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Bruce Andrews, Designated Heartbeat, Salt, 2006

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Bruce Andrews was co-editor of the American avant-garde magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, whose title gave rise to the Language Poetry moniker now applied to a range of work where the conventional presentation of language is thoroughly thwarted, spliced, reconditioned and redirected. Now the author of over two dozen books, each often a complete sequence in itself, Andrews collects here shorter pieces from the last ten years.

Shorter, yes, but these are dense, rich, poems, which cackle with a kind of musical paranoid glee – “delirium zoning bouncing sister”; “You pull while I rake, you bellied up in an addendum”; “Megaphonic do the mobile popcorn” – and crackle, because the usual transmission carrier, the smooth consecutive sense of narrative that is conventionally, perhaps, seen as reassuring, is disrupted or simply kept outside the metaphoric dance club doors by muscled if at times screeching obliquity. Formal variance from poem to poem lessens the apparent difficulty of the book, with prose poems, various visual texts, and a range of linelengths. Even so, Andrews seems to have in this reading a short, punchy rhythm that is common to many of these structures, and one which visual variation does not greatly vary aurally.

This poetry is a kind of American gothic, playing off the professional vocabularies of, for example, law, medicine, business management and literary criticism, against the relatively outré language of spells, a child’s alphabet, puppetry and romance. In the gothic tradition, the effect can be to heighten fear as competing theories of living are placed in conflict, but also to allow for pleasurable swagger: “I’m not surgery delicacy so / sugar-free the characters become / spray-cans to let the syntax / do the italicizing dosage zoo.” (from “Reverb Sallies”).

Certainly Andrews likes to force the physical body up against the linguistic environment that interpenetrates it. Images of blotches, chapped skin, and other more violent interventions against and into the human form puncture and punctuate a book as reality checks on registers of commercial, if still figurative, abstraction. Not everyone will wish to follow the advice Andrews records in one poem – “use your scab for a bookmark” – and the book’s immense energy suggests the author may be as much an enthusiast for the fastmoving misshapen modern world as a critic of it. Line after line of the nearly connected, the very witty and the nearly witty, gradually counter the concept of (from another poem) “unforgettable flickers”, simply because the texts are so rich, and they might well have a kind of what Andrews defensively voices as “referent burnout”, but that surely means that this is a book to re-read and re-enjoy.

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