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Bob Perelman

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Bob Perelman Feature

Nada Gordon

To the Reader

(On Bob Perelman’s To the Reader)


I came to language poetry more or less directly out of punk rock. I think I was initially attracted to it because I thought it was the closest contemporary poetic equivalent to “hardcore,” and that the language poets were doing a better job than anyone else at the time of acknowledging in their works and ideas the social “mosh pit” of language into which all human beings are compelled to dive. I have a memory from sometime in the early 80s of a poetry reading given by Bob Perelman, I think at Jessica Grim’s house in Berkeley. Bob, mixed in with his usual poems of mordant and punning social critique, read a tender line about resting his head on his wife’s breast: the audience members emitted an extended communal “awww.” I remember thinking, with more than a little punkish disdain: What? These are the “hardcore” Language Poets? What a bunch of softies!


Indeed, Bob Perelman is a poet about whom one can easily imagine hearing some curmudgeon say, “I don’t like language writing, except for Bob Perelman.” In the 80s poetry zeitgeist of the exploded self, where syntax was almost shrapnel, and the notion of authorship suspicious, Perelman wrote (and still continues to write) personable, relatively lucid poems that are suffused with the kind of empathetic anxiety that can only issue from a speaking subject. His Tuumba chapbook, To The Reader is a case in point. Its very title posits direct address and an emotional, person-to-person rhetorical appeal. Every poem in the book exists to demonstrate the zigzagging relationships between the individual / bodies / sex / desire on the one hand and institutions / political and corporate violence / systems (including grammar and language) on the other, with a particular view towards how the latter manipulate the former.


That Perelman’s work is ethical is obvious: what is interesting is how his ethical sense makes itself known in speech-based, author-centered verse that in some ways goes against the codified aesthetic (which in retrospect was neither universal nor accurate) of his writing community.


To the Reader was published in 1984, the year that everyone could not believe had actually arrived. The sound of the word “1984” was ominous; at every moment we were invited to compare the dystopia of Orwell’s book to the dystopia we now actually inhabited. Reagan had been elected president… again. The energy of the 60s and early 70s had been stomped down by cultural vapidity, much social complacency, and years of recession. Fashion was awful: asymmetrical, angular, and for women, stiffly masculinized. Punk had devolved into either pretentious moaning or a conformist niche “style.”


A welter of (wonderfully) baroque theory had enveloped the academy, so that the energies of a pool of potential revolutionaries (liberal arts college students) were (at least in part) channeled into hermeneutics, and a sense of furious helplessness, similar to what we would endure later in the Bush years, overcame us. The helplessness was proportionate to the ethos of greed that trickled so insidiously down into the daily lives of those of us who didn’t have enough money, or just weren’t inherently venal enough, to be greedy.


Of course there were struggles, and some of them, like the would-be Utopia of the language writing community, were successful, if not at overturning the dystopia, at least in creating an alternative sphere in which creative protest could flourish.


1984 was a rich year for language poetry. The cornucopia put forth: The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, Hannah Weiner’s Spoke, Barrett Watten’s Total Syntax, Lyn Hejinian’s The Guard, Bob Perelman’s AKA, Leslie Scalapino’s that they were at the beach, Tom Raworth’s Tottering State, and Diane Ward’s Never Without One, among many others. At this point, there was still no recognizable “post-language” generation to dilute into mannered ethereality the radical impulses that propelled the initial group.


To the Reader comes directly out of those impulses, addressing them, and us, with the visceralities of (individual) sex and (institutional) violence, constantly rubbing up against each other like sand blocks. With one exception, examples of this friction turn up in every poem in this chapbook, making it unusually thematically unified for a book of its milieu and time. The To the Reader poems are replete with memorable, speech-like, sexed-up nuggets that also reveal insidious alienating social mechanisms, often in the costume of twisted propaganda. Thus, “A nation’s god is only as good as its erect arsenal,” Perelman writes in “Seduced by Analogy,” in “the political arena of sexual nation states”, and (in “Picture”) “The might engine / Mounts the throne, of egg and semen made.”


These witty (and viscerally affecting) rhetorical moves enact leaps of imagination that overliteralize metaphors of desire manipulated by larger powers, and the formula of sex + social violence creates a winning combination: Perelman is able to speak his conscience while at the same time accessing titillating (and thus frankly entertaining) content. “Speak” is the key word here, for compared to most of his contemporaries, Perelman’s poetry emerges more from a highly self-conscious parole than an oceanic langue.


It is almost patter… and this quality situates Perelman in the tradition of Jewish humor, which from historical necessity is rooted in anxiety: as radio personality C. Israel Lutsky, known as “The Jewish Philosopher,” noted, “It is one of the strongest defense weapons in our possessions… [because] we are able to jest at our own shortcomings and grin and bear it.”


Formally, in Perelman’s writing, this humor makes itself manifest in devices like zeugma, as in the line, “Bikini briefs and atoll” or in detournements of clichés, as in a line like ““Naval guns butter up populace.” Couching his ethical critique in humor, Perelman creates a kind of non-consolatory pleasure that we may nonetheless all share as co-sufferers inside the big toxic machine where ““Radioactive / Waters mixed in the salad dressing are discoloring / [our] perfect pornographic page.”


The poems gain didactic power through this pleasure as well, such as when they ask us to ask questions like “Why should “impotent’ mean / ‘Unable to maintain an erection’?” Truly, To the Reader, unlike so many other works of its time, is rhetorical, an address; the very title ensures that. That address signals a relationship between a speaking subject and a listener/reader, as well as an intention to persuade, and could not be farther from, say, Clark Coolidge’s jazzy syntactic refigurations or the “free play of signifiers” that language poetry (from the stereotyping point of view of outsiders) was thought to be.


If each person is a walking wounded fractal display of the damage of social forces, so each poem in To The Reader is a fractal statement of its argument, both in content (as in the examples above) and form (wry collage). If it is less a “material” or “textual” work than, for example, Spoke or Never Without One, it still manifests a self-conscious obsession with grammar and language as instruments of control: “Imagine, and resist, use the gerund.” He writes, contradictorily, in “Seduced by Analogy”: “I practice to live / Is wrong.” Even if we are born into language as a given straitjacket, we can still imagine and resist, despite the “wrongness” of the infinitive in the example. It is not so much defeatist as clarifyingly sardonic when he writes, in “A Prophecy”,” that “Tones of violence make words / The whole truth and / Nothing but the truth.”


This obsession with language shows up in the final poem (conveniently titled “Institutions and the Individual Application” as if for the purpose of supporting my argument). The poem, which moves between close-ups and long shots to create extreme juxtapositions of scale, functions somewhat dialogically, with the phrases in parentheses acting as a kind of devilish goad or hidden persuader, a kind of sidekick to the dominant rhetoric of the rest of the poem:


Institutions and the Individual Application

Is this my ballot? This
plastic placemat (don’t stop, don’t stop)
Showing a man and a woman
In a refugee camp listening to a loudspeaker?

Eleven million children (picture it)
(Don’t stop) standing on the surface of the earth
(Scarface) looking at a lightbulb.
The plot? I don’t know you.


A possible reading: “Is this my ballot?” might be self-reflexive; that is, “this” might be the poem, which suddenly cheapens into “This plastic placemat,” but the poet continues “(don’t stop, don’t stop)” onto the next swerving, which is the image of “a man and a woman” rather like those that are transmitted into outer space for the benefit of aliens to get to know us, except that this couple is “In a refugee camp listening to a loudspeaker” ­– that is, in a situation of political entrapment and despair.


The next image, which we are goaded (by Perelman’s insistent narrative whisper) to see in our mind’s eye, “Eleven million children (picture it) / (Don’t stop) standing on the surface of the earth” is impossible to picture with any accuracy, as it is a huge number of individuals, so we can in fact only picture an undefined, representative mass. That they are children seems to indicate a kind of pathos, and since they follow a line about a refugee camp one can assume that they are in some desperate situation.


The language here suddenly assumes a kind of material presence, as “surface” becomes “(Scarface).” Why are they “looking at a lightbulb?” Is this perhaps like one of those images touting modernity and progress one might find in a children’s history or science textbook in the late 50s or early 60s?


The poet continues: “The plot? I don’t know you.” Indeed, this is the plot, that systems subsume individuals, and that in fact, there are too many of them to know. The systems that function by manipulating us do not know, can not know, individuals, for empathy would destroy their mechanisms: as Perelman writes in ”A Prophecy,” “Meaning heaped up / Only in bodies. / Will there be enough to eat after?”


Suddenly, filmically, the poem switches in the next stanza to what seems to me to be the suburbs, where there are “Second mortgages, pallbearers” (and the pallbearers here add polysemy to the nearby “plot,” which suddenly becomes one you might find in a cemetery). The pallbearers are “On a roll” because there is so much death to deal with, and the lawns are “seeded” with both the bourgeois comfort of golf and dead bodies. Note also that we have here a delicatessen moment, a “seeded roll.”


The poet seems to imply that the hegemonic forces cannot sustain themselves: “It’s lights out at the fetish factory” — and this “fetish factory” might be a nickname for the glitzy simulacrum of our mediated environment. We are asked to “Think of these modified nouns (this luminous egg / Is your body)”; an equivalence is created here between “person” and “noun,” modified by social forces… into… a “luminous egg,” a glowing non-specificity or kind of alien form. Those modified nouns are “selected and torn to pieces / Of these modified nouns,” indicating further fragmentations, “as the / Orgasmic (that word again) drumroll / (Look out the window) (his phallocentric Truth goes marching on)” as a vast nightmare military-industrial parade “leading to A giant phallus (male walrus),” the Kurtz figure or ineffable signifier, “Sworn to uphold language” [hegemonically] in “(your museum or mine?)” [again, a come-on posed by a tempting aestheto-devil].


A simple formula follows: “Day: cars, night: trees.” I can’t quite pretend to interpret this, except that it stops the forward movement of the poem for a moment, perhaps indicating that the “day” of human occupation of the earth with machines will be taken over by the “night” of nature’s inevitable reclamation? But I doubt this line is so determined.


The final assertion seems to be a hopeful one, that there is “No original [and therefore dominating] word,” but rather “many / Per body,” for as Perelman shows throughout the book, words are in and of bodies, and bodies are our pathetic and manipulable temples of subjecthood. As if to give us some sort of courage to soldier on, replacing bad consumer individualism with a good interconnected subjecthood, Perelman leaves us with nonviolent and intimate communicative acts at the end of the poem and the book: “father and baby / Cooing back and forth, mother / And son talking.” These gestures reveal the idealistic and sentimental (and I mean these as terms of praise) core of Perelman’s seemingly arch poetry, which clings to shreds of voiced authenticity even as it critiques the very notion of “authentic.”


I see a kind of contemporary parallel to Perelman in the work of Stan Apps, who, in his recent e-book, Universal Stories with Unknown Particulars, wrestles with the same conflict that Perelman does between abstract generalized exploited “humanity.” Apps writes of the actual individual human beings that make up that anonymous mass: those “Six billion people / each of which / is at least / many people // and who very well could / and probably even do / exist,” but who have been “Discarded and replaced with the infinite.” Poetry that seems very much to be a legacy of Perelman’s (in relatively short lines, entertaining, packed with vivid and visceral imagery, socially engaged) forms a part of this prose essay, part of whose mission is to consider the efficacy of poetry, not so much in helping us “solve social problems” as to help us understand a world in which such heinous social problems can exist. Apps writes:


To understand the world by dominating it won’t work. We might understand it by stitching together samples — making mythological unions between our data.


He continues, later, in a verse section, writing of a metaphorical Congo:


We must saw the gibberish up
and reassemble it. Creeping through the black,
cutting through the forest with a golden disconnection.


The practice of poetry, for Perelman, and for Apps, functions not so much as a panacea or problem solver (for these are surely not poetry’s “efficacies”), but as a tool for trying to understand, with the judicious employment of wit, affect, and insight, that which is ethically incomprehensible: the “gibberish” in which we are all absurdly, maybe irrevocably, soaking. The gap between the interests of the billions of real people with names and lives populating the planet and those of the larger forces that manipulate and destroy them (us) is so immense and so echoic with ramifications as to be virtually unimaginable, like Perelman’s image of eleven million children standing on the globe, except by means of art’s infinitely possible juxtapositions.


That both poets choose also to use “plain statement” speech forms is key to their rhetorical and emotional pitches and to their ethical desire to connect, which struggles with, and generally wins over, the aesthetic desire to estrange. That struggle, which Perelman’s poems in To the Reader enact and document, is a delicate and never-static seesaw, but finally, it is precisely that tragicomic, ethical, and, yes, personal voice that gives these poems their inhabitable cadence and their force.

Nada Gordon

Nada Gordon


Nada Gordon is the author of four poetry books: /Folly/, /V. Imp/, /Are Not Our Lowing Heifers Sleeker than Night-Swollen Mushrooms?/, and /foriegnn bodie /– and, with Gary Sullivan, an e-pistolary techno-romantic non-fiction novel, /Swoon/. A founding member of the Flarf Collective, she practices poetry as deep entertainment. Visit her blog at

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