From 1997 to 2000, I worked at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church. During this time I heard discussions on a regular basis about a certain “memory” piece by Bernadette Mayer. Mayer had directed the Poetry Project from 1980 to 1984 and she was the community’s own special secret genius. At one point, a poet wistfully told me how impossible it would be to publish Memory in its entirety. It was too much, too large, too long, too radical, it contained too many photos (1153) and so many words (approximately 100,000) — the totality of a journal written and a roll of film taken each day during the month of July 1971. I felt keenly how I had missed out. The only trace of Memory was a five-page excerpt (July 5) in A Bernadette Mayer Reader, published in 1992 by New Directions, which I claimed from the shelves of the Poetry Project’s office. Then, some years later, I was lucky enough to find the rare text-only edition of Memory, published in 1975 by North Atlantic Books. I was afraid to even open and read it — it felt so precious.
Now, at last, we have the complete Memory — published in full by Siglio Press. Its cover is velvety to the touch and its size is comfortable to read at a desk, on the couch, in bed. It seems miraculous, after all the decades of longing, to be actually able to read it inside one’s own home; it’s like having a pet constellation to marvel at in fierce containment. Siglio founder and publisher Lisa Pearson, in an online discussion for the 2020 LA Art Book Fair on publishing Memory, describes how the project “opens up possibilities between image and text — the images document the day but don’t correlate … the writing is so radical and so expansive, incredibly banal but [there are] also incantatory riffs as she cuts loose in her thinking.” Pearson remembers she said yes to publishing it “in a second.” It’s interesting to consider that this door is now wide open, after being closed for so long. “It begs the question as to why, particularly in Bernadette’s case, but also in the case of Rosemary Mayer [Bernadette’s sister, a visual artist], this work has taken so long for people to understand how to engage it and receive it and people like us to champion it and put it out into the world so it can find a readership,” says Soberscove editor Jill Klein, publisher of Excerpts from the 1971 Journal of Rosemary Mayer (May 12, 2020), who joined Pearson in the LAABF discussion.
Although at long last many institutions are starting to recognize a significant number of women artists and writers, it’s still possible that, gender aside, in the 1970s Memory would not have found immediate acclaim. While Mayer’s knowledge of “traditional” poetic form and literary history is vast and deep, references to classic literature and myth in Memory are made so radically equal in importance to, say, the banality and urgency of the quotidian, that critics may have been (and may still be) scandalized by Memory’s form and content, neither of which fit well in any category:
—after a ten-year siege telling how the armed—had entered the city in
the belly of a great wooden horse & how the—had fled from their
burning city among them—& his father—&young—not long afterward
—had advised setting sail for distant lands blown by varying winds we
quickly—the next day—again on the shores—finally they reached—
again the—a hero—in a dream he—when—warned in a dream—
decreed that the body—led his band—of the—world & the question
was how to tell you in a way you’d remember: we still didnt know when
we were going to massachusetts
(from July 3)
Many still misinterpret the dictum “first thought, best thought” as license to write whatever comes to mind first. But “first” actually means thought before language as it is given to us—before the onslaught of words from advertisements, politicians, greeting cards, television shows, movies, etc. What is the “first thought” that precedes all that manufactured language and how do we build a language to accommodate that first thought? Memory is a prodigious effort to do so, to move into a new visual and textual language where Mayer can explore the simmering possibilities of consciousness. This is why the snapshots do not correlate with the text, but instead, as Pearson describes it, “converge and diverge.” That weaving between poetry and image opens spaces of light, time, language, awareness, expression, and creation:
It’s impossible to put things exactly as they happened or in their real order one by one but something happened that day in the middle of seeing some people & talking about some, something happened that day (look it up in stories) & what happened was what began this: and this came later, the day after that: “one two three people I saw, money we spent, gave out, the energy it took to get to the country, drinking three cups of coffee to talk about anarchy, to write a letter to anne about an old worn out subject, the destruction of the tapes, feel the breeze the generation gap, think about watching another person, then creating one for people to watch, understanding the desire to watch other people to understand them or just to watch them, not finding any place to set things down then save this for later & wait.
(from July 4)
At first I didn’t realize the significance of the July 4 date. Mayer’s snapshots from that day include the World Trade Center, then under construction (it was completed in 1973), and which was located in an area that was to provide a wealth of possibilities for many artists, such as Agnes Denès and Cindy Sherman. Danny Lyon writes, in Mixed Use Manhattan, that after deciding “there was no story in Lower Manhattan,” he realized “the story was the destruction.” On July 4th, Mayer includes the names of friends and artists (“harvey, ron, barry, jasper johns, john p, frank stella & ted”), the names of the streets they drove down in what was not yet called Tribeca, roosters, driving, “everybody’s luncheonette,” an American Legion auxiliary box, “how to succeed in business (cheat),” the rust on the WTC’s construction materials, and fireworks.
I saw I talked about. No decision. No direction. That’s good. & no thought. Fans, the energy it takes to wave them. Flags. Get the pillow. The cake is in the oven. Get the beer. Why not talk about the energy of the weather in the city too, three describe it. Waiting toward something to come out of something. Placing something there. To think without thinking. Write without writing. Xyz, thoughts with fine edges. So many noises people places things points of view. Put something out in that field.
The effect is a record of “memory,” with specific details anchoring it in its time (some poets have discussed whether the quality of sunlight itself has changed since Memory was first written). But it is also what occurs before memory is created, or when the present becomes past—that infinitely tiny segment of time, that incandescent sliver of consciousness moving into shadow, the time we always feel we are living in always, but which we cannot hold onto. Thus, I can read it today and find in its juxtapositions of date, image, documentation, and imagination a essential relation to now in all its mysterious existence.
Memory by Bernadette Mayer is published by Siglio Press and is available online and from indie booksellers.