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Bob Perelman Feature

Kit Robinson

“Before Water,” After Years:

Bob Perelman and the Turn to History


In The Grand Piano, Part 8, Bob Perelman describes a 1977 performance of his poem “Before Water” at 80 Langton Street, the San Francisco performance/installation gallery. Artist Francie Shaw, Bob’s wife, had made a Super 8 movie of waves at Ocean Beach, and Bob wrote “Before Water” in response to the film. “Her movie of the ocean (fixed camera, long shots) struck me as utterly simple and, in a low-key way, heroic. Not the bombast of ‘I compel Gloucester to yield,’ but watching the sublime yield line after line. The formal constraint for me became to say the same thing (more or less) (variety a minor condition) forever.” [1]


“Before Water” is a loosely coupled sequence of nearly 400 lines whose vocabulary is limited not by any predetermined constraint but simply by the manner of the poem’s development, a continual recombination of freely chosen elements into startling new formulations. The potential for variation seems virtually endless. The effect is of a dramatic dilation of temporal scale from the momentary to the infinite.


One line recedes before the next. There is no consistent prosody, no stanzas, each line is self-contained, in paratactic relation, like waves, one after the other, and in each is offered up “the whole story,” since time immemorial, birth/death/birth, the legend of biology, a kind of classicism, in colors of blue, green and white, expansive, but also self-canceling, the sand washed clean each time.


Each word of every line is used repeatedly throughout the poem:


The clear sentence the world ends
The clear sound the water made
Once the noise vocabulary


And so on until the words clear, sentence, world, ends, sound, water, made, once, noise, vocabulary, ponderous, forethought, read, own, mind, clever, rise, crest, fall, edit, again, dries, birth, hear, say, itself, see, before, sense, loop and other similarly basic, elemental units within the semantic domains of sight, sound, grammar and thought are recombined in amazing, virtuosic variation. The beach imagery holds the poem together aesthetically, but if there is mimesis it is of time itself, an enactment of the perception that each moment contains its own trailing off, and that life refreshes itself continuously.


In the performance, Bob projected the film “onto a long roll of paper that hung on the wall and that [Francie] had prepared with some light washes of blue and green and some wave lines” while reading “Before Water” aloud. On cues from Francie, Bob paused the projector and Francie “traced the wave line in the now-stilled movie with a thick ink brush” as Bob kept reading. “She kept pulling the roll of paper down as she worked so that it piled onto the floor in bunchy waves between the wall and the audience.”


Bob writes that the piece pushed him “into some posthumous/ prebirth perspective that also had everything to do with the sentence, as any one wave coming in.” He remembers saying in a radio interview that “a sentence is the same thing as a life” and “a sentence beginning and ending is the same thing as the universe beginning and ending.”


This sense of the sentence as life in fractal — “a World in a Grain of Sand” [2] — is characteristic of much of Bob’s work from the protean Braille (1975) to the fully blown Iflife (2006). “Before Water” was published in 7 Works (The Figures, 1978), a collection of writing done soon after Bob and Francie arrived in San Francisco in 1975. Later, in Ten to One: Selected Poems (Wesleyan, 1999), “Before Water” was edited to 256 lines, down from 396. I prefer the earlier, longer version, partly for its excessive demonstration of virtuosity but also because of the more generous line spacing of the Figures book: more line space = more delicious time between waves!


With its limited vocabulary and narrow (albeit deep) frame of reference, “Before Water” stands out from Bob’s oeuvre as minimalist text. In its temporal framing, the poem is flat, two-dimensional; the focus is on the present moment, while the indefinitely extensible recombination of elements suggests a deep correlative, “Eternity in an hour.” [3] Yet even in the other six sections of 7 Works, and increasingly throughout the decades since, Bob’s signature style has tended toward the opposite, maximalist extreme, as he throws everything into his writing including baby, bathwater and kitchen sink.


A key to this inclusiveness is an increasing concern with a temporal dimension conspicuously missing from “Before Water,” the field of history. And while a dynamic spontaneity is practiced throughout, the sense of the eternal present is increasingly called into question. Time and again an attention to historical framing is folded into the mix, mimetically instantiating a model of subjectivity that recognizes itself as a product of history.


The words mention themselves.
They are literally true.
Every minute another circle
Meets them halfway.
The locker locks
From the inside. I
Is an extensive pun.
Born of this confinement…  [4]


Here the objectification of language, well-worn instrument of our works and days, produces a claustrophobic experience that self-expression, however urgent, can never entirely dispel.


To write the histories with
any accuracy is to write backwards,
true to the falsity of experience [5]


Experience is false because it is always already encoded in terms inherent to its succession from out of the past. Nothing is simple. In the effort to be true to life, cleaving to complexity may be the very least we can do.


Thus did Bob embark from the lovely beachscape of “Before Water” into more turbulent seas. Troubled by the currents of history, battered by storms of terror, war and persistent social injustice, his poetry has increasingly sought to make space for new life while always calling power to account.


How to speak one’s own time and place without simply reflecting it and locking into that apparent inertia? My later books take on this problem: in the contemporary environment of mass audiences and fragmented art audiences, sound bites passing for information, slogans passing for community, how to make new meaning that also points in a meaningful direction. [6]


In the title poem of Bob’s recent Iflife, [7] received ideas about form and content are aggressively interrogated, dispensed with and mashed. Divided by subtitles, the poem includes variously stanza forms, journalistic prose, a play script, and one-liners that beg the question of poetry vs. prose. Inserted throughout are excerpts from Laurence Britt’s article “Fascism Anyone?” which lists 14 characteristics of fascist regimes (“1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism; 2. Disdain for the importance of human rights; 3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause,” etc.) and asks, “Does any of this ring alarm bells?”  [8]


Bob rings changes on a bevy of “isms” — fascism, classicism, modernism, eroticism — while citing a prodigious crew of distinguished progenitors — Loy, Mailer, Ginsberg, Notley, Williams, Pound, Stevens, Elliot, Creeley, Hardy, Pollock, Sappho, Apollinaire, Burroughs, Warhol, O’Hara, Virgil, Dante… the line of authors extends from here to gone and back.


Scanning brightly lit particulars for a moment of release, the “Iflife” poet discovers on the obverse side of every object the vacuum-sucking tentacles of ideology. Thus do we find him wrestling with his angels, like the reader an intensely human amalgam of mighty “I,” looming “boss” and heavenly “it,” all rolled into one word after another, one day (not) like any other, one person alone in company with contingency, scrupulously regarding the sinkholes of our common inheritance, restlessly seeking the beginning of a new sequence, a new life, that might begin anytime, you can count on it and, as Bob ably demonstrates, that count begins now, on one.


[1] The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, San Francisco, 1975–1980, Part 8 by Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman, Ted Pearson, Kit Robinson, Steve Benson, Barrett Watten, Carla Harryman and Alan Bernheimer (Detroit: Mode A, 2009), 76

[2] William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”, Selected Poetry and Prose of William Blake (Random House, 1953), 90.

[3] Blake, 90.

[4] “Room,” Primer (This, 1981), 51; Ten to One: Selected Poems (Wesleyan, 1999), 31

[5] “From the Front,” Virtual Reality (Roof, 1993), 26; Ten to One: Selected Poems (Wesleyan, 1999), 152

[6] Introduction, Ten to One: Selected Poems (Wesleyan, 1999), xiii

[7] Iflife (Roof, 2006), 29

[8] Laurence Britt, “Fascism Anyone?,” Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 23, Number 2, Spring 2003

Kit Robinson

Kit Robinson

Kit Robinson is the author of The Messianic Trees: Selected Poems, 1976–2003 (Adventures in Poetry, 2009), Train I Ride (BookThug, 2009), The Crave (Atelos, 2002) and 16 other books of poetry. A co-author of The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, San Francisco, 1975–1980 (Mode A, 2006–2010), Robinson lives in Berkeley, California, where he works as a freelance writer.

Bob Perelman: see the bio note in this issue of Jacket.

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