 54),        his catalogues are in fact highly personal.  On the page preceding “hem / pero / avveva,” there is a list that reads “sallipesh / morked / had / his / lampix/ bliffles / when/ baslurker / the/ the/ ciptally / plomy / and / up / felmed / coofed / the.”  The Andrews signature manifests itself in the curious alternation of coinages like morked, felmed, coofed –coinages that sound like Anglo-Saxon word particles with harsh consonantal endings–with linguistic hybrids like the French + Anglo-Saxon baslurker, suffixes in search of root morphemes, as in ciptally, and absolutely ordinary prepositions and articles–in this case three instances of the along with and, up, and when.  Compared to Andrews’s language, Perelman’s own is much more “normal” and “everyday,” as is Ron Silliman’s.   And whereas Charles Bernstein, to take another example, draws heavily on professional discourses (medical, legal, journalise), on colloquial speech, and citation, Andrews operates in the stark, stripped landscape that stretches from Bladerunner  to Pinter’s Mountain Language– a landscape in which words regularly appear as wounds–lacerated objects.

In the poetry of the early eighties–for example in Wobbling– the word lists of the notebooks  give way to more complex phrase catalogues that carry on this highly individualized, “nativist” language of laceration.  Here is the title poem:

Leaping Documents Afraid

Anything Else Knots Are Shadow

Buoy Only Nor Berserk On Water Won’t Loosen

Your Learning Bombs To Watermarks Sudden City

Molding Lit Only Against Compass Split Is Bigger

Doubt Curves Politic Tourist

Each Dents White By Clock Debt Can Surprise

The Gown Page Without Loss Almost Between And In Is Light

Hoax Empties Me Caked Open Ample Picture Privately

Cone The Words

Moth a Guest Measuring Have Knob Word

Was I Waxed But Wants Outlined It Hold

Is Demanding With Curb Disappearing Looping

Such Spiked Pulls Awry Linen Memory To Be Beams

Marbling Each Alphabet Difficult Waken To

Vents Taught Hushed Time Uncorrected In Dunce Outvote

Everything Taller Jolts For It’s Invented Trust Expose

Hexes Will Stay

Thicken Is Disabled Still

Reciting How Nylon A Grid Does Each Not

A Sorting Have Survived

Fuselage The Witness Perfume    (Wobbling [New York: Roof Books, 1981], p. 85)

It reads (and especially sounds) at first like some form of aphasia–an ability to place words in “meaningful” sentences.  Adjectives fail to modify the nouns they’re attached to, verbs are not only not transitive but seem quite unrelated to the nouns they follow.  The vocabulary seems to relate to urban life–”Documents,” ”City,” “Bombs,” “Dents,” “Tourist,” “Curb,” “Grid”–but even this context is not certain since the references to “knots,” “shadow,” “Buoy,” “Water,” “Compass,” “Curves,” and so on could just as well point to an isolated locale upstate as to New York.  In either case,  the twenty-two lines of what might be called mini-headlines seem to refer to something that happens to an unknown woman–murder? rape?  suicide?– there being a complex of words like “Leaping,” “afraid,” “Berserk,”  “Sudden,” “Split,” “Privately,” “Curves,” “Gown,” “Linen,” “Nylon,” and “Perfume,” that point to a possible “Tourist” to whom something terrible has been done.  The poem also refers to a potential “Witness,” to “Trust,” “Expose,” and something “Uncorrected.”

But this is only one plot possibility and readers can no doubt supply others.  What, then, makes “Wobbling” more than a random set of words and phrases?  Here the sound structure provides a key.  For the dominant feature of this poem–a highly unusual one for poetry–is its almost total absence of word repetition even as sound repetition is foregrounded.  Except for filler words like “Only,” “Each,” “Is,” and “The,” each of the poem’s words make a single appearance.  Take those “Documents” of line 1 or the “Shadow” of line 2.  They never reappear but are replaced by “Watermarks” and “Dents,”  a “Clock” and a “Compass.”  Each phrase, each line is thus characterized by its radical difference, its separation, so to speak,  from all other words.  Indeed, the only one among the poem’s nouns that appears more than once is, not coincidentally, Word(s) which is used twice.

At the same time, sound rounds up the not-usual suspects and provides them with an odd group identity.  Alliteration, assonance, and consonance are powerfully present.  Take the catalogue of w’s in “Water,” “Wont,” “Watermarks,” “White,” “Without,” “Words,” “Was,” “Waxed,”Wants,”With,”Waken,” “Will,” “Witness.”  Or the short i’s in the single line “Thicken Is Disabled Still.”   Or the d endings of “Afraid,” “Sudden,” “Caked,” “Word,” “Waxed,” “Outlined,” “Hold,” “Demanding,” “Uncorrected,” “Disabled,” “Grid,” “Survived.”   And further:  we have here, as in the list from Divestiture cited above, the consonance of harsh monosyllabic guttural words-”debt,” “dent,” “doubt,” “knot,” Waxed,” “Jolts,” “Grid,” “Hoax,” “Hold,” and so on.

So what does this all add up to?  “Wobbling,” I would argue, is a searing critique of contemporary dislocation and fragmentation, of the ways information (or rather disinformation) is disseminated in our culture.  Words are literally “bombs,” thrown at the listener for effect; their sounds connect, proferring the possibility for some sort of coherent meaning, but no sooner are semantic units adumbrated than deferral takes place.  This is the “Wobbling,” of the title, the desperate search for the “Witness” (the poet himself?) to make sense of the “sorting” that has “survived.”    In its oblique, uncompromising, and passionate way,  this quintessential Andrews poem forces us to come to terms with a very particular form of dislocation– the fear and frustration produced by those “word wounds” we receive every day.   I know of no other poet writing right now who can duplicate this very palpable (and in fact, very personal, as in “it’s happening to me”) sense of pain.


Bruce Andrews, Divestitute—E (Buffalo, Leave Books, 1993), unpaginated.  Subsequently cited in the text as DIVE.

Bruce Andrews, “Text and Context” (1977), rpt. in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), p. 33.  This book is subsequently cited in the text as LB.

Bruce Andrews, “Code Words,” LB 55.

Bob Perelman, “Building a More Powerful Vocabulary: Bruce Andrews and the World (Trade Center),” unpublished ms. forthcoming in Princeton book??, pp. 15, 6.