A deep dive into Memory by Bernadette Mayer at the New York Review of Books

News Section, Reviews

February 19th, 2021

(Review) Memory

New York Review of Books

A Month in the Life

GILLIAN WHITE

Originally published January 14, 2021

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.

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