Nada Gordon

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


Bernadette Mayer's prolificity disallows any complete exploration of all her writings, and the polymorphousness of those writings disallows any easy or imposed totalization. I do hope, however, that I have been able to offer an introductory guide through these poems, and to help expand (if only a little) the audience for Mayer's work. That she walks the tightrope between using language descriptively and using language expressively puts her in the middle of two factions, those who declare that language is an instrument and those who focus on language as material. Each position is extreme — the first too empiricist, the second too hermetic.

As a person in the middle, Mayer has had to cope with criticism from both ends of the literary spectrum. In her vasatility, she allows that there is a share-able world with share-able truths, but also that some of those truths are ineffable, and can only be gotten at circuitously. She wants simultaneously to describe the world and her life in it, to capture duration; she has a self-described "obsession with time sequences."1 To capture duration in language is to freeze it so it's not really duration anymore, but material. Mayer has a great love for the thing-ness of language, and does not seem disturbed, as Stein did, by the contradiction between language's fixity and life's movement. She is adept at mimicking life's motions in language's rhythms; she knows also that these rhythms can only be motivated by a human reader — hence her desire to "seduce" and please. Her complexity, her fluidity, her poignant question, "Can I say that?" are related to what Bernstein might call "the syntax of the heart," whose roundabout constructions are paths to the ineffable. The struggle to say what can't be said produces a contagious, almost electric field of desire the willing reader can't help but sense, especially in a poem like "Attempt to Write a Love Poem" that skirts any blatant telling and never even wants to be more than an attempt. She writes it in forty brief prose sections, some of which I excerpt here:

Get your dose of color proving what not that proving what but something else proving what true, no longer interested in recording dialogue, top of the stove hot proving what not that but the proving that was circulating last night: 1, 2, 3 people proving what or nowhere.


All the secrets people keep
Consider this a sleep. This sleep. Is temporary as Shakespeare.


In the interim I'll sleep, as the thoughts occur to you, design thought that I know how, and, as intelligently as I can, hear a door open & close, willingly, let me know then, how you will ever select, transpose & transmit, the even dream, the long dream, the science dream, the song from the dream. Embrace the dream. My embracing you.
As, the breath was so exhausted from my lungs, that I could go
    no farther; & seated myself at the first arrival.
And someone said then: Free yourself for sitting down or under
    cover, men come not into fame
Without which who consumes his life, leaves such vestige of self on
    earth as smoke in air or foam in water
So conquer breath in time with the mind if with its heavy body
    it sinks not down
My embracing you.

Here Mayer drags the world of sleep into day's harsh light, transforming "the secrets people keep" into the code of poetic language; the desire is not to rend the veil with language but to render the veil in language (or expose the veil as language). The writer gives the galloping syntax of "breath in time with the mind" a form and endurance here, paradoxically as "temporary as Shakespeare." Immediate only within a mind (of writer or reader), even Shakespeare's "immortality" depends on human response, which Mayer earnestly welcomes: "My embracing you." As such, the work of verbal art is not just a bridge from life to world, or from world to life, but from life to life; the reader / writer connection is (ideally, of course, and in Bergson's terms) "a mutual interpenetration of elements." Mayer's efforts, neither insisting on the writer's singularity and omnipotence nor relying solely on the reader's sense of order, testify that this connection need not be perceived as severed in this scrambled and objectifying post-Cartesian thing called modernity.

1 Rower Intvw., p. 3.

2 Bernadette Mayer, "Attempt to Write a Love Poem," in Individuals: Post-Movement Art in America, ed. Alan Sondheim (Dutton, NY, 1977), pp. 178-90.

Jump To

Previous Chapters (Readme 3)

Studying Hunger

Current Chapters (Readme 4)

Eruditio Ex Memoria
A Golden Book of Words
Midwinter Day

[Back to Readme]