Enter the Fragment: Notes on Andrew Levy

Jean Day

It is not necessary to say everything. That is the secret of entertainment. —Pushkin

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Reading Andrew Levy, one proceeds improvisationally. I want to suggest that the unit of improvisation is the fragment (linguistic and conceptual), and that this fragment, however comfortable it may be in a twenty-first-century avant-garde, is also the fruit of long tradition. Moreover, I take Levy's work to be engaged in a discourse of the fragment, in a life-story of variation, the fragment-variant being what Levy himself might call (after John Dewey) "an indispensable coefficient of esthetic order."1

These notes, in their own admitted partiality, are about what that discourse is, is not, or might be.

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Some say that until the end of democracy, liberalism, and industrialization, "newness" in art is unlikely to be very surprising. Following Levy himself, then, it seems fair to return to Romanticism to begin thinking about fragments.2 I have a particular interest in the philosophical fragments of Novalis and Friedrich and A. W. Schlegel published in the Athenaeum from 1798-1800, but ideas about fragments were ubiquitous in Romantic thought in both poetry and prose from that time on, in at least three languages. In their fragments, the German Romantics were themselves preceded logically by Pascal, Montaigne, and the English and French moralists. What the German writers took for their own from these earlier writers was "the relative incompletion (the 'essay') or absence of discursive development (the 'thought') of each of its pieces; the variety and mixture of objects that a single ensemble of pieces can treat; [and] the unity of the ensemble, … , constituted in a certain way outside the work, in the subject that is seen in it, or in the judgment that proffers its maxims in it."3 In other words, the philosophical fragments were marked by conditions shared by the body of poetry I'm about to discuss-condensation, internal eclecticism, and a conception of the whole derived from outside the work.

Although my starting point, the Athenaeum fragment, is not a work of poetry (and, arguably, not even a unified "work"), one might say that its method proved foundational for much investigative and philosophically oriented art-including poetry-that followed.4 And, to the extent that Romantic ideas are still being worked out in the arts of the present, these thoughts may apply broadly to contemporary practices. Since Levy deals thematically, methodologically, and critically with the part and meaningfulness of partiality and continuity, it seems to me useful to show how the legacy of Romanticism's fragment plays out in specific instances of his work.

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One of the directions in which fragments point is to wholes. Take the totality of one's life:

live this thing in the making
centrifugal a circuit of
grammar to expose
breach built abyss ourselves engender
swarm on the retina
is the push yet untried all my place?5

In these lines from "Evocation" Levy points to a "making" or mechanism of life by referring from inside experience ("live this thing"-a life being a phenomenologically discrete and therefore in some sense discontinuous concept) to a gravitational or spatial "outside" of language ("centrifugal a circuit of / grammar"). He's concerned with the break both made and overcome by language and sight. This sense of fracture as more than wreckage, as something made, is meaningful in and at its own limit.6 The "push" at the limit (the eyeball, body, language, life … ) is toward "becoming," but it's also invested in its ("untried") incompletion or breaking off, where the break becomes a potentiality. In Romantic terms, the movement from fracture to meaning can be characterized as "individuation":

"One is tempted to say that the essence of the fragment is individuation. As an indicator of a process rather than of a fixed state, this term is in agreement with the important Athenaeum fragment 116, where the 'particular essence' of romantic poetry is 'that it should forever be becoming and never be perfected.'"7

This "becoming," which in "Evocation" might be understood as a life defining itself as making, moves through and inhabits its syntactic gaps both compositionally and semantically. That is, the grammatical gap is empty ("an abyss") in some sense, but also "swarming" with meaning. The gap negotiated by the writer-reader in getting from A to B isn't a rarefied self-circular void, though, but a neutral, even quotidian, potentiality-a domain of possible action for a political and studiously written subject:

write down how I know these things
penalties consistent monumentality
all this shards of assembled residence
herd of conformity or truth country
come to the frontier
the lucid word into the word
how little it is for them
you are not there
("Evocation," 71)

Indeterminate enjambment here offers more than the commonplaces of multiple readings and resistance to absorption; it thematizes the partial (or partially absent) discourse, the relationship of part to whole, as a frontier. Beyond the frontier is where "you are not"--until language, with its "shards of assembled residence" comes around again to the next line.

"And you were born in what lies outside yourself," Levy says, placing "you" in the middle of its own run-on "social life," where the negotiation of part to whole "piss[es] off organizations of resemblance."8 The shape of what's left unsaid in the grammatical/social lapses, whether mysterious or boring, is a reminder of the continual decay and return of experience:

… I can feel it a block
away. Say total destruction. 'You can have it by being in
it, but in words it is not possible to have it." Suspenders
knock the other jaw palm-black. We have been speaking to you
since you left us. Now you are entering the world.9

The shard, the "block" one feels, points to its complement ("You can have it" [experience]), but it's unclear whether Levy applauds or decries the undecidability of his own polysemy ("but in words it is not possible to have it"). Or is he simply unready to make up his mind?

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When, quoting Novalis, Levy refers to the fragment as "the form of communication recommended to those still not wholly ready," he begs the question, Ready for what? Some whole story? "Nothing but that story," he says, in which "who we are" becomes an "invention," a tale told by "Pen, Ink, and Paper," that together have become "Authors of themselves."10 As such, they are thinkers of an unrevealed logic that counts itself partial and open to revision:

He was more than my editor-everything about my life was a disorganized shamble. I think he was the author of what it was he had hoped to say. ("Endfield," 103)

Levy's "author" might stand for a continuity, but it's a shaky one, always on the verge of dissolution:

Absolute error the beauty of his story over lemon, fields of sun dismantling our heads. Beginning to speak his thoughts, their boundary and care limits of its spine these areas together survive, being partially identified with them, turn away from where he is: the letters and thoughts entering eyes to reassemble there. Dismantle the words that lie unevenly between them.11

Dismantled, the author of "his story" is neither hero nor antihero. He's more of a hedgehog, a third term monitoring the opening and closing of the letters and thoughts that define him. In Athenaeum fragment 206, Schlegel writes, "A fragment, like a miniature work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a hedgehog."12 The hedgehog's completeness, like Levy's author, is achieved by a simultaneous making and undoing, definition and revision.13

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In its antimonumentality Levy's author privileges and amuses itself in the synaptic connections and misfires of the "lines of our lives," mimetic of the moment-to-moment movement of the mind:

                                  the author has a very light touch
               the words in his lines live their lives
                                     in musical compendia
                 "the annihilation of nothing"
                                  the day before yesterday
                                                 unaware of its existence 14

The mental process of movement and disruption is itself a form of goal-less variation. It's a rhythm of existence that Levy produces and reproduces in the alternation between incompletion and repetition. In Curve, for example, the poem "Per Them Reconcilia" appears twice, verbatim; elsewhere, phrases repeat in inverted, embellished, and degraded forms, insisting on the transformation inherent in iteration. A psychological parallel might be helpful: In a discussion of the Freudian repetition compulsion, Jonathan Lear revises Freud's claim that the point of compulsion is repetition, noting,

There is a more austere hypothesis that better fits the evidence: that the mind has a tendency to disrupt itself, that these disruptions are not for anything-they are devoid of purpose. Indeed, insofar as the mind is teleologically organized, these disruptions disrupt teleology.15

Although it would obviously be going too far to suggest that Levy's disruptions have no purpose; they do intend, I think it's fair to say, to "disrupt teleology." Speaking of his own method of incompletion, Levy acknowledges that he "appears to handle materials haphazardly," composing by a process he'd call "'disembodied choice'-guided, as it goes, by intuition, a negative capability on a walk within ever-shifting fields of work and rest."16

* * * * *

An occasional swimmer had a weakness for old junk.
The elephants would gurgle suddenly as we passed.
A man in a military uniform laughing with sad eyes wide
Open makes an uncertain gesture toward these animals.
They do not stampede, but merely jump head-first
through the hole in their cages. Astounded, the Ring-
master summons their trainer to his office. Dear
Mental Processes, the escape was successful, no one
saw them. The future gets stronger and stronger.
No one remembers when they decayed.17

The hedgehog (swimmer, soldier, Ringmaster, Mental Process) in this poem from Elephant Surveillance to Thought might be read as a version of the self, ready to jump through the hole in its cage. But it might also be read as a thematization of form, with its "old junk" running away from (or is it to?) the circus. In any case, the fragment, whether temporal, psychological, or social, ends up "wander[ing] in time, eliciting ever-different explanatory narratives from its readers."18 The explanation Levy's fragment wants is What part of the whole am I?

If the fragment can be characterized as being "achieved by [its] inachievement," then the answer to that question is certainly never provided in the work. But the work does suggest some sort of "tune" one can dance to. The fragment "constitutes its imperfection by reference to an abstract and ideal model that 'exists alongside the work, guaranteeing both its consistency and readability.'"19

a sort of permanent transparency
fascinated me because I could see myself as the tune

manuscript pages covered with
"question this page"

and my room fossilizes
descendant of continuance

the final adjustments
raised up out of his grave

the night's constellations
the body of the small point

the always unequated remnant
pushing shopcart for bottles & cans

we will visit the sun
of that sentence in my hand 20

Levy's reference to the unity of the whole in this poem points to a kind of transcendentalism derived from just such an abstract ideal. In an essay published in Writing from the New Coast: Technique, Levy's "unequated remnant" of the original poem becomes "unrequited"; the reference turns into a desire. He continues the essay with a confession of belief in a kind of sacred authenticity and mystery: the whole to which the part refers:

I am a religious thinker who believes in an originary world outside mankind's linguistic representations. It is unknowable, and I do not find that terrifying. Trusting prose so quickly leads one into a questioning of beliefs. Trusting it enough to complete a sentence. There are no separations in our bodies. There are separations in everything else and our use and understanding of language has helped us place them there.21

Here Levy seems to aver his belief, then to distance himself from it, taking up an ever more contingent position in relation to his own assertion, even in relation to sentences themselves. Unable to finish his sentence, he's left with "bodies and separations"-which is what the real (as opposed to "originary") world is full of. Contingent and negatively capable bodies (people) enact the nervous interplay between whole and part, continuity and discontinuity, collectivity and individuality, toward which Levy continually nods. " … Like the / end-there's another sentence to be written. Another thought to / form, surrounded by entente diplomats." 22

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Schlegel called us (Western Romantics) "potential, chaotic beings."23 Levy's fragment is offered as both a symptom of Schlegel's chaos and as a possible antidote: "Art is the highest form of hope. Cohere, and you'll be lovely." 24

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1 "The greater the variation, the more interesting the effect, provided order is maintained-a fact that proves that the order in question is not to be stated in terms of objective regularities but requires another principle for its interpretation. This principle, once more, is that of cumulative progression toward the fulfillment of an experience in terms of the integrity of the experience itself-something not to be measured in external terms, though not attainable without the use of external materials, observed or imagined"; John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York, 1980), 164, quoted in Andrew Levy, "An Indispensable Coefficient of Esthetic Order," unpublished version of this essay originally delivered on a panel "Poetry & Definition" at the conference "NYC Poetry Talks-A Convergence of Questions" (New York University, March 1996).

2 Levy opens the poem "Endfield," in Curve 2 (Elmwood, Conn., 1997), 99, with this epigraph from Novalis: "As fragment the incomplete still appears most bearable-thus is this form of communication recommended to those still not wholly ready." For the purposes of these remarks, my definition of fragment is broadly (but I hope not ridiculously) inclusive; I mean it as both method and artifact, trope and form, broken piece and self-sufficient, irreducible unit.

3 Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute, trans. Philip Barnard and Cheryl Lester (Albany, 1988), 40.

4 Although something of a stretch, it might not be impossible to trace a genealogy from the "fragments" included in Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads to the radical fragmentation of P. Inman, for example. For a discussion of the "Romantic fragment poem" of Wordsworth and his contemporaries, see Marjorie Levinson, The Romantic Fragment Poem (Chapel Hill, 1986).

5 Andrew Levy, Values Chauffeur You (Oakland, 1990), 71.

6 For the Romantics, the fragment was "almost never confused with the detached piece pure and simple, with the residue of a broken ensemble…. If the fragment is indeed a fraction, it emphasizes neither first nor foremost the fracture that produces it. At the very least, it designates the borders of the fracture as an autonomous form as much as the formlessness or deformity of the tearing"; Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, Literary Absolute, 42.

Ibid., 43.

8 Andrew Levy, "Paper Head Last Lyrics," in Paper Head Last Lyrics (New York, 2000), 66.

9_____, untitled poem from the section "About the Book," in Curve (Oakland, 1994), 85.

_____, "Endfield," in Curve 2, 101.

_____,"Havdalah," in Curve 2, 117. "Havdalah means to separate or make a distinction"; Levy, "Indispensable Coefficient."

12 Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophical Fragments, trans. Peter Firchow (Minneapolis, 1991), 45. In Firchow's translation, "porcupine."

13 "In the very same moment and gesture of fragmentation, the fragment both is and is not System. The fragment or the fragment-hedgehog is just such a hedgehog in its very proposition, which also, simultaneously, states that the hedgehog is not. In a way, the fragment combines completion and incompletion within itself, or one may say, in an even more complex manner, it both completes and incompletes the dialectic of completion and incompletion"; Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, Literary Absolute, 50.

14 Andrew Levy, "Surf's Up," in Curve 2, 26.

15 Jonathan Lear, Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life (Cambridge, Mass., 2000), 77.

16 Levy, "Indispensable Coefficient." The reference to Keats here is apt. Levinson, in The Romantic Fragment Poem, 210-211, expands on Keats's "being in uncertainties" as it relates to fragment:

In foregrounding its want of finish, the [Romantic Fragment Poem] not only proclaims its failure to achieve both its formal end and the author's practical objectives, it presents these failures as a triumph. The reversal hinges on the poet's ability to persuade his readers that the fragment's irresolution signifies the rejection of a mean, mechanical success-the sort produced, for example, by "consequitive reasoning" or a vulgar means-end rationality. Applied to literary production, Keats's phrase describes a poetry that originates in the author's determination to realize an objective and that terminates with that realization. Although Keats proposes the "rat trap" as a metaphor for epistolary design, his poetry and his remarks about poetry define an opposite virtue: doctrinal, rhetorical, and affective contingency.

17 Andrew Levy, "#9 Money Socialism, Thanks (Yet) Again," in Elephant Surveillance to Thought (Buffalo, 1998), unpaginated.

18 Monika Greenleaf, "The Romantic Fragment," in Pushkin and Romantic Fashion: Fragment, Elegy, Orient, Irony (Stanford, 1994), 28.

19 Both citations here are from Levinson, Romantic Fragment Poem. The first is Lucien Goldman commenting on Pascal's Pensées, 231 n. 1; the second is Pierre Machery, 217.

20 Andrew Levy, untitled poem from the section "Myth of the Not Her Blood," in Curve, 53.

_____, untitled essay, in Peter Gizzi and Connell McGrath, eds., Writing from the New Coast (Stockbridge, Mass.,1993), 81.

_____and Jean Day, unpublished collaboration.

23 Friedrich Schlegel, posthumous fragment, quoted in Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, Literary Absolute, 51.

24 Levy, "Indispensable Coefficient."