For her 1971 project Memory, Bernadette Mayer took a roll of film every day for the month of July and transcribed what it depicted. With Memory’s monumental torrent of images and words from what appears to be a scrappily halcyon summer—Manhattan streets, Hudson Valley diners and forests, stray shots of Mayer herself and intimate, dimly lit gatherings of friends and lovers—the poet attempts to put everything down for a limited and arbitrary period of time. And yet the painstaking effort only underscores how much cannot be included. “It’s astonishing to me that there is so much in Memory, yet so much is left out: emotions, thoughts, sex, the relationship between poetry and light, storytelling, walking, and voyaging to name a few,” she wrote in 2019. (The photographs were exhibited in 1972 by the gallerist Holly Solomon alongside a six-hour looped recording of Mayer reading the accompanying poem, but the text and images were not available together in a book until 2020.)
Mayer knew as well as any poet of her generation that there isn’t enough time within a single life to give a full account of one’s memory, much less to record it. You can try in every medium imaginable—language, images, sound, whatever. It can’t be done. Memory is circumscribed, but language cannot keep up with it. Mayer tried anyway, and in her thrilling snapshots of the present in the instant it slipped into the past, she helped push poetry forward into places it had never been before.
This paradox is one of several that defined Mayer, who passed away late last year. Her work is possessed of a spirit of ceaseless creative reinvention, anarchic sexuality, and anticapitalist fervor, but it is also preoccupied with the classics and traditional form. She was a rigorous lyric thinker and autodidact who committed her life to the idea that poetry was an egalitarian art, that it could and should be taken up by anyone. As a committed avant-gardist, she was always ahead of her time, but she never stopped experimenting with new ways of capturing memory.
Mayer swings like a human wrecking ball at just about every literary truism, received binary, and easy contradiction that she encounters.
Halfway through Milkweed Smithereens, the last book that she saw to publication, Mayer offers a window into her writing processes, something she artfully recapitulated again and again throughout her life: “the idea that writing is easy comes from the frank o’hara method. but it is in fact easy, especially if you don’t try to say more than you are thinking, to say other than what you’re thinking, for instance you might be trying to say what somebody else is thinking.” The Frank O’Hara method, as she calls it—the flaneurish, chatty style that O’Hara made his own in the 1950s, in which poetry flows as naturally as a babbling stream through city strolls, encounters with art, and flirty cocktail conversation—looks simple enough. But Mayer’s poems, like O’Hara’s, are something else: as gorgeous, sad, elated, horny, distracted, coy, angry, kinetic, and complex as people. How did something as difficult as life emerge from something as easy as living? Writing might in fact be easy. But it’s also impossible to capture the entirety of what you are thinking, feeling, and doing in words. Mayer’s magic trick was to make it look like she could, even as she dramatized this impossibility.
Like O’Hara, Mayer was a threshold poet, writing between aesthetic realms. In the late 1960s and ’70s, when she first emerged onto New York’s creatively molten downtown scene, she was an interlocutor with both the rowdy, anti-hierarchical energy of the New York School’s second generation and the intellectual rigor of a nascent conceptual art and poetics emerging in real time. She co-founded and edited the mimeographed magazine 0 to 9 with her brother-in-law, the artist Vito Acconci, and her galvanizing workshops at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project were attended by Charles Bernstein, Hannah Weiner, Bruce Andrews, and others who in short time would come to form Language poetry. In her books, Mayer swings like a human wrecking ball at just about every literary truism, received binary, and easy contradiction that she encounters: the narrative stasis of memory; the supposed woo-woo laxity of automatic writing; the supposed conservatism of traditional prosody and form; the interwoven performances of motherhood, gender, sexuality, class, and art-making. She lays it all to waste.
Reading Milkweed Smithereens, I saw for the first time how central Memory is to an understanding of her body of work, even as she teasingly proposes that “a memory is nothing / nothing is a memory.” Milkweed Smithereens shares that early project’s taxonomies, its sexuality, its acute observations of nature and sociality. It also shares its uncanny mixture of spontaneity and formalism, born out of a diurnal writing practice that Mayer returned to throughout her life, including in the two other long works for which she is best known: Midwinter Day (1982), an epic poem written over the course of a single day, December 22, 1978, when she was raising three small children; and Sonnets (1989), a soulful, skillfully irreverent collection comprising her years-long engagement with that most ubiquitous of traditional forms. While these works are wildly divergent, Memory planted the seed for all of them in the impulse to record a moment in time as it bleeds into the next.
milkweed smithereens is a closing gesture, conscious of planetary mortality and Mayer’s own. It is anchored by The Covid Diary, kept during the early days of the pandemic, and also contains a smattering of older poems, recently recovered from her attic and her archive, including some unpublished sonnets. The Covid Diary is incomplete, presented in pieces throughout the collection, interspersed between individual poems. The effect of these editorial choices is at first disorienting, a bewilderingly partial taking of stock. But the book’s refusal to cohere becomes the language of its solidity. By threading the archival into the present without regard for chronological order, Mayer grounds poetry in the process of poetic making rather than the poem itself.
The opening title poem confronts us with a set of messy taxonomies—milkweed’s Latin names, its physical and chemical characteristics, its uses in food and everyday household items and medicine, and its mythologies:
(from Asclepias acida
an intoxicating milky juice is squeezed
the home of the plant was in heaven
under its influence Indra
fixed the earth & sky in their place,
the Soma plant
Linnaeus dedicated it to Aesculapius
of whose name Asclepias is a corruption
this Cinderella weed
has produced food
not only in its shoots & pods but in its seeds
Humble but intoxicating, originating in heaven and removing death, associated with Hindu deities and ancient Greek gods, offering sustenance in each of its constituent parts: the common milkweed seems to serve here as an analog for Mayer’s vegetal poetics. In her hands, that Linnaeus, the botanist who ushered in modern taxonomy, “corrupts” the name of the Greek god of medicine feels like a playful tribute to poetry’s trickster mutability, a tacit acknowledgment that the language we attach to things is itself mythology—an invention affixed to other inventions, endlessly corruptible. Any use that we attach to it is blown to smithereens.
Language is not the book’s only unstable structure. The opening excerpt of The Covid Diary is written on June 10 but recalls the first day of quarantine, March 14, a jump that is typical throughout Milkweed Smithereens. The diary selections play hopscotch with chronology, skipping forward and back through the second half of 2020. They are presented primarily in prose and entirely in lower-case italics, typographically distinguished from the book’s lyric poems. By methodically transcribing a set unit of time in the freewheeling summer of Memory or the chilly depths of Midwinter Day, Mayer revealed a tangle of possibility and psychic forking paths within the material of the everyday. Her refusal to play by the rules of chronology in the presentation of The Covid Diary reveals something slightly different—the recursive loops of anxiety and listlessness that defined any given moment at the beginning of the pandemic. This anti-chronology is echoed in the mixture of new poems and archival ones elsewhere in the book, not always clearly delineated; when I wasn’t reading the diaries, I sometimes wondered which poems had been saved from the attic and which were new, until I realized that this confusion was perhaps the point.
This anti-chronology reflects Mayer’s broader skepticism of any hierarchical system of order—in Milkweed Smithereens, order is democratic. She gives equal narrative weight to the weather and the world-historical disaster of the pandemic in its terrifying early months, recollections from her Brooklyn childhood (ranging from the quotidian to the tragic) and the functions of writing, the habits of stinkbugs and birds. The democratizing impulse is also evident in her tone, which remains steady as she veers from subject to subject, a habit she wields to alternately hilarious and sobering effect. One of the most striking examples of this occurs on the day that she receives a phone call from her daughter in the fall:
talked on the phone with sophie, lewis seems to be dying, is on opioids, i, alive, have shallots & scallops for lunch, the shallots are unbelievably great, i am unbelievably narcissistic, read the rest of count luna this morning, it’s all about death, i don’t know how to behave when somebody’s dying, never did, never will, maybe i will when i’m the one dying, it’ll be easier maybe, fallen leaves on the tent,
tuesday october 6, 2020, it’s 67° […]
In this devastating, emotionally labyrinthine response to the declining health of Lewis Warsh—Mayer’s former husband and collaborator, the father of her children, and another important presence in the New York School’s second generation—she almost successfully wills herself to turn away from death by zeroing in on the immediate worldly pleasure of lunch. (O’Hara would surely have approved.) But the effort only proves the lie: Mayer becomes acutely, uncomfortably aware that in this case, transcribing the everyday is an act of willful distraction. It isn’t a method of discovery—it’s the product of avoidance. So she vaporizes grief by turning it inward, offering a candid and surprising self-assessment about her own capacity to express it, in elegy and otherwise.
Warsh passed away the following month, but the death isn’t mentioned again in Milkweed Smithereens. Mayer’s parents died when she was young, and she wrote moving, elliptically elegiac poems about them throughout her life, sometimes angry and sometimes tender. She is no stranger to grief. What she seems to buckle against here is the performance of grief, not the feeling—“i don’t know how to behave”—a sense borne out when she attempts to turn away one more time in a paragraph-stanza break following “fallen leaves on the tent,” the hanging comma leaving the reader with a feeling of mournful anti-closure. When she resurfaces in the rote data of time and weather, there is no respite. In a book preoccupied with ecology and climate change, a 67-degree day in October renders the passage an elegy of a different magnitude.
the book’s final two poems, taken together, bring elegy into more local terrain. In The Covid Diary, Mayer offhandedly mentions that a bear has been reported in her area but that she has not seen it herself. In the book’s penultimate poem, “Bear in Mind,” the bear finally appears.
bear in window
bears in mind
bears in the wind
bear in winter
bare in mind
beer in mind
bear in mind
bear in mind
bear in midwinter
bear in mind
bear on your mind
hear in mind
hear in the wind
read your mind
bear in mind
read and mind
bearing in mind
In a procession of Shakespearean puns, the “bear in mind” is transformed from a flesh and blood creature observed through the window to a pure product of language to a proxy for the poet herself (in that nod to Midwinter Day) to a multi-sensory memory to a sound in the wind to an action—the action of carrying language across the threshold of one’s life. I quote the poem in full because I don’t think this arc—by turns silly, wise, and grave—can be properly excerpted. Read the poem once and it is pure play. Read it again and it is mortally serious. Each reading is bound to the other, and the effect is profoundly moving. It perfectly encapsulates how so much of Mayer’s poetry won’t stop changing even after she set it down to paper.
For me, it is all but impossible not to hear echoes of one of Wallace Stevens’s haunting final poems, “Of Mere Being,” in which a gold-feathered bird sitting in a tree at the edge of space (“The palm at the end of the mind”) sings a song “without human meaning.” It’s a chillingly beautiful, glyph-like vision of poetic imagination in the face of mortality, detaching from the poet and drifting into... what? For Stevens, perhaps it is nothingness (“Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is,” as he wrote in “The Snow Man”). For Mayer, it is more likely a commons. Politically and temperamentally these two poets do not sit comfortably next to one another. Stevens, a politically conservative Connecticut insurance executive, wrote poetry in solitude; he was so fastidious about keeping his poems separate from the rest of his life that he purportedly would not let them physically touch his work papers when he carried them together in his briefcase. Mayer, who was often broke and consistently railed against the vicissitudes of capitalism, seemed always to be looking for new ways to turn her life into poetry and to bring others into its fold through her workshops. This contrast makes it all the more moving to imagine the creaturely linguistic vision of “Bear in Mind” entering the scene of “Of Mere Being,” clawing up at the stately bird in the tree.
The last poem of Milkweed Smithereens, “Conclusion,” is more blunt.
The Method of Repeated Reproduction of
remembered material with increasing lapse
of time, until it has reached a stereotyped
form through transformations in which influences
play, excites an attitude of uncertainty, which
has nothing to do with objective inaccuracy,
towards the introduction of what is new.
In a tone that one might at first confuse for the language of physics, Mayer plainly lays out what she has been up to here: memory in the service of invention. The poem and its title are so frank and final that they could be taken as a dry joke. But directly following “Bear in Mind,” one is tempted to take her seriously. She sums up her life’s work, roughly, in seven lines.
And yet, like memory itself, Mayer’s work is inexhaustible. She died while this piece was underway, and a difficult task suddenly felt impossible. There is no way to account for everything she did in a single essay, and yet Milkweed Smithereens seems to demand it, even as the book reaches restlessly toward the new—touch any outer tendril of her poetry and one feels the mysterious shock of its totality. Even now, Mayer’s poems seem to exist in a state of forward motion. They continue to resonate and shift whenever we try to pin them down as we chase after her innovative, speculative understanding of language’s relationship to time. She shows us that unlike our bodies, which exist for a finite number of days and under conditions that eventually cut them loose, poetry doesn’t die. It belongs to futurity.
Daniel Poppick is the author of The Police and Fear of Description, a winner of the 2018 National Poetry Series competition. His poems have appeared in The New Republic, BOMB, Harper’s, The Drift, Poetry, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.
Sign up for The Yale Review newsletter and keep up with news, events, and more.