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Bob Perelman in the late 1980s was a trip. A 17-year-old Goth friend could call the 23-year-old-me and say, “Wow, I had sex on acid last night!” & I could say “I chain smoked and read Bob Perelman, and I bet I had as much fun.”
There was what I saw as the “Post-Ashberian” discursive quasi-argumentative mode (a poem that spun out very far, but still held together in ways that to me resembled Donne or Shelley at their most wrought-best more than most of Bob’s contemporaries, with the exception of Carla Harryman), and as much lyric bang for your buck as the more minimalist lyricists if you could see the long-lined sentences doubling as white-space. And Bob’s work invited, nay, even teased, me to do so.
At the same time, there was also a “return to the figure” in Bob’s work if compared to most Ashbery and many of the contemporaries with which he was most associated.
Whereas in Ashbery, one gets at least as much a sense that an “it” is speaking as an “I,” in Perelman, one feels an almost Browning-esque monologist as a much more palpable presence. Paradoxically (one could say), it was Perelman’s adherence to the largely male LangPo program of the time not to work within ‘essentialist’ postures of the male-love-lyric-tradition that gave Bob’s work as sense of a ‘believable’ over-intellectual worried clown (I mean all those terms as compliments; it’s part of Bob’s charm and definitely invited a warm response, and a genuine pathos, in part because of the very taboo against pathos in that Bay Area circa 77–83 scene). I keep thinking of Bob at the Lang-Po meeting in reference to O’Hara protesting, “but he means it too!” (this is part of why I always saw BP as more akin to, say, John Yau and David Shapiro than to, say, Andrews, Silliman, or Howe).
(this also reminds me of one those funny little stories, that I could read in my John Cage voice, over David Tudor’s piano… )
Once I asked Bob Perleman what he thought of James Tate, and he said he thought Tate was too into the easy joke. Another time, Carla Harryman and Marjorie Perloff and I were standing around, and Perloff was pontificating about the best language poets, and Carla and I were like, “Well, what about Perelman?” And Perloff scoffed, “Bob Perelman’s not a Language Poet. He’s a writer of light verse… he’s into the easy joke.”
I didn’t ask James Tate what he thought of Marjorie Perloff. One person’s ceiling is another person’s floor, etc. How many mansions pass through you?)
Anyway, looking back over his 80s work, 20 years later, I am struck by how central fear of money could be read as a central theme, or even the central drama (a quest narrative!), in much of this work. An equally valid way of putting “fear of money” would be “an attempt to resist the capitalist hegemony through imminent critique.”
Another way of putting it could be “fear of intimacy.” If Bernstein’s tone around this time was more to the effect of satirizing the speaker who would say, “I’m glad I didn’t live much longer, I would have spent even more money,” Perelman was much more troubled by capitalism in his personal life, the cash-nexus, than Bernstein was. In this sense Bob’s public persona was probably much more of a door into, or an expression of, an interiority that struggled to think of love in the terms of money without seeing love with the (googly) eyes of money. “Why bother, except already bothered” (the line break matters of course but I’m jetting now).
There’s some Dylan quip in the Reagan-Bush (Neil Bush bailout) time, “used to say it’s the land of honey, now they say it’s the land of money, who’d ever thought that they’d make that stick?” There’s also a song by the British band The Godfathers, “If I Only Had Time (I’d Think Of The Perfect Crime)… ” “We’re living under a false economy!” And of course Gil Scott Heron’s “B-Movie” going back a few years. So many of us “got it” back then (hell, even Billy Joel’s “Allentown”), but the corporate media had become much more of a “clampdown” — still, there was this underground, pre-Clinton. Who ever thought we’d be nostalgic for 1989 at the time? Anyway, there still is an underground; but that’s a whole other issue.
Perelman’s work at this time straddled, insofar as it spoke to the more utopian minimalist (I mean as an ethical stance, not in a poem on the page way) fear of the “world market” while at the same time trying to make a kind of peace with it, or at least a “I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in your dream” pact. In this sense the monologues are, MORE PROFOUNDLY, dialogues, but not in a Frederic Jameson clinical schizoid sense. If one discovers Rilke’s DUINO ELEGIES after having already read a lot of Bob Perelman, Rilke seems like “Perelman dressed in camera obscura drag.” It’s a very similar dynamic dialogue of doubt and faith in both; only the vocabulary is different.
To express “fear of money” in the 1980s money-grab, off-the-gold-standard, Walmart-Goldman Sachs, ship-manufacturing-jobs-oversees-under-cover-of-family-values was probably way more heroic then than now (in this time of widespread meltdown panic); but accessibility, alas, became an issue (prior genre-commitments, grad school, etc). Yet, if indeed the realities of accelerated global capitalism, increased privatization, the loss of a public sector, housing inflation, AIDS, higher grad school debts, and media complacency all contributed to the increased isolation of anybody with revolutionary and/or collectivist intentions during the Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush years, at the very least Perelman wasn’t going to go quietly and hold his nose and take the plunge into the conformities of an easy-credit false economy everyone else took for granted. No, he was going to stand at the precipice of its firewall (maybe even getting a stuntman to jump through the ring of fire and come through the other side as on the photo in The First World), and analyze with exasperating thoroughness every possible indignity suffered, all the way taking amazing joy in the pleasures of merely circulating; and the monopoly game with Wallace Stevens is more like a Beckettian endgame; but, look, there’s an ivory tower, and it’s in the gutter (whatever… .that… means… ).
Chris Stroffolino dedicates his bio note to the late Vic Chesnutt, who died on boxing day’s eve 2009, as a direct result of American Health Insurance Business. A quadriplegic since 1983, Mr. Chesnutt’s “pre-existing condition,” prevented him from receiving adequate treatment. He could have received SSI Disability because of his condition, but his accident also awakened his songwriting ability, and he heroically battled his condition for 25 years — releasing many albums (the most recent produced by Jonathan Richman) — and, though he never made enough money to pay for the exorbitant costs of his health treatment, he made TOO MUCH to be eligible for Social Security disability support. It’s a sad cruelty of America that had he had not tried to make something of himself after his accident, and achieved success as a songwriter (at his best, he reminds me of what I love about Townes Van Zandt), he would have received more economic support for his “health issues.” Of course, the basic obituaries will just say, “he died of an overdose of pain killers,” but read his statements about his health care, and you tell me if this beautiful heroic survivor’s death was “suicide!” I am absolutely sure that Vic would not mind being used as a rallying cry in his death. He’s so much more — but another reason to step up the fight for Single Payer. Oh, as for Chris Stroffolino — I like to think you can trust me, even if I may very well be just “projecting” my own difficulties with $ on Bob Perelman (and that O’Jays song, “For The Love Of Money” has an amazing sound, regardless of its ‘vulgar’ meaning!).