Bruce Andrews: “Fluorescent Butch Wax”

The cliche about the Language “school” or “movement” is that the poets involved had committed themselves to a program of non-referentiality and that anyone who reassembled the expectations of vocabulary and syntax could produce a “Language” poem. I recollect seeing more than a few examples of such poems produced by those whose antipathy to Language writing verged on paranoia. One problem with their attempts to satirize Language writing is that their examples undermined their intent. “Where’s the meaning in this poem?” they would ask, assuming that because they had let go of their usual anecdotal recollections of some biographically based memory as the basis for a poem that they had destroyed any semblance of meaning. On the contrary, the possibilities of meaning had only shifted their contexts, but following up on the implications of those new thresholds would have required more intellectual work than they were willing to engage in.

I dip back into my recollection of a particular period in the Anthology Wars (early 1980s) as a preface to today’s meditation on a set words in a poem that I heard Bruce Andrews read many years ago: “fluorescent butch wax.” In the accelerated collage of images I heard Andrews reading, this one instigated a startling moment in which ideology’s pomp and circumstance got punctured with all the suddenness of the “b’loop” of Basho’s frog.

Let’s start with the sound: I’ve always heard “butch wax” as a single unit, or at least compressed in its pronunciation to be equivalent to “jump-start.” The approximately similar duration of “fluorescent” and “butch wax” keeps the shimmer of the signifiers tugging at each other in a kind of motionless spinning; there is a subtle rhythm that makes the right hand of vowels and the left hand of consonants strike a harmonious burst on the keyboard.

If the sound catches our ears, it is the summoning of the chronotope of time and place that stirs the suspicions of the mind’s heart: the 1950s classroom in which all the insidious propaganda of a militaristic nation-state was fomented by the willing naive accomplices of teachers and educational administrators. Fluorescent light is, of course, artificial, and its presence as a modifier is meant to problematize the performance of gender signified by “butch wax.” The hyper-masculinity that this product represents is equivalent in its artificialness to the light that enables students to read the narratives of history (the Revolutionary War; the Civil War, etc.) that are supposed to reinforce the students’ ideas of citizenship. White citizenship. Butch wax was a product associated with white males. Check out the website for baseball cards for this period if you want the full crewcut monty of race and gender.

Pound’s image of the crowd in the metro used vegetation to congest its apparitional aura. Andrews conjures up the apparition of pedagogical ideology and reveals the theatrical context of the performance needed to prop up its tenuous legitimacy. In a room glistened with this patriarchal power, no doubt is permitted or recognized. No hands are raised, other than in obedience. Language writing was in direct opposition to the collaboration with power that so much of mainstream poetry represented in an anthology such as “The Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets.” Anyone who thinks that the Anthology Wars ended in the early 1960s is not paying attention, nor are they reading at a level beyond that required in a classroom lit by fluorescent butch wax.

For those unfamiliar with this hairstyle, I recommend the following site:

Butch Wax

*. *. *. *

In contrast with my reaction to “fluorescent butch wax,” I direct the reader to: