the Fragment: Notes on Andrew Levy
is not necessary to say everything. That is the secret of entertainment.
* * * *
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.
* * * * *
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
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.
* * * *
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":
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
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:
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
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
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?
* * * *
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,"
might stand for a continuity, but it's a shaky one, always on the verge
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
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
* * * *
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
* * * *
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
fascinated me because I could see myself as the tune
pages covered with
"question this page"
and my room
descendant of continuance
the final adjustments
raised up out of his grave
the body of the small point
pushing shopcart for bottles & cans
we will visit
of that sentence in my hand
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
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."
* * * *
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
* * * *
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,
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.
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute,
trans. Philip Barnard and Cheryl Lester (Albany, 1988), 40.
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).
Andrew Levy, Values Chauffeur You (Oakland, 1990), 71.
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
Levy, "Paper Head Last Lyrics," in Paper Head Last Lyrics
(New York, 2000), 66.
untitled poem from the section "About the Book," in Curve
(Oakland, 1994), 85.
"Endfield," in Curve 2, 101.
in Curve 2, 117. "Havdalah means to separate or make a distinction";
Levy, "Indispensable Coefficient."
Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophical Fragments, trans. Peter Firchow
(Minneapolis, 1991), 45. In Firchow's translation, "porcupine."
"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,
Levy, "Surf's Up," in Curve 2, 26.
Lear, Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life (Cambridge,
Mass., 2000), 77.
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
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
Levy, "#9 Money Socialism, Thanks (Yet) Again," in Elephant
Surveillance to Thought (Buffalo, 1998), unpaginated.
Monika Greenleaf, "The Romantic Fragment," in Pushkin and
Romantic Fashion: Fragment, Elegy, Orient, Irony (Stanford, 1994),
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.
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.
Jean Day, unpublished collaboration.
Schlegel, posthumous fragment, quoted in Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy,
Literary Absolute, 51.
Levy, "Indispensable Coefficient."