d.a.levy's "destructive writing"
and the Instant of Communication

by Ingrid Swanberg


When the element of destruction is no longer externally established in the theme (when poetry is not simply resonant movement, if the verbal play alone operates upon it a suppression of objects as such), it is no longer a crushing fatality but a deliberate exuberance, a rapid flood tide bearing limits away. It is not the overwhelming sky (annihilating mankind), but, on the contrary, the infinite transparency of the sky. The invoked God is in fact nothing but man himself, and the absurd confusion of stars with the limited quadrangle of a field makes man divine through a suppression of his limits only if man himself, almost at the boundaries of his fields, becomes what he calls a god. And I cannot doubt that this surge of poetry `bestows sight' in the depths of the sky of what I am (my presence at the edge of the abyss, which a cry reveals in the instant). Bataille (AM 151)

. . . (I'm an atheist who believes in god,
      I have to, i am god writes all my
      poems). . . d.a.levy ("Cleveland Undercovers", ZC 88)

In The Inhuman, Lyotard, in his articulation of the aesthetics of the sublime and its relationship to the avant- garde, describes "the irreversible deviation in the destination of art, a deviation affecting all the valencies of the artistic condition" (TI 101) as primarily a deviation taking its impetus from the Ereignis, the occurrence, the event--or, put negatively, in Burke's sense, from a spiritual terror of privation of the happening: ". . .the sublime is kindled by the threat of nothing further happening" (99). Other features of the sublime, the disarming of thought through an agitation of indeterminacy with regard to "what is", the shift in the position of the artist as sender to artist as involuntary addressee and the consequent supplanting of didactic forms (poetics and rhetoric) by aesthetics (99), the importance of the marvelous, monstrous, formless, imperfect, shocking as vectors of intense aesthetic feeling--all contribute to the "Is it happening?" of the sublime. The Kantian notion of negative presentation stands apart, for Lyotard, in that he sees the "Is it happening?" as fundamentally a question of time, which is not an explicit part of Kant's problematic (99). Lyotard believes that the here and now of Newman's sense of the sublime marks the question holding the contradictory feelings of anxiety and joy in suspension, awaiting the possibility of nothing happening (92). Moreover, this here and now announces "the displacement in which consists the whole of the difference between romanticism and the `modern' avant-garde" (93). This is a displacement of the fundamental task of romanticism, of "bearing pictorial or otherwise expressive witness to the inexpressible" (93). The difference lies in that what is inexpressible is not some other thing, being, time or place rendered through the work, but what happens, the event of the work itself is the inexpressible:

Here and now there is this painting, rather than nothing, and that's what is sublime. Letting go of all grasping intelligence and of its power, disarming it, recognizing that this occurrence of painting was not necessary and is scarcely foreseeable, a privation in the face of Is it happening? guarding the occurrence before being on one's guard, before `looking' [regarder] under the aegis of now, this is the rigour of the avant-garde. (93)

In some ways the problematics of the visual arts lend themselves very readily to Lyotard's explication of the sublime. The essays in The Inhuman furnish numerous examples. "The paint, the picture as occurrence or event, is not expressible, and it is to this that it has to witness" (93), etc. This paper will take up the poetry of d.a.levy, an American avant-garde poet who came into prominence in the 1960s, and will look particularly at his Concrete poems, which he gave the appellation, "destructive writing." levy's destructive writing falls into an indeterminate region between the visual and the written. I'll try to address the following questions: Is the here and now of the Is it happening? a sufficiently rigorous approach to the saying of the poem? If, as Bataille says, poetry is directed toward the same aim as sacrifice, seeking "as far as possible to render palpable, and as intensely as possible, the content of the present moment" (AM 149), may such a moment be aligned along the axis of the sublime with the here and now, which Lyotard indicates is a departure from Surrealism? To what extent does the poem communicate, in the sense Lyotard presents us with in regard to technology, that ". . .what is called communication is always, in every case, that nothing happens, that we are not destined" (TI 114)? What is the relation of this "nothing happens" to the event of the poem? In so doing I'll be guided by Lyotard's sense of the Ereignis of the (sublime) work of art and by Bataille's articulation of "the plenitude of the instant" which belongs to the poetic ordeal of sacrifice.

In August 1968 (year of violent appropriations), three months before his suicide, d.a.levy, in response to a request for a "poem about East Cleveland," wrote "Suburban Monastery Death Poem," a 28-page apostrophe to the city that explodes with ferocious despair and dark laughter.

"east cleveland has more history than cleveland"
she sed as if to pump that additional piece
of information into my de-generating energy
centers like a gas station attendant
i couldnt get it across to anyone
how tired i was
just writing poems for tomorrow
or writing poems for myself
a form of suicide

The poem's theme is of the appropriation and marginalization of the poetic under the technological epoch, what levy called "the nothingness of being a poet in America." In fact, the request for a poem about East Cleveland was an invitation to self-parody, touching, as it did on the notoriety levy experienced as the result of obscenity charges brought against him by the city, a pretext for silencing him because of his outspoken criticism of the establishment (he had also been arrested for jaywalking), on his overall refusal to be silenced, on his recent move to East Cleveland, and on his well- known poem "Cleveland Undercovers," published three years earlier, a poem in which he "writes" the city in a wild, exuberant and rhythmic prosopopoeia.

I won't take up levy's biography beyond these few details, which are intended to offer a setting for the mood of the Concrete poems and the question of communication/non-communication. If we take the `nothing happens,' the "loss of all destiny," with Lyotard, as "the essential feature of our problematic" (TI 114), then, as Heidegger puts it (writing of Hölderlin), there is "no moment in which to make a contrived myth of the figure of the poet" (PLT 95). "Suburban Monastery Death Poem" opens with a prelude ("PART ZERO--Celebration With Rada Drums") in which levy writes of the riots occurring in the Hough (a black ghetto):

only ten blocks away
buildings burned--perhaps burning now
the august night broken by sniper fire
police men bleeding in the streets
a sniper surrenders (perhaps out of ammunition)
Gun Jammed?
someone sed he was framed in a doorway
like a picture--his hands in the air
when they shot him--

only ten blocks away
from my quiet apartment
with its green ceramic buddhas
& science fiction books
unread skin magazines to be cut up
for collages

only ten blocks away
from my total helplessness
from my boredom enforced by the state
they are looting stores
trying to get televisions
so they can watch the riots
on the 11pm news

the national guard jeeps patrol
the streets again
the army-green trucks with the
giant white star on the side
moving in the summer lightning. . .

In speaking of Rimbaud's "silent contestation", his complete, unambiguous and unreserved sacrifice in the abandonment of poetry (a sacrifice through which he extended its "possible"), Bataille, in Inner Experience, describes the revolt of the poet at ". . .the idea of `using' poetic genius. And when this revolt is felt, everything becomes dark--one must vomit the wrongdoing, one must `expiate' it" (149). Bataille refers here to a usage, an exploitation of the poetic gift specifically relating to personal ambition, "glory," yet by extenuation this applies as well to the usage of poetry in the interests of project, which Bataille designates to the realm of morality. The darkening, or profanation, of poetry calls for sacrifice, which for Bataille, signifies the release of things from their servility, their use-value: "Like our ancestors, we must take objects away from productive activity to the interest of the instant itself." (IE 148). This is important in relation to the aesthetics of the sublime in at least three respects: 1) Because of the indeterminacy of its origin, the poetic gift comes, under the sublime, to be recognized only by its effects on the addressee (both the public and the artist). The avant-garde artist thus risks subservience to what Lyotard terms "the shock-effect", which opens the possibility of capture within various projects and programs (Dadaism is a good example) where the result is all that counts. 2) A progressive Christian-capitalist society demands that art be a finished product to be stored in its museum-silos or sold in its markets. As Lyotard notes in describing the seductive power of the art-market over artists, there is a "confusion between innovation and the Ereignis, a confusion maintained by the temporality specific to contemporary capitalism" (TI 106), a confusion which ultimately, by allowing innovation to "work," eclipses the question-mark of the Is it happening? (107). 3) Our technological epoch imposes an order which blinds us to all other orders, privileging identity and information above communication in such a way that avant-garde projects are subsumed as concepts within a technological economy we are unable to objectify, just as in the poem, "they are looting stores / trying to get televisions / so they can watch the riots / on the 11 pm news." Lyotard, in articulating the Kantian aesthetic of the sublime, links the incommunicability of the sublime to the Heideggerian retreat of Being. "For Heidegger, the welcome accorded something sensory, in other words some meaning embodied in the here-and-now before any concept, no longer has place and moment. This retreat signifies our current fate" (TI 113). The destitution of the present time belongs to the ontological limit of the completion of metaphysics, "the extreme oblivion of Being" (PLT 95), which leads philosophy to "misuse" poetry as a source for enriching itself. One must meet the poem half-way "thinking our way soberly into what [the] poetry says, to come to learn what is unspoken" (PLT 96). For Heidegger, the manifestness of the destiny of Being is intended for the poet because the poet says without representing. Bataille describes such poetic saying as ". . .the cry of what, within us, cannot be reduced; what within us, is stronger than us" (AM 138), powerful emotion instantaneously singing out the actuality of what is. The instant is communication. It is in this sense that he speaks of will: "This moment of the plenitude of the instant, in which the other is no longer `other than me', in which I am no longer 'other than him', is the ordeal of sacrifice, when it can, if poetry attains it, be willed" (AM 151). Thus poetry is destruction, intimation of ruin (IE 149). What is destroyed is removed from the profane world of utility and in the brevity of the instant is restored, through its absence, to sensibility. Poetry and sacrifice have the same aim: ". . .to render palpable and as intensely as possible, the content of the present moment" (AM 149). This is a deceptively simple thought. Bearing in mind Heidegger's sense of the poet's saying of the unspoken, the aletheia structure of the destituteness of the destitution of the present time (PLT 95), and the notion of poiesis as a bringing forth into presence or a letting come into presence through ecstasis, in which the poet is a "limit where the poiein itself is given to itself" (qtd. in Saíz, 2), we may ask, what, in the plenitude and brevity of the instant of poetic destruction, is brought into presence? This is also to ask after the possibility of a linkage between a poetic will to sacrifice and the "task of art. . . of the immanent sublime" Lyotard defines in terms of an "undoing the presumption of the mind with respect to time" and of "alluding to an unpresentable" (TI 107, 128). For Bataille, the cry of poetry and sacrifice "bestows sight" (AM 147, 149), sight which is of the senses as opposed to knowledge which is of reason (AM 137). Bataille believes that poetry differs from sacrifice in that in poetry words, which we use for instrumental acts of reason, are what is sacrificed, that is, removed from servility, in the poem. "We would in no way have anything of the human about us if language had to be entirely servile within us." (IE 135). This is essentially to attend, with Heidegger, to the demand that we enter into the speaking of language, not our own:

Only in that way do we arrive at the region within which it may happen--or also fail to happen--that language will call to us from there and grant us its nature. We leave the speaking to language. We do not wish to ground language in something else that is not language itself, nor do we wish to explain other things by means of language. (PLT 190-191)

For Bataille what is revealed in the sacred instant of communication is the victim's absence. The instant, always already fleeting, holds open to sensibility an absence which both obscures and reveals. Yet the stress here is upon the instant of change rather than the suppressed object. "The ritual has the right of fixing `sensitive concern' at the burning instant of transition: where what exists already ceased to exist, or what no longer exists is, for sensibility, no more than it was." (AM 149) The poem, for Bataille, is not exempt from appropriations falling in general under the sway of the technological. This takes place on two accounts: Firstly, it arises out of the nature of language itself--turning again to Heidegger: "In what is spoken, speaking gathers the ways in which it persists as well as that which persists by it--its persistence, its presencing" (PLT 194). Secondly, the desire for permanence and security tends towards a stifling of the poem's emotive actuality in deference to the uses of culture:

What once bestowed sight is exactly what later prevents it. . . Between the man (who cries) and actuality (which is), language whose generality and immaterial character slips smoothly into security, immutability and the Academy, habitually intervenes. Poetry, proclaiming the suspended instant, by the fact that the affecting order of words will survive it, tends to express only a durable meaning. In fact, such is the poverty of poetry that in using words to express what happens it tends to stifle the cry of actual emotion under the disguise of a museum face. . . .And in consecrating [words] to the elevated condition to stir emotion, it slowly uses the emotive value and, without fail, withdraws a power it wanted to be as great as possible. (AM 147)

Bataille also remarks here, on the same principle, the way in which poetry separates noble and sacred words from the ordinary and common, demonstrating how the "unpoetic" poetry of Jacques Prévert, through a process of arbitrary association, overturns this stifling order. "It is poetry because, in itself, it harshly effects the ruin of poetry." (AM 152) This was precisely the aim of the Concrete avant-garde, with its violent "concretions." The "Para-Concrete Manifesto," developed by levy, D.R. Wagner and Kent Taylor, proclaims (following Artaud),

. . .Our concrete poems are Shit/ each poem a tiny spat of diarrrrhea
growing into infinite globules of cement excrement/ our concrete poems
are beyond concrete poems/ Where DaDaism failed, preaching Anti-Art
but creating art & the NaDaists failed by creating an art of nothing-
when they proclaimed NOTHING - the cleveland cement fuckers will
succeed in giving the Public SHIT. . .
each poem - a new death of WORDS AS ART. . . (ZC 129)

For levy, as for Bataille, the poetic is in essence: change, disruption, destruction, ruin.

I'd like to turn now to levy's destructive writing poems. The "experiments in destructive writing" of the Zen Concrete and The Tibetan Stroboscope sequences are Concrete poem-collages largely composed of heavily ink-saturated fields of "text", in which words are darkened and blurred beyond legibility. Words and lines slip, cloud, grow, bend, change, appear, disappear and decompose on the page. Fragments of Buddhist scripture, photo images from contemporary "skin magazines," images from sacred (erotic) Tibetan and Indian art, and ironic typewritten captions are sometimes embedded into the syntax formed by the saturated fields of darkened text. These embedded images seem to gain the character of the obliterated typography, and to sink into its obscurity. There is a mood of annihilation; a subtle reference to censorship. The overwhelming effect is a sense of great immediacy, direct transmission, a ground zero impact. A frequent response to these poems (when a response is not refused out of hand--this itself, of course, being a response) is laughter.

For the purposes of this paper I'll take up one of the poems in which no images appear, titled simply "SELECTED WRITINGS" and inscribed with levy's poetic signature and the year, "1967." Below these appears an eclipsed text in a shape recognizable as a poem, in which the words and lines bleed and fur with a superabundance of black mimeo ink ringed by a faint aura of oil. What is the saying of this poem? What is its event? More to the point, is the question of the Is it happening? sufficient to the poem? Lyotard's description of this question is as follows:

The event happens as a question mark `before' happening as a question. . . .The possibility of nothing happening is often associated with a feeling of anxiety, a term with strong connotations in modern philosophies of existence and of the unconscious. It gives to waiting, if we really mean waiting, a predominantly negative value. But suspense can also be accompanied by pleasure, for instance pleasure in welcoming the unknown, and even by joy, to speak like Baruch Spinoza, the joy obtained by the intensification of being that the event brings with it. This is probably a contradictory feeling. It is at the very least a sign, the question-mark itself, the way in which it happens is withheld and announced: Is it happening? The question can be modulated in any tone. But the mark of the question is `now', now, like the feeling that nothing might happen: the nothingness now. (TI 90, 92)

I think the levy poem exceeds the scope of this question. In this poem the "mark of the question" becomes simply a mark. The copula of the here and now is severed in the instant of the poem's concretion. "SELECTED WRITINGS" is writing as writing. What occurs does not occur in the work; the Ereignis of the poem is not situated in the realm of a witness of pigments as in the event of the painting (TI 93), nor in the "field where certain researches [recherches] into language have free rein" (100), but in the instant of the "death of WORDS AS ART" (ZC 129). (To regard the poem as a "research" would be to reinscribe it in the destitution of the technological order and to insure that "nothing happens, that we are not destined" [TI 114]). The poem's destructive writing is a putting to death of words. Its realm is without mastery, without time. It is the instant of a complete spending, in which words are sacrificed and the poem is. As Bataille writes,

". . . poetry. . .is the sacrifice in which words are victims" (IE 135). If there is an absolute of the poem, it is its silent contestation of the `nothing happens' in the instant in which its absence is revealed. Thus as in Bataille's paradox, it is in the sacrificial instant of communication, the fleeting moment of change, that the poem lives.

The awakening of the sensibility, the passage from the sphere of intelligible (and usable) objects to excessive intensity, is the destruction of the objects as such. In the world of the instant nothing is dead, absolutely nothing, even if the infinite pressure of death alone has the power to burst in with a single leap. (AM 150)

In its destructive play, the levy poem brings a (literal) thickening of language into a typography of ruin that forecloses upon the possibility of appropriation through the poem's meaning, its fictioning, its said. Only as it is taken out of any productive activity does the poem communicate. levy is aware of the danger, in sacrificing "meaning" of creating a fiction of meaninglessness readily lending itself to modalities of use-value: innovation, taste--the demands of culture and the market place (which in turn follow the demands of technology)--"the eclecticism of consumption"-- Lyotard associates with postmodernism (TI 127). But even Lyotard's sense of "the task of art" which would serve "the honour of painting," etc., is open to appropriation on the part of intellectuals and philosophers moving into the "position of an unknown avant-garde" (128). Such is Bataille's intuition in connecting morality and project. Yet in "SELECTED WRITINGS" not only the sense of words but words themselves are given up in an extension of the poem into the neutrality of pure writing, a risking in language unto death (of words). This risking which admits of no second order for the saying of the poem and in which the poet alone is the limit is the rigor of the avant-garde.

Poetic genius is not verbal talent (verbal talent is necessary since it is a question of words, but it often leads one astray): it is the divining of ruins secretly expected, in order that so many immutable things become undone, lose themselves, communicate. Nothing is rarer. (IE 149)

Or said another way, with regard to time:

When poetry, to which nothing is connected in advance, can destroy without respite, it always makes use of unforeseen means. (AM 152 emphasis mine)

The poem's death is a `nothing happens' which exceeds everything. Death in the poem doesn't appear; it happens; it is the event. The Ereignis of this poem is always already withdrawn into the indeterminate "time" of the residue: the materiality, "concreteness" and silence of the destructive writing. Sublime depth of abyss. The poem remains in absence under the singularity of the signature and date. Its "time" of possibility is of the future anterior, not in Lyotard's sense of "guarding the occurrence before `looking' [regarder] under the aegis of now . . .[which]. . .is the rigour of the avant-garde" (TI 93) (it is not about guarding or regarding), but in the sense of an absolute expenditure that opens up a space for communication. Through a total annihilation of the poem's said, we are brought into rapport with its saying, its cry of silence, its removal into writings, its absence confronting us with an unimaginable depth, "the infinite transparency of the sky." Such rapport is not a fictioning but an actualizing. The poem's deathly silence of writing is beyond appropriation into project, beyond recuperation into aesthetics, "researches." It has no "museum face." What appears on the page, the "selected writings," the "remains" are not the poem--for to say this would be "to retain with one hand what the other gives" (IE 148).


AM: Bataille, Georges. The Absence of Myth: Writings on Surrealism. trans. Michael Richardson. London: Verso, 1994.
IE: ---, Inner Experience. trans. Leslie Ann Boldt. Albany: State U of New York P, 1988.
PLT: Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
ZC: levy,d.a. Zen Concrete & Etc. Madison: Ghost Pony P, 1991.
TI: Lyotard, Jean François. The Inhuman. trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford U P, 1991.
Saíz, Próspero. "Bataille and Vallejo: The Cry of the Lyric and the Poetics of Sacrifice." presented at the MMLA Convention, Nov. 1995, St. Louis.

This paper was originally presented at the annual M/MLA convention, Chicago, 1997.

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