I first began reading the works of Bernadette Mayer in 1975 or 1976, contemporaneous with their publications. While I didn’t realize it at the time, Mayer wrote them in her late 20s and early 30s, quite close to my own age.
Mayer’s work seemed so inexplicably mature that I couldn’t have imagined that she was just a couple of years older. I also did not know that she had begun publishing eleven years earlier, with Ceremony Latin (1962), which appeared when she was just 17. This young woman’s voice was like no other at the time, a poet with obviously a deep connection to Gertrude Stein, who, nonetheless, did not imitate or sound like Stein. Far before the linguistic explorations of most of the language poets, Mayer, collaborating with artist Vito Acconci, was exploring verbal sound experiments such as the portion of Sin in the Bleekers that appeared in her 1976 volume, Poetry:
Salaam my Salems on a banker’s disturbance
Crass dots, a prelude for daughters
In their transparence—which is the secret.
Lay way, the markets in drools of temptations.
This is the end of a lender,
Who sent his miss. ……………
If I had no idea whatsoever what it meant, it nonetheless sounded perfectly assured and meaningful, as if every word belonged in the sequence in which it appeared.
Her Poetry, in fact, opened my mind to a playful relation with language that freed words to suggest their meanings as opposed to forcing meaning into words. At the same time, Mayer seemed to be so knowledgeable, with her Catholic school education, about traditional forms. As the new collected early works, just published by Station Hill Press, reveals, she knew her Milton, Shakespeare, Dante, even the Greeks. She could write a wicked variation of a villanelle as in her “The Aeschyleans,” one of my very favorite of her early poems:
These berries, with their choices, come to earth
To scatter and confuse the sainted warriors,
A part of crime’s return to grace
And the innocence of criminals which
Enervates us like the coarser forms
Of truculence. Rude labors are ordinary and still.
They speed the haphazard. Slow manners till
Desires long buried on the earth
Among the exigencies of place and concurrent forms
Which frightened even staid warriors.
May transfix the movements of warriors. To grace
These corridors with flowers is a chance for grace
As if ancient events were surfeited and still.
If one needed further evidence of Mayer’s startling erudition, moreover, one need only read her beautiful Eruditio Ex Memoria which Mayer comments on her process of composition:
I didn’t want to carry around my school notebooks anymore,
but I didn’t want to throw them away wither so I tore random
pages from them on which I later based this book. I saved the
I reviewed that book in my only substantial contribution of Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews’ L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, where I described it as being a kind of abbreviated “anatomy,” the Roman comic genre of Petronius’ Satyricon, a more modern example of which is Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood. Today, although I wouldn’t disavow what I then wrote, I might also describe the work as a highly concentrated encyclopedic fiction, a work that in its brief twenty-five pages in this new volume condenses knowledge into poetic associations. The first two paragraphs demonstrate its effect:
I saw a doctor, a doctor. It was Antonin Artaud. He was elected
to the Royal Academy, no that was Chekhov. This is the Russian
Theater, it’s 1962 or so, the moralist of the venial sin is here,
resigning over Gorky. Doctor. “The Seagull” defends Zola and
Dreyfus, it’s the Moscow Art Theater. Chekov is Godard. This is
what I learned at school. This is what I thought: Artaud, Antonin.
Hemispheres become loose in the country, there are new forms.
Stanislavsky, etc. Add up a column of numbers, it comes to
William Carlos Williams to me. What are the spiritual heights, she
said Just as Uncle Vanya looks like a dial, Paris comes and goes,
prissy, lightfooted and beautiful-looking, but, by and large, outside
forces come to the surface. By the same token, we seem fully uneven,
without the bones and stays. The homecoming: she opened and
closed her conversation with adequacy. There’s a picture of a man
with a spring for a body. There’s a picture of a woman dancing with
a leaf for a hand, her head on a string, hanging forward. It’s Madam
Shaw. Relevant is revelant, irrational knot, unsocial socialist, un-
pleasant and pleasant Madam Shaw. Oh Shaw, polygammalian, the
candidate, there’s a heart and a louse on the skunk.
In Mayer’s recreation of what appear to be her school lessons, the doctor she visits or first conjures up is understandably associated with the great dramatist and theater director, Antonin Artaud, who spent much of his childhood and later life under the care of doctors, suffering, early in his life, from meningitis, neuralgia, and clinical depression, and, after years of visiting various sanatoriums, ended his later life with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
Correcting her purposely “associative mistake,” Mayer quickly shifts to another great dramatic figure, Anton Chekov, who actually was a medical doctor, who proclaimed “Medicine is my lawful wife, literature is my mistress.” Many of Chekov’s plays, moreover, including Uncle Vanya—which Mayer mentions in the second paragraph—were directed by another great modernist director (with theories very different from Artaud’s theories of madness), Constantin Stanislavski, with whom she begins her second paragraph, whose “method” theories he brilliantly used to direct a revival of the previously failed Chekhov play, The Seagull, himself performing in the play as the writer Boris Trigorin. And, indeed, after growing weary from directing and performing another important Russian playwright, Maxim Gorky, Stanislavski did indeed take a leave from the Moscow Art Theater which he and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko had created. Chekov, who died early of tuberculosis, also had to seek the aid of several doctors, and died, so legend has it, soon after one of them offered him a last glass of champagne.
Is it any wonder that these “figures,” if listed in a column, might “add up,” as Mayer puts it, to William Carlos Williams, who was yet another writer medical doctor who was also major figure of modernism?
The third major figure of this thumbtack history of modernist theater, inevitably, is the great Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw, who, born in the mid-19th century, certainly came out of the Victorian world of “bones and stays.” Shaw himself married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, who refused to have sex with him, the marriage with the “Madam Shaw” which Mayer mentions, accordingly, never being consummated. The “irrational knot” which Mayer mentions is a reference to Shaw’s novel The Irrational Knot wherein he describes the failure of a marriage because of an upper class wife’s inability to share her workman husband’s interests. And, indeed, Shaw was a “unsocial socialist.” The reference to Shaw being “polygmammalian,” is, of course, hinting at his famous play Pygmalion.
In short, in just two paragraphs Mayer sums up a history of important early 20th century theatrical works by purposely conflating literary figures who were doctors, and noted “theatre doctors,” men who changed the way theater was performed and created.
For all of her wonderfully complex experimental works, however—and there are many, many others among her early writings—one might find it hard to love Mayer’s work as much as I do if one sought merely playful language. For Mayer is nearly always in motion in her life and writing, as she expresses it in the long poem “Moving.’ Throughout her works she shifts not only in her literary approaches but in her expression of self, sexuality, political viewpoints, and relationships with the world about her. As she hints of this in “Moving” and later in another poem, restating the same words:
we’ve solved the problem, the problem is solved.
men are women, women are men. i’m pregnant for a while you’re pregnant for a
while. “if someone doesnt change into an animal, we wont be saved someone
must change into an animal so that we can be saved” a man turns into a cat………
For this reason, if for no other, Mayer is what I might lovingly describe as a “messy” poet, an honest writer who is utterly unafraid of expressing her emotional doubts, fears, and confusions in the very process of creating. Particularly in her love poems, but also in many other works, Mayer interrupts her own writing, asking herself rhetorical questions, berating her style, demonstrating her angers and frustration—just, to use the cliché, “letting it all hang out.”
How can I write you about deanimation, love
I am not on your shelf, you are not on my shelf
I want you to be
The greatest love of all time—a woman’s face with Nature’s
own hand painted
Forgive me now, I am putting you on my shelf
The mantelpiece, the design, the waiting for your call
(“Deanimation Love” from Poetry)
In poem after poem, particularly in the last work of this volume, The Golden Book of Words, as she attempts to raise three children, feed them with little money, and simply keep warm from the cold Massachusetts winters, Mayer composes works that that reveal her everyday activities intruding upon her more intense poetic expressions and thoughts.
Full of animal crackers, I joke with you
About buying a bra, I measure myself
I have a 30-inch bust, as they used to say
But with nipples excited by the tape measure
It’s only 35, I guess this is not a decorous poem
As Donne or Pope would have set it all up
Fourteen hundred to eighteen hundred A.D.
In the western world we’ve got
Where the work of women holds up half the sky
And yet the desire to write tonight
Is borne, dare I say it, like a seed
On the wind and so on, we were talking to your mother
(“Easy Puddings” from The Golden Book of Words)
Or, as in the previous poem in that volume, “The Heart of the Hare,” she is unafraid simply to list her daily duties for the week ahead:
Tomorrow’s Monday maybe we’ll do some laundry
Clean clothes for one night in New York
I’ve got to hardboil some eggs for lunch on Tuesday
Pack a complete bag and stay healthy
In other words, if you really want to read this often rewarding poet, you also have to deal with her as an everyday human being. If I seem to have inserted myself into this review more than usual it because reading and talking about the poems of Bernadette Mayer demands a very personal response. In Mayer’s work you must be willing to follow her along the valleys in order to get to the mountaintops.
But oh how wonderful those moments of utter linguistic freedom and revelation are, as in the absolutely magical and joyously comic poem about a strange local family living near her in Lenox, Massachusetts:
They come down on their snowmobiles for the last time,
come down to meet the car.
They’re shouting, “Hoo Hey! The snow! Give them the snow!
Let them eat snow! Hey! The snow!”
Looking like wild men & women, two wild children & a
grandmother too, they’re taking turns riding the
snowmobile, they’re getting out.
Hoo! Hey! The snow! freaking out.
Everybody in town watches, standing in groups by the
“Road Closed” sign.
Shouting back, “Take it easy! The snow!
On Bashan Hill they’ve lived in a cloud, watched. They’d had
plenty of split peas, corn, Irish soda bread, fruitcake,
chocolate, pemmican. But the main thing was—NO PLOW!
Day before at the Corners Grocery, news got around. “They’re
Coming down from Bashan Hill—never to return!”
(“The End of Human Reign on Bashan Hill”, from
The Golden Book of Words)
In just 39 lines, Mayer creates a narrative poem that reveals, through her presentation of this wild family, the separateness, isolation, and inner vitality of the community so completely that we might almost read it as a novel.
In such a constantly unstable world as Mayer’s you never know what you might find, as in the simple nature poem, “Instability (Weather)”
I must get back to the lilacs
So excited when I saw them first blooming in the back next to the
I nearly jumped for joy my heart beats rapidly
Because they are late & we are moving
Blossoms for Lewis & Charlotte who’s here
The lilacs were so far away I didnt get to them
But I wont tell, I’ll go with a scissor tomorrow
The scissor I’ll hide in the woods tonight
For some strange reason I’ll never say
I’ll never have lived a more exciting day
Even if one can comprehend why the lateness of the lilacs blooming might give the narrator some joy, what does the fact that family is moving have to do with the lilacs? Why won’t she “tell” and from whom is she keeping this secret. Why didn’t she “get to them” previously? And why has she hidden the scissors in the woods? In Mayer’s hands, even the simple discovery of a lilac bush and the process of cutting a few of its flowers to place in a vase becomes a magically ritualistic act, as if the narrator, presumably Bernadette, were connected to nature with forces that cannot be explained. And in the process of reading her poems, the reader, too, is taken there, a place where he might never have discovered without the poet’s very personal eye, voice, and hand to guide him.
Eating the Colors of a Lineup of Words (2015) is published by Station Hill of Barrytown and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.