Nada Gordon

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


I did once consider publishing an edition of Memory with all the photos (over 1200 of them) but that is a funny story. A man from Praeger came by my house and said he would publish it (Praeger would) if only I would make love to him. I knew him from the art world a bit and he was quite attractive too, an Italian boy in a black leather jacket, etc. I told him I would love to make love to him but only if he wouldnt publish my book, and then I'm afraid I asked him to leave, so then Memory with all the photographs never did get published. I tell you this story because it's on my mind because recently a similar thing happened and not only to me but also to a friend of mine and we often think that in poetry there is not that much at stake, I mean it's not Hollywood, but apparently these things do take place and it makes me very angry at men because to my knowledge women dont do this sort of thing, but that of course is a whole other thesis.
     -- Letter received from Bernadette Mayer, October 12, 1986

Although humans are begining to learn about artificial memory, we still do not know precisely how our own memories function, where they reside, or what to make of them. Unlike artificial memory, human memory is laced with and distorted by desire and fear. The data we call back are never pure. To stimulate our memories we track our sense-impressions, whether olfactory, gustatory, tactile, aural, or visual. Freud says that memory is primarily auditory, and therefore linguistic:

Thinking in pictures is ... only a very incomplete way of becoming conscious. ... Word-presentations ... are residues of memories; they were at one time perceptions, and like all mnemic residues they can become conscious again. ... Verbal residues are derived primarily from auditory perceptions. ... In essence a word is after all the mnemic residue of a word that has been heard.1

Our knowledge of each word might then be colored by the primal physical sensations we experienced as we acquired it; when we call up words to use, we might be calling them out of our memories sticky with subjective mnemic residue, or, as Freud suggests, as mnemic residue itself. Language is never truly objective, but always tainted by individual experience. This is the dimension in which language, by definition public, is private.

In Memory, Mayer presents words with the mnemic residue intact. Reading Memory, we too endow the words with our own mnemic residue, so the work becomes doubly, radically subjective. The memory it represents is not artificial or even historical (as in memoirs) but artistic. According to Gerard Genette, artistic memory, like that of Mayer or Proust, uses "the present object ... [as] merely a pretext, an occasion: it vanishes as soon as it has fulfilled its mnemonic function."2 The photograph or the petite madeleine, caught up in the active distortion of imagination and reflection, submit to "an overloading in which the [object] becomes bogged down, engulfed, and finally disappears."3 What Proust really gave us was a picture of his mnemic distortion, not a reproduction of past events. His artistic impulse, however, is to represent exactly:

The fine things we shall write if we have talent enough are within us, dimly, like the remembrance of a tune which charms us though we cannot recall its outline, nor even sketch its metrical form, say if there are pauses in it, or runs of rapid notes. Those who are haunted by this confused remembrance of truths they have never known are the men who are gifted; but if they never go beyond saying that they can hear a ravishing tune, they convey nothing to others, they are without talent. Talent is like a kind of memory, which in the end enables them to call back this confused music, to hear it distinctly, to write it down, to reproduce it, to sing it.4

But Vinteuil's little sonata would probably not have been so interesting reproduced exactly. It is the subjective veil with which Proust drapes the musical phrase that makes for the art of his novel. The talent Proust describes (with which Mayer is singularly blessed) is really a talent for tracking the sense impressions and the associative language that lead to the remembered object, which in itself is unimportant, merely a pastry or a stone or a photograph.

Like Proust's great work, Memory is the record of an attempt to make a tangible object of the past. Like Proust's novel, Memory distorts rather than represents. Both books are unwieldy, difficult, but impressive in their magnitude. Memory comes, of course, from a much different cultural, historical, personal, and sexual perspective than A La Recherche de Temps Perdu. This is evident in the form of the writing. Where in Proust the sentences, masquerading as fiction, wind about in elaborate dependent clauses, drenched with rhetoric, the movement of Memory is the forward rush of "truth," sometimes ignoring punctuation and decorum. Mayer provides us with a description of her compositional technique in her later work, Studying Hunger:

MEMORY was 1200 color snapshots, 3 x 5, processed by Kodak plus 7 hours of taped narration. I had shot one roll of 35-mm color film every day for the month of July, 1971. The pictures were mounted side-by-side in row after row along a long wall, each line to be read from left to right, 36 feet by 4 feet. All the images made each day were included, in sequence, along with a 31-part tape, which took the pictures as points of focus, one by one & as taking-off points for digression, filling in the spaces between. MEMORY was described by A.D. Coleman as an "enormous accumulation of data." I had described it as an "emotional science project." I was right.5

The difference between Coleman's and Mayer's descriptions would be that an artificial memory could in fact accumulate data, whereas a human memory, "tainted" with subjectivity, changes the data with its special focus. Mayer is observing not the past in itself but the way her emotions create the past in the present.

Instead of using, as Proust does, pastries and sonatas "as points of focus, one-by-one & as taking-off points for digression," Bernadette Mayer uses photographs. Photography, like film, and tape recordings, is a medium for artificial memory, and is therefore pure memory -- at least insofar as it is the record of light rays objects actually reflected. Photographs give not merely a sketch or image of the object but an exact trace, subject only to the distortion of light and human manipulation, of its physical existence. Roland Barthes says in Camera Lucida that

The Photograph is an extended, loaded evidence -- as if it caracatured not the figure of what it represents (quite the converse) but its very  existence. ... Here is where the madness is, for until this day no representation could assure me of the past of a thing except by intermediaries: no one in the world can undeceive me.6

Mayer's project is an exaggerated but internalized realism. Her source is this unrefutable truth to which the photographs attest -- yet she reshapes this fixed truth with the fluidity of memory (never unmixed with imagination), thus putting those fixed "proofs" back into living duration from whence they came.

Memory tries to include everything, and tries to "invent a whole new language" in which to do so. The book's opening pasage:

July 1
& the main thing is we begin with a white sink a
whole new language is a temptation. Men on the
wall in postured please take your foot by your hand
& think that this is pictures, picture book &
letters to everyone dash you tell what the story is
once once when they were nearly ready thursday july
first was a thursday; back windows across street
I'm in sun out image & so on riverdale, did you
know that, concentrated dash was all there was mind
nothing sink ... with my white pants in it.
     (p. 1)

With the ampersand, Mayer begins the book in medias res -- a trick she perhaps learned from Baudelaire, who also opens a poem with "and." Such a technique acknowledges the fluidity of life and resists the fixity of writing. She begins with the object: the white sink once removed as the photograph of the white sink (reproduced on Memory's cover), and looks from there for her method: "a whole new language is a temptation." The "men on the wall in postures," while literally subjects of some of the photographs, might also be read as the posing objective critics of the work whom she asks to be awkward ("please take your foot by your hand"). She situates the story in a specific time and place and indicates her particular parallax, coming back to the pictured object, the point of departure, the white sink -- which could be analogized with the receptive mind ("was all there was mind nothing sink") holding the object ("my white pants").

memory.jpg (25379 bytes)

As in Moving, Mayer here moves in and out of her subjectivity, focusing first on the object, then on her reactions to it and then on the object again. David Rubinfine (Mayer's psychoanalyst) notes in the brief introduction to Memory that Mayer

... has found the means to recreate archaic modes of representation of inner and outer sensory data. ... Her "memory" is regulated by a constantly changing organization of consciousness, shifting from perceived external reality to internal images and from present to past as present. ... differentiation between internal and external perception ... is not fixed and rigid, but fluid and dynamic.

Such fluidity is evidence of Mayer's capacity to perceive a connected world: the world outside, which forms us, and the world inside that informs the world outside.

Reading Memory, one duplicates Mayer's compositional method, moving from the materiality of the text to one's own reflections. The book is at once too dense -- with the words' material presence -- and too full of holes (in terms of linear logic) to read too strictly, as I tried to, thinking to arm myself with its entirety. Yet although I read through it spatially, from cover to cover, I could not fully read it (or any book) entirely vertically, for all its resonances (for then I would have been reading myself). Memory might serve as a model for the artifice of nature. Its language mimics the fluid chatter of consciousness as exactly as writing, trapped though it be in space, can. By force of sheer deluge, Mayer's internal rhythms become the reader's; the "intersubjective bridge" starts not to seem like an abstraction. Mayer brings up this issue of "mind transference" in the coda to Memory, which eventually became a part of her next work Studying Hunger:

That's dreaming & baby what you want baby I got it & all they are doing is wanting, seek out your own hand writing hand writing of another one & pieced like eyes they look together at the dream & who am I speaking of & who am I talking to, I am talking with you I am violating you & my length like the length of this table's body violates your separate right, stirring up dust, if any. Your own space & plenty of motion. Now why should you bother to be me in this way as a mix which is final insult as ax on the head of the murderer & this is a public act ...
     (p. 195)

And why should we "bother to be" her "in this way" for 195 dense pages? Because Memory aims to act as a "mix" between perceiver and creator, who both aim to lose their separateness to the extent that they can in art. This bit from Memory graphically -- linguistically -- illustrates such a process:

bme bme bme bme bme bme bme bme bme bme bme be me
be me be me be me be me be me be me
bemebemebemebemebemebe me bemebemenbeme
embermember bememberberrememberberbemembe ...
     (p. 77)

Such submersion in the book is facilitated by its style, which (to employ the most accepted literary example) may call to mind Molly Bloom's monologue, except that it is not fiction, it is written by a woman, and it continues for 195 pages. In Memory, Mayer forges the style of the natural.

Charles Bernstein, in an article called "Stray Straws and Straw Men" posits two sorts of poetry -- one "a poetry of visible borders ... an artifice ... manufactured, mechanized & formulaic at some points: willful.' He counterposes another sort -- "poetry primarily of personal communication, flowing freely from the inside with the words of a natural rhythm of life, lived daily" -- and challenges its assumptions:

I would point to Bernadette Mayer's Memory as a work that seems rooted in some of these ("natural") assumptions, as well as to much of Kerouac. In a different way ... Frank O'Hara's poetry is relevant. The achievement of these three poets has much to do with how they have fronted these assumptions. ... There is no natural look or sound to a poem. Every element is intended, chosen. ... Modes cannot be escaped, but they can be taken for granted. ... Work like Silliman's [a poetry of "visible borders"] explicitly acknowledges these conditions of poetry, language, by explicitly intending vocabulary, syntax, shape, etc. ... The allure of the spontaneous & personal is cut here by the fact of wordness: reproducing not so much the look of the natural as the conditions of nature -- autonomy, self-sufficiency. In this light, a work like Bernadette Mayer's Memory can be seen to be significant not on account of its journal-like look alone but also on account of its completely intended, complex, artifactual style. Heavy, dense, embedded. ... Energy & emotion, spontaneity, vocabulary, shape -- all are elements of that building. It is natural that there are modes but there is no natural mode.7

Bernstein here insists on the primacy of the will in the art process. That Mayer is not simply a passive recording instrument (a human camera) is evident in the "fact of wordness" of Memory and in the way Mayer manipulates that fact. Memory is not all pure speech, "flowing freely," as this passage should illustrate:

$13,000 in a joint account with D, eat creamed corn mixed with potatoes tomatoes great bread wine coffee summer meal summer spring & so on ed sank the eight ball yerba santa tea & janis joplin yoga & the rubber man at the circus / cut my cut: I fooled the ape virgin foraging got a grape from his purple groin I gave him pale apples his uvula ingraining with my leer's earful: lion pears gore the reigning angels to avenge the pope who has pale nirvana in his green vagina, meanwhile the papal prig is ripe feverish & angular, my lover veered to a prig like purrs from a nigger his legs liver & unpurged loins ravaged to a flowery orange by the profane green plunger, rape purple, the sexual etiology of the child: she wants heroin. The I character is usually the she.
     (p. 89)

Bizarre content aside, the sound values here are clearly willfully artificed. So is the abrupt transition (marked by "cut my cut") from the daily details of money and food into the circus-world of poetic language (that which calls attention to its own materiality -- its "fact of wordness"), generously imbued with sex, violence, and imagination. Still, the form of this writing looks more like the jabber of a living female brain than any writing I have ever seen, and this is Mayer's special accomplishment.

Like a brain, Memory is overwhelmingly inclusive. This Memory is more like a net than a sieve. Occasionally in the text Mayer creates a wave of language that existentially questions the project itself.

a man with no morals, he took it off & I don't have to go on with this, what would you do? create laws? discuss the purpose of them? disorder the order that has already been established? order the increased volume of experience? or reject it altogether leaving nothing to be ordered & everything lax in a mess in chaos in a muddle out of place cluttered in a maze in a wilderness in a jungle in tangled skeins & loose fixes, a heroin addict wouldn't do it I must have no respect for nothingness to photograph these scenes
     (p. 57)

Indeed, her impulse seems to be to fill space with matter almost impenetrably dense, to replace the tangled skeins of the world with the fixed (if equally complex) patterns of the book. In this (if not in morbidity) she resembles Beckett, and takes to heart his declaration, "I can't go on I'll go on." Her motivation for doing so is the border she has created -- the temporal space of a month. She is also motivated by a fascination with her materials -- language and photography; the text is less a narration of the month's events than a discourse upon these materials.

Her method, too, drives the work onwards. Memory, like Blanchot's definition of art, begins with the gaze. Mayer is concerned with the mechanisms of perception -- and particularly visual perception. She devotes an entire page to the description of an experiment that lays bare the device of seeing. And throughout, like Proust, Mayer is fascinated with reflection (the means by which the object can be seen and photographed) and superimposition (double exposure -- the mind laid over the world). Given the intention of both Mayer's and Proust's projects, one might muse here on the relation between "memory" and "reflection." They are in fact near-synonyms. In the dictionary definitions of these words, "re" is the most commonly occurring prefix. A more accurate description of the mechanism of these two books might, however, be "refraction," for they are not mirrors held up to nature, but human beings held up to nature, deflecting it, reshaped by human contact, via language. The voice of the willful artificer resounds in this passage from Memory in which Mayer, performing actions and viewing the effects of those actions, exploits the potent prefix "re":

as I might be able to recreate later from this & in my mind I would re-argue reascend reassemble & there was a reassembly & I would reassert & there was a reassertion & I would reassess reassign reassimilate & there was a reassimilation & I would reassume and there was a reassumption & I would reattach and there was a reattachment & I would reattack reattempt reawaken rebind rebloom & I would reblossom reboil rebuild & something was rebuilt & I would rebury
     (p. 68)

Memory (both the book and the faculty) might be conceptualized as a huge factory whose function is to help the self survive in and negotiate the world. It is the process by which the data that the mind receives is ordered and called back for future use; without it there can be no learning. This book is the record of Mayer's attempt to come to grips with externality, with "the enormous accumulation of data" every human being, and probably every animal, accrues each day. At the end of her month-long process, and at the end of the text that forms Memory, Mayer's external focus begins to force itself inward. She titles the coda to this book "Dreaming":

Cause memory & the process of remembering of seeing what's in sight, what's data, what comes in for a while for a month & a month's a good time for an experiment memory stifles dream it shuts dream up. What's in sight, it was there, it's over, dream makes memory present, hidden memory the secret dream, it's not allowed, forbidden, don't come out the door, there's an assassin at it or a lion, wild Indian, a boar, a little bear upside down in the dream, so, memory creates an explosion of dream in August & I no longer rest anymore I don't resist anymore
     (p. 189)

Approaching the end of Memory must have been like approaching the edge of a flat world, for "fear had already started as a finish to memory & memory as an opening onto a finish for fear." [p. 189] Studying Hunger, Mayer's next work, becomes an exploration of fear itself.

1 Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, trans., Joan Riviere, ed. James Strachey (Norton, 1962), pp. 10-11.

2 Gerard Genette, Figures of Literary Discourse, trans. Alan Sheridan (Columbia, NY, 1982), p. 209.

3 Genette, p. 215.

4 Marcel Proust, On Art and LIterature: 1896-1919, trans. Sylvia Townsend Warner (Carroll and Graf Publishers, NY, 1954), p. 276.

5 Bernadette Mayer, Studying Hunger (Adventures in Poetry / Big Sky, 1975).

6 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (Hill and Wang, NY, 1981), p.115.

7 Charles Bernstein, "Stray Straws and Straw Men," in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein (Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), p. 39.

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Studying Hunger

Chapters in Readme 4

Eruditio Ex Memoria
The Golden Book of Words
Midwinter Day

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