Reading Hurts—Masochism and Lip Service as a Tortured Text

Joel Bettridge

[Reading] hurts, [reading] scars,
[Reading] wounds, and marks,
Any heart, not tough,
Or strong, enough
To take a lot of pain,
Take a lot of pain
[Reading] is like a cloud
Holds a lot of rain
Reading] hurts, ooh ooh [reading] hurts
—Boudleaux Bryant, "[Reading] Hurts"

"Bruce Andrews is not a poet," a professor to whom I had shown Andrews's Getting Ready To Have Been Frightened as an undergraduate told me. (I can't remember what he said Andrews was, but it wasn't complimentary.) I am not entirely sure Andrews would disagree with the characterization, although he might point out that nobody else is either, at least not in the sense my professor meant the word. Andrews likens his role as an author to that of an editor: he weaves together slices of political speech, overheard conversation, pop culture, and literature, and in the process demonstrates how intellectual and literary production occurs through shifting cultural relationships, not from the minds of isolated individuals.

Andrews's attention to how thinking happens comes alive most when the vocabulary he draws on puts the spotlight on bodies, institutions, and texts acting on one another—a vocabulary we see particularly well in his recent long poem Lip Service, itself a recasting of Dante's Paradiso. In "Paradise & Method: A Transcript," Andrews describes the connection between Lip Service and the last section of the Divine Comedy in formal and methodological terms: "The Dante works its way through ten 'bodies': Earth, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Fixed Stars, & Primum Mobile. And Lip Service is divided into ten 'planets'. First I sorted [my material] into two uneven parts, five 'planets' each - (the second half a little less critical & more optimistic than the first). Part One would correspond with Dante's Cantos 1-13 & the larger Part Two with Cantos 14-33" (Paradise 252). Andrews explains also that the Paradiso's "shifts & stanza structure" determined where the breaks in Lip Service came—"Fixed Stars 1," for example, "equals" Dante's Canto 24, lines 1-51; the "cues" Dante's poem gave Andrews then helped him divide his own material "into a paragraph structure (ten to twenty-five paragraphs per poem) within each of the ten poems in each of the ten planetary bodies" (253).[1]

"What runs through" Lip Service, Andrews tells us, "is a focus on thematic differentiation; an associative, or drifting, lacework of thematic argument; polyphonies of utterance, shapes of talk, of streams of consciousness & preconsciousness; a drastic constructivism of syntax: with twists & turns, normative tilts & detonations, with interruptions as grammar" (Paradise 253). A text that "twists & turns" as Lip Service does, a poem that uses interruption as grammar, is, as his essay makes clear, the means of Andrews's politics, which itself depends on how readers engage his writing. And according to Andrews's poetics, the "reading subject gets to be valorized" in Lip Service (Paradise 263). Implicitly alluding to Wolfgang Iser's description of the process by which readers actively interact with literary works, completing their structures and filling in their meanings, Andrews argues that the disjunctive quality of the poem allows reading subjects to make their own connections between words and charge those connections and words with meaning. As readers become aware of their role in making the poem's meaning they begin to see the constructed nature of meaning and cultural values. When reading subjects take "the form of centralized-responsible-accountable [authors]" they start to confront the capitalist systems that produce social inequality and political violence. They do so because each moment they actively make the poem intelligible in their own terms they refuse to use language as if the meanings of words—and the cultural values they make possible—are already determined (Andrews, Paradise 264). Readers thus deny the inherited meanings and value judgments their primarily Western, capitalist milieu attempts to reify through its language use, and they open up the possibility for alternative definitions of, and judgments about, those values.

Anyone familiar with Andrews's project knows these claims well, although even some sympathetic readers remain suspicions. Bob Perelman, in The Marginalization of Poetry, argues that Andrews's politics "are either literary or improbable" (Marginalization 108). In Perelman's reading of Andrews's I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism), a typically violent phrase like "sink the boat people!" clearly does not help any refugees; instead, it ironically demonstrates the violence of anti-immigrant sentiments. But ironic politics depends on the very systems they critique, and in Andrews's case, Perelman suggests that "capital" acts as a "necessary malefic magnet"; the only way for Andrews's poetic-politics to escape further establishing what it would undercut is for readers to take it primarily as an artistic undertaking instead of an attempt at street-level action (Marginalization 108).

Perelman's skepticism toward Lip Service takes aim at Andrews's account of his composition process. In his essay "This Just In: Past Haunts Lip Service," Perelman confesses that he is "dubious about the results of Andrews's matching procedures," and points out that when placed side by side the lines of Andrews's poem have little clear connection to the Paradiso. He mentions as well that the material Andrews shapes Lip Service from "pre-existed the sorting-out, so it would be an unthinkably remote coincidence for his roughly 100,000 words to be sortable into a pattern that matched the Paradiso in any significant way." And yet Perelman does read the more romantic—what he calls "tender"—vocabulary of Lip Service as reminiscent of Dante's poem. Despite reservations, Perelman takes as an example the lines "I do not see through words / sight as dream gratefully certain," and interprets them to mean "I insist on simply reading the words, not peering through, behind or beneath them. What I see when I do this is a sight as certain as a dream, for which I'm grateful." On its own, the first line underscores Andrews's commitment to "an anti-transparent materiality of language," but joined with the second line it causes Perelman to wonder if Andrews's use of the Paradiso enters him into "areas of romance and suggestiveness that, according to his poetics, should be off-limits." Allowing that the romantic passages in the poem do not represent its entire body, Perelman ends with a self-professed tentativeness, comparing Andrews's claim "that he's working 'toward an Other or an Outside which is both a "not us" and a "not yet"'" in Lip Service to the start of Henry V and the first canto of the Paradiso, both of which ask readers to enter the imaginative realm of the literary work. Made reasonably anxious by his own reading, Perelman leaves us to consider whether or not the romantic impulse peppering Lip Service undoes "a strict adherence to the anti-transparent, material text" and links to "the most old-fashioned poetic tropes, where the poem acts like a door, a camera obscura, a magic carpet — very unfashionable tropes" ("This Just In").

If Perelman is right, the possibility that a romantic impulse in Lip Service creates an imaginative realm for readers to inhabit indicates that readers posses less authorial power than Andrews would have us believe. Taking Perelman's reading of Lip Service as a point of departure, I want to suggest that despite the emancipating claims Andrews makes for his work, Lip Service, in fact, insinuates itself in its audience—philosophically, erotically, and politically. Inside a poem committed to the political transformation of their social context, readers do not steer Lip Service as much as they submit to its textual logic, and author themselves accordingly: Lip Service aggressively imposes an interpretive strategy on readers where they must find disjunction, shifting interpretation, and association meaningful, and the poem requires readers to understand this procedure as what it means to read. Andrews's poem takes readers' participation in the making of meaning as a matter of course so as to lay claim to their lives. The violence, often sexually inflected, of reading Lip Service is the poem's demand that readers recognize their own surrender to what they are reading as a moment of entry into just interpretation.[2]

Structurally, the relationship Lip Service creates with its readers looks a good deal like the relationship between the victim and torturer in Deleuze's account of masochism. In "Coldness and Cruelty," Deleuze argues that within masochism we see "a victim in search of a torturer," a victim "who needs to educate, persuade and conclude an alliance with the torturer" (20). For Deleuze the torturer cannot be a sadist, at least she cannot enjoy her role as a sadist would because a sadist's pleasure depends on his victim's not enjoying her pain; similarly, a masochist's pursuit of punishment creates a situation in which it is "he [the victim] who forms her [the torturer], [it is he who] dresses her for the part and prompts the harsh words she addresses to him. It is the victim who speaks through the mouth of his torturer, without sparing himself" (22). In the masochistic relationship the victim instructs his torturer on the method and use of punishment and the torturer learns her role as she goes, bending to the will of her victim; rather than preventing the masochist's desire, punishment ensures it by delaying his gratification and intensifying his body's senses.

To call Lip Service a masochistic literary work figures readers as executing their allegiance to the poem when they act violently on it according to its epistemological method. It is readers who, in the position of the torturer, feel pain, or find that reading hurts because the poem requires readers to manufacture meaning out of an uncertain, occasionally violent vocabulary; Lip Service forces readers to make sense of challenging and disjunctive poetic lines for long periods of time, and as they do so, readers find themselves experiencing as their own alienating ideas and emotions. The disgust, arousal, confusion, and perception readers experience in their constructed meanings create the possibility that they might realign their alliances, identifying and forming new ones as the act of reading itself.[3] What distinguishes Andrews's poem is the extent to which it uses a cooperative model of reading as the vehicle for its readers' philosophical and political transformation. When projecting themselves into Lip Service, readers do take on a kind of agency, but just as Deleuze's torturer, readers find that the exercise of their authority is a reconstruction of their own words and bodies by the subject of their blows.[4]

The immediate challenge readers face when approaching Lip Service is negotiating its fluctuating, abusive textuality. As they move through the poem readers confront an occasionally explicit vocabulary mixed with a decidedly anti-descriptive poetic line, a combination that keeps readers shifting their interpretive force and direction:

valet gravy

in a groin, Berlin so many well whittled

abortion gymnastics: I hate your sleep, I am

openly contemptuous, saturated chest

hostages to be whitewashed jelly apposite aftermath. (194)

While both "valet" and "gravy" are familiar enough words, in combination they are difficult to render into a mental picture or idea. Is valet gravy gravy made by valets? Made of valets? Or do I juxtapose the idea of gravy and the idea of valets in my mind? When I first read the phrase I pictured a footman in a red coat standing outside a hotel and then saw a gravy bowl hanging in empty space—the gravy was brown, not white; I read the line as I did in part because the absence of an identifiable object of description left me nothing for my imagination to modify, and so it seems unreasonable to compare these images to the kind I get from the opening lines of Wordsworth's The Prelude. When Lip Service combines a more complicated vocabulary in longer sequences, such as "shy votive nymphomania pennywhistled foreplay," the difficulty of making sense of the poem increases (194). How feeling reserved modifies a wish for foreplay of the "nymphomania pennywhistled" variety is not entirely clear to me, and I don't even get the kind of associations I did with "valet gravy," mainly because the noun "pennywhistle" is now a verb, a switch that effectively turns an inexpensive fipple flute into an abstraction. Even a potentially loaded phrase like "abortion gymnastics" gets us no closer to an argument, or to a narrative. Readers depend on their own imaginations, storehouses of graphic images, stories, and memories, which they can't help but force onto the poem. Associations different from my own will no doubt occur to other readers, just as different lines will provide and refuse these associations, although we will have a similar reading experience — we will struggle with the poem in the same way and for the same reasons: however concrete individual words are in the poem, Lip Service makes them, at least initially, abstract. I know the words I am reading, but in combination and in the form they take they put enormous stress on my brain (the altering of nouns into verbs or adjectives, which themselves become nouns, is common). At times I get a series of associations, at times I get nothing much at all. For all practical purposes I move in and out of thought, even as I continue to push for it, trying to make sense of the words I am given. The pressure of chasing meaning in this constantly moving, abstract language accounts for a significant portion of the violence readers experience in Lip Service, but it also provides the context for readers' confrontation with the poem's more overt sexually aggressive language.

The musically dense, quick-paced lines of the poem redouble the already difficulty task of reading Lip Service's textual violence. The scarcity of grammatical markers like periods and commas and the abundance of long lines push readers forward, with little time for pause. The periodic use of one and two word lines, regularly indented, actually helps speed up the poem by allowing readers a well-timed breath just before they continue onto the next series of extended lines. The associations readers do have start to pile onto each other and build a strange network of memories, references, and images. Increasing the affect of this intellectual pileup, the lines contain quick-hitting syllables and sound repetitions like the s in "contemptuous, saturated chest"—the rhythmic frequency of the poem's soundscape matches the speed of the poem's syntax. The multiplying associations, gaps in meaning, and concentrated sound texture combine to pound on readers' brains. Over the course of 380 pages these bruises begin to add up, creating a dense and abrasive texture occasionally intensified by grotesque, exhilarating, and even banal stills, and it becomes difficult to read these shifting and thick lines for very long before feeling a bit overwhelmed, no matter how much you like that sort of thing.

When, in the midst of a disruptive and highly stressed poetic field, readers stumble onto lines like "a sexual diversion for the noontime meal / but then he said my vagina was too big," or "what's the matter with fucking dead persons / as long as you don't kill them," they feel a strange relief, which is a strange place to find it (195, 123). The appearance of grammatically straightforward, sexually violent, or disturbing lines anchors Lip Service in abusive associations by giving readers' minds something to grab onto—something to ease the mental pressure of reading—while moving through an otherwise anti-narrative poem. The sexually aggressive, grammatically normative language of Lip Service is relatively scarce, but its fleeting presence allows it to stand out and dominate readers' experiences of the poem. By no means an exception, only one of the thirty-eight lines on the first page of Lip Service comes near misogyny, "you can't portray women as they really are"—just eight of two hundred and eighty-seven total words, and yet the poem feels permeated with erotic fury (8).[5] An early moment in "Venus 4," reads:

henride come hard paste half-faced

flirt espousals to me

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. (114)

While full of potentially erotic words and phrases like "come hard paste half-faced" or "wounded lips pawn / a milky roll" and "stiff," the only clearly sexual lines in the passage are "I'll talk to you just as long / as you're fucking me." The referential ambiguity of "paste half-faced" or "wounded lips" open the lines up to association in a way not available in "I'll talk to you just as long / as you're fucking me" with its initially more clear description of the power relations and activities involved. The lines that follow are even less erotically charged and retain a more abstract character: "fitters harping spoon—it's hard to hear / infinite maybe, and entire devotion winched passion convertibles" (114). The degree to which the more abstract phrases suggest gender violence rests on their association with the one strikingly erotic line; next to it, these more uncertain lines quickly invoke a series of sexual references, and not sentimental ones given the character of what they are framing. Connected to "I'll talk to you just as long / as you're fucking me," "come hard paste half-faced," and "wounded lips pawn / a milky roll" could insinuate fellatio, and the explosive flowering of a "bouquet" might very well bring to mind a facial come-shot. As with the other concrete passages in Lip Service, the tone and idea of these narrative lines—the possibility of two people distancing themselves from one another through sexual intercourse—begin to infect the whole poem. A violent and manipulative passage makes it easier for readers to hear sexual cruelty in less obvious, more rhythmically powerful, language, and much of what goes for Lip Service's erotic aggression occurs for just this reason.

The intellectual relief readers achieve in the poem's familiar grammar does not, however, provide comfort—readers find themselves articulating political and social positions they might very well detest. Phrases like "you can close / your mouth or I'll put it back in" (114), "did the victim ovulate? - quake? - tremble? -" (94), and "fetus using your body without your consent" (380) intersperse Lip Service. Coaxing readers to vocalize misogynistic and pornographic sentiments, or articulate a politically ambiguous version of the language of sexual law, begins to eat away at readers' confidence, their sense that these violent wishes and disturbing ideas are not their own. In addition to remarking on the meta-reading the previous lines "I'll talk to you just as long / as you're fucking me" suggest (the poem will "talk" to us if we force ourselves onto it), readers might begin to wonder what such an affair is like, or recall a similar relationship with which they are acquainted. They might even think theoretically about the potential heterosexism of such an ultimatum, or supply a context for the speech. But without a protagonist, nobody appears to say "I'll talk to you just as long / as you're fucking me" other than the individual reader, and his grammatical comfort while reading the lines, and the poem's demand that he make them his own, intensify his possession of their erotic violence. Lip Service rarely uses quotation marks and does not indicate from whence it specifically gathers its words, and the absence of recognizable references unifies the poem in a way unattainable by modernist collage, at least in the sense that Lip Service gives our cultural violence back to us as a twisting, uncertain, and powerful social discourse. The fact that we do not have the exact sources of the poem, and know only that Lip Service draws its language from our public spaces, implicates us in their expression; as social subjects we are the material with which the poem builds itself. To treat Lip Service as if it were a collection of shorn fragments—a bundle of voices and literary allusions disconnected from ourselves—undermines the poem's request that we read it as part of our own bodies, for much of our job as readers is to explore how we live in our destructive and confusing environments. Lip Service sees sexual violence as more than a depersonalized social problem, as more than a difficulty unconnected to our enlightened, progressive lives. We cannot entirely refuse possession of these lines without rejecting the very method of Lip Service.

Although Lip Service does not simply loathe the sexually violent language it draws on, the poem presents readers with the allure and temptation of predatory and misogynistic impulses. No sexual principles guide Lip Service, only a critical attention to the language of sexual desire: as they move through Lip Service readers shift between titillation, embarrassment, boredom, excitement, anger, and fatigue. A line such as "being faithful almost gets me hard," with its suggestion that infidelity is erotic, is sexually suspect, but perhaps compellingly so; the idea of a strange erotic thrill attending a new and taboo body undoes readers' emotional and intellectual mastery of themselves as they experience a strange mixture of mental, and perhaps physical, pleasure and pain (278). Becoming strangers to themselves, readers begin to respond to their responses to Lip Service's erotic brutality; they begin to ask themselves a series of questions: when the lines of the poem are more abstract like "send a CC to my breast / straight sheath — no slit sweat looks / encounter silence on blonde. / A rodent-sized organ attachment / covet absent conjure daze slush topaz / nothing gays me, are you pinching yourself?" readers first ask questions such as "is the 'rodent-sized organ attachment' a dildo?" "How do you 'CC' a breast?" "Can we read 'straight sheath' as a penis, and if so, does its slit not '[sweating] looks' make it macho or mark it as trying to become less self-conscious? or both?" (185). And individual readers begin to wonder why these particular questions came first to mind: "why does a rodent make me think of a dildo?" "Am I a walking cliché when I move promptly to the idea of self-consciousness when penises come up?" When encountering sexually explicit images and phrases readers move even more quickly toward a consideration of their own reactions, questions that take the form of psychological inquiries: recalling the various readings I have forwarded so far, I wonder "what impulse does sexual blackmail cause in me"; "why did I focus on infidelity as erotic when the line's subject is faithfulness?"; or earlier, "why do I associate 'come hard paste half-faced' with hard-core pornography?" In the midst of questions like these readers find themselves thinking and feeling emotions they enjoy and dislike; they find themselves imagining sexual encounters they want to have but don't think they should desire; they also find that they are considering sexual subjectivities that frighten them, but perhaps entice them as well. In the mix of these emotions readers do not get to think and feel what they would like, but explore the shifting, personal, and social nature of their erotic sensibilities.

By compelling readers to find themselves in its disconcerting language, Lip Service includes readers in a modern tragedy (or comedy, depending on your sense of humor): the moment a person sees that he is the monster he hates. Think of Pound at the end of the Cantos. Think of Rufus in James Baldwin's Another Country. Unlike Oedipus, who had little choice in the authorship of his undoing, readers of Lip Service must see themselves as deliberate participants in and creators of their condition, and see their condition as a series of conflicting relationships, both empowering and debilitating—productive and caustic for their transgressiveness. Readers experience neither comfort nor catharsis: the hostility and gloom of "your royal Slutness, put some skull / in those blondes, constipated cherubs" and "I hope I'll be excused from being interested" is ours, and as Lip Service puts these words in our mouths we have little choice but to consider how their depiction of power is erotic, dangerous, funny, and awful (143, 147). Lip Service does not permit reading to be the mere identification of dark, foreign things that have crept into us, and it does not allow us to think that in identifying what we detest about ourselves that we purge our flaws like so many illegal immigrants.[6] The self in Lip Service is a made self, and the violence we see in our lives is a product of our own hands.

As they fluctuate between each new line and desire, each new textual pleasure or pain, mastered by the way Lip Service and sexual desire overthrow their brains and hearts, readers perpetually look to interpret themselves differently than they did at first. If their reading of themselves at one moment exposed them to their own sexual violence, then the ability to reread this violence remains possible in the poem's own flexible, disjunctive body; readers might try to find the productive potential for their violence or find a way to read it as less compelling. An opportunity for self-authorship and the chance to find one's understanding of oneself compromised await readers on each page of Lip Service. The poem shows us that we constantly reinterpret ourselves when we read books and respond to the readings that others give them. The idea that our lives in the world and our lives as readers abide in separate spheres makes no sense if one accepts the reading conditions of Lip Service; as we read Andrews's poem we read ourselves. To find new ways of making sense in the poem is to look for new ways of making sense of our bodies in their social circumstances.

The agency readers carve out for themselves in the domineering body of Lip Service is the authority of reading subjects—subjects who interpret their literary works and their own lives, both of which are acts of response and surrender. Deleuze argues that the "woman torturer of masochism cannot be sadistic precisely because she is in the masochistic situation, she is an integral part of it. . . . [A]dmittedly she is not a masochistic character, but she is a pure element of masochism" (41-42). In Deleuze's account, the torturer has the essence of masochism, but abandons it to partner up with the victim; her first surrender is to relinquish the masochistic impulse and her second is to become the agent of the masochist's desire. While the fit is hardly seamless, the reader of Lip Service, like the torturer of masochism, comes into view as a necessary participant in the interpretive situation; Lip Service needs a reader who will actively respond to it, learn to find disjunction expressive, and learn how meaning depends largely on what she does with her words. This reader, too, surrenders twice, following the pattern of the torturer's submission: first the reader renounces her initial desire to passively receive meaning (to be acted upon by a literary work) and then she relinquishes the illusion that as a participant in the making of meaning she is its primary initiator. The masochist and the torturer are the two subjects who compose masochism; Lip Service and its interlocutor are the two subjects who allow reading to happen.[7]

In its embrace of the alienating and thrilling interweaving of our intellects and bodies Lip Service does not change how meaning happens in poetry; reading it is not different in kind from reading less difficult works (if it were, Andrews's project makes little sense as a critique of ideological manipulations of language). Lip Service does demonstrate exceptionally well how reading works, and how our literary, cultural, and political texts master us even as we think we use them. By stripping away what might allow readers to imagine themselves as uninvolved with, or in control of, the book in their hands—mechanisms like plot and character development, or referentially demolished words—Lip Service makes plain the demanding fluidity of language and literary works. When forced by the poem's language use to recognize the manner in which they are complicit in what feels foreign—socially, personally, or textually—readers achieve some measure of power to take what is strange and familiar about their linguistically determined lives as flexible circumstances, not as fixed realities.

The libratory vein in Andrews's work, although not unique to it, somewhat clouds the specific manner readers exercise their authority, an authority crucial to the political project Andrews sets for his writing. But rather than undermine his project, reworking the claims Andrews makes for readerly control begins to unpack the practical demands his poetry makes on readers if they are to use it to realize what limited agency they do have in Lip Service and any other literary work, or in their own social conditions. Just as the torturer's surrender to the masochist creates the possibility of the victim's desire, so, too, the reader's yielding to Lip Service creates the passivity of the poem's meaningfulness. We begin to see the reader's submission as a positive enabling of meaning particularly well in the delight the poem takes in fetishistic sexuality and its treatment of words as fetish objects. The former creates a context in which powerlessness appears desirable and the latter forces readers to submit to the discipline of the poem's syntax.

Lip Service evokes fetish objects repeatedly. Throughout the poem we get lines like: "bulimics in stilettos crucified in the negligé-" (28); "like masturbating with a block of ice" (271) and "There's romance in a zipper, reaching for that little / membrane of lambskin" (274). Typical of the sexual scenarios in Lip Service, no whole bodies appear here, just "stilettos," "a block of ice" to masturbate with, a "zipper," and a "membrane of lambskin." Male, female, homosexual, heterosexual, or nothing so simple, bodies materialize in the poem primarily through metonymy—readers' own ideas of reaching for a condom and undoing a zipper create the idea of a sexualized body: fetish objects, not the image of other people, allow readers to imagine their own erotic encounters. I suspect that most of us think that the person reaching for the condom also reaches for whoever shares his or her bed, but of all the reaches to chose from, Lip Service foregrounds a reach toward an object that comes between lovers; as a mediator the condom makes the lovers available to each other and to us. Permitting their pleasure and our reading, the reached-for condom frames what sex can be in this passage, and at the very least, with the invocation of safe-sex (not that lambskin prevents HIV) with all its health, fetishistic, and political implications, it is sex that includes a degree of surrender—to fear, to uncertainty, to desire, to the body of another. Although Freud claimed that the fetish object is a boy's defense against castration anxiety, Andrews's poem emphasizes the necessary role fetishes play in sexual encounter; we need them to turn bodies into objects, and to excite each other's and our own bodies. The representation of fetishistic sexuality in Lip Service celebrates the pleasure and agency that comes from yielding self-governance.

The powerlessness we experience as sexual and social agents speaks more usefully to our situation in the world than does a utopian dream of liberation from institutions and ideologies. If I can get off only when somebody licks my black leather high heels I can't really say that I am in control of myself; if I can make meaning only by employing words in a series of personal and literary relationships I can't really imagine that what a word means is up to me. In "Is the Rectum a Grave?" Leo Bersani theorizes the ethical necessity of powerlessness as a critique of phallocentrism and as the acceptance of a more complex understanding of subjectivity. To achieve either we must reject the ego-based identity standing at the center of a heterosexual, masculine world view by refusing to reproduce its power dynamics in our own sexual relationships. Embracing the "appeal of powerlessness," a "radical disintegration and humiliation of the self," moves us, Bersani claims, "beyond the fantasies of bodily power and subordination" where we achieve "a transgressing of that very polarity which, as Georges Bataille has proposed, may be the profound sense of both certain mystical experiences and of human sexuality (217).[8] For men, the passive act of getting buggered is not demeaning, but a valuable negation of the attempt to redeem sexuality from all its complexities and from all the ways it disturbs us. The rectum is the grave in which the "masculine ideal . . . of proud subjectivity is buried" and the place where the risks of the sexual to the self flourish—where the internalized phallic male is the repeated object of sacrifice (222).

Bersani's interest in powerlessness intersects Deleuze's formulation of masochism where, in his reading of Freud's "The Passing of the Oedipus Complex," Deleuze suggests that the masochist seeks to destroy the father figure and his authority without replacing him: "The masochist feels guilty, he asks to be beaten, he expiates, but why and for what crime? Is it not precisely the father-image in him that is thus miniaturized, beaten, ridiculed and humiliated? What the subject atones for is his resemblance to the father and the father's likeness in him: the formula of masochism is the humiliated father" (60). Male subjugation for Deleuze and Bersani subverts masculine authority and the isolated, liberal agent inscribed within it. In the fetish we relinquish the belief in our mastery over knowledge, each other, and ourselves.[9] Although Deleuze and Bersani both consider the passive subject primarily (the masochist and the buggered), the surrender of the torturer in masochism and the potential for the top to become the bottom in anal sex create complicated experiences of powerlessness still in keeping with each theorists' writing—the heterosexual masculine subject remains under critique. We do not need to exclude the reader positioned so far as the torturer from the experience of powerlessness as Bersani and Deleuze describe it. When we speak of the powerlessness readers experience in a poem that treats words like fetish objects we speak of their dependence on what is outside them for the construction of their knowledge. Taking words as fetish objects in Lip Service suggests that readers embrace a more complex understanding of their subjectivity when they explore how they are powerless in the text—how they must, in a way reminiscent of the reluctant torturer and the buggered lover, become vehicles for the lash of the poem's language use. Like the whip and fur of the torturer, words mediate Lip Service's and its readers' relationship. As readers succumb to the role Lip Service would have them play, they find an agency, that is, a perpetually developing series of interpretations, that make their lives recognizable in their active work on the poem.

To make plain the processes of readerly self-subjugation I want to unpack the larger passage around the "lambskin" lines from "Saturn 6," which is as follows:[10]

cervically correct

cuckold this sleeve perpetrator dressed as a trap

do as I false.

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

& languish denim orality:

abject adore harder bedroom. (274)

In the absence of an obvious narrative thrust, the oral texture of these lines make readers' initial encounter with the words largely an encounter with their linguistic texture. The heavy alliteration in "cervically correct / cuckold," the hard-hitting c sound of which is repeated in "clings," "clitoridean," "co-fecund craving cleft," added to the sound density created by the relative scarcity of articles and the preponderance of near-nonsense words like "clitoridean," permit readers to chew on the poem's rhythms and feel the pleasure of their metrical density without at first worrying about what the words combine to say. But as readers continue to revel in the words they find those words beginning to exert themselves; to keep away from the ways the poem signifies, readers would need to persistently skim the poem, not lingering over any one particular passage. I would guess that most readers, like myself, move back and forth between reading quickly through a passage (absorbing the poem's sound quality) and giving particular lines more careful attention, which is often necessitated by especially dense language—passages that make us pause for the sake of pronunciation, an extra breath, or to follow the grammar. In the pauses readers take to get Lip Service's next mouthful of words in, each reading begins to become a close reading—as readers hesitate, the words begin to signify as our minds leap at their referentiality, and without a story to follow, each moment of understanding occurs as an attempt at organizing the poem's now suggestive language.

As I pause to get this passage's words straight, the erotic vocabulary begins to appear genuinely romantic, genuinely interested in the productive possibilities of bodies losing themselves in each other. The stress on verbs like "clings," "dissolves," "craving," "intoxicates," "languish," and the sound play of "penal" (sounds like penile) in "clitoridean penalty" give rise to the idea of the primary nouns in the passage breaking down and becoming something else. Following the initial dash, the verbs might point to our imagined couple with the condom in the midst of intercourse. Within the clause itself, the action of these verbs could just as easily modify nouns like "clitoridean penalty" or "denim orality" (274). In the absence of clear subjects, the verbs "clings," "dissolves," "craving," and "intoxicates" invoke the idea of being overwhelmed as much as they refer to a possible couple or to the lines' more abstract phrases, and the language of surrender in the passage starts to reflect on readers' experience of the larger section.

Just as I finish the optimistic assertion that follows smoothly from my early account of Lip Service, it occurs to me that my reading does not go far enough; the possible emotional isolation of depersonalized sexual encounters hangs on these words. Reading only the erotic tenor of submission does not take notice of the more strained, troubled undertones of the passage: "penalty," "cleft," and "languish" do not hint at joining or productive powerlessness. The orgasm I intended to associate with "intoxicates zest," with its joy in an altered state of consciousness, is reached "only" by "horror." Or, preceding "& languish denim orality," the same line ("horror only intoxicates zest") also appears to call up a dread that makes drunk the excitement of desire; whatever pleasure is reached diminishes as "orality"—be it oral sex or intimate conversation—"languishes." And even though "Fecund," taken alongside "co" and "craving," brings to mind the possibility of jointly beneficial couplings, any hope for mutual creation is "dissolved" by the "clitoridean penalty" of the previous line. With its pseudo-Italianization of the word "denunciate" combined with the word "de-heinous," the phrase "de-heinous denunciamento" suggests that the fetishized condom makes accusation not gross. In the context of a sexual encounter, the "accusation" would seem to be the body with which the about-to-be-penetrated partner confronts his or her lover, a body that the lover finds disgusting and does not want to touch without protection.

Nor does a great deal of useful surrender appear in the lines "cervically correct / cuckold this sleeve perpetrator dressed as a trap / do as I false" and "abject adore harder bedroom" (274). The colon preceding "abject adore harder bedroom" makes the line's hopeless love, tied as it is to the difficult sexual encounters of a "harder bedroom," a possible attribute of the languishing lover horrified by his partner's body. Or, if the colon calls attention to what terrifies the lover, the hopeless love of these lines might contrariwise belong to a female lover (the owner of the already mentioned clitoris) who endures the violence of her lover's retreat, although changing who experiences love's failure most especially does not displace the desolate tone of the passage—regardless of who suffers more, the collapse of their love remains a consequences of the condom-wheeler's revulsion in their "bedroom." Eight lines previous, the predatory language of "perpetrator dressed like a trap" mixed with the shame of the "cuckold" goes even further toward portraying a grim domestic space. Is a "cervically correct" cuckold a wronged, politically correct husband? Is he also, even if wronged, a "perpetrator," his politics in fact a "trap"? his "sleeve" a disguise, or something to keep a trick up? How do we read the "I" of "do as I false"? The wronged husband? The wronged husband who, with his liberal politics, still becomes the masculine, fear-driven misogynist that emerges in the next few lines? Is this "I" possibly the women doing the cuckolding? If so, is cheating on a bastard like him so wrong?

And yet, even as I push ahead with the troubled sexual dynamics emerging in the passage, the fear and violence it brings into play remain sexy; it is not hard, it seems necessary in fact, to read the aggression of the "perpetrator" as titillating. In the lines following the description of how the man dresses "as a trap" we get the "romance" of a zipper and the "membrane of lambskin," the latter apparently suggesting volition on the part of both parties as they pause to get the condom in position. In the midst of "horrors" and "penalties," the phrase "clings to clitoridean" still imagines clinging to a clitoris. We have, too, the "craving" of a "cleft" in the following line, and the climatic words "bliss" and "intoxicates."

In its dense, variable linguistic texture Lip Service demands readers create increasingly complicated conceptions of what it means to be a sexual agent. Rather than let readers do what they will with its erotic material, the poem asks them to consider how violence is erotic and how powerlessness is exhilarating. An attentive reading of Lip Service's notion of sexual agency acknowledges the poem's proposition that fear and at least the hint of violence can cause damage or lead to profound moments of intimacy and desire. It accounts as well for the equally relevant possibility that intimacy cohabits with emotional and physical harm. To ignore any of these considerations shirks the demands the poem's language makes on readers: Lip Service does not rely on a reader's morality to find what is distasteful in the poem actually distasteful, what it would take if readers actually authored the poem. Lip Service instead confronts readers with the necessary social nature of words; "cuckold" invokes shame and betrayal, and "horror" suggests fear and violence, not because these words have necessary meanings, but because they perform cultural functions. Stripped of narrative, the words of Lip Service assault readers with these public associations, pressing readers into executing strained and knotty interpretations. Here the words of Lip Service act most like a fetish, rendering readers powerless to do much other than respond and repeatedly adjust their meanings. And here reading begins to really hurt—Lip Service, like the masochist, maintains its desire in the constant delay of pleasure, or, as I might put it, in the deferral of a stable meaning, and in the persistent demand for more sophisticated interpretations.

Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations is the backdrop that illuminates Lip Service's forceful language use. Recalling Wittgenstein's "beetle in a box" illustration reminds us that meaning does not depend on individual experience—like having a beetle in a box—but on the word for that experience: a "beetle" in a box.[11] As soon as I speak or write I subject myself to the word I am using because I have implicitly agreed before the fact to take up the word in a particular, publicly recognizable way, and my language must correspond to that agreement, as long as I am interested in meaning, at any rate. Certainly there are thousands of types of beetles and beetle-like things that are, in fact, not. And although words are tricky for this reason, such trickiness does not mean I may call a beetle a spider. We may argue over what counts as a beetle and in our changing social context and the knowledge we gain there change what the word beetle means, and yet we must remain responsible to the word beetle and to those others with whom we share it.

Like the word "beetle," the sexually violent and thrilling language in Lip Service has significance before readers arrive on the scene—our linguistic contexts load "cuckold," "perpetrator," 'zipper," "membrane of lambskin," "cleft," and "bliss" with a range of sexual and moral overtones. Readers who come to these words must include what is brutal, repugnant, and erotic about them in whatever meanings they make, and they cannot, as I tried at first, to exclude what ill suits the interpretation they wish to advance. Lip Service, without making an explicit argument, places immense pressure on what readers do with its words. As reading begins to hurt, Lip Service urges readers to see that it makes a big difference what associative connections they forge. If in my former reading of "I'll talk to you just as long /as you're fucking me" I took the lines as erotic as well as unproblematic, reminding me as it does of my own relationship to whiny and needy women, my connection affirms my misogyny and I am worse off than when I started, as is the world. I don't think reading the poem as corroborating my chauvinism handles its language use well; however, because Lip Service does not fix a moral agenda it provides no guarantee it will be read progressively. Only by submitting to the discipline of Lip Service do my tendencies toward brutality and other failures in fellowship find their undoing. If I do not yield, I will discover in the poem the prejudice and useless violence I bring with me.

While I am sympathetic with Juliana Spahr's claim that Andrews's work does not allow the space of privilege to emerge in it, and that what is important about his poetry is the way it emphasizes the "sharable" and "encourages connection," I think it is also important to emphasize the disciplinary function of his work as well (Autonomy 59). The more freedom we grant readers the more their predispositions rule the poem; Lip Service does not want to moralistically govern those dispositions, but it does want us to make them the subject of our inquiry, a move we accomplish when we become responsible to the words of the poem as we read them. In readers' linguistic responsibility the prospect of Andrews's radical politics resides—the persistently optimistic impulse of Lip Service adheres in its attempt to make readers take on the burden of living in language. A poem whose style exposes readers to the way that words pull on all of us and make demands on our attention moves readers toward radical politics because it takes away any assurance that words have universal and inflexible definitions. If readers agree to the poem's readerly poetics, if they are able to find the poem meaningful, they begin to participate in a politics—that is, a way of interpreting—grounded in a concern for how we are subject to one another and to the ways we use words, not to abstract truths beyond the domain of language.

In the conversation surrounding Andrews's poetry and Language writing more generally, much has been made of the pleasures of the text, and I do not mean to discount the genuine delight available in the material texture of language. Nonetheless, remaining in the easy pleasures of immediate connection and linguistic play runs the risk of too easily glossing over the requirements of our words, and the demands of innovative poetry in particular. When readers struggle with their books they learn to twist their textual encounters in multiple directions; they plunge themselves into cultural and linguistic complexities and accept the shifts of their own attention with carefulness, all the while seeking out unexpected and productive juxtapositions, associations, and interpretive possibilities. When they do so, readers become responsible to their words—what I take Andrews to mean by "reading as writing." The connections I make when reading, the meanings I arrive at, are particular to me because it took my responses to accomplish them, but they are not my own. My connections and meanings do not belong to me inasmuch as they situate me as a social creature, one whose words become the material for another's reading. At most I have made clear my affiliations and alliances and defined myself for that instance. What remains for me is to go out of my way to make my readings more complicated, more attentive, more full of qualifications, for only painful readings have a chance to approach what Andrews calls "paradise," or move closer to his desire for "an Other or an Outside which is both a 'not us' and a 'not yet'" (remembering Perelman's reading). Andrews himself calls paradise "a total repertoire of possibilities," which I take as a desire to construct useful meanings in language with a mind constantly tuned to the ways in which a given meaning might be reconfigured, the ways in which language asks us to reconsider what we mean (Paradise 268). If I may shadow the moralist, I want to call the hope for paradise the expectation of a true reading: one adjusted to the difficulty of the world as we find it, and then find it again. Where the liberal subject demands autonomy and freedom, the reader of Lip Service discovers an obligation to the irregularities of reading. The pleasure of our duty to reading Lip Service well is the delight of thoughtfully considering what is more essential in the world than ourselves, which is almost everything.


[1] It is interesting to note that Dante's poem actually begins with the Moon (having already left the earth far behind), and ends with the Empyrean, the highest heaven at the center of the revolving universe. Lip Service does not correspond exactly to Dante's poem because Andrews retains only the first nine spheres of the Paradiso; he then drops the "Empyrean" and adds the "Earth" as the first section of his own poem. In effect Lip Service grounds itself on the earth and elides the pure heaven of Dante's epic, ending instead with "Primum Mobile" —the "first mover" and second to last sphere in the Paradiso. The fact that heaven disappears and the material world appears points to the materialist philosophy of Andrews's poem, even though it pictures the material world overflowing with surprising, strange, violent, and exhilarating experiences—erotic encounter most especially. [return]

[2] Although how readers interact with Lip Service cannot stand in for the way readers engage other works written by poets associated with Language writing (for their methods and projects are much too diverse), Andrews is certainly not alone in his attempt to actively involve readers in the making of a poem's meaning. Perelman's instance on reading Language writing as a group phenomenon self-consciously opens poems to readerly participation. The "open text" Lyn Hejinian argues for in "The Rejection of Closure," "by definition, is open to the world and particularly to the reader. It invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies" (43). In "The New Sentence" Ron Silliman's characterizes the work he is interested in as "limiting" "syllogistic movement" so that readers' attention remains "at or very close to the level of language" (91). There readers work with the author to make connections within and between sentences. Therefore, while troubling Andrews's account of the role of the reader in his poems does not attempt to critique Language writing in mass, its does, I hope, open up an inquiry into one of the foundational shared interests of the poets working under the critically imposed term Language writing, and in that way begin to rethink what we can take readers of so-called language poems to be doing. As Perelman also writes, the "consideration of individual career trajectories," and I think it is fair to say individual poems, given the textual focus of the Perelman's The Marginalization of Poetry, "allows for more complete and complex readings than a generalized formal grid meant to apply to all Language writing" (Marginalization 25). [return]

[3] To put Lip Service in the position of the tortured—in Deleuze's reading the pleasurable position—is only to say that the poem forwards its project through the discomfort readers feel when engaging its difficult material with the kind of attention it demands. That this metaphor might be troubled by questions like, "how would a text feel pleasure?" or "why can't reading Lip Service be pleasurable?" does not so much invalidate the metaphor as point to how Lip Service forces us to redefine much of our literary experience. If reading Lip Service provides pleasure it is not of the kind most people refer to when they speak about "pleasure reading," the type of reading they do on the beach or on airplanes, for the ironic, self-conscious reading strategies the poem demands make little room for being lost in the story, or being moved by the poem's immediate imagery and emotional insight. [return]

[4] Andrews conceives of his concern in Lip Service as beginning with a desire to trouble the sexual assumptions and identities of the poem's readers. In "Be Careful Now You Know Sugar Melts in Water" Andrews explains his interest in desire is in large part a concern for how sexual categories instruct us how and who to be precisely when we believe our desires originate in our private lives. He argues that "privatized sexuality offers itself up now less as a site of production . . . than of consumption—as a mystification & injunction. a [sic] language of sexual pressures becomes one of new consumer demands. . . . [P]enetrated—& seeded—by codes of language, it functions more & more as social command" (Paradise 131). Andrews's sentiments run parallel to the concerns of queer theorists like Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. By arguing that no natural sexual desire compels us toward one type of body or another, many queer theorists attempt to undermine the privileged position of heterosexual norms. Or, as Peter Quartermain points out concerning Andrews's poem, this understanding of sexuality's construction leads Andrews's work to "undo the sign" and disrupt the subjective experience of normalized heterosexual, often masculine, desire (paragraph 12). To replace the self-proclaimed natural model of heterosexual appetite with a more open, even more accurate model of socially, linguistically mediated desire, Lip Service and queer theory fracture the language and representation of what calls itself normal attraction, revealing as they do the liaison of our words and our bodies. Andrews's attention to the rhetoric of desire began in the 1980s— Love Songs (1982), Give 'Em Enough Rope (1987), and I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism) , a work composed during the 1980s, but published by Sun & Moon Press in 1992. Importantly, with this body of work behind it, Andrews's poetic practice in the 1990s largely discredits the once prevalent criticism that Language writing does not engage current theoretical concerns with agency or gender and sexual difference. [return]

[5] Much of what goes for misogyny in Andrews's work, of course, turns on readers reading it that way. Without any overt narrative context a line like "you can't portray women as they really are" leaves readers significant room for alternative interpretations. Likewise, there are plenty of moments in Lip Service with men as their focus, as in the line "whenever he gets a full hard-on, / the loss of blood to his brain makes him pass out" (143). However, given the poem's overtones of violence and critique of the white, male, heterosexual observer, I read the poem first as if the more open lines are gendered with a female subject in mind, and from the point of view of a heterosexual male, and secondly with eye toward complicating those readings. [return]

[6] Here my reading runs somewhat counter to Juliana Spahr's account of Andrews's poetry as cathartic. She writes, "Andrews's works articulate what often goes unsaid in life's more decorous moments. And that, in part, is what is valuable about his work. I would locate one connective possibility in this attention to how language might appear in uncensored, unregulated public spaces. Reading his work is in part a huge relief under the theory that if everyone just said the idiotic things they feel but suppress because of decorum, then at least they could be let out, maybe exorcised" (64). [return]

[7] While I do not want to pull back from the model of masochism, I do want to hold back from immersing Lip Service in the larger theoretical conversation around masochism and sadism, if only to keep Andrews's poem from becoming merely exemplary. Which is to say, I want to use Deleuze's formulation to open up Lip Service, but I do not want to confine my reading to it or the related critical discourse when they no longer serve my larger concern with how readers move through Andrews's poem. [return]

[8] As an aside I want to suggest that much of Bersani's argument reflects classic Christian theology, with its focus on strength in weakness, power in service, and life in death. As a means toward a just life, orthodox Christianity, whether its adherents wants to believe so or not, is structurally sympathetic with Bersani's queer philosophy. [return]

[9] I depart slightly from the complicated psychoanalytic reading of the fetish as well as from its specific role in the work of Deleuze or Bersani; they are all complicated enough, while not radically out of keeping with my use of it here, that to go into more detail would prove a distraction. [return]

[10] I have endeavored to preserve the development of my reading of this passage as it occurred to me. [return]

[11] In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein writes: "Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case!—Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a "beetle." No one can look into anyone else's box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.—Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing.—But suppose the word "beetle" has a use in these people's language?—If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might be empty.—No, one can 'divide through' by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is" (100). [return]

Works Cited

Andrews, Bruce. Lip Service. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2001.

---. Paradise & Method: poetics & praxis. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern UP, 1996.

Bersani, Leo. "Is the Rectum a Grave?" AIDS: cultural analysis / cultural activism. Ed. Douglas Crimp. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988. 197-222.

Deleuze, Gilles. "Coldness and Cruelty." Masochism. Trans. Jean McNeil. New York: Zone Books, 1989.

Hejinian, Lyn. The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000.

Perelman, Bob. The Marginalization of Poetry: Language writing and Literary History. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996.

---. "This Just In: Past Haunts Lip Service." Jacket 22 (May 2003). 26 Nov. 2005.

Quartermain, Peter. "PARADISE AS PRAXIS: A Preliminary note on Bruce Andrews's Lip Service." Electronic Poetry Center, SUNY Buffalo. July 2001.

Silliman, Ron. The New Sentence. New York: Roof Books, 1987.

Spahr, Juliana. Everybody's Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2001.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. 2nd ed. rept. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1958.