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Bob Perelman

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Bob Perelman Feature

Michael Magee

“Nearer to us Than the Present”:

Bob Perelman in the 90s, then and now

The rise

of the intellectual fits in here,
but nobody can say exactly where

without the exactitude being guaranteed institutionally,
which then generates the problem of

an institution to report home to,
be in bed with, however chastely,

and to rise above in dreams.

                     — Bob Perelman, “A Body” (56)


I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania just as it was losing all claim to autonomy — or rather its workforce of professors (ever more uncomfortably equivalent to charitable giving officers in a large corporation) were losing their ability to stand credibly outside of the trustee-tested, mother-approved Banana Republic across the street from the student union. The claim had probably always required not a little false consciousness to keep even one of its word-cards from shifting and wrecking the whole beach house. On the other hand, prior to the Vietnam era tug-of-war between Ivy League junior professors and CIA recruiters for the hearts and minds of National Merit Scholars, it was largely unnecessary — hardly anyone had made the claim (that classrooms were unconnected to the corridors of capital) in the first place. But in the late 1990s, as the smartest guys in the room began building a presidential campaign strategy for a dry-drunk first son and Yale alum named George W. Bush and a few visionaries wondered how much a certain blue dress would garner on something called Ebay, somebody decided it was silly and unnecessary — and costly! — to mystify the commodities beyond a certain amount of thoughtful rebranding: enter the fair trade coffee option and save your best mystification guys for weather futures and credit default swaps.


Bob Perelman was there. And he was especially good at expressing, in the classroom and in his poetry, what it meant to be there — why the situation demanded self-critical contemplation, and why you might want to stay and have a say in the matter. I have always thought of Perelman as a democratic humanist whose central theme is the emerging post-humanist situation, critically aware (wary) of the dehumanizing structures that circumscribe and inform our thoughts and actions; encouraged by the radical potential of technology to realign and refract identities but also put off by any mordant technophilia; unwavering in his commitment to the particularities of bodies and voices. During my time studying with him, it was the bodies and voices that seemed incarnate in the poems and the words, embodied, seemed unassimilable and in being unassimilable, oppositional in some important way, to the de-humanizing institutions and grids. A poem like “Chronic Meanings,” for instance, seemed a literal embodiment of loss, of being “cut off” (from pleasure, from human contact, from the world) and also an act of defiance — a political refusal to let a man’s death (from AIDS) get structured up as a TV movie and sold to advertisers.


Re-reading Perleman’s work of this period, though, it is surprising what little claim it makes to political agency. Perhaps this is because he refuses to conflate marginalization and oppositional agency. I am reminded of Foucault’s observation that “the lyricism of marginality may find inspiration in the image of the ‘outlaw,’ the great social nomad, who prowls on the confines of a docile, frightened order. But it is not on the fringes of society and through successive exiles that criminality is born, but by means of ever more closely placed insertions, under ever more insistent surveillance, by an accumulation of disciplinary coercion.” [1] What does opposition look like if its image is neither that of the outlaw nor the revolutionary? And what is Perelman doing when he writes political poetry?


No reactionary, he editorializes from a documentary platform, identifying the problem and living with the contradiction of his own entanglement. And the poem — as form — is especially useful if one is trying to communicate this contradiction. Like Creeley, Perelman has a gift for building poems that move backward and forward simultaneously. (“To write histories with / any accuracy is to write backwards,” he writes in “From the Front,” “true to the falsity of experience.”) The emotional byproducts of contradiction and entanglement (hesitation, confusion, relief, surprise) are expressed with acuity in the formal movements of their poems.


“Jack Spicer wrote, / ‘No one listens to poetry,’ but / the question then becomes, who is / Jack Spicer?” (11). Assertions, once set free in the world, hestitate (“but”), swirl (“the question”), ebb (“then becomes, who is / Jack Spicer?”), flow (next line). The reader can get to the end of a poem if he/she likes but not without the feeling that all the action is back there in the flux. Perelman notes that revision (that sine qua non of the perfectly crafted poem-object) does not alter this fundamental movement: “Even though I’m going / back and rewriting, the problem still / reappears every six words.” (13) He also positions the poem against its “abject object status” within academic discourse without really positing a space outside of the network except at the far end of desire: “What I want to propose,” he writes toward the end of “The Marginalization of Poetry” is a “polygeneric writing” that “might dissolve the antinomies of marginality that / broke Jack Spicer into broken lines” (20–21, italics added).


In Virtual Reality — which hit the shelves of all those now-defunct self-owned bookstores the year I became his graduate student — Perelman had fessed up about the dubious nature of any project that analogized it own marginalization to political marginalization and/or that positioned its marginalization as a form of political oppositionality, even as it depended for its critical reception on a marginalized academic criticism that at least had “shares in / the power of the technocratic grid” that lit the offices of the university presses. This was 1994. It would be a decade or so before the relationship between presses and endowments became visible as the endowments themselves became visible for the first time in the act of vanishing. (That decade of time has shuffled various hierarchies of meaning in Perelman’s poems: in 1994 I heard lines like “justified [and hence invisible] margins” [14] in “The Marginalization of Poetry” as puns on typographical, literary and social margins but missed the play on investment margins which [pace Enron and Lehman Brothers] are indeed invisible until they become unjustified.) “The growing mass / of writing on ‘marginalization’,” he wrote, “is not / concerned with margins left or right / — and certainly not with its own” (13).


In 1994 it was still possible to imagine a writing “immune to standardizing media” as Perelman had in “The Marginalization of Poetry” — The Cantos, Maximus, Grenier’s Sentences, Eigner, Klebnikov, Stein. Whatever value we place on these writers or the trouble with a model that made “the unfathomable / particularity of the author’s mind, body / and writing situation the object / of the [critical] reading”, I’m more struck now by the fact that the possibility no longer exists. Any college kid with a MacBook and some decent video equipment could take you on a virtual tour of these works that would knock your socks off, all within YouTube’s time limits and, soon, within the pages of a “book”. Virtual Reality is about this very thing, which is why it never quite avoids the “narrative frame of loss” it critiques. The unfathomable is dead. The unreadable even more so.


The only writing outside of institutional frames is writing that no institution wants — and this writing, if it is to have a public at all, is signed on the web and witnessed by Google. There is no writing that cannot be represented there “true,” as Perelman put it, “to the falsity of experience.” If Dickinson were writing today her poems would have circulated to her friends on Facebook as collaged scans of words with photoshopped pics. Spiral Jetty would have had its own YouTube channel chronicling the event from start to finish.


If, in 1968 everyone got 15 mins of fame, in 2009 everyone is famous forever, including Bob Perelman. The devil’s deal for this is a level of circumscription so total as to be laughable. In 2003, Perelman described this as living inside Dick Cheney’s mind. And we may still be living there, though at least Barack Obama is there with us, sort of like the mayor of our city in any given state. My fear, however, is that we were never in Dick Cheney’s mind — minds being infinitely complex and wonderfully various places — but were rather, and still are, in one of his balls. Not even Bob Perelman could write us out of there.


We, us. It matters what these words mean. Perelman’s books of the 90s remain vital to me for the myriad, complex attempts to define without codifying them. Whatever form a viable oppositionality might take, it seems clear to me that it will have to arise from the kind of communitasthat Perelman circles back to in his work. “So the public — fuzzy little me in the case of your remarks — becomes crucial,” as the Panda says in “The Manchurian Candidate: A Remake” (30). I recall, like yesterday, numerous occasions of Bob quoting Gramsci’s dictum “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. Maybe that’s what’s with all this writing.

[1] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage, 1995), 301.

Michael Magee

Michael Magee

Michael Magee earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1999. For the next eight years he taught at Wheaton College and Rhode Island School of Design, published four books of poems (Morning Constitutional, 2001; MS, 2003; and as a member of the Flarf Collective, Mainstream, 2006; and My Angie Dickinson, 2007) and a book of theory and literary criticism, Emancipating Pragmatism, winner of the 2004 Elizabeth Agee Prize in American Studies. In 2007 he left academia to work in the world of public policy, focussing on K-12 public education reform. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife and three daughters.

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