Form's Life: An Exploration of the Works of Bernadette Mayer
I think of someone who said that's a pretty cheerful view of things, meaning MEMORY, & meant you don't show the bad side the side the side to the side I guess he meant
-- Studying Hunger, p. 46
And to those who accept a rose from me I add this: I am sorry to cover my feelings with images of fear, but please believe me there are things you cannot write.
-- Studying Hunger, p. 11
I guess we have to talk about desire here as mainly transformational. Who was it talked about "the lineaments of gratified desire"? [Blake] Ornamental phrase. And "lineaments" doesn't sound at all surprising as those residues often are. When you say you'd want to write the truth of pregnancy I'm already itching to see what that desire would lead you to say. In Studying Hunger you kept putting it a way that's always stuck with me: "Can I say that?" Those four words perfectly hit at the whole problem of the range of truth in language.
-- Clark Coolidge, Letter to Bernadette Mayer, January 21, 1980, UCSD Collection
Listen: the world becomes progressively less edible.
-- Studying Hunger, p. 46
Thoughts I had while typesetting STUDYING HUNGER: eat god's food raw.
-- Barrett Watten, Letter to Bernadette Mayer, no date, UCSD Collection
Fear is the fuel that drives Studying Hunger, Mayer's next major work after Memory. Excerpted from a 365-page journal of her psychoanalysis, Studying Hunger is Mayer's reaction to the forced externalization of Memory. Studying Hunger is instead a forced internalization, springing not from the materiality of photographs but from the vicissitudes of mood. As with Moving and Memory, the book's cover is a photograph portrait of the artist, but each differs from the other in the same way the texts do. The cover of Moving shows Mayer's face in the middle of a medium (a still shot from a film). The cover of Memory shows Mayer in the midst of her external circumstances -- her friends, her white pants, her city. But the cover of Studying Hunger is simply a photo of Mayer's face blown up larger than life. Her wide-open, glinting black eyes stare directly at the camera / observer. Their expression is one of simultaneous power and terror -- the eyes of a criminal. I have seen several people turn this book over on its "face" for fear of its gaze. It is a forced stare, vulnerable, passionate, and relentless, drugged and drugging -- Orpheus looking at Eurydice, Lot looking at his wife, Medusa looking at her victim.
The writing is commensurate with the image that envelops it. Opening this book, we are invited to step into the caverns of Mayer's brain, but onto a different path than that which carried the "mind traffic" of Moving or led to the intricate materiality of Memory. For Studying Hunger is psychoanalysis. One entry begins:
FREUD, FREUND, FRIEND, FREEZING, FJORD, FEUD, FEND for yourself.
This is classic associative method. The book might well be "a musical of Lacan's text, a muscle of Lacan's text." [p. 54] In one passage she directly addresses Lacan:
Dear Dr. Lacan, the penultimate distance between myself and you (if you were sitting on the peacock (that is, where it is presently placed in the room), & I myself were all-in-one like a cat half-dozing on the absent you (I mean rug) (sic)
Our position in relation to this text can be analyst (we are, in this passage, Lacan, because in "the confusion of posible yous" -- the central confusion of the book -- "one thing replaces another") or co-patient, when we identify with Mayer's struggle. These relations are always in question, for Mayer's quest is to "find a solution to the YOU problem." As a student of Lacan, Mayer looks for the solution to the YOU problem in the interstices of her consciousness (her writing); she builds gaps into her writing, hoping to find in them a new communicative method outside of logical language. Her method is anything but subtle, designed to force her consciousness into the reader / other, of whom she is very much aware:
Magic words were a lead-in to the solution of the YOU problem. But the YOU problem & the problem of states of consciousness could never be solved until I had forgotten all about them. These problems began to solve themselves when I became interested only in the transitions between thought. By transitions I mean communicating lapses. Maybe, if you made the work all transitions you could get the mind to shift natively on call. & whose mind. Transitions like the covers that are the lids of your eyes, & sometimes, they come in layers & the lid looks like three, like you fucked three times, got rid of your cold & got tired, you didn't know where you were, you lost states of consciousness for a while & this happened to me because I couldn't do what I thought was really writing & if I could read all of this to you you might have the feeling that I have been shrieking at you for hours & you would finally get a real translation of thought.
"The YOU problem" was, as I noted, already a concern at the end of Memory. The coda to Memory appears in the text of Studying Hunger as well; as Mayer says in Studying Hunger, "My own work was never finished & it was always leading back to itself & to older work. Not a system of feedback but a system of feeding." (p. 21) Mayer thus redefines the word "book" -- not as a closed and inviolable object but rather a record of duration, a moment whose properties can bleed into or become parts of other moments. How the project of Memory generated the project of Studying Hunger Mayer outlines at the outset of the latter text:
When I began to attempt the month-long experiment
with states of consciousness, I wrote down a list of
intentions. It went like this: First to record
special states of consciousness. Special: change,
sudden change, high, low, food, levels of attention
And, how intentions change
And, to do this as an emotional science, as though:
I have taken a month-drug, I work as observer of
self in process
And, to do the opposite of "accumulate data," oppose
MEMORIES, DIARIES, find structures
And, a language should be used that stays on the
observation / notes / leaps side of language border
which seems to separate, just barely, observation
and analysis. But if the language must resort to
analysis to "keep going," then let it be closer to
that than to "accumulate data." Keep going is a
pose; accumulate data is a pose.
Also, to use this to find a structure for Memory and
you, you will find out what memory is, you already
know what moving is
And, to do this without remembering
Mayer encountered a problem at the first stage of her experiment: she could not write pure observation, language stripped of its mnemic residue, its resonance. As a result of this struggle, a certain apprehension appears in the writing:
Those were the intentions I wrote down, April first. Also, these questions: What's the danger? What states of consciousness & patterns of them are new to language? What's the relation of things that stand out, things that seem interesting. ... what's the relation of this type of even to the rest & how to develop moments as, "standing out" like language does, like language ideas do. "Some old people try to live on one can of soup a day."
The "danger" was that her medium disallows pure description by insisting on its own material presence. Her apprehension became a stopgap:
On April second, the first thing I wrote was "You wait." The experiment went badly, real bad. I added to my intentions, this one: to be an enchantress, or, to seduce by design. I thought about sentences that stuck in your mind, like, "How long have you been head of this business?" and "You planned the disappearance of my desire."
This new intention differs significantly from the others. With it she takes into consideration the reader / other, whereas the other intentions are purely descriptive. She also introduces her artistic will into the language; she struggles with the demand that it be merely an instrument:
I was waging a constant battle against traditional language. ... As I got further into this, language seemed to be demanding its form: lying in bed, head down, muscles arched, colors plotted the outline-sound of a language, an unmarked language, not controlling it. Forget any substance of meaning, forget substantives & their color & get it gradually paler, seeing sound vibrations in sleep-closed eyes.
Although she gave up the project for two months, the fact that she'd begun to allow the language to demand its form opened the floodgates of her associative inner language, already opened up a crack in her reaction to Memory:
Gave up the project. ... But I was bound to start again. You see, the whole thing had already had a beginning with a project called Memory which turned into a show which turned into a dream or returned to a dream that enabled me to walk. Before this I couldn't walk, I had street fantasies like any normal prostitute.
Having announced her intention to seduce, and by including declarations like this, Mayer spotlights what is present in her other works but not particularly emphasized: a bold female sexuality ("Goddammit my cunt smells so good in this strange city" [p. 52]), simultaneously a need and a power (her expression on the cover emits both terror and control.) This "sensual power, greatest evil, without design, her rule, the impossible," infuses the language of this book, "& pose[s] the finite as a trick." The passage (in both a literal and literary sense) that first admits this power starts to weave the maddening spell of Studying Hunger:
You sleep Marie: save them for me, certain moments, I'm resting, I'm restoring, I'm gathering, I'm hunting, I'm starving, I'm you, you say: go on being, peering owl on top of fortress, sounding out, training sound to meet my ear, drive & mark time, I'm a history, her coil, mark time, suffer a moment to let me be like her a history, object, she was determined, defies all laws & rules, is the language I bought from passers-by, sea crate full of junk & language twisting & twisting coil of all morning. ...
That's what started me off again & that's what opened the question of who is the you. You private person.
Mayer describes the language of Studying Hunger as "a buzz, a confluence of noise all around, all correcting & weaving"; it is a sexual, generative, beckoning, devouring, language, as she says, "weaving to call my name, Bernadette." (p. 9) She early makes the equation between sex and food: "sex is still food" (p. 21). Food and sex metaphors mix:
And even before that, there were so many pastries & cakes, I was rolling around in them, demanding things, special ones, strawberry cupcakes, my favorite, I was lying in them at the bakery, forging desires I didn't even have for the sheer joy of demanding, of making demands all night, baking all night, all for me, to lie in, to destroy the half I couldn't eat
Here she lets her desire for food run to such excess that it becomes sexual, then violent. The complex of food, sex, and violence, all under the umbrella of desire, that Studying Hunger is composed of works on several levels at once. The hunger she is studying is not just the stomach's and the groin's but also the mind's. Coming out of Memory, this book is an investigation into Memory, and sometimes even takes on the mannerisms of a detective novel. Like the detective novel, it is analytical ("an emotional science ... an observer of self in process"). Like the detective novel, it has a crime at its center, a crime that is related to the complex of food / sex / violence, and even religion: cannibalism. The book, as I've said, seeks to find a solution to "the YOU problem"; it seeks to find a true mix of subject and object, and makes itself the record of frustration at not being able to really mix:
a more intrepid talker than myself would have shouted her ideas across the gulf by now but for me there must first be a close & unembarrassed contiguity with my companion or I cannot say one real word.
Mayer's Catholic upbringing must have highlighted for her the fact that the closest and most unembarrassed contiguity is not sex, but eating. Hence the melodramatic climax to the book, in which she actually eats the other: "I bring some of the flesh with me to survive on, exclusively, until I am arrested." (p. 71)
As in all of her writings, Mayer addresses the question of the relationships of writing to life: "Poetry's where you all find something, maybe I could find something to eat there, something anyone at all." (p. 53) Poetry is the realm of disparate personal meanings, where anyone who has the language can "find something to eat" that hopefully is an aid to survival. Mayer transforms her earlier equation to sex=food=poetry. Around each of these, patterns of guilt form: "And I know why I keep trying to crack the code. Poetry is unethical. You shouldn't do it, it's bad, it's filth, it screws you around ..." (p. 21) her social guilt (sounding almost sexual -- substitute "masturbation" for "poetry") surfaces here with her concern that poetry is unethical. Although she is a bourgeois white American, she "want[s] to steal and be a revolutionary ... to alter the environment." (p. 57) Speaking for poets, she says "we are not in power / we just try to change the fucking language." She is aware that she is supported by the same system that murders revolutionaries: "I depend on the U.S. Government that murders Allende, It's [sic] council on the arts supports me." (p. 57) She frankly allows this disturbing detail into the body of the text, attacking the rarefied notion of pure poetry: "no I don't even like good writing, it's pure poetry, it's pure crap" (p. 57). She operates politcally within her chosen sphere.
She very purposefully situates herself as a small press writer, actually handling the books she writes and distributes, as very few modern writers, alienated from the products of their labor, get a chance to. She creates a delicate, Williams-like poem out of this gesture:
I cut my thumb
making inside covers
for memory & the
jokes of it cease
to be small
Such intimacy, whose results are sometimes dangerous, is the quest of the entire book; the tension of that desire and the inadequacy of language to provide an exact "translation of thought" generate its hermetic, resonant mass. Yet the force of that desire pervades the book and the reader can't help but respond; to the extent that language can facilitate intimacy, this text is "touching":
Read the dictionary all you want, you will never
find out what touch means, except that it's a light
blow and, to put the
hand, finger, or other part of the body on, so as
to feel: "we feel so close."
Chapters in Readme 4
Eruditio Ex Memoria
The Golden Book of Words
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