Nada Gordon

Form's Life: An Exploration of the Works of Bernadette Mayer


Bernadette Mayer: The painter Rackstraw Downes wrote in a letter the best criticism of Utopia in which he said that life without malice would be unendurable. And then later he said that perhaps he meant life without malice would be impossible. Let me read you part of it:

But Utopia is really not utopia at all, it is Bernadette’s anthology of pet beefs and phobias interspersed with some very jolly and altogether attainable picnics and moments of humanitarian-like concern, and a yearning for an extended (very extended!) family which would include, as it were, oceanic incest … However, I do not believe in humanitarianism, and I’m glad that the olive oil of endless goodwill and airborn sex will be cut with the vinegar of a plentiful population of landlords, psychiatrists, Nixons, and Watts! For life without malice would be unendurable.

Bernadette Mayer: … in Utopia I create this nursery school teacher’s world where theoretically nobody is ever unkind to each other.

—from Ann Rower interview, pp. 9-10

The problem with utopias on earth (aside from the fact that they don’t exist) is that they are private revisions of the public sphere, and one man’s bliss may be another man’s idiocy. The virtue of utopias is that they are impracticable; they, like Eden, live only in literature where their function is to be a high ceiling of verbal hope in a real world whose problems are never entirely solvable. Strict materialists have problems with utopias because of their aphysicality. As floating ceilings, sans supports, utopias don’t provide more than imaginative shelter from the elements, but they can begin to propose scaffolding for structures on the earth.

The material that builds a utopia is language; a structure in which language is rebuilt with the intention of changing the world is utopian. In this sense all of Mayer’s efforts are utopian, as is her exhortation to “work your ass off to change the language.” Throughout Utopia she expressly does just that, by (as in her other works) employing poetic language, which stretches and redefines the limits of instrumental language, but also by actually redefining words whose meanings are constrictive:

There are still doctors whom you never have to wait to see, when patients (the word patients was changed to people, or, colloquially, leeks) go to a doctor’s office (the word office was changed to house …1

Although the writing is in a playful spirit, Mayer is assured of the necessity and efficacy of her project: “I guess I mean, how can you not write to change the world? … Philip Whalen once pointed out to me how silly and shocking it is to think that one’s writing doesn’t change the world.”2 The work’s playfulness in fact enhances its liberatory gesture; it proposes that a world of benevolent pleasure replace the existing one of exploitative power structures.

The natural scholarly step here would be to put Mayer into the historical context of other literary utopias. Mayer does this for us, both by including an extensive bibliography which includes her models (from Thomas More’s Utopia to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland to Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography, et al.) and by refusing to hypostatize her self or place in history:

It doesn’t matter who I am in the utopian tradition I am no one, no woman no man no person in nowhere like a mad child who answers she is nobody likes nothing and lives no place no new sentence begins with Capitals or is interspersed with subservient commas in the blank period of this writing except in that its author, being not a word processor but a person who is still no one, accommodates to its most easily being read with pleasure, but does not change what it says and thanks you for listening to the beginning of some introduction to the writing of this book though the book will be all introduction and if there’s any text which actually says something, it must either be all throughout like dots or in the notes and poems I guess their value (there’s the silly I). (p. 13)

This passage exhibits a conflation of tendencies we have seen in Mayer’s earlier works: the onrushing syntax of Moving and Memory, the confrontation with language’s object-status (present in all her works but particularly in Poetry), and her concern about the status of self (again in all her works but most apparently in Midwinter Day and Golden Book of Words). Such concern is here, as in her other works, fraught with ambivalence. The “I” is “silly,” she is “nobody” but at the same time she is “not a word processor but a person.” Language speaks, but so does a person as a willful operator and reinterpreter of language. Yet although she is “a person” she is still “no one”; that very selflessness is both alluring (as is regression into a primal state) and petrifying (as it signifies loss of individuality and hence control).

The excerpt also reinforces the positive value Mayer gives to textual shifts and transitions (one of the pivotal techniques she learned from the avant-garde tradition and peers and from her study of Lacan); the text’s message “must either be all throughout like dots or in the notes and poems.” Indeed, transitions thrive in Utopia; from chapter to chapter the form changes, and the writing includes deliberate lacunae. One way Mayer has managed to keep the form changing all the time is quintessentially utopian: she designed the book as a collaborative effort which embraces the work of other writers. In this sense it does manage to go a step beyond my definition of utopia as a private revision of the public sphere, for this is a combined vision. John Fisk’s list of all the world’s leaders, culled from the World Almanac, Anne Waldman’s description of how the old and sick would be attended to in a perfect society, Rosemary Mayer’s description of what utopian chairs would be like, and Bob Holman’s index to the book that creates a poem in itself.

Perhaps the most provocative outcome of this collaborative move is when the viewpoints differ. Mayer writes one chapter of Utopia in the hyperbolic manner of Jonathan Swift; it is an allegory about a theory-centered group of avant-garde writers colloquially known as the language poets (Charles Bernstein and Barrett Watten, both of whom I have quoted in this thesis, my be said to be part of this group):

The people were very nice and polite, though they were mostly men … they were clothed in a dull sort of grayish sameness; all had closely shorn hair and many wore spectacles behind which I could detect tiny pale eyes … each of them was reading a book while we walked. They continued to appear unmoved by my agitated behavior.

At last we reached a huge palace which though large was extremely drab and depressing, and I was led to a room at the entrance of which was an enormous sign, written in English, which said, “Marxist Semiological Eating.” I was unceremoniously shown a square chair by a man who, like the others, resumed his attention to his text a moment later. We were all given shoulder of mutton, cut into equilateral triangles, cubed potatoes, an aleatory cole slaw and a cycloidal pudding for dessert. Throughout the meal, one or another of the monks, as I began to think of them, would take turns standing up and making a sort of recitation, as if in a refectory (no one else spoke a word or smiled). Among the chaos of my own emotions, my gratefulness at having found other human beings, my awe at these men’s composure, and my astonishment that though we spoke the same language they had no desire to communicate with me as yet — my mind was so distracted that I could not remember all of these confusing speeches, or whatever they were, but certain excerpts did remain with me till I had an opportunity to record them, and now I relate them to you for whatever they are worth: aplumb eblettes iplitty abilullty ebullient scribblier afloont effluvial iffling asslong (at which word everybody tittered so they must have the same devotions as humans) … then: lodged in the allomorphs the warm occasional … you see just as I got interested they would leave off and continue with something like vivo I live voco I call volo I will. Another part that stayed in my mind was the long phrase: trowel ambulate monadology a Conestoga of by a purposelessness whitewsh all imaginable chic distemper … (pp. 84-6)

As the section progresses, Mayer revolts particularly against what she perceives to be a vilification of emotion in writing: “I was admitted to a class in which the professor was heartily involved in making a case for the whole effect of this university’s experimentation being to annihilate emotions. … He was a fiery and convincing speaker and I could only guess that the word 'emotion' must have replaced what I considered to be all the component-meanings signified by the word 'evil.'” (p. 87) Knowing that her vision of this group of writers was slanted, in part perhaps out of a thorny protectiveness of her own procedure, she invited Charles Bernstein to respond. The result is another allegory entitled “The Only Utopia is in a Now,” in which he gently and imaginatively replies to her aspersions. He sets the scene in a place marked by a sign that reads “Utopia”; he mocks the debate over “the nature of the sign”:

It wasn’t long before those without any names in the story arrived at a big sign that said “Utopia” on the front (on the other side, as Woody Guthrie used to put it, it didn’t say anything). But it was a little alarming when one of us, who could read subtexts, pointed out that “Utopia” was inscribed in such a way as to cover over the words “private property.” “There’s just no getting around it,” s/he said, “as long as we even use words like utopia it seems we’re playing the same old game,” “Holier than thou,” said the one who read pretexts, “that’s what the sign says.” (p. 90)

The party is then approached by “a very large man” who shouts at them that “there was no place for ‘unemotional types’ here,” to which a female Utopian responds that “enemies of emotion are generally humorless, intellectual men.” She begins to emit an eerie light that obliterates her image; out of this light a voice, “first halting and then rapid and agitated” begins to speak:

“On this block,” the voice was steady now and almost seemed to sing, “what is called ‘thinking’ is absolutely forbidden in the name of what is called ‘emotion.’ You’re only supposed to write and say what everyone else knows, and to write and say it in the way everyone else has already heard it. In fact, they issue a manual, Acceptable Words and Word Combinations and everyone talks and writes only in permutations derived from this book. It’s no use arguing, since anyone who disagrees is called anti-emotional and, regardless of their gender, is also called ‘male.’ This is what makes everything so topsy-turvy. You see, emotion doesn’t express itself only in words we already know. But people here who talk about emotion don’t really want to experience it, they only want simulations of it in patterns of words they’ve already heard. In other words, they only want to hear what they already know, and they call this repetition, which is after all somewhat comforting ‘emotion.’ But if you speak or write with the syntax of the heart, saying in words that otherwise cannot be expressed, you’re told you’re against communication and too intellectual. They make an adversary of the mind, forgetting that a tear is an intellectual thing, as Blake said. In fact, the people here are so ideologically pro-emotion they make it into an abstract concept that is more theoretical than the intellectuality they renounce. … Don’t be afraid, gentle writers, gentle speakers, that you won’t communicate or will be too intellectual. Only when such concerns fall away, like calluses from our tongues, and we are just left to do and be, not trying to communicate out of a fear of being unable to, will language take its rightful place as love.” (p. 91)

Such a close and poignant dialogue can best be welcomed in a collaborative work, where many I’s can have their say within the same physical boundaries. Mayer’s is even individually a divided I, a voice with two impulses — to be pleasingly “clear” and to speak with the “syntax of the heart,” which sometimes emerges inaccessible and convoluted. Such a divided impulse puts her again smack in the middle of two camps, where we’ve seen her situated before. The two camps have existed at least since the time of Cicero and Seneca; in Mayer’s personal history they may be more closely identified with the terse puritanism of New England and the elaborate Catholic rhetoric of her early education:

Often the apparently unclear parts seem the clearest to me. Yet someone once called me a “failed experimentalist” because of my attempts to be clear, and the fact that I’ve been able to get any clarity at all into my poetry, or maybe into my prose, could be thought of as either an achievement or a crime, or of course, something else. … To be simultaneously clear and also inspired, means you are telling the truth which means you are reflecting the motions of human thought. … It’s something that has always fascinated me about obfuscation in writing which is that if you are unclear and still writing something beautiful because of your love for language, you might be in the process of accidentally happening upon the truth. I was almost going to say that other poets perceive your love of language then and often feel you’re better off if you’re not clear. But when people who aren’t poets want you to provide them with the pleasures of poetry, they might request rhymes and the magic of clarity. Truly inaccessible poetry is and has always been celebrated in an academic way also. See, I always held out the hope that my poetry and other people’s poetry would be read by everyone …3

Mayer explores her entire range, from heavily fogged over to crystal clear in this work. Her own sections vary from the prose style we’ve already seen to verse (with lines like “lupine fields a dozen envelopes speech noon” p. 59) to what is perhaps my favorite section of the book, a chaotic play entitled “A Fish That Looks Like a Bishop: Debate of the Utopians.” Its characters include herself, Thomas More, Aristophanes and several characters from a play by Aristophanes, Plato, Margaret Fuller, Hawthorne and Melville, Louisa May Alcott, Sappho, Clark Coolidge, H.G. Wells, William Carlos Williams, and, of course, Gertrude Stein. Like early French surrealist plays, it is composed of surprisingly relevant and very funny non-sequiturs and quotations; it is a written representation of these literary voices that are speaking in and through Mayer herself.

What strikes me as the most arresting literary maneuver of this book is not formally a part of the text, but is actually the copyright page itself, which I reproduce here to show its full effect. It is Mayer’s way of applying utopic principles to the real, legal world:

Utopian Copyright (U) by Bernadette Mayer

All rights unreserved under International & Pan-American no-copyright no-conventions. Except for brief passages quoted in a newspaper, magazine, radio or television review, every part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronical or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from anyone. All rights remain unreserved and free including the right of reproduction in whole or part or in any form or way that seems pleasing or useful to you.

                        Censor Liborum, Noplace
                        Archbishop of Nowhere

The Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur are official declarations that a book or pamplet is free of the error or the lack or absence of truth. No implication is contained therein that those who have granted the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur agree with the contents, opinions or statements expressed.

Words that are believed to be still capable of telling the truth have been checked with authoritative source. No investigation has been made of common-law trademark rights in any word, because such investigation is absurd. Words that are known to have current registrations or to be false have not been used. Should the inclusion of any word in this book seem an expression of the publisher’s or author’s opinion as to whether or not it is subject to proprietary rights, please just re-read the entire book. No definition of a word is to be regarded as affecting the validity of any trademark, but simply as a matter of an expression of affectation to each person in this world, assuming each hopes for peace.

Published in the United States by United Artists, New York, and simultaneously in the world by United Artists, New World, and in the universe by United Artists, Ancient Universe.

Since this page cannot legibly accommodate all permissions, acknowledgements and questions necessitated by such a work, call or write me if there’s any problem: Bernadette Mayer, 172 East 4th Street, #9B, New York City 10009; telephone (212) 254-5308.

Mayer thus defines herself as a real and accessible living person (locatable in the physical world by a real address and a real telephone number) attached to her text — rather, in fact, as Hawthorne does in the introduction to The Scarlet Letter — breaking down the modernist stereotype of the detached artist Joyce portrayed as paring his fingernails while surveying his separate creation. She also erases the words “private property” that one of Bernstein’s characters perceived as the subtext to “Utopia.”

As are all of Mayer’s works, Utopia is indissolubly connected to the life and world in which it was made, and comes from an attempt to work through the conflicts and separations experienced in that life and that world. Humor and fancy help to pave the bridge its reader travels with a soft carpet; Mayer does achieve one of her foremost goals—to please. I wrote to her that I thought all utopias came out of a desperate impulse—out of a world whose conflicts could never be resolved. She responded: “I … always want to please, and that is the impulse of utopia, not desperation at all—to imitate or create some forms of perfection (though that’s against the avant garde rules).”4 Her maverick stance is surely admirable in a world as codified and codifying as ours.

1 Bernadette Mayer, Utopia, (United Artists, New York, 1984), p. 27.

2 Rower Intvw., p. 18.

3 Rower Intvw., p. 4.

4 Letter received from Bernadette Mayer, October 12, 1986.

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Previous Chapters (Readme 3)

Studying Hunger

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Eruditio Ex Memoria
A Golden Book of Words
Midwinter Day

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