Nada Gordon

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

The Golden Book of Words

Ann Rower: I notice that it bothers you what people think even what other poets think and you talk of being criticized as a failed experimentalist. Was it in some way more satisfying ot be able to have this kind of dialogue with the butcher and the bakers?

Bernadette Mayer: A hundred times, yes. I never wanted to hang out with poets.

—interview, p. 4

That Mayer felt the brunt of the criticism she received from her fellow avant-gardistes is clear in this doubtful passage from "I Imagine Things," a work in prose format from The Golden Book of Words:

It's a fine time to think it
I've got other rhythms and rhyme, time to think it's made by you, made by me, what's the time I think it's a better time to sound it all out, I must have found it all out before, before I saw you, before I met you, I think this time I might know more than before, this is the first time I feel I know it at all or all of it, too many people call, I feel I'm not a good poet, I'm half a poet, I lose my poethood, I don't compose knowing enough, I don't go far enough away, I'm too close to myself, I don't lose myself enough, I must free the language more, I free it too much, and now it's lost, lost to you and others too, I wing it, I wonder about it, I indulge in it, I listen to every word, I sing and I wonder every time, am I doing it wrong, I swim and I flounder, I go and I wander, I see but I go under, and when I am simple it's too simple for you and when I am ..........wait, now I see what others are doing, they're imposing a discipline and saying now I can't speak of myself anymore, I must describe the all of bricks and the little limited visa I've here ...

In form this does indeed "describe" (in the sense of "draw") a wall of bricks — a fortress both of and for the self. But this writing is also a response to Mayer's previous writing, which was so inclusive, so risky, that the only aesthetic direction she could have chosen, if she still wanted to maintain her aesthetic of constant change, was a limited personal discourse.

She has a desire to please, not alienate, the reader. With age and motherhood, Mayer has, in a sense, mellowed. As she says in "Abou," "it's time to have an audience/ after having a family." But the ethos of the avant-garde, to constantly make it new, frequently generates works that challenge our presumptions about the world — an uncomfortable sensation. In Studying Hunger Mayer said:

And there was another problem. People began to describe my work as rude. Worse than that, they were saying that I was acting rude & mean. Also, I couldn't eat. So I decided to try telling stories again.

(Studying Hunger, p. 21)

Here we see Mayer's struggle with both the traditional and avant-garde aesthetic contingents. Her concern for her reader's pleasure and response conflicts with her impulse to make new and often difficult forms, so she inserts apologies like the one we saw at the end of Eruditio Ex Memoria.

Barrett Watten, acting as a representative of the progressive contingent, has this to say about her later work:

The "permanent avant-garde" vaporizes, leading to more conventional roles. As actually happened — in the course of Mayer's later editing of United Artists, the stylistic opening-up returns all these techniques to the self.2

The problem with the return to the self, according to avant-garde ideology, is that it reifies the alienated Cartesian "I" that emerged along with alienating social structures. To reject or ironize the hypostatized self is to see oneself within the movement of history, not as its omniscient endpoint. Theodor Adorno, however, has a more positive take on the social role of lyric poetry:

In a celebrated later article, "Lyric Poetry and Society" (1951), Adorno was more sympathetic to the symbolists' efforts. Instead of charging them with a desire to accommodte to the estranged object, he now defended their lyrical poetic submersion in language as a desperately needed attempt to rescue personal subjectivity in a reified world, and, in so doing, also preserve language from commercial misuse.3

Bernadette Mayer's stance in her later work is to be the heroine of the personal in an increasingly objectified and objectifying world. As the 1980s progress, her work becomes more determinedly subjective at the same time as it becomes more publicly accessible. This may be a viable way to rescue the problem of the lyric utterance, as may this notion of Charles Bernstein's, whose own work is fraught with the struggle between public and private language:

The considerable achievement of Frank O'Hara is to have a form of poetry largely within the domain of the personal. Note, however, that O'Hara's word "personism" is not "personalism"; it acknowledges the work to be the fronting of another person — another mind, if you will, as much as another nature. O'Hara's work proposes a domain of the personal, & not simply assuming it, fully works it out. His remarkable use of voice, for example, allows, through a musing whimsy in that voice, for fantasy as wild as any surrealist imagines, contained, still, within his proposed boundaries.4

Like O'Hara, Mayer does not merely assume the "domain of the personal," but thinks it through in the course of the writing, as we saw in the quotation from "I Imagine Things." And her self-boundaries, like Walt Whitman's, are never wholly impermeable, as this stanza from "Simplicities Are Glittering" shows:

I speak to you as Shakespeare, monitoring feeling
I speak to you as Valery with emotion but about things
I speak to you as Proust, I can't be brief at all
I speak to you hurriedly battering
Or as Gertrude Stein just bantering

Mayer would never assume herself to be a closed and static entity. She speaks a collective language that reveals her self as composite as much as subjectivity, but it is both these things, informed and informing. She never, despite the explicitness of some of these poems, loses her sense of language as material: "Heavy heads and hearts are ready, heavy/ heady homes eating ground chicken hearts, the beefy/ readiness to be here every day" ("Beast of February"). She uses her technical skill to "deliver" her personal experience, as she does in this section of "Baby Come Today, October 4th," one of the most imaginatively written poems about childbirth I have ever encountered:

Ecstatic experiences with nature
This is an automatic furnace
Do not drop or roll
Do not handle with squeeze lift truck
Handle with care
This is a piece of quality assured
Home heating and cooling equipment
The Ohio Valley Container Corporation
Made its container to stand
A resistance bursting test
Of over 200 pounds per square inch
Not an inch a metaphor,
These words are on my window
There is no pane, the first frost comes
The second baby, we'll have to
Turn up the heat, eat nothing
And breathe through a rose

The poem is actually every "inch a metaphor," moving consistently as such throughout: "The pane crashed, baby falls/ Between loose pelvis onto the sheet." Mayer's skill in combining found language with a real event turns the poem into something more than a confession and more than a machine of technique. But this poem and many others in this book do give the impression of being finished aesthetic objects; for example, this poem aims to record and concretize an experience, to give it object-value, and maintains a consistent metaphor throughout; it achieves a measure of the accessibility Mayer looked for in Eruditio Ex Memoria. A book like Memory also sought to concretize an experience, but even more to create a new experience, involving or alienating the reader in its perplexity. The poems in The Golden Book of Words (named, after all, after a children's book) are far more graspable, temporally and conceptually, less charged with the negative capability of her earlier writings.

Around the time of the writing of this book, Mayer had moved to Lenox, Massachusetts, the hometown of Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of Mayer's favorite writers. She has one unpublished piece5 that begins as her autobiography and metamorphoses into his. Like Mayer, he came out of a tremendously repressive environment but was gifted with an unrepressible imagination and verbal skill. Mayer says of him in a recent interview:

Hawthorne's sentences are among the most beautifully written sentences and the most reflective of thought I've ever read in English or in American; I should not even refer to English ... He was ashamed of his obsession with the imaginary because he was a dreamer and a storyteller ... But of course he felt guilty about it ... He also fought the battle between the American language and the English language. When people would write reviews of his books they would say, "He's almost as good as the best of the English writers." He was aware that was not the issue. The issue was that he was an American and that he was writing a different language from those other people ... A different culture always creates a different language. He worked without forebears like many women writers have had to.6

Mayer seems to deliberately insert herself into Hawthorne's environment, perhaps to have a reason to be rebellious, but also to be in a secluded environment conducive to child-raising and writing.

To the resolutely unrepressed Mayer, however, "New England is awful" with its "men & women who cant talk/ They wear dark colors & trudge around, all in browns & greys,/ looking up at the sky & pretending to predict all the/ big storms" ("Lookin Like Areas of Kansas"). Several of the poems in this book are concerned with the snow and cold, which Mayer connects to the psychology of the Lenox population:

The streets are covered with ice, I think I've now discovered
All the density and obtuseness
Of the minds of New Englanders


But at the same time "New England is interesting" ("1977") and "New England is beautiful" ("1978"). She sees the value in the Protestant temperament, for, unlike New Yorkers who, in their chaotic distraction, their minds full of the world's excesses, the "accumulation of data" that is Memory, won't stop to help a passerby, the stoic New Englanders

When a pregnant woman is stranded in labor in the snow
They'll rise to the occasion and get her out


Still, a note of frustration and anger appears in these poems — Mayer's reaction to her proximity to narrow souls like "The librarian [who] said even the black man had the sniffles" and all the other "tedious presentiments in the hearts of the/ Lenox residents / That nothing can ever be changed, no love is vital/ No arousal as final as the weather prediction." That her writing should respond defensively by turning inward seems quite natural, even if that "nature," in Bernsteinian terms, is sheer artifice.

1 Bernadette Mayer, The Golden Book of Words, (Angel Hair, 1978), n. pag.

2 Watten, p. 57.

3 Eugene Lunn, Marxism & Modernism, (UC Press, 1984), p. 270.

4 Bernstein, p. 42.

5 Bernadette Mayer, tape recording of reading given c. 1978, no location given. From the collection of the San Francisco State Poetry Center.

6 Rower Intvw., p. 18

Jump To

Previous Chapters (Readme 3)

Studying Hunger

Current Chapters (Readme 4)

Eruditio Ex Memoria
Golden Book of Words
Midwinter Day

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