Just after Frank O’Hara’s untimely death in 1966, John Ashbery made a case for the poet’s enduring significance. In spite of only modest success during his lifetime, O’Hara was “the first modern poet” to pose a vital question: “Can art do this?” O’Hara’s and Ashbery’s different ways of answering that question have changed what counts as poetry in the US, which may be why the New York School—the circle of poets and artists who worked and socialized in Manhattan in the 1950s and 1960s—remains a powerful category, in spite of the varied styles and stances toward poetry-making taken by the poets associated with it.
Bernadette Mayer belongs to the second generation of that school, those who were writing in the late 1960s and 1970s. Her poems’ unapologetic self-centeredness and uninhibited liveliness recall Ashbery’s praise of O’Hara and embody O’Hara’s faux-blithe claim that “you just go on your nerve.” (He once compared poetry to someone “chasing you down the street with a knife.”) Mayer came of age around the time O’Hara died, graduating from the New School in 1967, where her teacher Bill Berkson—O’Hara’s student, friend, and collaborator—compared her early poems to the work of Gertrude Stein, whom she’d never read. Stein later came to mean a lot to Mayer; in an interview from the late 1970s she identifies Stein and Nathaniel Hawthorne as the literary parents for whom she had a “mystical” affinity.
Mayer, who grew up in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens in New York City, lost her mother and father by the age of fourteen. Her father, a former wallpaper designer who worked as an electrician, died of an aneurysm when she was twelve; as her mother, a secretary, was dying of breast cancer two years later, she begged Mayer to join a convent. Mayer’s legal guardian, an uncle, died when she was eighteen. She began her studies at a Catholic college instructed by nuns, but fled to Barnard as soon as her uncle died, finally settling on the New School two weeks later. After college she spent several years in Lower Manhattan writing and collaborating with conceptual artists, including her then brother-in-law, the performance artist Vito Acconci, with whom she edited 0 to 9, an influential mimeographed journal of experimental art and poetry. She has said that in spite of their differences, she agreed with Acconci “that you don’t see poems as this thing that’s surrounded by white space and is a precious object.”
Across nearly thirty books—mostly poetry and what gets called literary nonfiction—Mayer’s work takes on the “anti-literary” idea that, as Ashbery put it, “here everything ‘belongs’: unrefined autobiographical fragments, names of movie stars and operas, obscene interjections, quotations from letters.” From her earliest self-published volumes, Ceremony Latin (1964) and Story (1968), to her most recent, exhilarating book of poems, Works and Days (2016), Mayer has challenged the conventions of poetry by incorporating, even foregrounding, other written genres—letters, diary entries, psalms, detective stories—and by advocating for process (often limited by arbitrary constraints) over product. She wrote almost all of Midwinter Day (1982), her brilliant long poem about a day in the life of a writing mother, on December 22, 1978; asked in an interview what she thinks of revision, Mayer replied, “I disapprove.” The artist Adrian Piper has called Mayer’s early prose-poetic experiments “space-filling poetry” that, in aiming to capture the experience of consciousness, tends toward maximalist abstraction.
Although Mayer’s early work did not find many readers—most of it was self-published or published by small presses, and many of her books are out of print—it is now having a renaissance. Studying Hunger Journals, a 460-page book made up of prose journals Mayer kept from 1972 to 1974 at her analyst’s suggestion, was republished in its entirety in 2011 by Station Hill Press. It is radically experimental in its aspiration to find “a workable code, or shorthand, for the transcription of every event, every motion, every transition of…mind.” In 2019 Station Hill brought out the previously unpublished 1976 prose-poetry experiment Piece of Cake, which Mayer had written with her then partner, the poet and artist Lewis Warsh, who died in November. And twice in the last few years her multimedia installation “Memory,” which was first exhibited in 1972 at Holly Solomon’s art space in New York City, has been remounted: in 2016 at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago and in 2017 at CANADA gallery in Manhattan. The project has now been reconceived—brilliantly—as a book combining prose and photographs.
The publication by Siglio of this new edition of Memory marks the third major version of the project since it began in 1971, when Mayer undertook to shoot a roll of 35mm color film every day in the month of July. At the time she was living in SoHo with the filmmaker Ed Bowes (with the Twin Towers not yet finished and an era of financialization only just stirring, poets were still living in SoHo) and traveling with him back and forth between the city and the Berkshires to work on “visual effects” for Terrence McNally’s play Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone, soon to appear at the Berkshire Theatre Festival.
That month she also kept daily handwritten notes. The intention was to record as much “data” as possible—whatever was happening to her—in order to replicate her experience in text and on film: “It was a month of my life.” Mayer noted the day’s plans, places she went, telephone numbers of people she called, car colors, ads heard or seen, feelings, the weather, things glimpsed in magazines, seen on the television, heard on the car radio, and a lot else. She developed the film at night—a complex, multistep process perhaps difficult for today’s Instagrammer to fathom.
Eventually she projected slides in sequence in her Grand Street loft as a visual aid by which to “revise and refine her textual record” of the month. (One wonders if the “revision” largely involved transforming journal notes into prose poetry.) She then recorded herself reading this text. For the installation, Solomon paid to have 3-by-5-inch prints of the slides developed and mounted in sequence on boards with handwritten cards indicating their place in the sequence. The complete installation was fifty-two inches high and thirty-six feet long, while the six hours of Mayer reading her text played continuously in the installation space. The idea was to place the viewer-listener in a position to be Mayer, to experience something like her consciousness.
A few years later, Mayer reworked and printed the text of the installation as a book, Memory (1975)—a reworking that suggests she did not disapprove of all forms of revision. When exactly she did the revising is a question the text itself raises with references to historical events (the destruction of the Watergate tapes, for instance) that occurred well after July 1971. For financial reasons, this textual version included just a few images reprinted in black and white for the book’s front and back covers; it is long out of print. This latest iteration of Memory, published in an appealing color edition, is another thing altogether: a modestly oversized art book printed on matte, coated stock, it pairs the 1975 text’s dated entries with new, small scans (1 3/4 by 2 1/2 inches) of the almost 1,150 images, painstakingly color-corrected from the original slides.
In its installation forms, Memory placed emphasis on the photographs (the text existed only as transient sound in the gallery). The 1975 book drew attention almost entirely to Mayer’s printed text. The new edition allows the text and images to share space, working in counterpoint to each other. Each day’s entry includes roughly thirty-six images, parceled out every few pages in rebus-like grids of nine shots (bringing to mind Hilla and Bernd Becher’s photographic grids): landscapes next to interiors, cityscapes, close-ups of objects, shots of people, self-portraits, and snapshots that, among other things, show time progressing from day to night.
“I was never trying to take beautiful photographs,” Mayer has said. “I was trying to take as many as possible.” Many are visually pleasing, but thrown in with merely mundane images, beauty is not their point: the rafters of a room, an off-center composition of a hallway, of random things on a floor, people whose meaning and identity are not clear, a single item—a cooking pot or candle—taken several different ways, many shots of Ed. The grid layout mimics something of how the eye takes in many more images in a day than the brain can possibly make conscious use of. They linger and haunt. On the cover, Mayer’s face, with dark open eyes and the camera visible (a self-portrait made in a mirror), stares out at us like an impassive ghost.
That inward/outward gaze is central to the project. Even as a fan of Mayer’s writing I felt self-conscious about getting through the whole of Memory’s text; Mayer frequently calls it and Studying Hunger “unreadable,” a word that has a hold over Stein’s legacy as well. It depends, of course, on what one wants reading (and writing) to do or to be—a question that Mayer, like many avant-garde writers of her era, has thought about as a function of the economies of time, labor, and leisure. The text doesn’t make it explicit, but Mayer and Ed are working hard through much of Memory, and the book takes transcription to a kind of extreme, intentionally blurring the line between life and art. It riffs on what’s “worth” remembering and writing down, as well as what’s worth reading and remembering of a text that’s all about a person who never quite speaks to us.
Aside from an opening twelve-page section in long lines of verse that vexingly wind two different semantic threads around each other, Memory’s days and pages pass in lengthy, unparagraphed prose blocks, its information presented without hierarchy or formal coherence.
Each day offers loose but striking sentences—a mixture of chronicle (arrivals and departures, trips taken, work done, weather observed) and dizzying, dense, and rhythmic blather. Here’s July 7:
Between the thumb & forefinger of my right hand, between those a splinter zooms in quick & the taste waste of a room—I’m a schoolboy in watercolors, look around, its mountains in merica zoom, what the fuck’s the moon we’re in an insulated room we take our time runnin round we zoom no moon, we make, monster, the greatest milk of all time, like this….
Prose speeds up to keep pace with thought or mood—as if writing were squeezed in between errands—or to keep a rhythmic groove going. (Mayer complains on July 13 that her “hand always hurts always hurts still does when I write in this book.”) July 6:
Down the road roses to the fork at the T, there’s money buried there to someone’s red roses purple evergreen & spaces a thin road with no space for walking I saw the wild cat ed fixes dinner eat ham corn strawberries & cream strawberries’ cream whipped once to butter, cream & coffee & more b dylan….
This sentence’s slippery syntax and quick drift are typical; it is not uncommon for a sentence to sprawl across more than a dozen lines before reaching a period. Commas, ampersands, and colons only somewhat slow the forward drive.
Part of the pleasure of reading Memory is in feeling lost—immersed in a wash of language—and part is in thinking about where and how we resist, enjoy, or manage the experience. Is it very easy or very hard? Is Mayer looking in or out? What are we to do with the text? One acclimates oneself to its logics, moods, and movements as it goes along, recognizing repeated names and places and themes; narrative fragments begin to cohere and throughlines of plot glimmer.
And today Google gives us special access to Memory, allowing a profound change from the reader’s original relationship to the text: whereas for the first decades of its life, Memory’s borrowed language might have been mistaken as Mayer’s personal speech, some of its details remaining resolutely obscure, now it can serve (for better and worse, perhaps) as a hypertext by which to locate Mayer’s lived experience, to pin it down. For a while as I read I tried to locate Mayer and her crew on the map of the city and of history—Third Avenue movie houses and their screenings for early July 1971 (the Coronet: Bananas, though the moviegoers end up at Carnal Knowledge), anti-police riots at the Jersey Shore, the Mod Squad on the cover of that week’s TV Guide, the history of the construction of the World Trade Center.
When I started reading reviews of a book Mayer was reading—The Future of the Future—I feared I might never emerge. Possible plot lines seemed to form: Ed and Bernadette record ambient sounds in a city market; they and K. spend July 4 driving downtown and watching fireworks at a pier (stunning photographs show the Twin Towers nearing completion); they drive up the Taconic Parkway to the country; they take an affecting trip back to the city to clean out Mayer’s childhood home in Ridgewood; they spend a day sailing at a boating club that won’t allow Jews to join, in Lenox, Massachusetts, a village in the Berkshires; there’s a bat in the house; Ed stays out all night; Mayer is in a terrible mood, driving around to local radio stations to find a recording of “That Old Black Magic” (for the McNally play at the Berkshire festival, Google tells me). And so on. Finally July, preparations for the play, and maybe the relationship with Ed are coming to an end—but how much of this have I invented? And do such speculations mar what Memory originally intended to do?
Like O’Hara, Mayer is pushing against the mainstream taste for first-person confessions, but she does so precisely by writing her experience with no interest in whether we understand her feelings or even really what happened. The entry for July 14 seems to start in a dream but arrives at Yeats by way of Artaud:
On Wednesday, I am saved from hanging by running away: I work at the museum, later I’m saved by a petty bureaucrat who takes a liking to me but also needs my services, dream, do you want to turn me into antonin artaud, dream: on the afternoon of october, four days after my marriage, my wife surprised me by attempting automatic writing.
Memory practices this move a lot: July 3 slides into the script of Confidentially Connie, a 1950s film starring Janet Leigh (Google helps us understand); pop song titles and lyrics weave into personal anecdotes; advertising copy for a Manhattan dial-a-steak service pops up and takes over Mayer’s prose (that day’s entry ends, “Goodnight, meat”).
Memory’s many shifts in tone and diction raise a couple of questions: When isn’t Mayer citing or collaging a received text, and what counts as “real”? Long passages of transcribed conversations (separated by slashes or not), driftings into letters written and received, incorporations of other people’s poems, twice including (as does Studying Hunger) altered lines from Jerome Rothenberg’s “Portrait of a Jew Old Country Style”: “I deny autobiography or that the life of a man matters more or less….” Like Rothenberg, Mayer is focused on the way language, and memory, come at once from inside and outside what we may want to think of as the mind’s or self’s privacy. Memory in this sense does “deny autobiography,” if by “autobiography” we mean a story of the past anchored by a sovereign self. Dreams and the writing of them are often her way of denying the personal, and Memory, in all its iterations, seems made to immerse the viewer and reader in a kind of dream, a wash of “vagueness,” one of Ashbery’s words for O’Hara.
Mayer seems to have experienced her contact sheets as we do—foreign, hard to parse, and ripe for projection. In the entry for July 4 she writes, maybe talking with someone else:
wow/you know what street that is? you wont believe it/i’ll figure it out. yes i do/what?/canal street/oh shit/right?/yeah ahhah/doesnt look anything like it though, i know, someplace outside nebraska or something, that’s what it looks like/that’s a dream a dream i had/is it? you took a picture in it?/yeah/ i took a nap the afternoon of july 4th….
On July 9, at the end of a similar transcribed account of looking at her images, she says, “I cant figure out…this must be inside the house but I cant remember, this is like being a detective….”
I felt like a detective reading Memory, using a magnifying glass to see the photos in greater detail, and my memory of Memory will be in part the vision of myself peering into the book, poring over it to connect images, words, history.
The perhaps more readable qualities of the work Mayer wrote after Memory and Studying Hunger brought her a larger audience and rankled her avant-garde supporters. In 1976 she wrote to the poet Jackson Mac Low:
I’m teaching myself how to write a direct sentence, simple communication. Sometimes it’s boring but mostly to me it’s as much an experiment as anything I’ve ever done. I wish for feedback about my books, money and fame. So what?
Mayer was at the time writing Piece of Cake, a prose-poetry journal written with Warsh. It was published for the first time in 2019, and its stylistic difference from Memory could not be sharper. It both does and doesn’t bring us closer to Mayer, whose “So what?” suggests she knew she’d need to defend her desire to find an audience. (A poem titled “James Schuyler’s Road Show” in her recent book Works and Days features a party-dream-space including some of the poets who criticized her work of this era. Let’s just say there are a lot of pens, phalluses, and revived corpses in it.)
Mayer and Warsh decided to write Piece of Cake in July 1976, around the time they signed a lease on an apartment at 100 Main Street in Lenox, where they settled in part because Hawthorne had lived there. Their first child, Marie, was eight months old at the time. Over the month of August, they wrote alternate chapters (Warsh took odd days of the month, Mayer even) and did not read each other’s entries. They also agreed that, as Mayer puts it in the book’s introduction, when one of them “mentioned a name, like Clark [Coolidge, Mayer’s friend and collaborator], we would describe a bit who that person is, a little about her or him”—in this decision, and in the relatively conventional syntax and narrative cast of the book’s prose, it can seem a counterpoint to Memory, an experiment in “clarity.”
I use scare quotes because it’s clear Mayer doesn’t think “simple communication” is more true or natural than the “intransigent prose…communicating in great waves like an apparition” that, she tells us in her August 4 entry, she admires in Coolidge (and toward which her writing strives, both before and after Piece of Cake). In the midst of their narrating small details of daily life and flashbacks to the past, Mayer and Warsh play knowingly with rhetorical stances, narrative modes, and the possible kinds of self that seem to follow from them.
This is much of the fun of the book, and it adds a lot to its insightful, sometimes surreal, often moving record of a quiet life in which little happens, where significant readerly and writerly ambitions are inseparably braided into tender, funny evocations of time spent with each other, Warsh’s parents, and Marie: “Every time I am trying to write about family living, I think so much of Gertrude Stein and of The Making of Americans, but of course in her family she never got up before noon,” writes Mayer. Warsh wrestles with a macho romantic male role he worries he should and shouldn’t be playing now that he’s a father:
I feel like Oliver Wendell Holmes this morning. I want to throw open every window and bare my hairy chest to the multitudes below. Instead, I light a cigarette and take Marie on a tour of this office, trying to overcome my feelings of claustrophobia.
Mayer wrestles with internalized archetypes, too—1950s mothers and nineteenth-century sentimental diarists—and more explicitly than Warsh she experiments with styles of writing that might reproduce or thwart those archetypes. On August 24, after a long section on Marie’s way of talking, Mayer writes, “I must become more avant-garde, it makes you seem less foolish.” And on August 20, in the midst of another long section about her own and others’ mothers:
And sometimes, in writing a full American paragraph as it speaks and thinks itself, full of American thoughts which appear to be logical but aren’t, if you’ll forgive this sudden American transition from the thoughts that I think to be your thoughts, dear reader, to the thoughts that I think might only be mine as the writer, it seems like a big mishmash, Catch’s word for coddled eggs broken onto crumbs of toast or stale bread and mixed together and eaten with a spoon, with pepper added. Sometimes a comforting meal, sometimes nausea.
Did Catch know she was speaking Yiddish? Does my heart really beat in my legs? Is my clothing too constricting? Do we share love enough to continue? Who am I speaking to? What a mishegas!
“Catch” is Ed Bowes’s mother; part of the allure of Piece of Cake comes in Warsh’s and Mayer’s self-conscious narratives of momentous episodes from their pasts: Warsh’s time on the West Coast and his activities in the writer communities of Bolinas, California; his formation of Angel Hair Press with his ex-wife, Anne Waldman; Mayer’s father’s death; her sometimes painful decade with Bowes; the writing of Memory; and her complicated account of her rather traumatic psychoanalysis with David Rubinfine.
In this passage late in the book (August 26) one sees that its readability really doesn’t imply Mayer’s faith in either authentic selfhood or in the maintenance of dominant social codes (as some of her detractors have argued). She recounts her perhaps injurious relationship with Rubinfine in a passage that reads as a stagey performance of being at odds with herself and with patriarchal codes:
But I am pretending to be very stupid for a moment, thinking it’s David who alone is reading this, as every word of my writing was for a time written only for him, and not you, gentle readers, with whom for a minute I feel I have put myself in a tight spot. But if you’ve ever seen a psychiatrist, I’m sure you know exactly how I feel, no, I shouldn’t say that.
Mayer’s efforts at syntactic clarity are not to be mistaken for narrative transparency; this is one of many theatrical moments in the book, and direct address to the reader plays a powerful part in the show.
One struggles to understand the criticism made by some in Mayer’s circle that her more conventional “personal” writing makes a romance of domestic life. Piece of Cake explores the powerful shifts in psyche and lifestyle that having children (especially the first) demands. Warsh and Mayer, then both thirty-one, living off food stamps and without jobs, manage anxiety and mortal dread with every baby-backpacked loop around the block. Mayer, who seems to do all the cooking and cleaning, spends the day with the baby “phrasing things,” trying to write while playing peek-a-boo under the crib, and trying to read; as generations of parent-writers know, it’s no piece of cake. And as women of Mayer’s generation know, women’s writing and drudge work share a long history. August 24: “‘What are you saying about me,’ Lewis just asked, glancing at this page while I was rubbing a ‘pain’ in his back.” (Mayer had been trying to recall where she’d encountered the idea that late parenthood “fosters conservatism and all its stately bourgeois ideals.”)
The contrapuntals of his and her entries make a double-exposed portrait of a two-writer family at its start, capturing the strangeness of living with someone who is thinking their foreign thoughts right next to you, in the same room. This complicates Mayer’s career-long fantasy of “finally telling everything” and captures the weird rhythm of everyday life, in which other people call us out of our heads and our heads lure us back inside again. The intensity of such transcribed cohabitation might tell us something about how to better appreciate our days at home during the pandemic:
A book like this is like a dream, or perhaps like one word: in a month, or even, I am certain, in one day, there are enough references, enough proposals, enough innuendo, simply there’s enough stuff—the usual weekly load—which, if put into language, encompasses, if not everything in the universe, which is what I believe, at least everything in one’s own life, everything “autobiographical.” Fruits and vegetables do this to me.