CUTBANK REVIEWS: Nothing is In Here by Andrew Levy
Nothing Is In Here
EOAGH Press, 2011
“The United States of Andrew Levy”
review by Matt Reeck
Both meanings of the word lead the way into Andrew Levy’s book. Nothing Is In Here is a constitution, in the sense of a document of profession, belief, and order—a binding to law, a cohering of a social body, as any nation-state must have. But it also investigates the idea of constitution as composition, as the content of being.
The title sentence “nothing is in here” is a primary tenet in this new state, the United States of Andrew Levy, and yet with its seeming negation of the book’s every proposition, what gives, Mr. President? Am I not to take you seriously?
Well, no. Or yes.
Every book of poetry constitutes at least one thing: a proposition about authentic experience, a proposition about authentic statement, or a proposition about both. Nothing Is In Here does both. As a polysemous text, it asks the reader to focus on their experience of reading; it asks the reader to reconstitute the text in a way meaningful for themselves. The book also asks the reader to be wary of language’s advantage: its ability to propose reality, to instate reality through its logic. (Logic is a feature of language.) This warning, then, is Levy’s own way of defining, or deferring, the possible authenticity of statement, language and voice. The question is shifted to the sphere of social reality, i.e. experience.
If nothing is in here, what does Nothing Is In Here point toward?
It points toward a Utopian search for an authentic experience of life and of language, not blinded by the beacons of convention—ideology and orthodoxy. It doesn’t tell us any one thing, but it does show us what an experience of looking for authentic experience (as a poet, as a citizen) looks like. It also shows the process of a writer trying to keep himself off-balance so as to subvert his own ideological routines.
But if the value of statement is that it leads quickly to action, what happens to the possibility of action within a failed public order and corrupt government—in our America? The possibility of meaningful action seems remote. Instead, in such conditions, the only realizable goal becomes imagining future actions, and likewise opening the future to imagination.
Nothing Is In Here speaks with the urgency of finding an anchor in social experience that will allow individual and social transformation.
Every text is plural, or polysemous. Of course a writer can find ways to reduce or to exaggerate the open-ended nature of texts, especially literary ones. Those that constrain meaning, or reduce a text’s polysemous nature, are, as Roland Barthes instructed in S/Z, readerly. Those that promote the fragmentation of narrative and encourage diverse readings are writerly.
Mark Nothing Is In Here as an extreme example of the latter.
Barthes writes that a writerly text means to “make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text” (4). It wants the reader to “gain[ing] access to the magic of the signifier, to the pleasure of writing.” This is a cordial invitation: the reader as equal to the writer. It is an invitation that Levy offers as well: “I don’t think you’ll be able to read my writing without leaving some trace” (46). This is good. Not only does this statement recognize textual reality, but it also permits my desire to participate in shaping meaning.
But Barthes cautions that the writerly text is an abstraction, an ideal image that cannot live fully in the world:
The writerly text is a perpetual present, upon which no consequent language (which would inevitably make it past) can be superimposed; the writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world (the world as function) is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages. (5)
Nothing Is In Here is, thus, not without content. It has its own constitution. And it has its own ideology (Utopian) and genus/genre (poetic manifesto). If the title suggests that the book is writerly, then Barthes keeps us grounded by pointing out the obvious constraints on writing. No text is entirely random; once writing begins, the writer’s consciousness shapes it in ways well beyond the writer’s control:
For the plural text, there cannot be a narrative structure, a grammar, or a logic; thus, if one or another of these are sometimes permitted to come forward, it is in proportion (giving this expression its full quantitative value) as we are dealing with incompletely plural texts, texts whose plural is more or less parsimonious. (6)
Nevertheless, Levy’s text struggles to achieve a fluid interchange between the constitutive elements of language and consciousness. It pushes against the forces that bind us into narrative, coherent (and, perhaps, sane) bodies. In this way, it is experimental; in this way, it is Utopian.
After the failed Utopian schemes of the twentieth century, it’s hard to get too excited about future Utopias. Read Foucault for a thoroughly distasteful description of Utopia:
The plague-stricken town, traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears a distinct way over all individual bodies—this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city. (198)
This is the sort of nation-state Levy does not want to live in. Nor would I. But it is, in certain regards, reminiscent of our lives today: hierarchy, surveillance, the function of an extensive power (viz. money, social classism) over individual bodies.
If we live in a decadent state, if we recognize the earmarks of corruption around us, then we also suffer the chronic fatigue of hindsight. This is Levy’s world.
He laments the ambiguous freedom of language stripped from social context: “It has been easy to say anything at all for some time” (1). He questions the bureaucracies of intellectual creed and caste: “It’s not even disinterestedness, its exhaustion / What’s the problem? / Languages have betrayed their glorious beginnings? / Intellectual, social, and professional suspension?” (52).
He returns to interrogative reminders, asking us to overcome our torpor: “So what do we do?” (13). And, “Would we get used to it? Would we accommodate ourselves? / […] Be content with what you have been able to act on?” (38). He pushes us toward acknowledging our inactivity and our resignation within the status quo. And yet, what change is possible? What revolutionary change can we countenance, with the recent past being so full of Utopian errors?
In Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Jameson suggests that within the contemporary world the impulse toward change itself, the Utopian desire for transformation itself, suffices:
The Utopian form itself is the answer to the universal ideological conviction that no alternative is possible, that there is no alternative to the system. But it asserts this by forcing us to think about the break itself, and not by offering a more traditional picture of what things would be like after the break. (232)
This is the leading edge, the onward search, that Levy is interested in. He locates the break in two things: the text, or the book as form; and beauty. First, the text itself hopes to furnish possibilities: “To act so that thought could possibly be read in ways different than one expected” (5/6).
Beauty is the key to understanding what might lead us toward a future of shared value: “[…] beauty focuses on inclusion, finding commonalities between objectives” (70).
 Important here is the idea of social text—of a text not speaking merely for a private individual but a text that does that and goes beyond that to speak with a social voice, for social imperatives, effectual because the desires it expresses aren’t that of just one individual but rather represent the beliefs of many.
The text’s non-referential use of personal pronouns is the first obvious means of implying a social text. The text reinforces this through its meta-commentary: “Identity can be lost in the telling of the stories one knows or linking sentences in imagined collisions as if these colliding stories are not there” (70). The writer can hardly be located in the weave of the text’s pronouns and in the displacements of scene and attitude. But the goal is not to locate a particular individual—the writer—through the veil of the text’s words. The goal is to progress toward a consciousness capable of transformation.
 Beauty as abstraction, as motivator, as means, as Utopian ideal.
Beauty is Levy’s idea to shape action. It’s intimately tied to the idea of the book:
There’s something in my character that’s always pushed me toward the book. At the idea that I would discover, if my intentions and effort were spirited, the book that would satisfy a quest for everything I’d grown to imagine language, as rendered in books might provide. It would be a complete satisfaction, emotionally, sexually, intellectually, in every way. I would end my search for that book having come to the one that completed everything. And if it did “complete” everything for me it would by extension, though I’ve never bothered to think how this extension would manifest itself, complete every person’s thirst in the entire world. That has been part of my fantasy of beauty—of what beauty would be. (7-8)
This passage, the first in the book to deal with beauty overtly, declares the scope of beauty’s power. The writing is full of the language of Utopia: discovery, completion, total satisfaction. But it reins itself in at the end; it acknowledges what Jameson notes as necessary in our times—the understanding that Utopia is a fantasy, an imagining of what something could be without going so far as defining it outright.
If Utopia, if beauty, is not (and should not be) an end-state, then it might act as a vehicle to transform us out of stasis: “The beauty of something you can’t do even if the attempt toward that thing, thoroughly compromised, is penned to dissolve or recede from your hopelessly outdated history” (11). That is to say, beauty is a motivator toward something, and though that thing will never exist, the momentum will create a new landscape, a new history, and might create a new sense of possibility.
 Beauty quotes.
Beauty is the philosopher’s stone (that which can change metal to gold, human ambivalence to positive action). Beauty is the lynchpin to “[s]elf-transmuting in the reform of one’s own discourse” (70).
No eventuality, the text says, “[…] fails to diminish the belief in the inevitability of a beauty that can be attained” (16).
The text itself is a conduit for change: “What is beautiful must change. […] The unthinkably improbable hero of the plot, given so much time, makes the impossible become possible, the possible beautiful, and a good competitor emotionally” (23).
Beauty has been maligned: “Beauty isn’t a bed partner to envy, but it has been forced to act as one” (32).
Instead, we should acknowledge it as a shining hope: “There is a circle that goes from you to the world and back. That’s the way to go into a world. A thick beauty” (60).
Beauty is the key to linking the individual to the commonweal:
Beauty may first appear “an unblendable element … alien and unassimilable,” a desire that when you open it up it becomes a piece of the real you can live in. I disappear when I feel it and everything, every bit of everything rises before me. I am part of the bridge that is falling; I am part of the bridge that is being built. I imagine everything is still very rough going. I understand that it must be difficult to think. That incompletion in the imagined manifestation of the complete has been a crucial part of my fantasy of beauty—of what beauty would be. The site of many celebrations, in some manner self-arranged, it’s something that seems to be, at least for me, a required course of hope temporarily turned out and felt to be complete. (61)
If a repetitive refrain (as refrains tend to be), “nothing is in here” asks us even at the book’s conclusion not to accept it. Not to accept this text. This answer. Nothing Is In Here asks us not simply to shelve the book, nod or shake our heads, yawn or smile. Rather, it really wants us to ask ourselves what we can do to change the real world we live in. This is a generous offer. It’s also an offer, and challenge, that this reader will continue to try to meet.
Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. NY: FSG, 1974.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. NY: Vintage, 1995.
Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso, 2005.
Andrew Levy is the author of Don’t Forget to Breathe (Chax Press), Nothing Is In Here (EOAGH Books), Cracking Up (Truck Books), The Big Melt (Factory School), Ashoka (Zasterle Books), Democracy Assemblages (Innerer Klang), Values Chauffeur You (O Books), and several other titles of poetry and prose. His writing has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Writing from the New Coast, The Gertrude Stein Awards in Innovative American Poetry, and Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s. With Roberto Harrison, Andrew edited and published the poetry journal Crayon 1997-2008.
Matt Reeck’s poetry is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Interim, No Dear, and Verse. His reviews have appeared in Jacket2 and The Brooklyn Rail. A winner of PEN and NEA translation grants, he is the co-translator with Aftab Ahmad of Bombay Stories – stories from the Urdu of Saadat Hasan Manto – forthcoming from Random House India. He is the co-editor of the new magazine Staging Ground.