Form’s Life: An Exploration of the Works of Bernadette Mayer
Story, published in 1968 when Mayer was 23, shows evidence of a Steinian attention to the materiality of language; Mayer also plays with variations on themes the way Stein did in her work. Stein’s oeuvre might be described as an investigation of grammatical functions: her early works explore verbs and verb tenses, particularly the dynamism of the present participle. Later, frustrated with the impossibility of making written language entirely fluid, she turns her attention to nouns. Stein defined poetry as “doing nothing but losing using refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns,”1 in opposition to prose, which is “essentially and determinedly and vigorously not based on the noun.”2 Stein preferred the “vigor” of verbs and adjectives, yet her poetry is in some senses less at odds with the object-ness of language than is her prose, which finally defeats its own goal of duration by appealing to the reader’s ear.
Story is an investigation into the noun “story,” its meaning and its synonyms: Anecdote, Profile, Life Story, Scenario, Saga, Love Story, Fiction, Lie, etc. Within each section and from section to section, words and figures repeat, changing in their various contexts. Some seem to be taken from outside sources, but these are lost in the envelope of the work:
Orange upholstered pouf chair
Some things are still and still they show.
For example, a tree.
To cause to come into being.
There is a great thing in that of those.
The girls walk over him (he modeled them).
Enameled metal desk lamp.
Where is there one?
Some of these live at a great one of those and find this and that genial to them.
He arrives and wants to sleep with them.
A setting into motion of some action, process, or course, as, to begin this or that.
Laminated wood rocker, leather seat.
A tree lasts for many years.
On the side, poems fall into two categories, these and those.3
Note particularly how Mayer uses deictic terms without specific references: “These and those” or “There is a great thing in that of those.” The deliberate vagueness of these terms, designed to be vessels for the reader’s subjective input, stands in contrast to the descriptions of furniture (what the philosophy teacher will always use as an example of the tangible world). The words “fall” and “genial” reoccur throughout the text, sometimes at logically inappropriate places, always gaining new import with each new combination. Story is a brilliant work in a made-up technique, full of the conceptual energy Bernadette Mayer has sustained throughout her oeuvre.
A Note on Technique
That the process of writing (as incorporated into a life) holds sway over product (the poem considered as a constant, sterile object) in Mayer’s schema is everywhere evident, but never so much as in the following piece, “Experiments,” which I excerpt below:
Never listen to poets or other writers; never explain your work (communication experiments).
Set up multiple choice or fill-in-the-blanks situations & play with them considering every word an “object” with no meaning, perhaps just a sound, or, a block of meaning, meaning anything.
Experiment with theft & plagiarism in any form that occurs to you.
Write exactly as you think, as close as you can come to this, that is, put pen to paper and don’t stop.
Note what happens for a few days, hours, (any space of time that has a limit you set); then look for relationships, connections, synchronicities; make something of it (writing).
Use (take, write in) a strict form and / or try to destroy it, e.g., the sestina.
Experiment with writing in every person & tense every day.
Explore possibilities of lists, puzzles, riddles, dictionaries, almanacs for language use.
Consider (do) memory experiments (sensory) in relation to writing: for example, record all sense images that remain from breakfast; study which engage you, escape you.
Write, taking off from visual projection, whether mental or mechanical, without thought to the word (in the ordinary sense, no craft). Write in the movies, etc.
Make writing experiments over a long period of time: for example, plan how much you will write on a particular work (one word?) each day, or, at what time of a particular day (noon?) or week, or, add to the work only on holidays, etc.
Work your ass off to change the language & don’t ever get famous.4
The poet / critic Barrett Watten, in his book Total Syntax, criticizes this “anything goes” approach, charging that it lacks real motivation — that it is haunted by “the spectre of ‘too much possibility / not enough necessity'”:
Here there is a proliferation of techniques. The over-all equivalence leads to a “state” in (real) time in which particular motives are effaced. Inspiration might be constant … While the advantage of thse techniques is their adherence to the quotidien, there is no further integration.5
While there may be a ring of truth (or caution) to these charges, the “adherence to the quotidien” ought not to be undervalued, especially in a world such as ours, where hours and days spent in alienated labor are “stockpiled” to be “used” later. And surely these experiments could be steps to “further integration” were they perceived exactly as experiments to further a writer’s capabilities, quite as a musician practices scales. Musicians know that although practicing scales may efface “particular motives,” the practice may be generative, as when they hear in the rote process a certain sequence of notes they hadn’t thought to combine before which they can incorporate into their compositions. If inspiration were to be “constant,” would that be such a bad thing? I can envision less desirable fates …
That Mayer does have a sense of necessity about her writing should be evident in the epigraph to the next chapter.
1 Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America (Beacon Press, Boston 1985), p. 231.
2 Stein, LIA, p. 231.
3 Bernadette Mayer, Story (0-9 Books, 1968), no pagination.
4 Bernadette Mayer, “Experiments,” in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, ed. Bruce Andrews & Charles Bernstein (Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1984), pp. 80-83.
5 Barrett Watten, “The Politics of Poetry,” in Total Syntax (Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), p. 57.
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