Wednesday, June 18, 2003

There is a new Bob Perelman poem in Van Gogh’s Ear 2 that reminds me – yet again – of why he is one of my favorite poets. A single paragraph from “Writing Time With Quotes” will illustrate my point:


Cognitive science has lots to say to playground bullets circumcising the split subject, and can rescue a diffuse but real enough sense of accidental agency, which, even if 2% accurate, is enough to fatally contaminate a person’s empirical bathwater. The sloshes provide some sense of motion between the ears, never forgetting the communicating vessels between legs, thus one stoops to be conquered by unconscious syntactic tactical groups, literate messengers repeatedly tearing back to report a sense of language as “profoundly alienating.”


Just two sentences, but invoking far more than simply two “complete” thoughts. Grammatically, there are no particular pyrotechnics in these sentences, none of the elisions or disruptions that we saw Monday, for example, in John Wieners’ poem “Loss.” Yet in some key respects, Perelman’s poetry is more like Wieners’ later work, say, than one might suspect. There is an intellectual – indeed cognitive – restlessness in both poets, as each very much heeds Olson’s core admonition, the importance of which Olson emphasized all in CAPS: ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. Thus Perelman’s grammatically reasonable sentences are filled with radical flights in different semantic directions, giving the reader (at least this reader) the double experience of moving as if normal through a landscape that is constantly altering.


The first time you confront such writing it’s a deeply unsettling phenomenon, yet like every literary device it has a history. At one level, this destabilized referential schema that is constantly shifting under otherwise conventional discursive models can be traced back to Ashbery – it really is his contribution to the elaboration of forms – & through Ashbery back to glimpsed antecedents in Stevens & Hart Crane. Yet where Ashbery’s kaleidoscope of references tends never to resolve, but rather opens outward limitlessly towards a hazy plenitude & where Charles Bernstein’s variants on this linguistic model almost invariably turn back toward the twitchiness of the grammatic devices he employs, a constantly deconstructing dramatic monolog, Perelman’s palette leads him to a far more constrained outer universe, one whose very claustrophobia is experienced by the reader – and possibly by Perelman himself – as a form of urgency.


Thus in the first sentence we find Cognitive science, a term embracing disciplines & discourses that include psychology, linguistics & neurology, having “lots to say” to the schema of school violence* which is seen to perform ritual mutilation on the problem of subjectivity. Accidental agency is a curious application of a standard theory term, again surrounding the question of subjectivity, joined as it is with an idea that sounds at once both true & surprisingly New York Schoolish. All of which “contaminates” – a very charged verb – in which the body side of the mind/body problem appears to be residing.


The second sentence continues the image of the bathwater – these are quite consciously not new sentences in the classic or narrow sense of that term** – only to return of a physical characterization of mind (some sense of motion between the ears) which links immediately with the body – although it is worth noting that genitalia here are characterized as communicating vessels, rather than as ends in themselves. The phrase thus one stoops to be conquered is, in fact, the largest hinge or syntactic leap in the entire paragraph, especially if the reader has embodied the narrating persona as being in a tub of water, leading to a curious inversion, that added verb be, of Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy of manners in which everyone is not quite as they seem. The next phrase – unconscious syntactic tactical groups – is the most complex of the paragraph, echoing at least in that first adjective the concept of accidental agency. Syntactic plays into several of the schema that have come before: Cognitive science, has a lot to say, split subject, communicating vessels. It is in some ways the most vital term in this packed little phrase, setting up the paragraph’s payoff in the last long clause that follows the comma. Like unconscious, tactical also recalls the prior appearance of agency, but it is the noun groups that is completely without earlier insinuation. It occurs abruptly, as if from nowhere at the end of this phrase every previous term of which has sunk its hooks back into earlier conceptual & image schemata.


Groups is the surprise, yet it turns out to be the subject of the final long dependent clause. These groups are literate messengers whom Perelman describes as if they were international observers. (What Perelman doesn’t say here is that such international observers were originally called theors, and their work collectively theory.) Now, at this moment, all of the linguistic schemas click together into a final image that would unifying were it not so consciously claustrophobic & paranoid. Indeed, the structure of the paragraph is not unlike that of a slasher flick as clues accumulate until, in the final moment, one tears back the shower curtain to confront the hockey-masked marauder & it all makes perfect / terrible sense. 


This is just one moment in a larger work, one of six paragraphs in Perelman’s poem, the last of which is either quoted or paraphrased from Creeley – shades of Allen Ginsberg! But it shows the layers of Perelman’s imagination as he continues to demonstrate that he can keep more themes & images active simultaneously in a reader’s imagination than almost any other poet alive.





* See in the same issue of Van Gogh’s Ear, Dennis Cooper’s dramatic monolog in the voice of Kip Kinkel, the Springfield Oregon student who, having been expelled for bringing a gun to Thurston High School, returned with a semi-automatic, shooting twenty eight people, killing two.


** Though in all other respects, they may well be quite a bit newer than that even.