“A Hydra dancing at the intersections of language and image”

Jennifer Krasinski, Bookforum

reviews, 04/01/20

In 1971, for the month of July, powerhouse poet Bernadette Mayer documented her life by shooting a roll of 35 mm film every day and writing down as many experiences, ideas, observations, feelings, and sights as she could. From those materials, she created Memory, a fabled work of installation art that plunged viewers headlong into the fizzing slipstream of her consciousness. Disorienting and clarifying in equal measure, Memory uncovers the space between living and recorded life. If the latter is imperative to apprehending the tumult of human experience, it nonetheless falls very short of capturing its full measure. “It’s astonishing to me that there is so much in Memory, yet so much is left out,” Mayer writes in the preface to her epic’s newest form: a treasure of a book, published by Siglio Press. “I thought by using both sound and image, I could include everything, but so far, that is not so.”

What is so: this dreamy volume gathering the eleven hundred photographs and two hundred pages of rolling prose that Mayer produced in those thirty-one days. It is as much a conceptual exercise as a diaristic one, a Hydra dancing at the intersections of language and image, calling forth what time and a voracious mind can create there. “& the main thing is we begin with a white sink a whole new language is a temptation,” she declares in her first sentence, offering up an image of the everyday while musing on the need to radically alter its expression. Almost two years before starting the project, she had completed the six issues of 0 to 9, a magazine she edited and published in collaboration with artist Vito Acconci, and had learned, by her estimation, “how to make art that had no boundaries and to expect that change was possible.” Although Memory was first imagined to be taken in while moving through a public space—it debuted in 1972 at Holly Solomon’s gallery in New York—its book, of course, slows down looking, unblurring the piece and its many parts so that readers can pore over every line, study every photograph, savor every detail.

35mm photograph from Bernadette Mayer’s project Memory, July 1971. Copyright Bernadette Mayer/Courtesy Siglio and the Bernadette Mayer Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University of California, San Diego.

Mayer’s sentences simulate life’s whoosh—its uneven rhythms, the crashing half thoughts: “Dinners I’m supposed to go to dinner I already went I go again & again in long addresses in long dresses, tom, we take acid before a dinner & then lose track …” Her seductively offhand snapshots make modest monuments of daily nonevents: a slack clothesline strung from a window; a tidy white curtain blown by a breeze; a ceiling light glowing at night; a friend, her hair pulled back, sitting in the front seat of a convertible; a lover, nude, reclining in the bath. To a reader leafing through Memory now, Mayer’s feral run-ons may elicit a wistfulness for an era that appears so much freer than our own, and her photos’ rich cinematic hues might prompt a person to wonder how our age, so manically documented, seems far less vivid in comparison. And while prescience is always a dicey claim, Mayer’s self-portraits, often taken while staring into the lens, somehow appear like eerie proof that she was seeing us long before we would see her.

Originally published in the April/May 2020 issue. Read at Bookforum.com

see also

✼ natalie’s upstate weather report:

January 4, 2023 — Suddenly, not winter. At least for a day: sunny and an unseasonable 60 degrees. Some welcome light and warmth to offset the sadness of writing another remembrance. Two women hailed here at Siglio departed this earth at the end of 2022, a great, great loss. They couldn’t have been more different in so many ways—Bernadette and Dorothy—but both challenged the norms with gusto and persistence, also laughter and candor and insouciance, along with a little anarchy too. Nothing better than a meal with them, and of course, making a book that made them happy.


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