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Language may be what makes us human, but language also imprints time on the body of experience. Imprints, encodes, brands. In the poems of Bob Perelman, the tenses (as they encode time) frequently appear as a burden or a threat. In ‘Indirect Address: A Ghost Story,’( from Iflife) the speaker is found, “dragging a motley pageant of tenses/Across the first sentence/Which is only just now finishing.//Before it began” The speaker here is a grammatical Sisyphus; the long march to the Present still looms before him.
These lines have an odd resonance with the novels that comprise Remembrance of Things Past. For Proust’s narrator, involuntary memory brings back the past as plenum, filling a present moment and enabling a future in which the story (which has, in fact, just been written) can be told. Proust posits the future of memory, which is, perhaps not coincidentally, the name of one of Perelman’s books. For Perelman (more than for Proust) the logical conundrum presented by both novel and poem seems to be a cruel short-circuit. The speaker in many of Perelman’s poems appears to feel cheated of Presence, overwhelmed by the accumulating alterity of time. “We were recording everything,//but the unlabeled cassettes were spilling/over into the footage currently being//shot.” (‘Virtual Reality’, Virtual Reality). When Derrida (to whom ‘Indirect Address’ is dedicated, on the occasion of his death) informed us that presence had “always already” been replaced by the “trace,” he seemed rather gleeful about it. Perelman, to the extent that he accepts this idea, seems to mourn the lost pre-lingual body. In ‘Symmetry of Past and Future,’(The Future of Memory) he writes, “Where language is, there/I was once, infant/everywhere, held in the/devices of an enchanter/who smiled.” This enchanter might be the mother, representing the Culture, teaching the child the grammar that will divide him from himself. But there is always a remainder. As the poem goes on to say, at the end, time (or language) is
… a day that will
never die, since it only exists
in the past and the future,
with my body blocking the otherwise,
This is the unruly body, equated with the present moment, which protrudes like an embarrassing erection from the abstracted unity of time. It’s in the way, mortal, awkward, but somehow inevitable, because after all, “It is individuals who finally get the feel of the tenses/So that it may snow, has to snow on the muddy corpse.” (‘The Unruly Child,’ from To The Reader). To ‘get the feel of the tenses’ means, of course, to learn to use them to navigate the cultural world, but it also means, more literally, to discover how it feels to be internally divided by them. The socio-linguistic order, in the form of past and future, threaten to overwhelm the obdurate or unruly child.
The self as linguistic speaker and the self as bodily experience are divided so that we can and do use language to boss ourselves around. As Perelman puts it in ‘Virtual Reality’ (in the book of the same name), “..But the more commands/we gave our body the more/it gaped and clumped together, over-excited/and impossible to do anything with.” Here the body is a kind of bad-hair day, something to be ashamed of. We seem to be in a double bind situation. The erasure of the self/body/present is mourned as a loss, but, the conspicuous, unruly body/self is very much under threat.
the global information net had become
obsessed with our bodies’ every move
spasm, twitch, smashing at it with
videotaped sticks, validating it, urging instant
credit, free getaways, passionate replacement offers
(‘Virtual Reality’ VR)
There is a lot of meaning to unpack here. Somewhere in this scene we can see the Los Angeles police clubbing Rodney King on video and then on nationwide TV for not obeying quickly enough. We can also see capitalism as a kind of intrusive, bullying parent, socializing the unruly child with the carrot as well as the stick, demanding that we buy into the going abstraction: credit. Language itself may be the ultimate “replacement offer.”
The tenses, with which I began, are never neutral; the future seldom fails to reveal the prospect of obliteration, while the past is History (political or literary), often a bully, full of patriarchal claptrap. There is a lot of bad history/bad dad in Perelman. “Here/comes Kreon now, just as we are mentioning him//… .KRE: God wants you to die.” (‘Oedipus Rex,’ The First World). Or there’s this from ‘The Family of Man’ (Face Value), “Why is there money, Daddy? And why is there Daddy, Money?” It’s the Daddy/State that speaks “the one language not called money/and the other not called explosions.” (‘The Unruly Child,’ To the Reader). “We may not have chosen to live in Dick Cheney’s mind, but we do.” (‘Against Shock and Awe,’ Iflife) Maybe I’m getting a bit Freudian. But I think Bob is a bit Freudian himself. His poem ‘Autobiography by Aphorism’ begins, “The father was trying to explain castration, ‘They say it’s like completely academic, but believe me, it’s not. I’d like you to sit still for a second, not squirm, not plug your ears… ” The past/history/daddy threatens to castrate the present (tense); while the future promises it credit, if it learns to behave.
Iflife is particularly concerned with the problematic bad dads of poetic history, and especially to Ezra Pound, whom Perelman both loves and hates. “Imagine a world without Homer, Pound, without Virgil, (without Mussolini):” (‘A Guide to Homage to Sextus Propertius,’ Iflife).
The various issues I’ve raised so far come together most viscerally, perhaps, in the poem “Chaim Soutine,” from The Future of Memory. This poem is partially narrated by the painter Chaim Soutine who, having been beaten and humiliated for painting portraits, (“Thou shalt make no graven images/and thou shalt smash the kid/who tries to paint the rabbi,” ), now berates and taunts the reader. The narrator seems to have shed his vulnerability by identifying with his oppressors. This is typical enough, but the way he accomplishes it in this poem is more surprising. The character whom the narrator/Soutine abuses is the very pre-linguistic, pre-cultural infant he once was, before he was given the Law. He says, “I’ve found out the hard way./But at least I’m not in that ridiculous posture anymore,/squeezing the neck, eyes screwed tight, piously sucking.” What he mocks, it turns out, is the ephemeral nature of experience, the present that is cut short, the remnant desire that is over once the tenses have done their jobs and the story is complete:
You’ve swallowed it all! Tasted good?
Who knows? All gone!
Bottoms up must have been
your very first word!
Is such (infantile?) amnesia inevitable or is it imposed by the structures of grammar and the pressures of history? While “dragging a motley pageant of tenses,” permanently attached to us now, we will never be able to find out. Bob Perelman’s poems register a protest.
Rae Armantrout’s most recent book, Versed (Wesleyan, 2009), was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Next Life (Wesleyan, 2007), was chosen as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by The New York Times. Other recent books include Collected Prose (Singing Horse, 2007), Up to Speed (Wesleyan, 2004), The Pretext (Green Integer, 2001), and Veil: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001). Her poems have been included in anthologies such as American Hybrid (Norton, 2009), Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (1993), American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Language Meets the Lyric Tradition, (Wesleyan, 2002), The Oxford Book of American Poetry(Oxford, 2006) and The Best American Poetry of 1988, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2007 and 2008.. Armantrout received an award in poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2007 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008. She is Professor of Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, San Diego. Writing in Poetry magazine, Ange Mlinko has said, “I would trade the bulk of contemporary anecdotal free verse for more incisive, chilling poetry like Armantrout’s.