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Bob Perelman, b. December 2, 1947-
by Steve Evans
Originally published in the Dictionary of Literary Biography v.193 (1998)

Note: Published in 1998, this entry does not take into account Bob Perelman's substantial accomplishments since that time. Interested readers are advised to consult the selection of materials about Perelman's careers edited by Kristen Gallagher for Jacket 39 in 2010.

Table of Contents:
Biographical and Critical Essay
"Oedipus Rex"
"The Birth of Venus"
11 Romantic Positions
"How It's Done"
"We See"
7 Works
To the Reader
"A History Lesson"
The First World
Virtual Reality
Writings by the Author
Further Readings about the Author
About This Essay





In the three decades since his first magazine publication in 1969 Bob Perelman has played a significant role in defining a formally adventurous, politically explicit poetic practice in the United States. From the start his work has called into question key presuppositions of contemporary mainstream poetry: the belief that poems must reflect the private experience of isolated individuals, for instance, or that the literary artifact stands in regal autonomy, somehow above and apart from social life. Availing himself of a variety of forms, from the conventional essay to the dramatic monologue, from the carefully measured units of verse to the giddily hybrid pleasures of all manner of counterfeiture--including mimicry, hallucination, ventriloquism, and fabricated dreams--Perelman has pressed toward a poetry of radical deconcealment, searching for the deep structure of social experience beyond the epiphenomenal shell game of postmodernity. His work asks us to

Imagine a poetry that is not necessarily contra naturam in some jejune transgressive sense, but one that does not take "nature" as an order to which poetry has privileged access. No special effects attributed to form; no organicism; no shamanism; no intuitive well of sonic richness. No impossibly present shibboleths preventing migration between the reader's presence at the page and the long dialectic tangles of history. Such poetry would be part of history taking place on the page, transforming the logos into a multicolored prosthesis and the prosthesis back into a word that has present legibility.

In "Oedipus Rex," the closing poem of Perelman's 1986 volume The First World, a contemporary Oedipus, double-parked and quarrelsome, answers his "ancient uncle" Kreon thus: "I never meant to soliloquize, but since the government's gotten so big and secret, any jerk with an open mouth turns out to be in the center of an infinitely expanding universe of gloom and doom, each sound that comes out, even if it's just asking where there's a bathroom downtown, contains lonely world-shattering forces, Magellanic clouds, hot winds to obliterate all human obstruction. / But keeping silent just subsidizes television." In recent years Perelman has increasingly turned the same critical gaze on the avant-garde tradition to which he unquestionably belongs, showing an admirable facility for "arguing" with some of his "closest friends and mentors" about the value and nature of their common enterprise. As he said with a certain wry satisfaction in a 1997 statement: "I keep finding myself in situations where I'm critiquing the branch I'm sitting on, so to speak." From one of the central contributors to the controversial language-poetry anthology In the American Tree (1986), this is more than idle metaphor.

A deft satirist with a strong background in the classics, Perelman has been likened to Alexander Pope, but other comparisons also come to mind. He shares with Stendhal an insistently quizzical and erotically charged relation to questions of personal identity and autobiography. With a poet such as Kenneth Fearing, Perelman shares a capacity for penetrating insight into the web of cultural institutions that synchronize and solidify political power in American modernity. From a formal standpoint Perelman's lightning-quick syntactical changes call to mind the radical prose experiments of William Carlos Williams, especially Kora in Hell (1920) and Spring and All (1923), but more direct antecedents can be found in the New York School, especially in those works by Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery that fit American idiom to the impulse of European surrealism and futurism. Early in his own career, Perelman had a hand in translating various Russian poets of the heroic futurist years as a member of the Iowa Translation Workshop. Working closely with another translator, Kathy Lewis, Perelman contributed to the 1978 Russian Poetry: The Modern Period "A Cloud in Trousers" (1915) by Vladimir Mayakovski and poems by Velemir Khlebnikov, Boris Pasternak, and Bella Akhmadulina. While the megaphonic oratory and blunt propagandizing of a Mayakovski are uncommon in the first decade of Perelman's career (1973-1983), a period more characterized by the procedural and collage works collected in Braille (1975), 7 Works (1978), and Primer (1981), these gestures return transformed in the work for which he is best known, the sharply political and satirical poems of To the Reader (1984), The First World--thought by many to be his most accomplished work to date--and Face Value (1988).

Perelman prefers a page "scrawled over with social messages" to the pristinely conserved pages of canonical texts. The deliberate privileging of social utterance, speech acts originating less in an individual subject than in what Fredric Jameson--by far Perelman's most illustrious interpreter--has called "the political unconscious," sets his work apart from the keen-eyed objectivism of Ron Silliman or--on a different scale--Rae Armantrout, the rigorous abstractions of Barrett Watten (Perelman's elder classmate in the MFA program at Iowa), the skeptical sensuality of Carla Harryman, the intimacy and hyperliteracy of Lyn Hejinian, the quick-witted lyricism of Kit Robinson, or the ever-rebounding reflexivities of Steve Benson, to name just a handful of the West Coast writers with whom Perelman worked most closely in the years between 1976 and 1990.

The decisive role these contemporaries played in one another's development as writers has been amply acknowledged, not least by Perelman himself in his critical study The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History (1996). First appearing together in print as early as 1974 in the pages of Robinson's one-shot little magazine Streets and Roads, these poets participated in publishing projects such as Watten's This magazine and press (twelve issues of the former between 1971 and 1982), Hejinian's Tuumba chapbook series (fifty titles between 1976 and 1984), Silliman's Tottel's (eighteen numbers between 1971 and 1981), and Perelman's own magazine, Hills (nine numbers between 1973 and 1980). Their collaborative performances ranged from the incredibly demanding score of music and text that Celia Zukofsky made of her husband Louis's works in "A"-24 (1969) with Perelman taking the crucial, tempo-setting harpsichord role in several Bay Area performances in 1978 to many productions of the San Francisco Poets Theater, including Perelman's "The Alps," given in January/February 1982 and published along with several others in Hills, 9 (1983). Their penchant for discussion manifested itself in countless formal and informal discussions of poetry, many of which took place under the rubric of Perelman's Talk Series, initiated in the spring of 1977 and numbering more than forty talks in three different San Francisco Bay area venues over the following four years.

Robert Perelman was born in Youngstown, Ohio, on 2 December 1947, the second of Mark and Evelyn Perelman's two children, his sister Nancy having been born a year and a half earlier. Evelyn Perelman held a degree in sociology from the University of Chicago and had worked for a time as a social worker prior to her marriage. Mark Perelman was at the time of his son's birth a successful appliance wholesaler just entering his fortieth year. In an as yet uncollected 1997 poem, "Confessing to the Listserv," Perelman jokingly refers to his childhood in the lines: "That old stuff, the fork / in the head, first home run, // Dad falling out of the car-- / I remember the words, but I / just can't get back there. I / think they must be screening my // sensations." The passage winks at the clichés of the American bildungsroman ("that old stuff"), to which Perelman casually, but effectively, joins popular conspiracy theories having to do with suppressed or altered memories ("they must be screening my // sensations")--a topic explored with relentless and hilarious thoroughness in Perelman's still uncollected long poem from the mid 1990s "The Manchurian Candidate" (which borrows and transforms the structure of John Frankenheim's 1962 movie).

Oedipal scenarios abound in Perelman's works, though the steady parade of state-power-wielding autocratic fathers and tenderly eroticized mothers is referred to general social, and often specifically literary, sources rather than naturalized as part of Perelman's own psychological experience. In "Youngstown," a poem from his first volume, Braille, Perelman depicts the maternal gaze as a "coat that weighed three thousand pounds with many darling glances to tell me how to ask not to know how to do it." In "An Autobiography," collected in his second full-length volume, 7 Works, Perelman works extensively with passages taken verbatim from Stendhal's great autobiographical text The Life of Henry Brulard (1890). Echoing the novelist's exuberant love for a mother lost in childbed when he was only seven, Perelman cites: "I abhorred my father. He brought with him memories of how it feels to be intensely, fiercely hungry. He came and interrupted our kisses." In "The Unruly Child," the opening poem of To the Reader, the 1984 chapbook that marks an important shift in Perelman's poetic stance, César Vallejo's famous line "Hay, madre, un sitio en el mundo, que se llama Paris. Un sitio grande y lejano y otra vez grande" is revised to read "There is a company called Marathon Oil, mother, / Very far away and very big and, again, very / Desirable." The cosmopolitan city becomes a capitalist conglomerate, but the son's gentle, albeit somewhat condescending, address to his mother is retained. In "To the Past," an uncollected lyric published in 1997, Perelman sounds a similar note by beginning "Take down my books, mother," though he then relocates the origin of the statement by writing "the song says and I see / rain streak the sacred tablets, / graffiti between music and speech."

One hears less of the echoes of Stendhal, Marcel Proust, and Vallejo in parallel statements addressed to paternal Figures, one witty instance of which in "The Family of Man," collected in Face Value, synopsizes the approach with great economy: "Why is there money, Daddy?" a child's voice is heard asking, and then with more than childlike insouciance comes the chiastic reversal: "And why is there daddy, Money?" Elsewhere in Face Value the United States attorney general under Ronald Reagan, Edwin Meese, joins actor Sylvester Stallone, Odysseus, Captain Kirk (of Star Trek), political commentator George Will, and "the nameless face on the dollar" as icons of masculine privilege on a par with the "phallocentric lawyers" and CIA operatives in To the Reader, while in poems from The First World such as "Anti-Oedipus" and "Oedipus Rex," Kreon is only one of the murderously harassing elders bent on seeing the plot lines through to their awful conclusions.

Whether this strong insistence upon the centrality of Oedipal relations in contemporary society has its genesis in Perelman's own upbringing or is the result of a dispassionate examination of objective social forces is a matter not to be decided here. What is known is that he left Youngstown to attend the Putney School, which his sister also attended, in Vermont at the age of twelve. There he encountered the poetry of T. S. Eliot and Walt Whitman, but his attention at this time and into his late teenage years was more seriously focused on music. His ambition to become a concert pianist led him to train at Interlochen the summer prior to his entering the University of Rochester as a music major in 1964. By his own retrospective account it was while performing Brahms's difficult Second Piano Concerto (opus 83)--which requires a specific trill with the left little fingers--that he admitted to himself the lack of athleticism and mastery required of the virtuoso pianist. Influenced by Ezra Pound<'s ABC of Reading (1960), Perelman changed his major from music to the classics, a course of study in which he continued to distinguish himself upon transferring to the University of Michigan's impressive classics department in 1966. Relatively late in his undergraduate career, in his junior or senior year, Perelman enrolled in an introductory lecture class on poetry offered by the well-known poet and anthologist Donald Hall. Perelman found himself almost surprised by his own enthusiasm for the topic and through Hall came to meet Tom Clark--then in the process of taking over from Hall the position of poetry editor at the Paris Review--as well as two of the transplanted Tulsans of the second-generation New York School of poets, Ron Padgett and Ted Berrigan. As graduation from Michigan neared, Perelman faced a difficult decision: whether to undertake graduate work in the classics at the University of Texas or to pursue the MFA degree in poetry offered at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He settled on poetry and--brushing aside departing faculty member Berrigan's admonition to move to New York and study with Kenneth Koch--made the move to Iowa City in 1969.

Perelman's first published poem dates back to his final year at Michigan. Bearing the suitably "classical" title "The Birth of Venus," the poem was one of five by Michigan undergraduates to appear in the second volume of Intro, an anthology of college writing edited by R. V. Cassill, director of the then new Associated Writing Program (AWP), and published in mass paperback format by Bantam. It is perhaps only fitting that Perelman's literary career should commence with a poem on birth, and that the first of many classical references should be audible in the very title, with a goddess of love and art governing the mood. Poignant and admirably understated, skillful in its manipulation of a topic thick with millennia of connotations, Perelman's contribution is a twenty-two-line free-verse poem composed of three juxtaposed frames, each a sprawling sentence long. The poem begins with a pastoral prevarication of eleven lines, starting with a "while" clause that suspends the main predicate until the eighth line and filling the space thus created with assorted scenes of consumption. First an insect, then an animal, then a bird are shown eating, an act likened from the start to interpretation or "making / foreign sense of" things:

While the butterfly wanders

in a wheat field, making

foreign sense of it,

and the leapord claws the belly

of the running zebra open,

and the hummingbird keeps thrusting

into orange and red blossoms,

she stands. . . .

In contrast to the hungry dynamism of the natural world--reflected in gerunds such as "making" and "running" and "thrusting" as well as the simple verbs "wander" and "claws"--the woman who appears in line 8 is placid:

she stands in the shallow water, facing the shore,

dallying with ambiguities,

and feeling the small backs of the waves

divide around her ankles.

Awash in sensation, poised at the threshold of land and sea, ambiguous in emergence, the woman dallies with ambiguities, as yet unmotivated by the need to make sense, to take a stance, to fulfill urgent needs. One thinks of another poem set similarly at the edge of the sea, Wallace Stevens's "Idea of Order at Key West," as well as of the many paintings depicting the goddess's birth.

The action of the diminutive, lapping waves is the ostensible subject of the second, five-line, sentence:

Just in front of her feet, they flatten themselves

and hiss into the damp sand, leaving

sour foam at the edge of the ocean,

then drain back, licking the sand

from under her feet.

The action of the waves reads on one level as simple description; but there is a trace of prostration in the first of these lines ("they flatten themselves"), of a negative reaction--perhaps resentment--in the second and third (in the verb "hiss" and adjective "sour"), and of a subtle undermining of the goddess in the final two ("licking the sand / from under her feet"). In the third and final sentence, comprising a half-dozen lines, Perelman subtly shifts the scene. The transition is not "prepared" by the poem; it simply occurs:

On the double bed, silent

and sliding back

toward the same dreams, we wait

for her careless fingers to graze us

and to hear her breathing

soft songs to herself.

The action of the waves segues into the ebb and flow of consciousness as sleep deposits the subject on the shore of wakefulness. The double bed--stolid emblem of domesticity--is a physical analogue to the shared dreams of a couple manifest only in the plural pronouns (we/us). The goddess's self-involvement may be interpreted as a figure of art's autonomy as well as its liminality: if it "touches," it does so "carelessly"; the songs breathed softly forth take no account of a possible listener (again Stevens's poem comes to mind). The receptivity of the dreamer is such that the touch and sound are anticipated--and therefore may never even come.

"The Birth of Venus" is more than the isolated exercise of a twenty-two-year-old college student. Its emotional depth and maturity, its controlled and understated handling of free verse, and its allusive economy all mark it as the work of a talented young poet with a strong potential to excel in precisely the type of post-Confessional workshop verse for which the writing program at Iowa, proud inaugurator of an institutional model widely imitated at universities and colleges across the United States in the years following World War II, was best known. Perelman, however, was by inclination and influence drawn in a different direction. The political radicalism of the decade, in no small part a direct outcome of such University of Michigan-born organizations as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), found a cultural ally in the New American Poetry tradition forcefully articulated in Donald Allen's 1960 anthology of that name and disseminated since that time to a fairly large audience through various countercultural channels. The presence at Iowa of Anselm Hollo, whose aesthetic commitments placed him firmly in the company--if not the camp--of Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, and Allen Ginsberg, and whose arrival in 1968 compensated for the departure of Berrigan, signaled a kind of acknowledgment within the department for this alternative tradition. Born in Helsinki, Finland, in 1934, Hollo lived as a radio producer in London from 1958 to 1966 before coming to the United States, teaching briefly at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1967, and settling in Iowa in 1968. Reviewing Sojourner Microcosms (1977) for the San Francisco Review of Books in January 1978, Perelman paid homage to his irreverent mentor's eclectic erudition in these terms:

Sojourner Microcosms collects 20 years of Anselm Hollo's poetry, but actually it collects more than 4,000 years of the world's poetic activity. The Odyssey, the Kalevala, Apache myths, the Minnesingers, the French Encyclopedists, Whitehead, Jung, vampire movies, etc., all turn up in these pages. And holding them together is Hollo's firm, Poundian commitment to literacy, clarity, and a lyrical concision.

Perelman worked closely with Hollo in Iowa, and he made several lasting friendships with fellow students there as well, including Michael Waltuch, Tomaz Salamun, and Barrett Watten. Waltuch, with whom Perelman would cofound Hills magazine in 1973 (assuming sole editorship after the first issue), introduced fellow Yale alumni Kit Robinson and Steve Benson to Perelman at this time, though their period of intense collaboration would not truly begin until 1976. Through classmate Watten, Perelman came to a close appreciation of Charles Olson's work as well as to an important friendship with the poet Robert Grenier. The fates of Salamun, Watten, and Perelman almost took a tragic turn in the winter of 1972 when an Iowa to Cambridge, Massachusetts, road trip--motivated in part by Perelman's budding relation with Francie Shaw--ended with the car carrying the three friends skidding into a snowbank after a truck suddenly swerved into it. Watten had a broken leg and Perelman sustained a back injury, but the three young men all escaped this serious accident with their lives. It may be a residue of the vivid sensation of peril accompanying the crash that finds its way into "The Works," a prose poem collected in Braille, where Perelman writes: "Against impact I thumb my cultured nose, I hear my noise, then I give myself over to the crash, breath knocked out, caught in the ability to talk."

The summer after his first year at Iowa, Perelman returned to Ann Arbor to take his master's degree in Greek and Latin at the University of Michigan, and one year later in 1971 he completed the M.F.A. in creative writing at Iowa. With a psychological deferment from military service in the Vietnam War, Perelman traveled some at this time, visiting California and Mexico and seriously considering an extended journey to India. He found himself instead back in Iowa for one more year, partaking in the collective translation project that would eventuate in the 1978 anthology Russian Poetry: The Modern Period and working on solo translations of Catullus's Latin and the Spanish of Vallejo's Trilce (1922). The first issue of Hills dates back to this final year in Iowa, as do the daily improvisations--inspired by and loosely modeled on the experimental prose works collected in Williams's Imaginations (1970)--that would eventually make up his first full-length book, Braille.

In 1974 Perelman moved to Cambridge to be with Francie Shaw, who was then completing a degree in art at The Museum School. Having met in 1971, the couple married in the summer of 1975, the weekend of the ceremony happening to coincide with the publication by Ithaca House of Braille, a book that like all of Perelman's subsequent works would be dedicated to Shaw and that, like a great many of them, bears cover art by her. A curious little pamphlet dating from roughly this time, 11 Romantic Positions (1976), takes the form of a collaboration between husband and wife in which Perelman's Grenier-influenced texts are juxtaposed with Shaw's line drawings. In one of the longer pieces the site of the newlywed couple's honeymoon, Guatemala, provides a title as well as the unusual vowel combination ("ua") in the initial word:

Quarrelled, half

quarrelled slow hours

with Francie, Indians send

rockets up, it's

religion, explosions re

verberating in volcanic

rock bowl of air I

was alive It was the

rainy season And

here I was still saying

was, was, that old

unsatisfactory busride

back home[.]

Sexual pleasure--defined in the booklet's first short poem as a position where "I neither are nor am you"--is apparently displaced in "Quatemala," the quarrel between the American tourists echoing uncannily in the rockets sent up by the Mayans, the vivid perception of which leads the writer to exclaim "I / was alive"--while at the same time conceding that the memory of pleasure, whether brought on by explosions or sexual encounters, is by definition "unsatisfactory." Was the "busride / back home" unsatisfactory because of its destination (home again, after the exotic sojourn) or because of the quarrel between husband and wife? Shaw's drawings work with a basic vocabulary of the open and the closed, the linear and the circular. Her coils, swirls, and crossovers are comically suggestive in relation to Perelman's often sexually explicit themes. One way to read the pamphlet is as an exercise in interpersonal candor as that had been codified poetically by The Figures important to Perelman such as Creeley, Hollo, and Grenier. The closing poem, in fact, directly alludes to Creeley's The Island (1963), a novel begun in Guatemala in 1960. While unquestionably slight, as is most of the work in 11 Romantic Positions, "The Way of the White Clouds" does show the lengths to which Perelman was willing to go at this time to sound casual and uninhibited:

and now here I was

reading The Island

wiping my ass about

to get up and make

love with Francie[.]

Candor about the body and its functions is an attribute of all these poems, though it registers at least as much as the mimicry of a period style as it does as a daring raid on bourgeois delicacy. Some twenty years after the trip Perelman recalled his travels in Central America from a slightly different perspective, one foregrounding political, rather than personal or sensual, revelation:

When my wife and I went to Guatemala in 1975 for our honeymoon, our eyes were opened to novel states of affairs. Money, for instance, was not continuous, but was kept in place only sporadically and with the broadest hints of violence. In Guatemala City, sixteen year old Mayan kids in army camouflage with submachine guns were stationed on every street corner where there was a bank.

This display of the repressive violence underpinning the monetary system of a nation was jarring because it revealed something effectively concealed from most first-world eyes. The arbitrariness of the social sign, like that of its linguistic counterpart as analyzed by Ferdinand de Saussure, is masked by convention. But whereas Perelman's modernist precursors Pound and Williams had railed against the merely conventional value of coin and word, equating arbitrariness with sexual perversion and political misrule, Perelman-- like so many of his contemporaries in the post-1968 intellectual world--interpreted the situation differently. Rather than cleanse the language of the tribe and return it to its essential common core, Perelman and his contemporaries sought to discredit the putative universals, to expose the violence at the root of pseudo-consensus, and to resist "the tyranny of elemental words" that had been used to sanction everything from racial segregation to American imperialism in Southeast Asia, from gender oppression to an acceptance of nuclear warheads as a daily fact of life. In an interesting reversal of a common trajectory that moves from youthful political radicalism to a maturity of neutral domesticity, Perelman credits his marriage, and especially the birth of his two children, Max in 1979 and Reuben in 1983, with engaging his political passions in his late twenties and developing them throughout his thirties and forties.

The newly married couple were soon to set off from Cambridge to make a life in San Francisco, but in the remainder of 1975 and through the first half of 1976 they stayed in New England, where Perelman taught sporadically at Hobart College, Northeastern University, and through Cambridge Adult Education. He made at this time, through the offices of friend and mentor Grenier--who was living in Franconia, New Hampshire--the acquaintance of Creeley, and Perelman mingled on occasion with the small circle of Creeley's students at the time, including Alan Davies, editor of the small magazines Oculist Witnesses and 100 Posters and eventual associate of New York Language poets Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. Perelman even met the venerable Objectivist poet >Louis Zukofsky, who regaled the somewhat surprised younger poet with stories of Williams's intimate habits. Perelman would probably have listened carefully at this time to any discussion of Williams, no matter how slight, as Perelman was working in a sustained and serious relation to the early, "difficult" masterpieces Kora in Hell and Spring and All in the improvisational poems he had been publishing for several years in little magazines such as This, Streets and Roads, and his own Hills, which included a half-dozen poems from the series in its inaugural issue. In 1975 Perelman edited and lightly revised (often simply retitling) sixty-one of these daily improvisations and published them under the title Braille.

In titling his first full-length volume Braille, Perelman announced an aspiration toward tactility in language, raised contours felt at the fingertips rather than inked ciphers consumed at a safe distance by the eyes. But there is an equally strong drive toward musicality in these poems, an unmistakable facility for hearing extraordinary rhythmic possibilities in ordinary language. The dialectic of virtuosity and improvisation characteristic not only of early Williams but also of Jack Kerouac and the O'Hara of long poems such as Second Avenue (1960)--not to mention the innovative jazz artists who inspired so many American writers in the post-war years--plays itself out in these works, where messy exuberance and a dazzlingly precise feel for syntactical variations keep the words always a step ahead of the reader's expectation. This unique set toward the syntax of a poem, no matter whether the primary compositional units are lines and stanzas or sentences and paragraphs, holds from one end of Perelman's body of works to the other. It lends urgency to the improvisations of Braille, animates the collage texts in 7 Works, steers the precise stanzas of Primer, and gives the "new sentences" of a.k.a. (1984) their distinctive flair. It is the specifically poetic element that raises the deeply political body of work after 1984--To the Reader, The First World, and Face Value-- above any accusation of mere propagandizing. And it continues to mature and complexify in a long poem such as "The Manchurian Candidate," where the mimicry of cinematic shot-structure does not minimize the specifically linguistic nature of its compositional units.

Braille debuts this syntactic intelligence. It also brings several of Perelman's strongest thematic concerns to the foreground. Formally the book is nearly evenly divided between the thirty prose pieces of one, two, or three short paragraphs and the thirty-one poems in some kind of stanzaic or open-field form. While there is work of interest in both of these modes, the prose pieces such as "Youngstown," "India," "We See," and "Aesthetics" are the more distinctive and memorable contributions. The tendency to evoke and then evade codes of autobiographical utterance manifests itself in "Youngstown" and returns repeatedly in Perelman's work, from "An Autobiography" in 7 Works to the long prose work in nine parts, a.k.a, to recent uncollected poems such as "To the Past" and "To the Future." Each of the three paragraphs of "Youngstown" begins with a similar phrase, starting with the word when and coordinating it through the first-person pronoun to a state or action. "When I was the world" is the grandly monomaniacal way the first sentence begins; "When I lived in youngstown" sounds a more plausible note in the second; and "When to the sound of mind I bring these words" is the consciously poetic third sentence, the cadence and syntactical inversion paying open homage to Shakespeare's thirtieth sonnet. In each case the "when" phrase initiates a somewhat madcap process of accumulation and acceleration that drives to the final period as many as eight lines of prose-set print later. Here, for example, is the entirety of the third paragraph:

When to the sound of mind I bring these words scattering them ahead of me in exact statement bingo! then attitudes jar and what else do you have except an attitude to shine said the anthropocentric sun sing said the line of song say these things and see where they put me get me revealed the crooked cries of bingo the large task.

While a certain structural allusion to the sonnet form runs throughout this paragraph, the overall spirit owes more to Frank O'Hara than to the Bard. The absence of punctuation and conventional sentence structure prepares the stage for many duplicitous situations in which grammatical object tumbles into subject which in turn tumbles into predicate. The dash-it-off bravado of "scattering" words "ahead of me" is integrated by an act of mind into "exact statement bingo!"--at once deferring to and lightly deriding the ideal of a word order revelatory of a world order. The conversation with the sun, here comically portrayed as "anthropocentric," already made into something of a set piece of modernist poetry by first Mayakovsky and then O'Hara (see the final chapter in Perelman's The Marginalization of Poetry), yields some advice about shining, just as the song tautologically advises one to "sing." The exhuberant "bingo!" decays by paragraph's end into "the crooked cries of bingo" before an awkward end is brought to the whole exhalation by the words "the large task."

The interpenetration of domestic and global sites is the subtext of the clever single-paragraph prose piece called "India." In the course of this poem, narrated in the same kind of oddly neutral voice heard in John Ashbery's early poem "The Instruction Manual," the title word expands one character at a time, the connotations shifting perceptibly with each addition, until finally the reader unexpectedly deduces the American heartland:

First, there is the i-n-d-i-a, which should cohere fairly stably by now, but adding the n makes for a whole set of erosions, indecencies, and unmistakable clues that the namers had imagined themselves in the wrong hemisphere. Then the a, which violates the inexact i-n-d-i-a-n by forming the inexact a-n-a, cousin to the even more tired r-a-m-a, as in f-o-o-d-o-r-a-m-a. The a-n-a implies a leveling of consciousness over a wide area.

By means of this clever conceit, which in its typography already looks ahead to the infamous equal signs in the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Perelman is able to question deep geopolitical structures linking seemingly unrelated spaces. The final sentence works in a sharply critical jab at the bad universality of consumer America ("an all is one howard johnson orange glow"), increasingly a target of Perelman's caustic observation as his work progresses, as the dialectic of here and elsewhere takes another hermeneutical turn:

So, you have the search for i-n-d-i-a totally incomplete, and before anything of substance was initiated in the mind, it spread itself out insistently and destructively in an all is one howard johnson orange glow that is called health here, steel mills and florida orange juice, but is understood elsewhere as violence, appetite disembodied, misspelled.

In the short poem "How It's Done" the first five lines dissect in neutral descriptive language the deceptive rhetorical strategies of the American Pentagon as it prosecuted the war against the Viet Cong while the two-line denouement of the poem abruptly introduces an image of vaguely sexualized violence, a kind of surrealist antidote to the rationalizations of power:

Responding to reports that american bombs

had hit POW camps the pentagon said that

if true then north vietnam had violated

the geneva convention accords

by placing such camps in dangerous areas

the usual thing is to think of a bunkhouse girl

tangled in the bedsprings[.]

Such graphic entanglements of state power and individual sexuality serve frequently as a theme for Perelman's mature reflections on libidinal and political economies. In "We See," a title that attracts notice in the context of the braille metaphor, the ubiquity of social messages ("everywhere society is spoken") is registered in a string of apposite clauses that finally drifts off in an ellipsis that bespeaks a deep skepticism as concerns the political vision of identity- and property-obsessed citizens who have effectively abdicated democratic agency in favor of delegated responsibility:

In the universities, in the supermarkets, in the language, everywhere society is spoken, we see people unable to dress themselves in human proportion, we see them fooled into cannibalism by sweet talk, we see them drawling on the beach, looking each other over, looking for fingerprints, yet at the same time unable to identify their own assholes in a series of simple political mugshots, we see them irritated, searching . . . [.]

Perelman's own search next led to the West Coast. He and Shaw made the cross-country drive to San Francisco late in the summer of 1976 and within a day of their arrival were setting up house in a loft on Folsom Street found for them by Geoffrey Young, the energetic, talkative young poet and soon-to-be influential publisher who would bring out some of Perelman's most important texts in handsome editions over the years, starting with 7 Works (1978) and continuing into the next decade with The First World (1986) and Captive Audience (1988). The arrival of the young couple coincided with the sparking of a literary scene built on affective ties dating back in some instances to high school (in the case of Barrett Watten and Ron Silliman, college (Steve Benson and Kit Robinson), and graduate school (Perelman and Watten), though novelty animated even the pre-established connections as life and literature coincided apart from the institutional buffers of school and people such as Hejinian, Harryman, David Bromige, Alan Bernheimer, Tom Mandel, and others brought their own backgrounds, idiosyncracies, and ambitions to the mix.

To this fertile conjunction of emergent talents Perelman brought an enthusiasm to learn what people were thinking. His pragmatically oriented pluralism proved a welcome attribute in the context of the often didactic, calculated tendencies of men such as Silliman and Watten, neither of whom needed excessive coaxing to speak their opinions on a variety of literary and political topics. The first flier for the Talk Series that Perelman organized and hosted at his and Francie's Folsom Street loft lists both Watten and Silliman, along with Harryman, Benson, Bromige, G. P. Skratz, and Perelman himself, as scheduled speakers for the inaugural spring series. More than forty talks occupied the evenings and exercised the passions of these San Francisco Bay area poets and their out-of-town visitors through 1981, and excellent representations of the range of work can be found in the special "Talks" double issue of Hills (1980) and the follow-up volume from Southern Illinois University Press, Writing/Talks (1985), both edited by and including contributions from Perelman.

Redefining the role of the listener and, by extension, the reader stands as a motive not only for the Talk Series but also for the writing Perelman did in the years immediately following his arrival in San Francisco, a writing that at least in its initial stages was collaborative and receptive. Perelman recalls one such method of working, incorporated in several of the texts in 7 Works, in this way:

Kit Robinson, Steve Benson and I began a writing project almost as soon as we met in San Francisco in 1976. One of us would read from whatever books were handy and two of us would type. These roles would rotate; occasionally, there would be two readers reading simultaneously to one typist. The reader would switch books whenever he felt like it, and jump around within whatever book was open at the time. Truman Capote's slam at Kerouac's work--that this was typing, not writing--would have been even truer here, though none of us could type as fast as Kerouac, who apparently was a terrific typist, an ability which undoubtedly helped give his writing its enviable fluidity.

This was not automatic writing; automatic listening would be more like it. There was no question of keeping up with the stream of spoken words; one could attempt to attend to them or not. If I felt no spark of imagination I would type at or toward the next batch of them I heard, though the rates of speed of spoken syllable versus typed letter were so disparate that by the time a phrase such as "For the purposes of this paper, I will assume a familiarity with Foucault's critique of the notion of the author as an individual" was read I might have managed to type "For the purposes of paper." At this point, I may have started to hear a tone in the typed phrase I wanted to pursue. I can have a sickened fond loathing for sentences that start with "For": they remind me of an ersatz biblical loftiness, however many degrees removed from that I remain. So I might continue on my own unmarked track and write, "For the purposes of paper are not the purposes of words alone." By this time, the reader-as-pronouncer might be in the midst of pronouncing "or take the shuttle bus from Gare du Nord with poets, novelists, editors, bookstore owners, Lacanian psychoanalysts, and spend the day." That would certainly come in handy, for instance in producing: "For the purposes of paper are not the purposes of words alone but of poets and novelists, Lacanian psychoanalysts, bookstore owners, and other The Figures of speech bartering their thought balloons for a bronzed handle on the deeper cellars of the city's statuesque psyche."

We did this for a few months, generating many pages which we worked on, picked through, or mostly filed away. A few lines show up in a few pieces of Robinson's Down and Back, Benson's As Is, and my 7 Works. "Instead of ant wort I saw brat guts" begins my book, although in fact Robinson heard/typed/wrote it. It's in "his voice."

Positing the role of the writer as a "swamped receiver" works to reverse the poles of modernist literary production, in which the writer is omni-competent and the reader forever consigned to playing catch-up. Like the reader whose birth Roland Barthes proclaimed in the closing sentences of his famous essay declaring the death of the author, the protagonist of Perelman's "brat guts literary regime" is "second in the chain of command, which becomes a chain of suggestion."

Perelman has commented that he consistently hears three or four "tracks" in his head while writing: the choice between compossibles is a defining moment of poetic practice for him. The collaborations with Benson and Robinson worked in important ways to externalize and materialize the fact of discursive compossibility, and the 1978 stagings of Celia and Louis Zukofsky's "A"-24, a text intricately scored for four voices accompanied by carefully chosen harpsichord pieces by Handel, must likewise have served to make manifest the simultaneity and collectivity of the literary text. Nine months of rehearsal preceded the three performances given by a group comprised of Kit Robinson (Thought), Steve Benson and Carla Harryman (dividing the gendered roles of Drama), Lyn Hejinian (Story), Barrett Watten (Poem), and Perelman (harpsichord/piano) at the Grand Piano (a local poetry venue), the San Francisco State Poetry Center, and the University of California at Davis. Writing about the performances in the pages of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, 8 ( June 1979), Perelman stressed the enormous difficulties associated with the endeavor, difficulties partly arising from Zukofsky's misleading analogy between music and language. "Language doesn't occur in time the way music does," Perelman points out. "Music is strictly sequence, absolutely dependent on time. Language merely uses time to embody itself in a string of phonemes, the meaning occurring both during the sounds and after they have vanished." Faced with the barrage of voices and sounds, the auditor of "A"-24 truly is a "swamped receiver." "What the ear tends to do on first hearing 'A'-24," Perelman observes, "is switch rapidly from voice to voice," attending for a time to one role or "track," then permitting another to rise into attention. Such was not Zukofsky's somewhat utopian intention, however. According to Perelman, Zukofsky tried to "hook up the physical instantaneous unconscious undistortable act of hearing with the fullest possible range of thought (all of a life). Performing and hearing 'A'-24 presupposes a thorough knowledge of Z's work, an ecstatically dilated time sense in which every syllable continues sounding until they all have resolved each other, and an eternity in which the whole work is present in any of its sounds."

The Talk Series and the close engagement with Zukofsky culminating in the "A"-24 performances are important contexts for reading Perelman's first book of the San Francisco period, 7 Works. Published in a mid-sized, NEA-supported run of six hundred by Geoffrey Young's The Figures in 1978, with a handsome four-color cover by Francie Shaw, the book is comprised of three prose collages; the sustained, complex, forty-two-paragraph "Essay on Style" (dedicated to Kit Robinson and Steve Benson); "Vienna: A Correspondence"; and "An Autobiography." The other four works include a cut-up of a self-improvement text, "How to Improve" (dedicated to Barrett Watten, a suite of short poems called "Cupid & Psyche," a seven-page work in long disassociative stanzas ("Road Tones"), and the performance/installation text "Before Water." Reviewing the volume in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in October 1978, Carole Korzeniowsky praised Perelman's "facility with different forms, lengths, subject/object distances," and "found material." The works "think differently" separately in Korzeniowsky's view, but together they yield an "overall sense of a highly trained intellect at work." In March 1979, discussing "How to Improve" in the context of Russian Formalist theory, Watten called attention to the work's "permanent 'laying bare'" of the "device," praising its "busted formality" for making "the splendors of the language available."

7 Works represents Perelman's most concerted foray into a strictly literary form of collage though mimicry, citation, and other techniques for embedding source material in the poetic text are constants throughout his career. The "Essay on Style" cycles its basic paragraph-length units through a complicated round of progressions and repetitions that not only has a musical structure but also takes musical training--along with scientific experiment, exploratory travels, and other less classifiable topoi--as part of its kaleidoscopic content. Perelman's use of the Life of Henri Brulard, an unfinished document composed by Stendhal in the space of four months in 1835-1836, in the sixteen paragraphs of "An Autobiography" focuses on the maternal/pastoral passages from chapter 3 (often cited in connection with Sigmund Freud and Proust):

My mother, Mme Henriette Gagnon, was a charming woman and I was in love with my mother.

I must hurriedly add that I lost her when I was seven.

When I loved her at about the age of six, in 1789, I showed exactly the same characteristics as in 1828 when I was madly in love with Alberthe de Rubempré. My way of pursuing happiness was basically unchanged; there was just this difference: I was, as regards the physical side of love, just as Caesar would be, if he came back into the world, as regards the use of cannon and small arms. I would have learned very quickly, and my tactics would have remained basically the same.

I wanted to cover my mother with kisses, and without any clothes on. She loved me passionately and often kissed me; I returned her kisses with such fervour that she was often forced to go away. I abhorred my father when he came to interrupt our kisses. I always wanted to kiss her bosom. Please be kind enough to remember that I lost her in childbed when I was barely seven.

She was plump, with a faultlessly fresh complexion, she was very pretty, and I think just not quite tall enough. Her features expressed nobility and utter serenity; she was very lively, preferring to run about and do things for herself rather than give orders to her three maids, and she was fond of reading Dante's Divine Comedy in the original. Long afterwards, I found five or six copies of different editions in her room, which had remained shut up since her death.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

One evening, when for some reason I had been put to bed on the floor of her room on a mattress, she leaped over my mattress, lively and light-footed as a doe, to reach her own bed more quickly.

Many of these sentences appear unmodified and unmarked in "An Autobiography" (as a sentence from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park does in the "Play" section of Perelman's 1988 volume Captive Audience), and the reader unfamiliar with Stendhal's original certainly would be tempted, despite the literary tone, to take these events for occurrences in Perelman's own life. Stendhal is an interesting figure not only for his candid, proto-Freudian articulation of incestuous longings--"An Autobiography" emphasizes the young boy's erotic hunger as literalized in an actual physical hunger that lush banquets cannot satisfy--but also for his political predicament as a radical republican in a time of post-Napoleonic retrenchment in France. Perelman alludes to the political side of Stendhal in "Journal des Debats," collected in To the Reader, but his fascination with the novelist's nonfictional prose, not just the Life but also the Memoirs of a Tourist (1838), is on record as well. Writing in the inaugural issue of Poetics Journal in 1982, Perelman characterizes Stendhahl's prose in terms that could easily be applied to work in the "new sentence" then being developed by Hejinian, Silliman, Watten, and others.

Paragraph by paragraph, the prose is disjunct. And within paragraphs, consecutive sentences will jump in focus and scale. There is a wide range of effect, bound up less with the content of each sentence (though there's an infinite range there, since they deal with physical and social particulars), than with motion between sentences. Stendahl's relationship, and hence the reader's as well, to the content of what he's saying is constantly shifting.

While it would be misleading simply to equate Perelman's project in his next book, Primer, to the 1917 turn on the part of Eliot and Pound against free verse and toward the "chiselled quatrains" of Theophile Gautier, there is a grain of truth to the analogy. Together the collage-based prose and nonstanzaic poetry of 7 Works make a sharp contrast to the exclusive use of stanza forms in Primer. This book, published in an NEA-supported edition of five hundred copies by Watten's This Press, also marks the full-scale arrival of the discourse of linguistics among the San Francisco Bay area poets. Linguistic terms of art dot virtually every page of the thirty-five-poem volume, and Watten's cover design consists of Pierre Delattre's spectographic-pattern analyses of various consonantal phonemes.

Perelman's first title, also one word, gestured toward a palpable form of language: Braille. His second had the ring of the generic titles given to artists' exhibits: 7 Works. His third perfectly bound volume also adopts a generic title, that of a work meant to provide the rudiments of a field or practice: Primer. Along with the obvious pedagogic connotations, the word conjures other meanings as well: the gray cover already seems a gesture in the direction of the homonym meaning a base coat of paint. Since explosives make up a large part of the political unconscious, the sense of primer as a compound used in the preparation of explosive devices may also be intended here. The choice of the word also sets in motion an ambiguity in the graphic representation of phonemes: while the phonetic symbols arrayed on the cover are precisely correlated to voicing, alphabetic characters are susceptible to varying manners of pronunciation. While some Americans may follow the rule that tends to make the vowel in words such as primer long, the correct or received pronunciation utilizes a short-/i/ sound rather than the dipthong /ay/. Already, then, a hesitation, a complication, in what purports to be a primary text, one stripped of the complexities that come later, after the basics have been fully grasped.

"My One Voice," "Trainee," "Room," "China," and "History" are among the important poems collected in Primer. Since the dominant mode in the collection is stanzaic, one may speculate that the form forced a head-to-head confrontation with "the poetic" as such, hence the references: "To Baudelaire," Percy Bysshe Shelley ("Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"), and Maria Rilke (the concluding poem, "Musik") as well as to contemporaries such as Hejinian ("Measure"), Harryman ("Birthday Present"), Andrews ("Socialist Realism"), and Bernheimer (to whom the title poem "Primer" is dedicated). The one formally exceptional piece is the ten-section poem "Outlines," which first appeared in Hills in 1978. In "My One Voice," a set of five four-line stanzas, Perelman writes in lines reminiscent of Creeley's "The System": "At the sound of my voice / I spoke and, egged on / by the discrepancy, wrote / the rest out as poetry." There are three poems in tercets--"Gears," "Self Portrait," and "Abstract"-- each a recombination of lexical possibilities introduced but not exhausted in the other two.

In a work so conspicuously devoted to stanzaic forms, the appearance of the word that translates the Italian stanze namely room cannot be viewed as accidental. Comprised of five quatrains, the poem (rooms) looks the part of its genre in a way that many of Perelman's earlier works purposefully avoided. Self-uttering, self-confirming words are the protagonists of the first stanza, where time itself greets them:

The words mention themselves.

They are literally true.

Every minute another circle

Meets them halfway.

In the second stanza the movement of the second hand is contrasted to the stasis and containment of self-identity:

The locker locks

From the inside. I

is an extensive pun

Born of this confinement.

While I is of course a pun in a "literal" sense ("eye"), the shut-tight self of the locker model, lock fastened from the inside, is refuted by the "extensive" pun it gives birth to. The title word "room" occurs in the third stanza:

The echoes crossing

North America, the room.

The ear hears in no time.

On the street, machines . . . [.]

The leap in scale from "North America" to the unspecified but generally diminutive "the room" is quite drastic. The reach, or extension, may be further evidence of the pun's fanning out, perhaps with imperial intentions. The collapse of space due to telecommunications is one possible referent of the first two lines: a voice on the phone from California can be heard in New York as well as, if not better than (depending on traffic and sirens), someone across the room. But as to echoes? The "ear hears in no time" reads as instantly ("in no time"), though a state is also indicated, one of no-time. The contrast machine/non-machine, which moves throughout the poems of this book, reaches articulation here as:

On the street, machines

Reveal the thought

Of non-machines. These

Objects have the right

To remain silent.

The voluble and the silent; words and things; the things that permit the thinking of nonthings to be perceived as things (typewriters, for instance)--the specificity of "these" objects reads somewhat ironically in light of the Miranda ruling language: "These / Objects have the right / To remain silent." Finally, in the fifth stanza:

The pen wrestles with

The hand by the light

Of an open door. Things

Are their real size.

Just as "words mention themselves" at the start of the work, at the end "Things / Are their real size." Immediate self-identity is the starting and ending point of the poem, whereas the pen/hand are an antagonistic couple just before ("The pen wrestles with / The hand ... ").

Bob Gluck, a contemporary whose readings of Perelman's work have combined great insight with a healthy measure of criticism, situates Primer relative to Perelman's preceding and succeeding volumes in this useful statement:

Primer is a unified book; like much of 7 Works, and in contrast to a.k.a., this poetry has a silvery quality, a patina, beautiful and "rescued" turns of phrase, an economy rather than anything goes. Although the poems are made up of images, they are not charged with symbolism and they don't generate the force fields of the surreal. These images reject those stakes, that inevitability. They are diffused; meaning becomes a block to move around like the furniture of rhetoric.

Perelman returned to the prose format in January 1979 when the first two sections of a.k.a. appeared as the nineteenth in the Tuumba chapbook series edited by Hejinian. It was brought out in an edition of 450 with a cover--a wobbly blue rectangle colored yellow inside--and title page designed by Francie Shaw. The seventeen pages of text are divided into two main sections, the first consisting of thirty-five prose paragraphs and the second consisting of twenty-nine. The sentences are short, crisp, quasi-declarative, and they seemed at the time of their publication to illustrate a whole new way of approaching prose poetry, one that would build from while transforming the path broken by Gertrude Stein and Williams. Two early paragraphs from a.k.a. (the second and third paragraphs of section 1) served as Ron Silliman's principal exhibit in the September 1979 "New Sentence" talk that christened and defined what could be called the signature device of the language-centered movement. While not as decisive as Jameson's mention of "China" in his 1982 and 1984 articles on the postmodern, Silliman's critical remarks on Perelman's work have had wide influence indeed on the way his poems have subsequently been interpreted. Watten and Harryman are also cited by Silliman--Watten's work as the first in which Silliman "noticed" the innovation and Harryman's as a fresh example illustrating the eight characteristics Silliman has advanced--but it is Perelman's plotless prose on which Silliman focuses. In the essay/manifesto Silliman isolates eight characteristics of the new sentence. These have to do with the paragraph, the sentence, their relation, and syllogistic semantic movement:

1) The paragraph organizes the sentences;

2) The paragraph is a unit of quantity, not logic or argument;

3) Sentence length is a unit of measure;

4) Sentence structure is altered for torque, or increased polysemy/ambiguity;

5) Syllogistic movement is (a) limited (b) controlled;

6) Primary syllogistic movement is between the preceding and following sentences;

7) Secondary syllogistic movment is toward the paragraph as a whole, or the total work;

8) The limiting of syllogistic movement keeps the reader's attention at or very close to the level of language, that is, most often at the sentence level or below.

While Silliman's piece on the new sentence has a pedantic tone that has understandably led to criticism, he does present in concise terms some of the key features of the new prose poetry that was increasingly being practiced in his circle and that would begin impacting other writers in this country and abroad after 1982 or so. Silliman saw the new sentence as preserving crucial elements from poetic convention, but shifting them decisively: "Grammar has become . . . prosody," he says with a nod to Roland Barthes, which means that sentence length and punctuation have taken on rhythmic functions, for one, and that the semantically complicating work of line breaks has been brought inside the sentence. New sentences are "pressurized" or "torqued" by the "internal presence of once exteriorized poetic forms."

From Braille--with its even division between stanzaic and paragraph forms--forward Perelman has shown a penchant for alternating and combining his compositional forms. With To the Reader, begun in 1979 at roughly the time of his son Max's birth and published in an edition of 475 as the penultimate chapbook in the Tuumba series in June 1984, Perelman again utilizes stanza forms, though their tempo and organization move away from the condensation found in Primer and toward the run-on verse paragraphs used with increasing confidence and impact in The First World and Face Value. The critic Jed Rasula, writing in the pages of Temblor, admirably captures the spirit of To the Reader when he calls it some of "the most adroit, informed, yet innovative political poetry published lately in this country." Rasula is impressed with the way in which Perelman's work--which he compares favorably to the work of the Peruvian poet Vallejo--incorporates all manner of reference, not restricting itself to "the usual stuff of verse":

The poems continually feed on images of refugees, terrorists, illegal aliens, military operations, death squads, interrogations, hostages, Nazi eugenics, nuclear weapons and "strategic materials," the Pentagon . . . , Grenada, Southeast Asia, Central America, and such domestic sightings as Toys R Us, "sex manuals, Christmas decorations," and second mortgages.

Benjamin Friedlander, in an especially perceptive overview of the transition from Primer to To the Reader, summarizes the thesis of the latter work as being "that war, commerce, and patriarchy are the products of a furiously misspent sexuality." The marked influx of fighting words--those heavily freighted lexical and phrasal units Jameson called ideologemes and defined as "the smallest intelligible unit of the essentially antagonistic collective discourses of social classes"--gives Perelman's work, from this book forward, the unrivaled social urgency of a dissident broadcaster temporarily in control of the airwaves. This rhetorical turn, favoring direct address and overt position-taking, may have been hastened by Jameson's clumsily psychologizing misreading of the politically inexplicit poem "China," circulating since 1982 and published in its definitive form in "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," a landmark article that appeared in the pages of the New Left Review just one month after the appearance of To the Reader. While a.k.a. raised issues of subjectivity, borrowing from the lexicon of the outlaws' forced evasion of stable identity ("also known as") while at the same time eliminating or complicating first-person expression in its nonaccumulating sentences, To the Reader shifts the primary locus of activity to the second person, that "swamped receiver" already given center stage in the collaborative works, and to what Roman Jakobson called the conative function of language.

In a single stanza from "A History Lesson" one finds the elements of scathing critique, theatrical asides, quoted but free-floating speech, literary allusiveness, frenzied self-references, and an overall commitment to giving social fact oratorical form that characterize the upwards of eighty poems in To the Reader, The First World, and Face Value:

I use my whole doctrinaire

Vocabulary, praxis twice as hard

And rhetorical as a shotgun in a pickup.

Today's date, sigh, a heavily feathered

Paperweight crammed down the group esophagus

For pleasure. Your bored longings--

That's how money is manufactured.

Reviewing The First World, published in an edition of eight hundred copies by The Figures in April of 1986, scholar-poet Michael Davidson points out the dual references of the title First World, which refers at once to "the political economies of capitalist institutions" and to "our Edenic childhood," the world "before the body became a fetish object of drives and fixations." Indeed, the word "body" is one of the most densely overinscribed ciphers of this text. In addition to six unqualified uses and one verb phrase ("washing the body"), there are many adjectives applied: the body is "crudely physical" (52), unspeakable (49), and blood-soaked (47); it is humanized (11) and historicized (32), it is non-narrative (33), know-nothing (32) and twice simply preceded by the word no (34 and 38); it is private (43), single (21), and tan (45); it is spoken (29) and pictured (45); it is one-time (but no longer) (39). Perelman uses such lexical motifs to weave together the poems in the book, uniting them thematically into a complex whole. Many of these motifs and themes can be seen in the opening stanza to a poem late in the book, called simply "Person" (the title provides the subject of the verbs in the first line):

Eats, drinks, sticks pipe in mouth and asks

What society (books on varnished desk, vanished races,

   where have I smelled that smell before I was born, a kind

   of hard-headed pragmatism standing in the empty spaces

   . . .

What society has ever failed to fashion a human

receptacle for its narrative wastes?

C'est la guerre the garage the riding mower

the obtrusive stories that don't stop when the sun goes down

   all at one time like a physical short story

low blood sugar lowering the rate of vocabulary utilization

the world the universe the mind of god cushioning the fall of

   the dead letter

water coming into the river from an unknown source.

Sometimes you just have to go lie down with the un-

   named by-products.

After a middle stanza in which references to Proust and to Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (from which a character, Mr. Memory, plays an important role in "A Literal Translation of Virgil's Fourth Eclogue" in Virtual Reality) share room with maxims such as "capitalism makes nouns / and burns the connections" and--this time a literal rewrite from a famous remark of Wittgenstein's--statements such as "if a TV could talk we wouldn't understand it," Perelman concludes:

The intimate journal protects its secrets.

The intimate flesh projects its secrets.

In the bathroom: Kill a ( Jew crossed out) Nazi.

Perelman is rewriting Fenellosa and Wittgenstein; the graffiti writers stage their stealthy battles for public utterance in urinals, a scenario encountered again in the 1996 sequence "Fake Dreams." A poem concerned with the disposal of "narrative wastes" not surprisingly ends in a public restroom, where who's expendable is hotly if anonymously debated.

If the first decade of Perelman's work and of language-centered writing in general sought to foreground the linguistic underpinnings of many human relations, the work from the mid 1980s forward reveals facets of a complex social totality that are by custom and by strategic intention left unexpressed/unsymbolized in other media (including other poems). From defamiliarizing automatized linguistic expression to deconcealing (revealing would not capture the exact dialectical shading of the procedure) effective but invisible social forces, this is the shift in Perelman's practice. But he retains the earlier strategy and places it in the service of the later, differently motivated practice. Even the title The First World marks--opens to resignification and resymbolization--a category that was still frequently left tacit in all poetry that did not explicitly announce itself relative to the category "Third World."

The two photographs that compose the cover design and frontispiece for The First World, though not chosen by Perelman, are of more than ornamental importance. On the cover a rustic man and boy between whom a mysterious round boulder standing nearly shoulder high to the adult sits seem curious--perhaps proud of their contiguity to the fantastic structure--but calm, laconic. The thinned orchard behind them and the mountain in the far background almost give the impression that this stone ball has rolled from atop the mountain to where it currently stands, occasioning a measured interest on the part of the locals. The object-world represented here does not look so much like the "first world"--it is too rural, unmediated, and--if not grim--stern (perhaps theocratic). In contrast to the cover photograph is the one opposite the title page. Again, a large circular form governs the composition, but this time it is a ring engulfed in flame through which hurls, skate-blades first, a man, teeth clenched in a consternated grin, apparently bare-legged but with his arms, torso, and head decked out in a shiny, striped, semimetallic fabric. There is a trace of servility mixed into the display of virtuosity. The man is, after all, quite literally "jumping through a hoop." Perilously kinetic, this image is a foretaste of the authorial function as it acrobatically attempts to survive in a three-ring circus of syntax. It is--like so many of Perelman's inadvertent, intermittent, and fabricated flirtations with autobiography--a self-portrait.

In the decade following the publication of The First World, Perelman has continued to innovate and provoke. While Face Value (1988) remains recognizably within the formal and thematic idiom of The First World, the thirty-five poems collected in its pages are more capacious and deliberate than their predecessors. Also published in 1988, Captive Audience is a brilliant and highly regarded book-length poem in five sections ("Novel," "Play," "Writing," "Clippings," and "Movie") that traverses genres and entire media with witty facility. In the ambitious concluding section of the poem "Movie," 122 sentences stretch over 750-plus lines yielding implausible pairings such as Cary Grant and Jacques Derrida, Richard Nixon and Frederic Jameson and unanticipated seriocomic segues. In a note accompanying the poem in The Best of the Best American Poetry (1998), Perelman comments on his methods:

The continual shifting in "Movie," line by line, sentence by sentence, came from trying to get the entirety of the American world-hallucination that played so widely during the Reagan years onto the page. The Reagan hallucinations came from the movies; my continual sliding of reference was--metaphorically--movie-like: hence, I suppose, the poem's title. But while "Movie" continually refers to political matters, its tonal register is far from 'political,' populist or single. Ice cream, the Vietnam War, the literary, the bufferings of media--I wanted all of them and their interconnected workings revealed in lines and sentences.

In 1993 Roof Books published Virtual Reality, sixteen poems employing a variety of devices, most conspicuously strict word counts and visual shaping. The major poems of this well-known but somewhat aesthetically uneven volume are unquestionably the longer works: "The Marginalization of Poetry," "Money," and the exceptional "A Literal Translation of Virgil's Fourth Eclogue," a poem that looks back to Perelman's classical training and ahead to uncollected poems such as "The Manchurian Candidate," which mimes cinematic shot structure while incorporating multiple modes of address (essayistic, autobiographical, ethnographic, hallucinatory). It joins other works as yet available only in restricted circulation: the chapbook Chaim Soutine (1994), a four-part poem employing couplets, word counts, and dramatic-monologue form to explore the painter's fascination with a spoiled or putrescent reality; a series of Fake Dreams (1996) that neutralize the authority of the unconscious (as viewed for instance by the Surrealists) by exposing it to conscious fabrication; and the mock-naive melodies of the beautifully produced chapbook The Masque of Rime (1997). These works and others are slated for collection in 1999, and a volume of selected poems, as yet untitled, has recently been announced from Wesleyan University Press.




Written by: Steve Evans, Brown University

Source: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 193: American Poets Since World War II, Sixth Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Joseph Conte, State University of New York, Buffalo. The Gale Group, 1998. pp. 266-281.

Gale Database: Dictionary of Literary Biography