A Preface to Bob Cobbing

Mitochondrial Wonderbra

The last word is BENDY.

Mitochondrial DNA is the genetic material locked up in those structures in animal cells which convert carbohydrates into energy. Reproducing itself by simple division, it takes no part in the sexual processes which modify the DNA structure of the cell-nucleus (and of the organism as a whole) from generation to generation: all of your mitochondrial DNA is inherited from your mother. The structure of such DNA is presumed to alter only very slowly, and by random mutation. On the assumption that such mutations take place at a fairly constant rate (which rests on other assumptions, for instance that the mutation-friendly background radiation to which all organisms are exposed has remained fairly constant over time), scientists have used the comparison of the mitochondrial DNA structure of related individuals (or species) as a means of estimating when they last shared a common ancestor. 1

Most of these poems wear their histories in their typefaces, and bear the scars of repeated reproduction and translation from one medium to another (indeed the volume contains a visual history of the development of low-budget print media since WW2). It’s a small step from letting the noise build up on a fourth-generation analogue copy (typewriter > ink duplicator > litho’d book > A4 photocopy of that) to loading the dice till the medium invades the message, as it does in the third poem here, where degraded ‘s’s come to resemble mirror-imaged ‘a’s. 2

Cobbing’s linear poems resemble his (probably by now more familiar) abstract visual poems in features other than their physical constitution, in that they’re often not all that linear. The many pages of word-grids betray an eye that’s noticed how it reads — the way the eye doesn’t slide along a line of type (like this one), but jumps, maybe four or five skips per line, only a few words at a time presented to the eye’s fovea. Equally, the central strangeness of soundtext performance, the translation of a static image into an extended sequence of sounds (no mystery — we read all images in time, our eye-movements constrained to follow the main contours of a loved-one’s face, say 3 ) is painlessly approached via the early typewriter poems here, where the pull, first of the diagonal, then of the word-cluster, challenges any performer to read the syllables ‘sha ma na’ in the “right” order.

In which case BENDY might not be the last word after all.

Peter Manson

   In the case of humans, the jury is still out on whether or not ‘Mitochondrial Eve’, thus traced to Central Africa 2 million years ago, is a statistical artefact.

   “And what is the sound of a ‘u’ upside down?” — Bob Cobbing, 1960s, reported by Lawrence Upton, March 1996.

   To the extent that a pen controlled by sensors attached to the eye muscles of someone who has been asked merely to gaze at a photograph will, given a few minutes, produce a reasonable sketch.

The introduction to Bob Cobbing, Gibbering His Wares: Collected Poems volume 15, Object Permanence 1997.  Peter Manson’s cover image for the book can be seen here.

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