Nada Gordon

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


Yes there is something special about the composition of Moving. But maybe not what you'd expect. I set myself the task of not writing at all unless I was absolutely compelled to write. I wanted to prove to myself that writing was something. I wanted to observe the world (it was my first time living in the country) and I didn't want to write for the sake of writing. So I kept the typewriter in an unimportant place and kept no journal and just was a person and once in a while I would write something down and after three seasons of doing this Anne Waldman came to visit my reclusive house and piled up the pages and said, well I think this is an interesting work and I will publish it. Which was very nice as Gertrude Stein would say.
     -- Bernadette Mayer (from a letter received 10/12/86)

I'm going to take a slightly circuitous route -- via Stein via Bergson -- into Mayer's Moving. Gertrude Stein's presence can be ascertained throughout Mayer's works. While Stein's position in the canon is uncertain, she's definitely found a place there, but more for her associations and persona than for her writing, which many regard as freakish or merely playful. To view Stein's work only as cloying repetition is to miss the point of her project entirely. Her primary aim, and Bernadette Mayer's, is to articulate by formal means the continuity and duration of human experience. Stein does this primarily by exploring verbs and verb tenses; Mayer injects experience into given units of time. That we can apply the word "duration" to experience at all is due to the work of Henri Bergson, who defined duration as follows:

Pure duration is the form which the succession of our conscious states assumes when our ego lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state from its former states.1

States of consciousness are not, he claims, separable entities, but instead blend into one another, and are in fact one constantly transforming whole. Our perception of them as separate is merely an imposition of the language of space, which individuates and limits. In actuality, he says, consciousness is a continual penetration of the present -- which is penetrated by the past -- into the future; it is mobility itself. A problem arises when we try to express this movement in terms of abstract thought (language); the very word "abstraction" implies something removed from time. But from time's continuum nothing is removable; the true nature of it is distorted when we try to think of it in terms of space, implying not continuity, states within states, indivisible, but the linear (and thus spacial) notion of a before and after.

Ideas similar to Bergson's occur throughout Stein's commentary on her own work. William Carlos Williams seems aware of them when he says in an article on Stein that intelligent reading is:

an alertness not to let go of a possibility of movement in our fearful bedazzlement with some concrete and fixed present. The goal is to keep a beleaguered line of understanding which has movement from breaking down and becoming a hole into which we sink decoratively to rest. ... It moves as the sense wearies, remains fresh, living.2

Stein would not have dissented. She states flat out that

The business of Art ... is to live in the actual present, that is the complete actual present, and to completely express that complete actual present.3

And to completely express the complete actual present is to be in motion -- the motion that is duration. The "actual present" exists in opposition to what Williams calls a "concrete and fixed present" -- in Bergson's schema a logical impossibility for humans, who endure. Only objects exist in a concrete present; they do not live. As Stein knows, mobility is life, life, mobility:

The strange thing about the realization of existence is that like a train moving there is no real realization of it moving if it does not move against something and so that is what a generation does it shows that moving is existing.4

But she questions the necessity for art of even the stable object that makes the train seem mobile:

if the movement, that is any movement, is lively enough, perhaps it is possible to know that it is moving even if it is not moving against anything.5

Mayer, heiress to Bergsonian notions through her appreciation of Stein, titles her second book, published in 1971, Moving. Unlike Stein, she inserts a note of the personal and quotidian (the New York School touch) where Stein would have been more purely descriptive. Stein would also have maintained one constant form throughout the piece, whereas Moving is the very antithesis of constancy; almost life, it is perhaps as close as literature can come to the mutability of life.

In shape the piece calls to mind not Stein but the "genre-less" pieces by Williams: Kora in Hell and Spring and All, in which the form changes from full lines to short lines to dialogues to lists. It opens with a section of verse that serves as an elegant introduction to the deluge of language that follows. Although these lines are, for the voluble Mayer, relatively spare, they manage to convey a few of the book's primary concerns:

     fear    sure   voice music   body   time    listen
     being part. being trapped
being part being trapped     which is it   ?
       being trapped masculine
                   should you be one
                should you be eight     one   eight

The fear and anxiety here are about "being part." "Being part" has two opposite meanings: to be included or to be only a part (apart). Hence the question, "which is it?" A person is born with a sex: "trapped masculine." The conflicting demands of the world (or a literary work) that a person both conform and individuate make the subject waver between her singularity and her polymorphousness: "should you be eight one eight/ anxious."

In this section words repeat, but in cycles, changing a little each time in each new context, creating themes and variations:

Rhythm break age water searching. Rhythm age break water. Rhythm water searching. Age water. Water break. Break water. Age searching. Rhythm water.
     (p. 1)

The text here is self-aware; it behaves rhythmically, so it employs the word "rhythm." As a first page to a work, it's a rite of passage: "Break water." It's also "searching" for its form. This bit is designed to mesmerize: Mayer has artfully arranged the sounds to balance one another -- the long a sound in the monosyllables age and break against the two-syllable, short-voweled water and rhythm; the match of the ch of searching to the g of age; the ing of searching that propels the meaning forward, as it will in any utterance.

With lines like "the frame of a woman/ rib is a frame/ filling station" or "a truck comes out   the cab cabbie/ indulgence comes out of the truck" (p. 1), a fragmented narrative begins to form. It never congeals, but simply reveals some possibilities:

   at the head of the thought, a pin, a pin in the middle of
traffic, in traffic mind, a sea improve, in green, green
could improve, green will, a certain green will bend the king
                                 a certain green will bend the king
               (p. 2)

Mayer permits us to ride on "the head of the thought" of her "traffic mind." The traffic in her mind drives into ours over a bridge she's welded together. It has to be, for she's given us the power of deciding what "king" she's talking about, what a "green will" is, why there is "a pin" in the "traffic," or if in fact we want to make any interpretive decisions about these linguistic facts at all. And if we don't, we needn't then claim the work's gratuitous, for it is always rhythm and as such has the power to engage at least our aural and physical, if not our analytical, attention. Yet the work does tease the hermeneutic instinct, partly because of its placement in a literary text, and partly because of the incongruity of the combinations -- why "indulgence comes out of a truck?" We needn't attempt the impossible task of making the text's frazzled ends meet -- I doubt that Mayer wants us to perceive it as fully connected in any artificial sense -- but she does want us to think about it, and, more importantly, to move along with it, as the last bit of the first section illustrates:

       did plow their turning     did plow their turning plow
their turning plow     did plow their turning plow share this
     (p. 3)

As in Story, Mayer here makes interesting use of the deictic. I think she means not so much that we should share this work (what I am assuming this refers to) with others, but with her. The word "this" begins the next section and is certainly self-reflexive:

This is an epic of war fever fighting sex & starva-
tion. the pennies that come drifting down to the edge of the world are enough
to make us see. outside, Inside, I'm outside.
     (p. 3)

"War fever fighting sex & starva-/ tion" are emblematic of the energies and conflicts in the text. The "pennies" (objects of small value but of value nonetheless) are like the fragments Mayer provides us with -- "drifting" (logically against the nature of pennies) "down to this edge of the world" (a world we perceive as having edges although we rationally know it is spherical) "are enough to make us see. outside" of our own limited perspectives, perhaps. "Inside" her moving consciousness and inside the process of writing, Mayer's also "outside," looking at what she's made. The form here has turned into a kind of prose, with fuller lines and more narrative continuity, but the margins (of the text and therefore the world) vary wildly; there is no flush right or flush left. Our biophysical reaction is greater eye movement, stress at the breaking of reading habits, a sense of unpredictability. The central question of the book is "how to design freedom" (p. 23). As soon as we accustom ourselves to whatever form Mayer chooses, it metamorphoses. There is no certainty to the world this writing makes:

  One day last week fresh in my mind
i began to write a mystery.
            then at twilight the world cracked in two.
     (p. 3)

The line breaks in two exactly as the world does, as if to equate "this" with the world. Writing is characterized not as a two-dimensional object outside of time but as a living entity within (or even encompassing) time. It digests and regurgitates past moments, necessarily distorted by their ordeal. The paragraph that follows sounds like a stange subjectified rehash -- more dreamed than written -- of Raymond Chandler and Dostoevsky:

i read a book by t. as the world cracked
not like a mystery novel not like a documentary i slowly unravelled my story.
it had been a clear misty day in an old city half fallen down. the edge of the
park had no fence around it. a man came by. he murdered me. i thought
"i have a knife in my back. i am down." it was true, another man came by. he
lifted me up. they tried to solve the crime. someone suggested acting it out again.
i got up, the knife, down again.
it was like a dream. i corrected all the
mistakes that had been made the first time around. the murderer was nowhere
in sight. it was a flight from reality. i had always said when i was alive
"the revolution must take place in the sky" now that i had lost my life to it, i was
dead but i wasn't glad. the murderer skulking down a dark alley had hit upon an
idea, a dead one though, but an idea. he took a kerchief wrapped in oil &
bandaged the burn he had gotten from twisting the knife in the victim's back.
he turned to see that no one was looking. it was a darker night than the one of the
murder. he coughed. he had coughed blood. the kerchief was also soaked. it began
to rain. i had been murdered a day ago. a street cleaner who came by felt sud-
denly like he was before the cameras, a great movie, an extravaganza.
he couldn't figure out why. he felt some words come to place in his mind. his
thoughts were racing by him, all in words. looking around he found a place
for them, in the ear of the murderer. he was caught.
     (p. 3)

This complex little narrative could stand on its own as a work. Incredibly imaginative, it plays with convention -- the tubercular Raskolnikovian murderer, the "clear misty [an oxymoron] day in an old city half fallen down" of the detective novel -- but it breaks the foremost rule of vulgar narrative logic (a rule which many writers have successfully broken and which theorists like Foucault, Barthes, and Blanchot challenge when they claim that writing is the death of the author): "the I of the book can not die in the book." This writing records the murder, the obliteration, of her singular identity: "He murdered me. i thought 'i have a knife in my back. i am down.'" "I had been murdered a day ago." Even the passage itself does not have a singular identity; it does not in fact stand on its own, but is sandwiched in between the opening verse and another little narrative, unrelated to the first:

I am outside. these stories about after the revolution are sad,
the construction worker thought, there's no way to read them. the crow flies.
caws. I have it all in my mind though too, said his friend another construction worker from the past.
     (p. 3)

This "I" bleeds into the construction worker, for "construction worker" = writer, and also reader, who admits the difficulty of modern writing, "these stories about after the revolution." More commonly Mayer does not create these various foreign personae, but names herself in the writing, thus creating a persona specific to Bernadette Mayer. She names not only herself, but also the people who surround her in daily life. As we saw in Berrigan's poem, the proper name is a device popular among the New York School writers as it serves to locate the writing in particulars:

then the day after i met jonathan i was driving thru west stockbridge with a few friends & we picked up a hitchhiker, the hitchhiker heard mary call me bernadette
     (p. 3)

While these particulars may not be useful or necessary to us in and of themselves, they do have significance within the context of a literary work written both from and against the canon, and between other modes of expression: verse, fragmented narrative, scientific fact. Moving, determined never to be static, is a veritable catalogue or list of forms. The list technique, which Mayer uses also in later works, is the simplest way of giving order to fragments, no matter how accidental or assymetrical. Pulled into a form, they are granted relationships and the dynamism of a body; this is truly "form's life." On its own, in a vacuum, each fact is unproductive, static. As Leibniz says in The Monadology,

There is no possibility of transposition within [the Monad], nor can we conceive of any internal movement which can be produce, directed, increased or diminished there within the substance, such as can take place in the case of composites where a change can occur among the parts.7

Within the context of a composition, details, which when isolated are mere shards of experience, combine to produce insight. Bergson formulates this process as follows:

Many diverse images, borrowed from very different orders of things, may, by the convergence of their action, direct consciousness to the precise point where an intuition may be seized.8

This statement might also serve as a description of the mechanism of the detective novel, in which each semmingly disparate clue adds up to a final revelatory gesture. The final work forms a whole not as a thematic or formal organicity but as an entire gesture whose smaller movements add up to a statement about the nature of the gesture (writing) itself. In Moving, Mayer presents a world whose objects are not just connected to it but parts of it -- not apart but a part. As the human being is to the ecosystem, so here is the text to a human life, and so are the details of a text to its entire constitution. Mayer sets forth these ideas in a quasi-authoritative tone of scientific fact -- colored by her unique perceptions:

We as human beings arent isolated systems. we
take in food and information. the food we take in makes us part of the world which
produces it & part of that work. we take in information thru our senses & we
are able to act on it. sooner or later we will probably die & so will the
the universe. maybe then the world will be reduced to one big temperature
equilibrium in which nothing new will ever really happen. until then new things
are happening all the time. information makes us able to make them happen
they are local things. no one will be able to see the world die, to get back to
the world's death. therefore in this world of new things happening
there are stages which are very tiny but important to all of us. in these stages
entropy doesn't increase & information & organization are being built up. the devil
however is not anti-organization, nor is the sunset. viruses also persist,
multiply & organize. "I pay them extra & make them do what I want."
human beings are small pieces of decreasing entropy in their various spaces.
their minds are full of ideas. a dog could be god. or part of an epic.
     (p. 5)

Mayer presents here a panoramic vision of the interconnectedness of being, conceiving, in Bergson's terms, of "succession without distinction ... a mutual penetration, an interconnexion and organization of elements, each one of which represents the whole,"9 so that "human beings are small pieces of decreasing entropy in their various spaces." In this connected world, which she has already established to be the text, "new things are happening all the time," and continue to do so throughout. Even in this brief passage certain sentences do not fit in any obvious sense into the logic of the narrative. Why, for instance, does this incongruous bit of speech enter in: "'I pay them extra & make them do what I want.'" Who is speaking here and does the phrase have any political relation to what came before? Is Mayer merely exercising her poetic perogative to be dialogic? And is there anything "mere" about this faculty, which permits the widening of the boundaries of self? Because Mayer is part of the writing, not apart from it, editing after the fact of writing is not an option for this text; she has given over that objectivity, in this case, to Anne Waldman, and, in a certain sense, to us. In this work she edits as she goes, and, as her mind changes, the form of the work changes; our minds, following, change too. The book is thus a kind of travel journal, metaphoricized there in her friend Grace who

has been to Paris, Maine, St. Croix, calif. st thomas
washington, N.M., London, arizona, nevada, Ohio, pennsylvania, wyoming,
donegal, Carcassone, dublin ...
(p. 15)

The virtue of travel might be that as we remove ourselves from our too-familiar environments, we expand the limits of our subjectivities. Quite as a traditional novelist would, Mayer expands her subjectivity to the point where she can include such miscellaneous other voices as "I pay them extra & make them do what I want."

The following passage gives an example of such a maneuver, also providing us with glimpses of the political climate in which Moving was conceived:

"See them cats, they were the first cats in Cambodia."
"you must have wiretapped my dreams man."
"We gotta get our exercise"
"Really did a job on them. blew them both away"
"ohio, vietnam, cambodia"
"Better to kill than be killed"
     (p. 6)

Soldier's voices, overheard perhaps on radio or television, penetrate Mayer and become part of her text, where "anything that moves" becomes fit material for art. We are party to this transmission into Mayer as she in turn transmits to us. The radio / television metaphor is particularly apt. From the original Orpheus to Milton's "Heav'nly Muse" to Cocteau's Orphée, who received his poems directly from the radio in the car belonging to the Queen of Death, the poet has been conceptualized as an instrument sensitive to external vibration. This concept would seem to negate the possibility of individual will. Mayer raises this very question:

   All movement is a transmitter.
all movement is old. "don't bother with moving it."
a reflection of a receiver seems to remain the same.
a moving picture of dots is all movement.
   does a transmitter have an idea?
     (p. 11)

She doesn't try to close the question but continues to explore it as she writes, even changing philosophies as she moves, denying essence and then positing it and then questioning if the proposition is true:

    ... nothing
existed, not even a stick to support the vision: something in the waves
remains the same, outside the movement.
is that true? what is a ring? & then the man
who has the narratives the man removed the sky. the man put up the sky because
he was it.
     (p. 11)

Mayer's will is very much a presence in the text; she's quite like the man who has the narratives who can manipulate the world because he is it. She questions the thing that "remains the same, outside the movement," and it is death, that "one big temperature equilibrium in which nothing new will ever really happen." But Mayer proves that "until then new things are happening all the time"; her presence, both receptive and controlling, makes them happen. Her artistic will does round off the work with a final coda:

man has been living on the earth for about half a
million years with a head hair face forehead bumps arches temples eyes cheekbone
cheek nose furrows grooves mouth dimples chin jaw ear neck throat hollows ...
     (p. 31)

Although this excerpt barely serves to show it, Mayer's tendency to include is in full force here; she wants to get the whole world in. She takes us from evolution (our creation) to anatomy (our composition) to places (our situation) to activities (our movement). Then she brings us back to the beginning of the text, repeating it in a different form, ending with the gentle imperative to "share this."

moving.jpg (9011 bytes)

Showing consciousness of its moment in history and supporting the intention of the text, the cover of Moving deserves a special note. It is an enlarged photograph of a film still showing, among other forms, the author's face. It very deliberately includes, at the top of the frame, the words "Kodak Gray Scale," and its corresponding image. The word "EKTACHROME" runs vertically up one side fo the frame and down the other. Below is the title Moving, in large crude letters. At the center is a sideways image of Bernadette Mayer's face, pale and oval against a black background, as if it were peering out of the window of a train. This image characterizes her as the intense and vulnerable spectre who haunts the book and makes things happen in it.

The text is fronted by a rough, skilled but childlike ink drawing by the author's sister of a giraffe and an exotic bird. Although not directly related to the text, it does serve to give a sense of the jungle-like lushness the pages offer, and to reaffirm the childlike attitude Mayer sometimes adopts, in order perhaps to perceive the world outside of the logico-rational parameters of "adult" discourse. The text is followed by another drawing by Rosemary Mayer in a similar style of an American Indian sitting in his landscape. He looks directly and serenely at the observer. I'd read his presence as an extension of Mayer's desire for an interconnected world like the one that Native American culture (albeit idealized) attests to. The simple naturalism of both drawings balances the modernity of the cover image (for this is the New York School's "lyrical modernity"), which acknowledges the text's situation in the world after the camera.

1 Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will, trans. F.L. Pogson (Macmillan, NY), p. 100.

2 William Carlos Williams, "The Work of Gertrude Stein," in The Poetics of the New American Poetry, ed. Donald Allen (Grove Press, NY, 1973), p. 134.

3 Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America (Beacon Press, Boston, 1985), p. 184.

4 Stein, LIA, p. 165.

5 Stein, LIA, p. 165.

6 Bernadette Mayer, Moving (Angel Hair Press, NY, 1971), p.1.

7 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Monadology, trans. Dr. Geo. R. Montgomery (The Open Court Publishing Co., La Salle, IL, 1957), p. 252.

8 Henri Bergson, Selections (Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York), p. 9.

9 Bergson, TFW, p. 100.

Jump To

Studying Hunger

Chapters in Readme 4

Eruditio Ex Memoria
The Golden Book of Words
Midwinter Day

[Back to Readme]