Nada Gordon

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


When anybody starts to write they're trying to learn how to write. You do anything you can to do that. You experiment with all the styles and forms and invent new ones. You go back to playing with blocks, you think of words as bricks or windows, you imagine poetry as visual and perhaps lacking in traditional meaning. Even now you can't talk about meaning. If you write then in an obfuscated way or in a way that's reflective of all your experience, you may have discovered something. I think writers should always be allowed by other writers to change their style and be continuously learning, in the process of learning something all the time.

—Bernadette Mayer, from Ann Rower interview, pp. 5-6

The poems in Poetry, written over a span of about six years, might serve as examples of the "experiments" I listed in the first section, as they range in style from the manipulated to the automatic, from the personal / daily to the public / linguistic, sometimes incorporating elements from each pole in a single piece. If I were to name a dominant intention in the book (although I'm not sure there is one), considering that Poetry was not originally composed as a book, but over several years as autonomous poems) I'd say it was to investigate and "try on for size" the traditions of poetry bequeathed by history. For as well as inventing forms for Poetry, Mayer makes her own versions of sonnets and sestinas. In these works she displays the erudition she did not manage (or even want, finally) to purge in Eruditio Ex Memoria, utilizing her classical education for creative purposes. But she also flexes her innovative muscles, assembling active little linguistic mechanisms like "Corn":


corn is a small hard seed

corn from Delft
is good for elves

white corn, yellow, Indian

is this kernel a kernel of corn?

the corn they sought
was sown by night

The Corn Islands are two small islands,
Little Corn Island & Great Corn Island,
on an interoceanic canal route.

any of several
insects that bore in maize is a corn borer.

      (p. 7)

Using a ridiculous deadpan tone, talking about a dull subject in an amusing way, Mayer herself is the "corn borer" here — corny and boring. The title underscores the fact that this collection of words revolves around a single signifier's sounds, definitions, and associations. The insistent word "corn" appears at least once in each short stanza, until the reader's memory overloads with its sound and the real object of attention — the "small hard seed" — disappears from his or her mind's eye. Then the poem itself becomes that impenetrable kernel, very much an object; it is to Mayer's prose works what Tender Buttons was to Stein's — focused on the materiality of language rather than its temporal qualities. Mayer says in one of her long works that she wishes she could write short poems. She can of course, and Poetry attests to that. But these shorter works do go against her tendency to be inclusive rather than discrete, and sometimes do seem unnaturally truncated. In some cases, though, these poems are fragments from the earlier inclusive works, taken out of their original contexts (where they may have been hidden) and highlighted. "We've Solved the Problem" originally appeared in Moving in prose form; here, recast in lines, the poem's semantic shifts gain effectiveness:


we've solved the problem, the problem is solved

      men are women, women are men

            i'm pregnant for a while, you're

pregnant for a while

      "if someone doesn't change into an animal,

      we won't be saved"       someone must

change into an animal so that we can be saved.

            a man turns into a cat

                        a man becomes a cat

he gives himself to his friends in the form

                           of lead & coal

the man-cat gives himself to us in the

                  form of lead & coal

      he draws himself

            with lead & coal, the lead & coal man-cat

draws a picture of himself

            he is a girl

      the man is a girl — in black & white,

she sings

                  there are brush fires burning

      (p. 58)

The dominant mechanism of this poem is a parallelism of opposites, supporting Gerard Manley Hopkins' claim that "the artificial part of poetry reduces itself to the principle of parallelism." Roman Jakobson agreed, and expanded Hopkins' notion:

Any unbiased, attentive, exhaustive, total description of the selection, distribution, and interrelation of diverse morphological classes and syntactic structures in a given poem surprises the examiner himself by unexpected, striking symmetries and antisymmetries, balanced structures, efficient accumulation of equivalent forms and salient contrasts, finally by rigid restrictions in the repertory of morphological and syntactic constituents used in the poem, eliminations which, on the other hand, permit us to follow the masterly interplay of the actualized constituents.1

With its seesaw structure, "We've Solved the Problem" fits this formula perfectly: "men are women, women are men" is a perfect mirror image, both rhythmically and semantically; "the man is a girl — in black and white" might be used as a textbook example of semantic opposites. It should be evident how crucial is the role of the enmabments in realizing the poem's seesaw motion, even in the most elementary terms of the movements of the eye. Here is the version that appeared in Writing. I include the line that precedes it and the line that follows it to illustrate how much more invisible it is in its first context:

                  save yourselves!" We fly into them. the weeds are iron pipes. WE've
                        solved the problem. we've solved the problem:      men are women,
      women are men, i'm pregnant for a while. if someone doesn't change into an
      animal we won't be saved. a man turns into a cat, he gives himself to his
          friends in the form of lead & coal. he draws himself for them. he is a girl —
black & white — she sings. brush fires.
                                                put out a fat fire with salt, baking soda or cover
the pot.      pound cake:   1 lb. butter ...

      (Moving, p. 23)

This version may be slightly less noticeable than the one in verse, but I remember noticing this passage the first time I read through Moving. The bizarre metamorphoses reminded me of Baudelaire or Lautreamont or even a sort of folk tale; the gender elasticity reflected Mayer's utopian ideals. What seems a mythic self-sacrifice ("he gives himself to his friends in the form of lead & coal. He draws himself for them") turns into an artistic gesture. The sudden occurrence of "brush fires" in the final line is a complete surprise, although it can be semantically related to the "coal" of the previous lines. As such it provides a negation of Jakobsen's rule of parallelism, and keeps the poem open.

Indeed, to privilege parallelism as Jakobson does is to nt take into account relativism and pluralism; Jakobson himself says that "we must be on guard against simplistic binarism." We might in fact characterize Mayer's early work as embodying the world views of relativism and pluralism, whose predominant aesthetic effect would be what a traditionalist would deem "unfinished and uneven." Jakobson does in fact say also that parallelism is a structural device against which some poets rebel:

The obligatory character of the grammatical processes and concepts contrains the poet to reckon with them: either he is striving for symmetry and sticks to these simple, repeatable, diaphanous patterns based on a binary principle, or he may cope with them, when longing for an "organic chaos."2

Jakobsen also acknowledges that it is "the most clear-cut and stereotyped forms of poetry [folklore]" that offer the most obvious examples of parallelism. Parallelism thus serves as a kind of poetic norm, the hierarchical structure of which must be "busted" or rejected. Mayer is of course delighted to break rules, or to follow only those she sets for herself, as her early work demonstrates. Poetry, however, is less iconoclastic and more conciliatory than her previous publications, for although she invents many new forms in the course of these poems, some kind of unifying parallelism (whether on the level of sound or syntax or semantics) is almost always evident in them (as it isn't really in Moving, for example). Her most obvious bow to tradition can be found in this pair of sestinas:


These berries, with their choices, come to earth
To scatter and confuse the sainted warriors,
A part of crime's return to grace
And the innocence of criminals which
Enervates us like the coarser forms
Of truculence. Rude labors are ordinary and still.

They speed the haphazard. Slow manners still
Desires long buried in the earth
Among the exigencies of place and concurrent forms
Which once frightened even staid warriors.
I have caught a desire for silent markets which
May transfix the movements of warriors. To grace

These corridors with flowers is a chance for grace
As if ancient events were surfeited and still.
These are the plays, the act's discovered ways which
While on earth, will show what the earth
May return to — the severed heads of warriors
No longer dancing with the chance of reeds. The forms

Of edges bring us to such forms.
As homage makes its stonier pledge to grace
Belonging in retribution to the warriors
Whose hearts dispel in plays what is still
And what is closed, close to the attitude of earth.
The arbiter of innocence is a stone which

Is turbulent, and a memory which
No desire affirms, an old resort to forms,
Which forms the quieter winds of earth
And stirs the edges, silent pools, to grace.
The harbored art of influence is still
And silence, buried among the warriors

And the sound of warriors.
The flowers of illusions are the seeds which
Controlling lightning from below, still
The first desire for assault which forms,
Informing turbulence with a sudden ancient grace
The canons are unearthed, but this is not the earth.

The earth is a place for warriors
And for the grace of winds, a steady grace which
When it forms, forms only what is still.

      (p. 25)

* * *


These berries, with their choices, come to earth
To bomb and napalm all armies and warriors,
A part of crime's return to grace
& the innocence of criminals which
turns us on like the coarser forms
Of sex. Good labor leaders are shot-gunned and still.

They speed the haphazard. American presidents still
Desires long buried in the earth
Among the free places & free forms
Which still frighten all the staid warriors.
I have caught a desire for free markets which
May transfix the movements of warriors. To grace

Everywhere with flowers is a chance for grace
As if big businessmen were surfeited & still
These are the plays, the act's discovered ways which
While on earth, will show that the earth
May return to — no more warriors
Everyone dancing with the chance of reeds. The forms

Of people bring us to these forms.
But money just throws stones at grace
And makes apologies for the aging warriors
Whose hearts resent in plays what is still
And what is open, close to the attitude of earth.
The arbiter of innocence is a tree which

Looks us over with a memory which
Has no past. What are forms?
Where is the earth.
What is grace?
Power-mad people must be still
And silent, buried among the warriors

And the sound of warriors.
There are no flowers in a civilization which
Grows over what is calm and still
Cutting short the season that forms
People who are jungles of grace.
Many people live in America, but this is not the earth.

The earth is not a place for warriors
But for the grace of winds, a steady grace which
When it forms, forms only what is still.

      (p. 26)

Diaphanous and repeatable but not simple, these sestinas create exquisite neo-classical whirlpools of sound and meaning. In structure they mirror each other exactly, down to the line endings. In meaning they present reverse images: the first is the setina of the hawk, the second of the dove. Frequently, they contradict each other: "an old resort to forms" vs. "what are forms?" (an encapsulation, really, of the struggle between tradition and the avant-garde); "The earth is a place for warriors" vs. "The earth is not a place for warriors," and so on. Such contradiction — particularly as regards form — is present internally in each poem as well. Talking about the resort to old forms while writing a sestina in the late 1970s can only be self-reflexive.

The deictic possibilities of the poems raise some interesting questions. In "The Aeschyleans," we need to ask if the "such forms" of the line, "the forms/ Of edges bring us to such forms" refers to sestinas as well as to the "severed heads of warriors." And what about this line from "The People Who Like Aeschylus": "The forms / Of people bring us to these forms"? I'd interpret "these forms" as poetry in general, as a necessary part of fluid life or "grace," but I think other readings are possible (such as "the forms of dancing reeds"). The value of stillness does not seem to be consistent either between or within the poems — quite as its value is undecided in Stein's or Mayer's writings — carrying either a negative or positive meaning: "still" as "dead" ("The harbored art of influence is still/ and buried") or "still" as "calm" ("There are no flowers in a civilization which/ Grows over what is calm & still"). Such ambiguities are the privileges of sestinas, whose blend of repetition and combination will always demand new shades of meaning.

As do all poetic forms, really. Mayer explores such a range in this book I must confess I've revealed only the iceberg's tip. Several of these poems (as do the longer books) reveal Mayer's connections to the art world: one poem, "Selections from SIN IN THE BLEEKERS," was co-authored with the conceptual artist Vito Acconci (who was also her co-editor of the magazine 0-9), and reads like delicious zaum:

score up my lorcas
Fran had no kanses
train baned in rains lee
nonetheless lillies, lilacs the more als
,,the. . . .a,,

      (p. 46)

Except that, unlike pure zaum, some of this — namely, the odd punctuation in the last line — is unpronounceable and completely conceptual.

Another poem in this book that has ties to the art world is "Earthworks," a direct reference to the earth sculpture of Robert Smithson, whose works (like "Spiral Jetty") were, like Mayer's Memory, both monumental and emphemeral, huge but concerned with the passage of time: "Even if the water rises/ We will set up new and deeper memorials/ To the trailing off of our plans." (p. 24)

From "Anthology," a list of lists, to some dream narratives, to several pieces about boats and the sea, to the three-page prose block that begins "untitled what's thought of as a boundless, continuous expanse extending in all directions or in three dimensions within which all material things are contained at this moment ..." to a crystalline translation of Mallarmé, these poems just keep changing and changing, startling in their variety. The book's second section, "Love Poems," though, shows a certain consistency. Personal lyrics, these all assume a fixed "you" (the beloved) and "I" (the poet). They are replete with the personal detail and emotional response of everyday life:


I wanted you the day after that, you
Which was Sunday or Monday
I gave you a picture of feathers, lost contact & gave it to you again ...

      (p. 83)

This "personal" innovation did not make a very good impression on the avant-garde, whose attempts to combat the hypostization of self in the confessional lyric showed in their super-"objective" works (influenced by chance operations, Ponge, Duchamp, Robbe-Grillet, et al.). They also reacted against the academicized confessionalism of Robert Lowell, William Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, and many others, as such a tone became (and still is) a standard in MOR publications like the American Poetry Review. But Mayer is hardly an academic; I see in these poems not the influence of Robert Lowell (certainly not) but the personal "go on your nerve" voices of Frank O'Hara and Ted Berrigan. Her next volume, The Golden Book of Words comes to rely on this sort of expression almost exclusively, in many ways acting in counterpoint to what came before.

1 Roman Jakobson, "Poetry of Grammar and Grammar of Poetry," Lingua 21, (North Holland Publishing Company, 1968), p. 603.

2 Jakobson, p. 65.

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Previous Chapters (Readme 3)

Studying Hunger

Current Chapters (Readme 4)

Eruditio Ex Memoria
The Golden Book of Words
Midwinter Day

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