Write What Cannot Be Written…A Few Notes on Bernadette Mayer’s Influence
Walking out of the blazing Naropa summer, and into a room filled with bodies. All is dark except for the projector light, all is quiet except for a singular voice. We are watching Memory, listening to Mayer’s 7 hours of taped narration and watching her 1200 slides. The year might be 1991.
Her voice is brilliant, urgent, imitate without the confessional, controlled but also pushing, pushing at the edges of control (boundaries might be a better word). Organic. She’s talking but its not Logorrhea, the disease of talking too much. It is more like trying to get it all down, but its steady, not panicked but a building of architectures to hold a poetry of depth that crosses genres, that mines the possibilities: Written as if no one has ever told the truth before, the woman’s truth, about being alive, about sex and desire.
Like an older sister, Mayer guides me into dreams and sex, into community, possibly utopian. Applying Whitman’s candor to female desire, “We face each other and talk about childhood / as soon as I touch your penis I wind up coming.” From First Turn to Me, the last line, delivered with hardy wicked humor: “it’s only fair for a woman to come more / think of all the times they didn’t care.” I consider Bernadette as a part of the second wave of feminism, a generation of women (older writers like Kate Millet and Grace Paley come to mind), who talk of the experiences of being a women in the world, about the woman’s body, childbearing or not, challenging the patriarchy, who have been so crucial in awakening the younger women like myself who followed them.
The Experiments in Poetry
I’ve found myself going back to the sheets, like soft porn for poets, turned on by the possibilities of what can be said or done in writing. Long legal sheets of mimeo paper are sacred instructions. They stimulate the mind and provide tools for construction of a new shape. The sheets themselves have become fetish objects as they pass from one poet’s hand to another; a cure for the scars of schooling on what’s proper or not. She has given poets permission to fold it all in, to include lists, to borrow languages, to be ambitious “attempt to win the Nobel Prize in science by finding out how thought becomes language or does not.” To keep diaries of color, light, danger, phone calls, and food.
She has also given her attention and support to endless number of poets, her apartment on East 4th St. served as a salon for many years. I remember a seance there at the end of a reading of G. Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation, about 30 poets trying, without success, to summon the ghost of G. Stein through a tiny compact powder mirror (even thought we wondered how such a large spirit could wiggle through our tiny mirror).
These days I find myself going back to her long projects for pleasure and sometimes for theft. Like Utopia, a visionary work, an appropriation with a punk edge, radical and hysterical, down to the Chairman Mao red cover; the collaborators make up a who’s who of the community of friends, lovers and poets, surrounding Bernadette in the early 1980s. The blurbs a hoot: Emma Goldman, Plato, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sigmund Freud, etc.
I turn to her and her works for guidance in poetical and social and environmental matters, all of which she has never shied away from. Her writing exposes capitalism’s crimes against humanity, and its corrupt heart. She lays bare class issues; her honesty causes discomfort to some poets. In many ways she has paid the price for speaking truth to power, prizes that carry major cash, have passed her over. I have faith that that will change, as her generous and regenerative genius is recognized.