Online Edition: Spring 2002

Lip Service by Bruce Andrews

Lip Service

Bruce Andrews

Coach House Books ($22.95)

by Joel Bettridge

Lip Service is a sexy book, with its sexiness functioning both ironically as cultural critique and erotically as an exploration of desire. All uses of the phrase "lip service" are in play at once: as insincere complement (for Andrews, the ironic turning of social graces back on themselves), as oral sex, and as the erotic language of phone sex. This implosion of desire creates a poetics which implicates a reader in his or her own sexual politics and also revels in the linguistic possibilities of sexual vocabulary:

                       I'll talk to you just as long
as you're fucking me, wounded lips pawn
                     a milky roll mixture bouquet hesitant
                         stiff kittens' heartbeat finger

then later on:

on top of me--plump & pliant leash bended knees to sleep
tracing knees on cream abandonee.
     Coy close again cameo
                     I'm hocking for this guy licks lick it off
rubber gets the juices going off your purpose--

Importantly, the dual move to both parody and excite sexual encounter works to dispute the very terms and social function of desire--often heterosexual male desire. Certainly Lip Service moves past this category by shifting the gender of the first, second, and third person positions throughout the poem, as well as by obliterating any recognizable stable sexual "identity"; disrupting the patterns of a dominant sexual division clearly drives much of the work.

Often this disruption of sexual identity in Lip Service gets played out as tension: the tension between a sexualized body and the desiring subject; the tension between a sexual culture of desire and the individual subjects within it; and the tension between erotic language and that language's tendency to first undermine and then transform itself:

    There's romance in a zipper, reaching for that little
membrane of lambskin--de-heinous denunciamento
                      clings to clitoridean penalty dissolves
                      co-fecund craving cleft bliss bare wax won
                      horror only intoxicates zest
                       & languished denium orality:
abject adore harder bedroom--

In this passage the sexed body disappears as the fetishized objects "zipper" and "membrane of lambskin" mediate the sexual act. By removing the individuals from this sexual encounter, Lip Service undercuts any power dynamic available to a sexualized subjectivity. Be they male, female, homosexual, or heterosexual, all bodies in this passage, because they are only available through association, are subjected to the sexual act instead of controlling it; as soon as a subjectivity is read into the passage, the sexual subject is put into a dependent and secondary position to the fetishized objects. Importantly, this move reverses our normal roles where these objects would be our tools.

The erasure of a clearly defined sexual identity is not, however, only a form of subtraction. The somewhat abstract language of the above passage achieves a similar register as the ecstatic state when it foregrounds the tumbling words, "clings to clitoridean penalty dissolves / co-fecund craving cleft bliss bare wax won / horror only intoxicates zest / & languished denium orality." In other words, this passage is also about cumming. The sounds and pace of these lines push the reading forward in such a way that they become the drive to climax in the material of language itself. This is language ecstatic in character; regardless of the circumstances, or how you feel afterwards, the moment of orgasm is a decidedly egocentric, even an out of body, activity. In this sense, language as a material rhythmic movement is erotic over and above any single use of sexual activity. Lip Service is nearly seamless in its move between highly sexualized lines and lines that are more wide ranging. Much of the book, like other Andrews's work, outruns itself through an attention to rhythm and sound above phrase content, creating a near rapturous appreciation of the material sounds and movements available to the English language:

prong disarming saints' leakage threshed passť passive glass sure
vaccinates the vision,
       sordid spatialized vicar of virtuals
the lessons of quiet--Don't Call Me--
immediacy of the flesh weighs heavily how it gets from zero
to one.

In characteristic Andrews style, a reader must recognize language operating beyond narrative and signifying functions at the same time that signification helps move him or her through the poem. Certainly there is not a narrative point, but words makes each reader think of specific, worldly things. For one, "Don't Call Me" automatically brings to my mind the opening line of Moby-Dick. If we are now not to call "you" anything, then the stable narrator, to say nothing of narrative as a literary project, loses its grounding. The lines "immediacy of the flesh weighs heavily how it gets from zero / to one" suggest a sense of the burden of our physical, particular lives as they try to come to grips with the different, multiple ways of being in the world that occur, not just someplace else, but in our own "flesh"--its physical, particular, sexual context. To make meaning in a world that seems more and more out of joint we must confront language on its own terms and our place within it--where meaning is always only possibly taking place around us. To find a way to get from here to there, a place of "value," a place where we count ≥from zero to one," we must find a way to make meaning in the possibly meaningless act of speaking and writing.

The exquisite rhythm of the above passage reinforces this persistent movement as it beats the poem's sound into prominence--and with it Andrews' exploration of possible meaning in the more physical registers of language. The strong dactyls, trochees, and alliterations of lines like "prong disarming saints' leakage threshed passť passive glass sure / vaccinates the vision, / sordid spatialized vicar of virtuals," overtake the reading before it can begin to sort out any signified meaning. The textual pounding of lines themselves comes up against the difficulty of meaning in language by forming a hard hitting oral/aural wall. This physical sound texture drives the poem forward, keeping it from resting in developed imagery or metaphor, and in doing so, the poem becomes a work of political and social hope, regardless of its textual violence and difficulty. To look for new meanings and formations of sexual subjectivity means believing in the possibility of new meaning and new social realities, and Lip Service is a decidedly affirmative poem in this way. Too often the "language poetry" practice, and Bruce Andrews's poetics in particular, is read only as an attack on reference or the political status quo. And yet, at the heart of Lip Service is a poetics that has faith that our words' refusal of our attempts to make meaning finds us in a condition in which we approach words as things that make us, not as things we make.

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Spring 2002 Table of Contents