Bruce Andrews’s Venus:
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.
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?’
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]
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.
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.
effigy bimbo-colored state-of-the-tart sandwich meat.
— how much more of a hint do we need that Andrews is directly addressing feminism?
I am but the loudspeaker
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?
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
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.
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.’
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.
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.
the women’s language seems to have
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.
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).
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.
Jacket 22 — May 2003
This material is copyright © Barbara Cole
and Jacket magazine 2003