February 8, 2023

Bernadette Mayer, the Poet of Escape

In July, 1971, the young poet Bernadette Mayer took thirty-six diaristic photos a day and noted down a companionable number of words, then assembled it all into a show, “Memory,” in which the images were mounted on the walls of a gallery and the words, read aloud and recorded, played out so that it would take much of a day, as a viewer and a listener, to hear and see the whole month. The project, in its mix of exhaustive documentation and randomness, feels part Buckminster Fuller and part John Cage—except that it also feels singular.

“July 1971 was a random point in time,” Mayer said, in a 2020 interview in Artforum. “If you practice writing constantly, you can start to speak in poetry form and so whenever you feel like writing something, all you have to do is immediately write what you’re thinking.” This, of course, wouldn’t work for most people, but for Mayer, who died last month, at the age of seventy-seven, the practice made her a part of what she was observing.

Mayer was radical—rooted and outside and against the norm—even in comparison to the New York poetry scene of the sixties and seventies in which she came up. In 1970, she was the only woman included in the famous “An Anthology of New York Poets,” edited by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro. “The only woman. I thought that was weirdly stupid,” she said, in an interview with the Poetry Foundation. At age fifty-two, when asked about monogamy and marriage, she said, “Oh, I think it sucks… I think it’s a terrible thing, especially for women… I mean monogamy works if a woman is really content to do all the cooking and cleaning and be a housewife, and then it works.” She never took LSD, or much of anything. She said of herself that in her mid-twenties she was “looking around for a guy who wanted to have babies” and, when asked whether she had ever worried about babies interfering with her career or her art, “No… since Marie was born I said, ‘Wow, this is an amazing part of life. I get to watch Marie.’ I was happy. Watching babies.” She had three children. Marie remembers her mother as having been more open than other mothers, and spending lots of time “hanging out and playing with us.” Mayer wrote dozens of books, including some that were quite formal. She recently did a project documenting all the Helens of Troy, New York. She did a collection of sonnets, and numerous translations and homages to Catullus. She was beloved as a teacher for decades, known for her generosity and her laugh.

She left the city around the time she turned thirty. Going to parties after having her first child, she found herself frequently appalled. She spoke of being approached by someone she admired: “I was a cute chick, and he would be like, You wanna be the next Slum Goddess of the Lower East Side? And I thought, Where am I?” Her solution was to move to the country. First for a winter. Later on, for good.

Grid of photographs from Bernadette Mayer's Memory depicting various scenes in New York City

Photographs from “Memory.”

The country brought out more in her work. She was as much a wonderfully wry field biologist as she was a poet. In “Midwinter Day,” her book-length poem set in Lenox, Massachusetts, written in one day and recounting that day—December 22, 1978—she starts by telling her dreams, then waking and recording all the ordinary actions and thoughts of the day. The effect is reverent, silly, vital. She writes, “I have an image of a beautiful man or woman who walks in the door like Christ and earnestly spends some time with us like the UPS man does.” In another moment, she details a visit to the grocery store:

         I write a check, $3.34
Lewis who was loitering near the lentils and peas with Sophia
Meets us at the doors, today our combined ages add up to 71 years
And all together we weigh 350 pounds, the temperature’s 28 degrees,
It’s 1:15pm.
  We’re going home with what we can have to carry.
Having had to pay for it
       And the sun comes out

The times, the weights—as if the humans were bananas, and the larger world an icebox—feel goofy, but then, beyond goofy, a bit incandescent as well.

Mayer grew up Catholic, though not happily so. She was told that hanging around with someone Protestant or Jewish would be a threat to her faith. Her father died of an aneurysm when she was twelve, and her mother died of breast cancer when Mayer was fourteen. (“And on her deathbed: ‘Join the convent, Bernadette! They’ll take care of your teeth for free.’”) The last book her mother was reading, Mayer recalled in the Poetry Foundation interview, was called “Anatomy of a Murder.” She remembers going often to the library with her sister. A book of Greek mythology was particularly important to her, and she considered her knowledge of Latin to be an offhand and treasured gift of her religious schooling.

Mayer’s way out, out, out of that narrowness seems to have come from within her—from her way of seeing. When asked if her escape came through TV or friends, she answered, “Oh, no. I just thought, Wouldn’t it be great to get a flying machine and go up beyond the clouds and not have to think about any of these people anymore?” Mayer’s way of thinking, and escaping—and thinking and escaping in an ongoing manner, through grocery shopping and walks home and bedtime stories—becomes internalized when you read her, the way a catechism is meant to do, and sometimes does. What is also radical about her work is the sneaky happiness and joy that persists in it, even as she’s also melancholy, pugnacious, sensual, bored. When asked how she survived the early deaths of her parents, she said, “I was just fascinated by the world, so I guess that’s how I survived.”

In “Midwinter Day,” in the course of a walk around her not obviously remarkable town, she writes, “You’ve done all this before / Nothing happens / Let’s go over it again.” It reads like an eddy out into one of John Berryman’s “dream songs.” Then something else happens. She starts to list all the familiar businesses, including “the former Yoghurt Rhapsody.” She goes through the human establishments as if going through the birds in a birder’s journal—the joy sneaks in again. Accompanying her on her ordinary walk, the reader has a feeling akin to learning that even the plainest songbirds are dazzling in the ultraviolet range.

Mayer had a special genius for the unexpected slide. A riff on spilled milk turns a corner to the language philosophy of Saul Kripke. In another moment, she takes the reader from “Of day’s dalliance with the logic of dream’s art” to “I’d like to open / A stationery store.” She does all this somehow naturally—as in, with nature. These are not effortful yokings, or surrealist juxtapositions; the connections described feel like they occurred in real time. That’s the map of the Mayer mind. At age forty-nine, when she suffered a stroke (at the same age that her father had a stroke), she took the movements of her mind maybe even more seriously: “I’ve always been interested in the brain and consciousness. I mean it’s amazing that I had a cerebral hemorrhage and now I see all these neurologists and am concerned with all these things in a different way. I think it’s great actually. I shouldn’t say that. I learned in the hospital that you’re not supposed to think a cerebral hemorrhage is interesting in any way. Otherwise you get accused of having a sense of unreality.”

One of my favorite unexpected journeys in “Midwinter Day” starts with Mayer reading “The Three Little Pigs” at Marie’s request and then shifts to a place where she often seems to go: Antarctica. The last little pig, the poem’s narrator tells us, ends up boiling the wolf alive and eating him. Next up, without even a line or paragraph break: “Admiral Byrd was the first person to spend the winter alone at the South Pole.” We learn that Byrd was slowly being poisoned by the fumes from his stove but was unable to admit his weakness or precarity in communications with his men. She writes, “He told his men nothing was wrong but his messages in code reached them as indecipherable gibberish half the time, so they made a trip in the dark to rescue him.”

Mayer, when she tends to go “high” and to use literary allusions, does so in her own distinctive way—which is never self-serious or aggressive. When a quotation by Nathaniel Hawthorne serves as an epigraph, it is about the arrival of cucumbers. And the mixture of the exalted and the domestic in Mayer’s work—pigs, explorers—feels unelected, like the ideal of observational objectivity.

I especially love the moments when Mayer’s field-biology gaze—on art, on the natural world, on the other natural world, that of the businesses and things that people make—slides so far as to resemble the kind of paradoxes that we more closely associate with math and with nonsense. See this looking-glass poem, “Marie Makes Fun of Me at the Shore”:

Marie says
look tiny red spiders
are walking
across the pools
& just as I am writing down
tiny red
spiders are
walking across the pools
She says Mom I can just see it
in your poem it’ll say
tiny red spiders are walking
across the pools

Mayer was a poet, by all accounts, with many friends. Reading her work lets us all get swapped, if briefly, into the dreams, and gives us a chance to make a friend, too. ♦

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