How to Read the Hand Writing: Andrew Levy’s Later Lines
One expects curves in Andrew Levy’s poetry. After all, this has been one of the more common tropes in his work over the past decade. Two of his recent works, in fact, feature the very word in their respective titles: Curve (1994) and Continuous/Discontinuous – Curve 2 (1997). Despite the term’s more familiar associations with notions of smoothness, adaptability and fluidity, Levy throws the reader few gentle cambers in his work, offering instead a highly combative approach to language. Movement through these works is hardly fluid, but rather, erratic, the flow of both logic and form, disjointed and outwardly incomplete. Yet still, the notion of a curve as a type of movement ¾ in particular, a sudden increase in pace or velocity ¾ describes well Levy’s use of language, not just in these two books, but much of his work in general.
Constant variation and notions of change pervade Levy’s poetics; especially in relation to the way he structures his language and forms of speech. Like many experimental and politically revisionary writers of the last twenty-five years, Levy employs a dialectical methodology, counter-posing contrasting views of writing as both a mode of representation and means for organizing knowledge. Hence, few of Levy’s lines sport the usual staples of narrative structure that stem, as they do, from a more consistent correlation between objects of meaning and their depiction. Instead, his work shifts radically between numerous references and positionings: with every new sentence, a new departure point, with every description, a variation in epistemology. No single perspective seems to outweigh or offset any one other for the simple reason that few of the points being made can be said to stem from the same set of evaluative assumptions. Behold the curve of language, that element in all writing that lies outside of use ¾ i.e., language’s more autonomous, self-directed qualities.
No doubt, Levy’s dialectics reminds readers of some very central issues in modern philosophies of knowledge and epistemological relativity ¾ not to mention, avant-garde writing. In fact, his appreciation of language’s autonomy in some ways emphasizes the essential distance in his writings from his own personal experiences and perspectives as well as those of his readers ¾ a view that is well supported by his experiments in form. The distance Levy accentuates between the practice of writing, that is, one’s actual use of language, and its resulting forms shines clear in the many ruptures and general lack of linear thinking his poems evoke. To read Curve is to catch language bending ¾ usually away from the writer’s control.
Yet, amazingly, Levy is more than present in his work, and this is the broad strength of the poet’s critical appreciation of language’s limits as a structure ¾ in other words, of language’s curves. Uninterested in defining anything remotely resembling an essential self or position within his writing, Levy literally transforms each body of work, no matter how fragmented, into a type of working body. Reading Levy effectively locates a very concrete sense of the self, however incomplete it may appear within the text, as something essential both outside and entwined within the discourse. To write otherwise, would effectively sacrifice the material and ethical qualities of the work in development to the linguistic and epistemological constraints of the medium in which it is being developed. Hence, the importance of incompletion. What Levy reminds readers is how poetry can use language to suggest, not just what is, but what isn’t, in other words, that which remains exclusive or peripheral to language — the many relations, engagements what may not be rhetorically present, or even syntactically complete, yet still part of the poem.
His latest work, Paper Head Last Lyrics (Roof, 2000), follows well this view of language as a set of concrete limits, margins that are as tangible or physical as they are cultural. Hence, the breakages and interruptions featured in this new collection, the erratic shifts we encounter in Levy’s lines and syntax suggest again the author’s own material context, his work, in other words, as a physical act, his medium as practice. In this way, Levy usefully dramatizes the complex interactions, struggles and conflicts between the individual self and the structures of language. The poem is not just written in this context; it is practiced. “They are said to be in the book,” Levy begins the title poem, “but there is no book” (9). Indeed, for Levy, the book, as a single, unique object does not exist. Neither are “they” defined solely by the text. The writing may refer to “them,” just as it does a variety of different lived moments and experiences, collecting them together in a single volume. But Levy, himself, does not set out to produce an exclusive, finished work so much as an assemblage of references, notes — individual bodies at work, juxtaposing four separate pieces together into a powerful, if indistinct, collage. The generic form of a book as object holds these pieces in concert, but this form fails to capture them. Even the title defies enclosure. We read instead the possible elements of Levy’s practice in no particular order: some “paper,” his “head,” the “last lyrics” he has published. The line floats in between a variety of different contexts, some suggested by imagistic fragments, others through half-completed declarative statements.
A mirror flying across the sky
Shattered his point-of –sale
Make a new life
Paper head last lyrics (32)
The fragments fail to capture anything significant in either voice or view point, save for the fact of their inevitable collapse. The reader juggles multiple entry points, supplementary narratives and commentaries, few of them even remotely suggesting a form of continuity.
The most discursive piece in the collection, based in part on an earlier conference paper, encourages the reader to consider ideas of continuity or essential meanings in both thought and text together as “An Indispensable Coefficient of Esthetic Order” ¾ or so the title runs. In this essay, Levy is at his most exegetical concerning his attempts to mediate or represent the writing process itself.
Sentences and lines themselves can posit similar relationships, almost. I remember a definite pause of a few seconds before the addition of the word almost. How many alternate paths? (89)
Levy is adept here at convincing us how unconvinced he actually is as a writer, writing his self, finding a language that expresses his own reasoning and experiences. The words he offers fade as quickly as they surface, his logic straddling multiple pathways concurrently; yet, still this work is pertinent, for his questions inevitably become our questions — in other words, doubts that deftly remind us of our own processes of thought and efforts at self-identity. Certain of little beyond our own uncertainty, we become highly conscious of the practice of writing as exactly that: a practice, an act of constant construction. The self or subject here re-emerges as a being that is simultaneously constructing and being constructed: thought caught in the process of thinking itself.
There’s nothing I’ve described that doesn’t happen every day in almost everyone’s life, It’s so common it’s missed. But then it’s not missed, either. It’s the place in which a sense of one’s own responsibility, taken personally, can matter. (90)
Indeed, Levy considers himself hardly alone in this particular notion of being, of thought and its impermanence. Not only does he use such meditations to help define the composition of poetry in general, he draws liberally upon a wider set of similar enquiries and reflections made in other poems he obviously respects. Fanny Howe’s poetry, for example, winds itself through the essay echoing many of Levy’s questions, as does the work of Larry Price, Steve Benson, Guy Debord and even a few words by Daffy Duck: “That makes no sense and so do I” (93). What holds these writers together (with the possible exception of Daffy) is precisely their ongoing uncertainty regarding their own respective writing practices. Here are texts, notes, observations, etc., Levy insists, that propose a complex, often unsettling relationship between human experience and its representation within art. Forever detached from the materiality they seek to capture, such writings are nevertheless politically and culturally valuable, as they help shape a very distinct dialogue — perhaps even a poetics — about context and content. Levy even goes so far as to call it “a form of forgiveness, a formlessness circulating through the illusions and disillusions that sometimes overcome my mind, that help me to think I know in some small part how it is that Andrew Levy goes about interpreting the world he lives in” (94). The ethical quality of these writings ¾ these poetic questions ¾ is thus unambiguous. While the relationship between his work and the material world is neither transparent nor able to reproduce the most general details of everyday experience, Levy’s poetry constitutes a unique form of interaction with the Real ¾hence its value as “a form of forgiveness.” His sense of language’s innate opacity constitutes an entire social reality in itself, evoking actual subject relations beyond mere description.
Levy further accentuates the ethics of his position by continuously emphasizing the public quality of his work. The inter-textual structure of this very essay serves to highlight how his writing, by its very nature, operates collectively, always engaging with a plurality of voices, appropriations and other published works. Here too, a reality suggests itself indirectly rather than through the course of language. Poetry, conceived as such, inherently implies multiple lives, subjectivities, etc., culminating, Levy notes, in something akin to a “group phenomenology that shifts and subsides, one shared and completely intertwined with a real, true world” (94).
Aside from its socio-ethical dimensions, Levy’s interactive practice of writing carries some interesting philosophical precepts, suggesting at times its own functioning, if fragmented, ontology. As we see, Levy continuously intertwines his arguments with various other writings and statements, presenting a type of ongoing group discussion. At one level, then, the poet appears to us, not as a single voice or viewpoint, but rather through a set of multiple dialogues or forums. His work stutters along, shifts directions, often openly interrupting itself, never actually concluding. At times, he appears all too willing to subordinate his own perspective to the many others informing his work. In fact, as an active discussion, these writings can seem perpetually in motion, often on the verge of disappearance, forever sliding into a stream of undefined or incomplete tangents. Their primary emphasis remains thus on the process of communication, not the product ¾ i.e., language’s constructive, not reproductive, capacity.
Levy’s critique of communication is, somewhat ironically, his clearest point: “Teach me to listen to something beyond the literal, or that there is meaning apart from what is said” (92). What else is there for Levy to do after such an entreaty but fall silent. No actual analysis of language’s inherent inadequacy follows; rather Levy surrenders the medium, steps back from the page in deference to Fanny Howe with her own brand of poetic wanderings.
Moths in a meadow
Flutter like flowers — freed — their wings
Take the shape of their mind the wind. (92)
Whether Howe provides commentary for Levy’s work, or Levy for Howe’s is purposefully vague. Howe exemplifies for Levy a creative, conscious use of in-exactitude in communication, balancing, as she does, the various cultural tensions of competing discourses and epistemologies. Her language is disjunctive, consistently in motion, yet it does not preclude self-awareness and, hence, her own development as a distinct social subjectivity.
So it’s a spirit that keeps me
from breaking into pieces! The speed
would rip me apart without it. (92)
Howe thus declares both her physical and intellectual presence, despite — or perhaps, because of — the complex, multiple structures of language that permeate and inform the world around her. Similarly, Larry Price associates, “[t]he world’s sheer inconvenience [with] a tactical power of presence;” while later in Levy’s paper, Steve Benson re-situates fragments of Rainer Marie Rilke’s poetry to evoke specific material moments in his own life. The different quotes and literary pieces circulating through Levy’s work may at first seem unconnected, but such writing’s aesthetic and social aims, he informs us, are quite comparable. Through each textual fracture, a world appears — all of it, highly personal, even irrational. Moreover, the variety and number of participants in the forum further emphasizes the importance of what is inevitably excluded or left out of a single discourse. The density and intricacy of detail in this type of communal interplay affirms Levy’s search for meaning outside any one act of writing — outside, as Benson puts it, “what is said.”
Of course, given this similarly dialectical approach to writing as both a form of cultural and public interplay, the boundaries of Levy’s poetic community can be seen to stretch well beyond the immediate set of quotes featured above. “Language,” writes Charles Bernstein in a 1980 essay culled in part from a series of New York poetry workshops, “is the material of both thinking and writing” (“Thought’s Measure,” Content’s Dream 61). Bernstein’s sense of language as the very means to a world evokes a similarly complex relationship between writing, communication and human experience. To base writing in a formal system or method of human communication seems hardly illogical, yet to connect thought itself with a medium as such can appear overly deterministic, or at best an exaggerated claim about the influence of communication systems on cognition. Conventional western concepts of reason and perception tend to emphasize their thorough separation from any mode of expression or external context. Language may provide a structure of connotation through which experience can be communicated, but the actual experience itself as well as the source of its significance remains literally another matter. Even Levy’s emphasis in his work on the difficulty in capturing or somehow transparently expressing individual experience seems at first to follow this rationale. Yet, importantly, Levy does not repudiate language’s ability to constitute such processes. Rather his interest is in the various modes that claim to do so truthfully.
Emerging out of the wellspring of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics, Bernstein presents a view of language as much more than a medium of communication. In language, Bernstein sees a complete mode of reasoning and evaluation. “Meaning” itself, he notes, exists “only in terms of language,” suggesting that the form or structure of the verbal cannot be separated from its content. Such a concept, not surprisingly, provokes an equally complex and inclusive practise of writing. Far from evoking any kind of truthful or even accurate channel onto human experience, feelings, sensations and the like, Bernstein forgoes all aims of precision for a strongly self-reflexive, opaque style of verse. As Bernstein writes, “…the ordering internal to the movements of the mind/perception, provides a model for writing in sharp contrast to common expository and representational modes by focusing in on other types of movements from one thing to the next, allowing for writing to be put together in continuously ‘new’ ways ¾ how various shapes and modes and syntaxes create not alternate paraphrases of the same things but different entities entirely” (“Thought’s Measure,” Content’s Dream 68). In much of Bernstein’s own poetry it is exactly this drive for constant invention and re-construction being emphasized.
of a picture
is not a picture
but the negative.
The negative pictures
just as I
without ever seeing
(“Stele for Lost Time,” from Shadowtime)
The above poem operates at cross-purposes, both as an image of writing and this image’s negative or potential image. In this way, the poem’s structure resembles a type of undeveloped Polaroid snapshot. Reading it, we are literally witnessing its coming into being, as it effectively writes itself on the very page or screen being used. Each line, while anchored to the word “picture” ¾ an elusive term at best ¾ presents an abrupt change in detail, almost as if the word itself functions as a type of narrow portal through which too many separate ideas or movements in thought have appeared simultaneously. Yet, again, the poem is perhaps still in development. Reflecting on its lively juxtaposition of texts, the reader sees how meaning in Bernstein’s language stems from its ability to constitute objectivity, not reproduce it. If the narrative above rouses some kind of sensual reassurance in a separate reality, an anchorage, so to speak, in the material world, it stems in part from its negative capacity as a rationally ordered medium of facts. By suggesting a sort of negative order, the poem indirectly encourages the reader to imagine what is not contained in the poem, i.e., its multifarious contexts and subjectivities: the you outside the picture.
As his methodology shows, Bernstein’s view of language remains rooted in dialectics and, hence, in modern western metaphysics. When Bernstein qualifies what is believable in any mode of representation or expression as the “stuff” of writing, he is referring in part to its authenticity ¾ in other words, how well writing can evoke or convey material experience. It is the law-like tendency in any discourse of traditional metaphysics to show an integral continuity between all physical processes ¾ or what modern thinkers often describe as “rationality” itself. The difference for Bernstein, as with many other L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, is that the material experience is not so much reflected through language as created by it. Here, language as a mode of communication effects an autonomous rationality by the very fact it can be understood. To make sense is merely to communicate something effectively, not reveal separate truths.
In Bernstein’s view, however, this capacity does not originate in a common structure informing both the content of what we see and how we express it, but rather a distinct political context in which the rationality and objectivity of language are pursued as distinct ideological choices. Thus the growth of the importance of authenticity within representation remains firmly linked to the socio-political evolution of bourgeois ideologies and secular thinking. One recent critic, John Tagg, follows a similar argument in his book, The Burden of Representation, when he associates to modern visual culture with a “regime of truth” advanced through capitalist ideology “in which photographs functioned as a means of record and a source of evidence.” [cite?]
He borrows the term “regime of truth” from Michel Foucault, who coined it to describe modern power structures that place a high value on objective knowledge. The modern, capitalist state operated, for Foucault as a highly decentralized network of control apparatuses, organized as knowledge resources as opposed to disciplinary institutions (prisons, asylums, etc.) In communication systems, information networks, etc, Foucault theorized various structures of power able to govern both bodies and minds of its subjects directly. Language thus exemplified how modern behaviors of social integration and exclusion proper to rule could be interiorized within the subjects themselves. The civic values and epistemological limits such structures project in their bid for social control parallel exactly the norms and standards commonly respected in most professional and everyday language use — values like authenticity, integrity, logic and accuracy among others. Yet, as apparatuses of discipline that internally animate social behavior, these values tend to appear as unmediated, in other words, as integral, vital functions of one’s individual life rather than mere aesthetic categories. As Foucault says, “Life has now become…an object of power” (“Les mailles du pouvoir,” Dis et ecrits, 4:182-201, 1994). The highest function of language is not to represent, but to create.
Bernstein understands experience in his writing as a form of continuity in social discourse. What is authentic in his writing is the structure of his language, not the events or objects being described:
“You say I’m like a Jewish mother, but the kid
Is losing weight.” Turning by turns as though
Turns would make it different. Sunny
With shallows all about, the solvent
Flush of fiduciary abandon (book? 61).
The tone is personal and reflective, the content typical at one level of everyday conversation. The speaker is complaining to a close friend about his or her son’s supposed weight problem. The message may at first seem carry the context forward, leading the reader to expect a casual, yet perhaps pointed commentary on working class and/or ethnic dialects. Continuing further, however, something quickly appears amiss in the structure of the ensuing conversation. The alliterative play on the word “turn” seems to describe the poem’s own movement, turning towards different contexts, one line after the other. Of course, even this summary doesn’t quite capture what seems to be occurring here. The line “sunny/ with shallows all about,” initially appears consistent in describing the poem’s erratic fluctuation in narrative, but that is only because the word “shallow” suggests the more logical term, “shadow,” symbolically qualifying the work as a single, revealing light upon objects with many dark corners. If this were accurate, the poem might in turn make sense metaphorically; yet, its structure doesn’t allow metaphor to come into play. In fact, few references in the poem lead anywhere outside its framework — a mode of composition that complies with Bernstein’s view of language in general.
Similar philosophical imperatives appear in Levy’s work. Just as in Bernstein’s poetry, a strongly personal, character-driven set of references guides much of the tone and structure of each individual creative piece. Like Bernstein, Levy too is reacting to the type of moral interventions accompanying much current social discourse with his own active critique of cultural authenticity. Aware of the determinant subjectivities produced within contemporary cultural networks, Levy works to counter such political ontologies with an effective sense of material experience in his writing. The attempt here is to go beyond continuities, or at least to suggest that significant realities and experiences exist past “the zone that files you somewhere / every diet pill you took,” beyond “Money on the sacred wheel of fortune,” outside a defined “tyranny as being the man of pen” (9). Of course, Levy is also “a man of pen,” constructing, in many ways, his own moral intervention. Rather than answer hegemonic cultural discourses with his personal voice of authenticity, however, like Bernstein, Levy presents a more discontinuous set of responses, many of them only half articulated or expressed. His lines focus on breakage and fissures in discourse, ultimately suggesting a rich set of alternative experiences beyond the confines of conventional language.
In the breaking of both political and cultural continuity, the structural framework of Levy’s poetry attempts to convey a different type of agency, showing within mainstream discourse its many ruptures and paradoxes, voids and points of crisis.
Overall, response is “perverse”
It is work wild with astonishing craft
that screams through the early
Audrey says, a man engulfed by the flames,
stands still as if accepting
his own demise.
crickets quietly sing them to sleep (17)
Continuity in language, as Bernstein shows us, follows a distinct sensibility. Ever dependent upon the structures and frameworks, not to mention, promises of information, we ¾ as subjects ¾ come to expect a firmly integrated, wholly functional social environment. When writing as an act of comprehension supposedly conveys an immanent sense of rational structure, experiments in form become, by default, experiments in continuity or identity. For his critique of this mode of language, Bernstein labors to make its conditions opaque, in effect stripping the structures of their rationality, their claim, in other words, to epistemological certainty. As readers, we may lose the finer points of comprehension as well as the ability to identify any characteristic purpose in a description, but we subsequently disturb the ontological pretence of our own political subjection. Bernstein challenges us, in this way, to re-think the very basis of communication. He brashly asks what does it mean to share language when the medium itself is doing most of the talking. How can we, as subjects, think that we have complete control over our efforts at communication?
Levy is not so much interested in revealing the linguistic conditions of identity as he is in challenging all cultural frameworks in general as being inherently fractional. The title poem, as excerpted above, presents from its beginning a relentless flow of textual fragments — their contexts as varied as their individual tones. Literary reviews interweave with narrative description, followed in turn by lyric phrases. As readers, we are denied continuity in the text, but Levy makes it clear that such interruptions originate in the very format of this book-length poem and its inability to contain fully the multiple readings and numerous engagements with language writing it has provoked. Looking at the format of the book traditionally, that is, as a highly codified medium of production and communication, Levy cannot ignore its singular cultural integrity. The book is practically the most common symbol in western culture of knowledge and rational study. However, Levy is also interested in conveying how the actual practice of writing one inevitably disputes such terms. Evoking writing as process over product, few statements in Paper Head Last Lyrics suggest much in the way of objective reasoning. Similar to Bernstein’s work, here too the reader can expect little certainty in identity. Nothing is finished. Structures break apart before comprehension can occur. In all, despite its claims to structural integrity and strong cultural status as a mode of knowledge, the book signifies first, in Levy, a highly erratic, fractured process of communication. Its complex, unreliable development over discontinuous periods of time scarcely resembles the cohesive medium that supposedly results.
This dichotomy between continuity and discontinuity in the very practice of writing appears through most of Levy’s work, again, most notably in his “Curve” series, Curve and Continuous/Discontinuous – Curve 2. In the opening piece of Curve (1994), “Salvage Device Plants,” Levy presents a complex set of verbal fragments, which together suggest a more formal poetic narrative. Yet, the genre of the long poem here does not present itself as a project, but as resistance, as a counter-narrative. Reviewing Levy’s poetry over the last decade, it is easy to see that it is this revisionary view of literary genres as modes of resistance that remains the most singular, most continuous feature in his work. Just as continuity in a text is not a quality, for Levy, to be produced or culled from the more discontinuous — hence, inferior —, physical process of writing, ruptures in language do not necessarily signify an incomplete mode of reproduction.
As we’ve seen, there is continuity in this work. It resides, however, neither in the material conditions of writing nor its various structures and genres, but in the constant confrontation between the two elements of communication. In this manner, Levy’s writing openly invites us to reconsider the contradictory structure of language as both a medium and a social force. It is Levy’s aim to make visible this contradiction in contemporary language structures and thus contest the degree of total ideological control in everyday socio-cultural networks. But Levy is not just presenting political commentary. What makes this work interesting is that Levy offers more than a symptomatic “schizophrenic” reading of the increasingly fragmented state of our objective identities and perspectives. Within these different texts and text fragments, we find, not just the interruption of continuity, but also its re-conception into a form of subjectivity in itself, complete with its own distinct mode of interpretation, its own point of view. The result is important for Levy, for it makes it possible to conceive both an effective poetic response to ideology and the actual social conditions necessary for its continued re-conception. Levy consistently alludes in his work to the context in which he has framed his questions and subsequent perspectives, mapping for us a very tangible picture of his own writing practice. Here, Levy looks beyond technique, towards personal engagement ¾ once again, towards the “curve” in writing alluded to previously: the ongoing shift in language between human experience and its cultural reconstruction.
In Levy’s hands, the curve indeed has much poetic potential, indirectly revealing the very prospect of community inside our attempts at communication. And again, this engagement is not undertaken alone. The effort to communicate remains exactly that: communal. Of course, this image of community in Levy’s work can be at times drastically harsh, built as it is amidst the ruins of contemporary civic life. Importantly, though, within these limits, there remains both political and aesthetic possibility. The elements are there, listed before us: Paper Head Last Lyrics; with them, Levy challenges us to re-envision the very conditions of agency.