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  • Poetry in Theory
  • Bob Perelman (bio)

Home Movies

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. But the local remained thoroughly distant from any would-be universal. An elderly middle-aged Mayan man at a market outside the capital balked rather indignantly when I gave him a paper bill to pay for the chair we had agreed I would buy; the woman at the stand next to him urged him to accept the money saying. “Se sirve! Se sirve!” (It—paper money—works! It works!)

Nor was geography continuous. Knowledge of the country was both guarded and somewhat fantastic. It was impossible to obtain a map of the interior (guerrilla trouble). We spent one long afternoon negotiating our way into a bureaucratic building where, after signing our names in a notebook, we were allowed a glimpse at some antique maps that, in my memory at least, verged on watercolors. We hooked up with a Chinese archeologist from Iowa State who directed us to Sayache, which we reached after a six-hour busride and a trip across the Uxamachinto River in a mahogany dugout. There was one hotel in town, owned by a man who was also mayor, judge, and, clearly, king. He joined us for dinner. In the dining room we saw an old map that showed Guatemala with a large bulge stretching northeast to the Gulf of Mexico. The longlasting territorial dispute between Guatemala and Britain that resulted in the creation of British Honduras, which then became Belize, had been finally resolved, at least on this framed print which showed Belize as fully dissolved into Guatemala. When I asked the mayor about the map he replied that Belize belonged to Guatemala, had always been part of Guatemala. In response to some tentative question of mine about negotiation or tactics, he said of Belize, pounding his fist on the table, “Tomalo!” (Take it!)

Alien, Point-Blank, Green, and Actual

The vagaries of mapping and the intermittent condition of value that these old home movies demonstrate strike me as suggestive for figuring the relations between poetry to its institutional or generic neighbors, theory and literary criticism. In a larger and more theoretically committed piece I would want to specify the different discursive regimes with some precision, but here I will use “theory” as a shorthand for everything that goes on in literature departments, even though this shortcircuits the large conflicts currently raging about the nature of the profession; “poetry,” in this same shorthand, should therefore equal what gets taught and reproduced in creative writing departments and writing workshops, though ultimately I will be proposing a differently oriented writing as what I want for poetry. But for now the words on the map will be “poetry” and “theory”—even if they also flood me with defensiveness and apathy, especially when it comes to theory. “Theory”? Postcolonial studies? Marxism? Queer theory? Deconstruction? Cultural studies? Film studies? It feels as if I were to introduce a specialist in gender in [End Page 158] eighteenth-century German theater as someone working with “words.” The desire to make discursive sentences wanders off . . .

But one negative specific comes quickly to mind. I do not intend a binding allegory in which some primitive or pristine “Guatemala” stands for “poetry”—quite the contrary. There are, unfortunately in my view, many such constructions in which poetry is one or another brand of elemental exoticism. Poetry as a natural, irrational, sensuous, intuitive, musical, sonic bastion is an idea that is still widely diffused. One well-known example, which forced itself to mind as soon as I thought of those Guatemalan scenes, occurs in Wallace Stevens’s “Arrival at the Waldorf,” which ends by invoking an “alien, point-blank, green, and actual Guatemala.” Of course, it is a complex poem and as I read it, checking the context of the remembered line, my...