Monday, January 15, 2007

IFLIFE, all one word, is Bob Perelman’s 16th book of poetry¹ and his most ambitious. Like many of his earlier volumes, dating back to 7 Works, IFLIFE at first appears to be that straightforward thing, a collection of poems, but when examined more closely reveals layers of connection from one to poem to the next until a close reader becomes dizzy with the vertical dimensions that can lurk behind the simplest word, such as you:

Wrong Country

for William Carlos Williams

Yours were the first names I saw
a self-conscious speaking tube in love
with the loud gaps
into which we'd plunge, my idea

of you and the other action figures
attached to the air currents
lifting the words that move together
or not at all

read you?
A you? Now
divided by then
to amuse the ones to come

You'd hate the web
the buyable things against the screen
even more you'd hate
liking things like that

Quatrains helped or were you
against yourself on principle?
Meanings are still at large
The wills of so many involved

Cherry pink bra strap
lost to thought
and that person's dictionary of response
exciting the senses

to open a new document
A full day beneath the jets
hardly a shred of local left
America's sinking, everyone sees

By the time you reach this poem, eighth in a series of nine in a section entitled People, the third of the book’s five parts, you are – or at least should be – so oversensitive to this term that you, the “action figure,” echoes not just as an address at once both to reader & the dead Williams, but indeed, tucked into Williams’ own initials, double you see double you, the first two of which are likewise the first letters in the words of the title of this poem. What, in fact, is a “self-conscious speaking tube” with “the loud gaps / into which we’d plunge,” if not the actual physical construction of that consonant that mimes a vowel, W?

People, just to say within this one section, is constantly bringing us back to this question of who you might be, from its very first poem, an elegy in the form of a letter to Gil Ott (still the dean of Philadelphia poets), then a poem entitled “Indirect Address: A Ghost Story,” dedicated (if that’s the word) in brackets no less “[to Jacques Derrida].” This is followed by a poem entitled “In Memory,” which is unusual for this section in that it is neither dedicated to, nor for, anyone, nor focuses on a single influence, say the way “Notes on Memoir,” which shows up next, fixes on a single copy of Stendhal’s Life of Henri Brulard. This is followed by two poems, one dedicated to Perelman’s late father, the other to the medievalist Emily Steiner, and then by a long piece entitled “A Guide to Homage to Sextus Propertius.” It’s at this point that “Wrong Country” shows up, followed by a suite of short pieces entitled “Voice Play” that has, among 14 works, one titled “Enemy Reader,” another “Ideal Reader”:

What you write is perfectly true.
It makes me want to think so too.

But the anti- or counter-text to “Wrong Country” would seem to be “In Memory,” the poem that does not attach itself to any specific person:

Memory lying open to the one spread naked fa
shion plate earliest front page someone signing

Memory lying open to the one spread naked fashion pl
ate blood on the wall and a little around the back door

Earliest front page a smiling man in handcuffs
staged it turns out real weapons in the trailers

Unbearable hisses Go upstairs but me
mory’s already dusted the fingerprints

Blood on the wall and a little around the back door now h
ere’s a person in charge of the excitement going backstage

The pleasures of the night eyes shut maybe me
mory on the wall a little around the back door

Friendly smile but stopped by the shutter blurred
by the presses older machines heavy with capital

Upstairs the pleasures of the nigh
t smiling already “Dawn likes you”

Memory lying open friendly smile already dusted I’
m in the picture too at attention in front of the TV

Small bruise the picture swallowed into the
center dot and a little around the back door

Breathing in bad sectors not available
ash unreadable under the bedside light

Staged it turns out actors in charge backs
age too small bruise not a friendly spread

Rehear unrepeatable hisses b
ut memory’s already upstairs

With Freud wrong and nobody right th
e picture swallowed into the center dot

Older breathing heavy with substitution
accent raconteuring so I sound like this

Real weapons get used to it with
Freud wrong and nobody right

Blood on the wall and a little around the ba
ck door holding hands like book and reader

Here we are awake tell me if it hurts
bad sectors unhearable small bruises

The picture swallowed into the cen
ter dot the only one without accent

We all say that “Dawn lik
you” unhearable hisses

We can’t be translated resurrected not that k
ind lees less brutal once you make the toast

Now here’s a person in charge mayb
e excitement awake in a forged epic

But memory had son
s too another couplet

”Dawn likes you” sudd
en appearance of cum

Public light over everything a mess eyes shut seeking th
e pleasures of the night handcuffs backstage excitement

You can’t remember them yet
stuttering in front of the epic

Trees grow leaves leaves get
educated education fall off

The walls meet less frequently ho
lding hands like book and reader

Here we are awake earliest fro
nt page a smiling man likes you

Cross the bridge the one spread nak
ed when you come to it backwards

Cutting wood to fold rubles into esc
ape velocity forced awake in an epic

Chopping and sawing all day slee
p from dusk on substitute velocity

Caresses maneuvering over fix
ed scars tell me where it hurts

But memory’s already dusted the fingerprin
ts escape memory lying open in the forest

Fixed stars spread throughout the day invisibl
e behind the escaping light here we are awake

Lees less brutal once you make that toas
t the pleasures of the night tell me again

This is halfway between the lyric reiterations of a Lorca (or, say, of Celan’s “Black Milk of Morning”) & an episode of CSI. At one level, the “broken” linebreaks mid-couplet echo the “unhearable hisses” tho at another, they replicate the strategy Perelman has taken with his letter to Gil Ott two poems before, “Or Not,” part of which reads:


ear Gil,

I w
onder w

the dail

noises st
art making
poetry hap
pen hap

or not read
y to continue being w
that they on
ce sounded like
were starting out to say or not being one thing being one mani
fold sound in min


Here the abruptness of mid-syllable enjambments mimed the tragedy of early death. But in “In Memory,” where the lines aren’t as various in length, it functions more as a constant scraping, like a scratch across an old vinyl LP: click click click. Further, what I call the CSI elements bring in precisely what is otherwise absent here: the body. Forensic whodunits do indeed operate around this negatively sanctified phenomenon: the corpse who cannot be fully shown, not so very far from the picture swallowed into the center dot of the TV being shut off.

All of these dimensions, from I/Thou to elegy & influence, to absence & even the detritus of cable reruns, play off of one another here. It’s a dizzying display of mastery, and one thing about IFLIFE is that Perelman never lets up. The book as a whole can be exhausting, but in the exhilarating way that rafting whitewater is, although there are moments when Perelman will remind you that you’ve forgotten to bring the boat.


¹ Or so says the book’s jacket copy. Perelman’s books page on the Electronic Poetry Center shows the covers of 18 earlier volumes of poetry, plus a few critical texts.