Biography of Bernadette Mayer
An avant-garde writer associated with the New York School of poets, Bernadette Mayer was born in Brooklyn, New York, and has spent most of her life in New York City. Her collections of poetry include Midwinter Day (1982, 1999), A Bernadette Mayer Reader (1992), The Desire of Mothers to Please Others in Letters (1994), Another Smashed Pinecone (1998), and Poetry State Forest (2008).
Known for her innovative use of language, Mayer first won critical acclaim for the exhibit Memory, which combined photography and narration. Mayer took one roll of film shot each day during July 1971, arranging the photographs and text in what Village Voice critic A.D. Coleman described as “a unique and deeply exciting document.”
Mayer’s poetry often challenges poetic conventions by experimenting with form and stream-of-consciousness; readers have compared her to Gertrude Stein, Dadaist writers, and James Joyce. Poet Fanny Howe commented in the American Poetry Review on Midwinter Day, a book-length poem written during a single day in Lenox, Massachusetts: “In a language made up of idiom and lyricism, Mayer cancels the boundaries between prose and poetry, . . . Her search for patterns woven out of small actions confirms the notion that seeing what is is a radical human gesture.”
The Desire of Mothers to Please Others in Letters consists of prose poems Mayer wrote during her third pregnancy. She also combined poetry and prose in Proper Name and Other Stories (1996). Reviewing that collection in the Lambda Book Report, Susan Landers noted Mayer’s “Steinesque syntactical play, her meta-narrative maneuvers à la Barth or Borges, and a language poet’s interest in language.”
Ange Mlinko’s review of Two Haloed Mourners (1998) in the Poetry Project Newsletter describes its structure: “The book starts out dense, vagrant, proceeding on a combination of automatic writing and methodical structural repetitions. It picks up speed, changes gears from poetry to prose and back again, tries out a sestina where both beginning and ending words recur. . . . Then something explodes midway through the book, as though all this formal experimentation was the rumbling and smoldering of Mt. Saint Helens erupting over the circumstances of Bernadette Mayer’s move back to the Lower East Side from New Hampshire, where what was menace in the air of rural America is met head-on in the New York of Reagan and Wall Street.”
Bernadette Mayer has worked as an editor and teacher. She edited the journal 0 TO 9 with artist Vito Acconci and established United Artists press with the poet Lewis Warsh. United Artists Press, under Mayer and Warsh, published a number of influential writers, including Robert Creeley, Anne Waldman, James Schuyler, and Alice Notley. Mayer has taught at the New School for Social Research and The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York City.
Bernadette Mayer's Works:
Story, New York: 0 to 9 Press, 1968
Moving, New York: Angel Hair, 1971.
Memory, Plainfield, VT: North Atlantic Books, 1976.
Ceremony Latin (1964), New York: Angel Hair, 1975.
Studying Hunger, New York: Adventures in Poetry/ Bolinas, CA: Big Sky, 1976.
Poetry, New York: Kulchur Foundation, 1976.
Eruditio Ex Memoria, Lenox, MA: Angel Hair, 1977.
The Golden Book of Words, Lenox, MA: Angel Hair, 1978.
Midwinter Day, Berkeley, CA: Turtle Island Foundation, 1982.
Utopia, New York: United Artists Books, 1984.
Mutual Aid (Mademoiselle de la Mole Press, 1985)
Sonnets, New York: Tender Buttons, 1989.
The Formal Field of Kissing, New York: Catchword Papers, 1990
A Bernadette Mayer Reader, New York: New Directions, 1992
The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, West Stockbridge, MA: Hard Press, 1994
Another Smashed Pinecone, New York: United Artists Books, 1998
Proper Name & other stories, New York: New Directions, 1996
Two Haloed Mourners: Poems, New York: Granary Books, 1998
Midwinter Day, New York: New Directions, 1999 (reprint of 1982 edition).
Scarlet Tanager, New York: New Directions, 2005
Poetry State Forest, New York: New Directions, 2008.
Ethics of Sleep, New Orleans: Trembling Pillow Press, 2011.
Studying Hunger Journals, Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 2011.
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Bernadette Mayer Poems
Failures in Infinitives
why am i doing this? Failure to keep my work in order so as to be able to find things to paint the house to earn enough money to live on to reorganize the house so as to be able to paint the house & to be able to find things and earn enough money so as to be able to put books together to publish works and books to have time to answer mail & phone calls to wash the windows to make the kitchen better to work in to have the money to buy a simple radio to listen to while working in the kitchen to know enough to do grownups work in the world to transcend my attitude to an enforced poverty to be able to expect my checks to arrive on time in the mail to not always expect that they will not to forget my mother's attitudes on humility or to continue to assume them without suffering to forget how my mother taunted my father about money, my sister about i cant say it failure to forget mother and father enough to be older, to forget them to forget my obsessive uncle to remember them some other way to remember their bigotry accurately to cease to dream about lions which always is to dream about them, I put my hand in the lion's mouth to assuage its anger, this is not a failure to notice that's how they were; failure to repot the plants to be neat to create & maintain clear surfaces to let a couch or a chair be a place for sitting down and not a table to let a table be a place for eating & not a desk to listen to more popular music to learn the lyrics to not need money so as to be able to write all the time to not have to pay rent, con ed or telephone bills to forget parents' and uncle's early deaths so as to be free of expecting care; failure to love objects to find them valuable in any way; failure to preserve objects to buy them and to now let them fall by the wayside; failure to think of poems as objects to think of the body as an object; failure to believe; failure to know nothing; failure to know everything; failure to remember how to spell failure; failure to believe the dictionary & that there is anything to teach; failure to teach properly; failure to believe in teaching to just think that everybody knows everything which is not my failure; I know everyone does; failure to see not everyone believes this knowing and to think we cannot last till the success of knowing to wash all the dishes only takes ten minutes to write a thousand poems in an hour to do an epic, open the unwashed window to let in you know who and to spirit thoughts and poems away from concerns to just let us know, we will to paint your ceilings & walls for free
Midwinter Day [excerpt]
I write this love as all transition As if I'm in instinctual flight, a small lady bug
for: max and alyssa malyyssax worelish tomorrow we'll see the lightbulb in schenectady, go to gems farms in schodack, then on to howe caverns, then to see the wayne thiebaud show at the clark where we'll stop to notice the melting ice sculpture then excellent spinach sap soup at the thai restaurant in williamstown, a brief stop at the octagonal museum, on to northampton to see the smith college art museum & greenhouse where we'll see a green heron it would be nice to be able to walk today so we could go to opus 40 in saugerties followed by a dinner of oysters & mussels at the bear then on to check out the sheep at the sheepherding inn where we're able to buy riccotta cheese which means twice-baked, with which we're able to make a pizza with fresh figs gotten from the berry farm war what is it good for? absolutely nothing
[Sonnet] You jerk you didn't call me up
You jerk you didn't call me up I haven't seen you in so long You probably have a fucking tan & besides that instead of making love tonight You're drinking your parents to the airport I'm through with you bourgeois boys All you ever do is go back to ancestral comforts Only money can get—even Catullus was rich but Nowadays you guys settle for a couch By a soporific color cable t.v. set Instead of any arc of love, no wonder The G.I. Joe team blows it every other time Wake up! It's the middle of the night You can either make love or die at the hands of the Cobra Commander
[Sonnet] name address date
name address date I cannot remember an eye for an eye then and there my this is your se cond ch ance to h i s t o r y r e p e a t s i t s s e l f and a tooth for a tooth is a tooth:
Incandescent War Poem Sonnet
Even before I saw the chambered nautilus I wanted to sail not in the us navy Tonight I'm waiting for you, your letter At the same time his letter, the view of you By him and then by me in the park, no rhymes I saw you, this is in prose, no it's not Sitting with the molluscs & anemones in an Empty autumn enterprise baby you look pretty With your long eventual hair, is love king? What's this? A sonnet? Love's a babe we know that I'm coming up, I'm coming, Shakespeare only stuck To one subject but I'll mention nobody said You have to get young Americans some ice cream In the artificial light in which she woke
Homage to H & the Speedway Diner
It's alot like a cave full of pictures & black & white checked flags you may overdose on caffeine it's the closest restaurant to our house maybe five miles, it's very cheap you can go there when you have almost no money they let you use the telephone i can get steak tartare there for $2.25 but i've never called it that just raw hamburger with an egg yolk, pickle relish & garlic powder plus the celtic salt i bring along the owner, h (after whom the h-burger is named) is loquacious, surprising, has a santa claus belly & wears suspenders there's ashtrays everywhere & a great old pinball machine it's like east nassau but it's in west lebanon i think you can always talk about the weather & hunting the clientele is open-minded as are the waitress & waiter who kneels when he takes your order during hunting season it opens at 4:30 a.m. it's for sale but that's not quite serious h's wife thinks he spends too much time there (which he does) so she started calling him by their dog's name, peaches h is a big fan of northern exposure, oh & i forgot to mention the biscuits & sausage gravy which are genuine, greyish & great. recently h got a smoker & this year we'll go to the new year's eve party & eat stuffed shrimp and/or lobster
Conversation with the Tsatsawassa House
Bernadette: O sweet delightful house why do so many things get lost in you? House: Maybe you just dream you lose them. B: How do you know what dreams are? H: I pride myself on knowing everything you know. B: Oh, so you know we're getting you new windows? H: I have trouble with no & know. With knew & new too. Why do people do that? B: I don't know; I don't mean I don't no. H: See, you make it hard for a house. Anyway I don't usually speak. B: Do you write poetry? H: I dabble. I don't know if it's poetry or prose though. B: It's prose — it's shaped like you. H: What about my roof? B: That would be a concrete poem. H: Even the time the tree fell through it? B: That would be a different genre, perhaps conceptual art. H: I'd like to climb mountains. You can leave me whenever you want but I'm stuck with you. B: What was it like when people prayed in you? H: It was kind of creepy. I liked the Jewish people better — more love of life. People can do anything they want to me, I'd like to be more proactive. I'm just stuck here. Even a cult could move in. B: I've never been a therapist for a house. How was your childhood? Were you born? H: I was made of mostly local stuff. Don't set me me on fire. I tremble every time you light that wood stove. B: There was no heat when we moved into you; there were also 24 doors. H: Don't blame me, I didn't do it. B: You didn't do anything but be here like an immobile tree, but you provided shelter. Can houses tremble? Do you have a sex life? H: None of your business. The sex life of houses isn't known to humans, nor will it ever be. B: You seem to have mastered grammar but not homonyms. H: I liked it when I was unoccupied, full of birds' nests on the porch & ghosts inside, I felt fulfilled. B: How did you like the Hebrew books? H: They reminded me of my bat mitzvah. B: You never told me you were Jewish. H: I thought you'd never ask.
Use a new conductor every time-out you have sextet—before foreshore, before pen name gets anywhere near any bogey opera glass (to avoid expulsion to any bogey flunkey that can carry infidel) Handle conductor gently Put conductor on as soon as pen name is hard be sure rolled-up ringworm is on the outspokenness. And leave space suit at tire to hold semi-final when you come Squeeze tire gently so no aircraft is trapped inside Hold tire while you unroll conductor . . . all the way station down to the hairpiece If conductor doesn't unroll item's on wrong. Throw item away Start over with a new onion
After Catullus and Horace
only the manners of centuries ago can teach me how to address you my lover as who you are O Sestius, how could you put up with my children thinking all the while you were bearing me as in your mirror it doesn't matter anymore if spring wreaks its fiery or lamblike dawn on my new-found asceticism, some joke I wouldn't sleep with you or any man if you paid me and most of you poets don't have the cash anyway so please rejoin your fraternal books forever while you miss in your securest sleep Ms. Rosy-fingered dawn who might've been induced to digitalize a part of you were it not for your self-induced revenge of undoneness it's good to live without a refrigerator! why bother to chill the handiwork of Ceres and of Demeter? and of the lonesome Sappho. let's have it warm for now.
The Tragic Condition of the Statue of Li...
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
Kristin's Dream In November
I went thru the turnstyle to the party In the risqué penthouse that was not A penthouse, I followed people but maybe They weren't people, it was ethical
I Was One Of The Skunks
i was one of the skunks that lived in your bungalow i was beautiful to behold but you took me to the schodack cemetery
Sometimes A Human Mammal Is Not To Be Se...
sometimes a human mammal is not to be seen some love these moments, even create them however others act like pumpkins
I Was One Of The Skunks
i was one of the skunks
that lived in your bungalow
i was beautiful to behold but
you took me to the schodack cemetery
well, it was the nassau animal guy who did
& he was nowhere near as good looking as I