December 30, 2021

"On the Move" | essay by Douglas Messerli on Bernadette Mayer's Eating the Colors of a Lineup of Words

On the Move

by Douglas Messerli

Bernadette Mayer Eating the Colors of a Lineup of Words: The Collected Early Books of Bernadette Mayer (Barrytown, New York: Station Hill, 2015)

I first began reading the works of Bernadette Mayer in 1975 or 1976, contemporaneous with their publications. While I didn’t realize it at the time, Mayer wrote them in her late 20s and early 30s, quite close to my own age.

Bernadette Mayer

Mayer’s work seemed so inexplicably mature that I couldn’t have imagined that she was just a couple of years older. I also did not know that she had begun publishing eleven years earlier, with Ceremony Latin (1962), which appeared when she was just 17. This young woman’s voice was like no other at the time, a poet with obviously a deep connection to Gertrude Stein, who, nonetheless, did not imitate or sound like Stein. Far before the linguistic explorations of most of the language poets, Mayer, collaborating with artist Vito Acconci, was exploring verbal sound experiments such as the portion of Sin in the Bleekers that appeared in her 1976 volume, Poetry:


                      Salaam my Salems on a banker’s disturbance

                      Crass dots, a prelude for daughters

                      In their transparence—which is the secret.

                      Lay way, the markets in drools of temptations.

                      This is the end of a lender,

                      Who sent his miss. ……………


If I had no idea whatsoever what it meant, it nonetheless sounded perfectly assured and meaningful, as if every word belonged in the sequence in which it appeared.

     Her Poetry, in fact, opened my mind to a playful relation with language that freed words to suggest their meanings as opposed to forcing meaning into words. At the same time, Mayer seemed to be so knowledgeable, with her Catholic school education, about traditional forms. As the new collected early works, just published by Station Hill Press, reveals, she knew her Milton, Shakespeare, Dante, even the Greeks. She could write a wicked sestina as in her “The Aeschyleans,” one of my very favorite of her early poems:


       These berries, with their choices, come to earth

       To scatter and confuse the sainted warriors,

       A part of crime’s return to grace

       And the innocence of criminals which

       Enervates us like the coarser forms

       Of truculence. Rude labors are ordinary and still.


       They speed the haphazard. Slow manners till

       Desires long buried on the earth

       Among the exigencies of place and concurrent forms

       Which frightened even staid warriors.

       May transfix the movements of warriors. To grace


       These corridors with flowers is a chance for grace

       As if ancient events were surfeited and still.



If one wanted further evidence of Mayer’s startling erudition, moreover, one need only read her beautiful Eruditio Ex Memoria which Mayer comments on her process of composition:


 "I didn’t want to carry around my school notebooks anymore, but I didn’t want to throw them away either so I tore random pages from them on which I later based this book. I saved the doodles too."

     I reviewed that book in my only substantial contribution to Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews’ L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, where I described it as being a kind of abbreviated “anatomy,” the Roman comic genre of Petronius’ Satyricon, a more modern example of which is Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood. Today, although I wouldn’t disavow what I then wrote, I might also describe the work as a highly concentrated encyclopedic fiction, a work that in its brief twenty-five pages in this new volume condenses knowledge into poetic associations. The first two paragraphs demonstrate its effect:


   "I saw a doctor, a doctor. It was Antonin Artaud. He was elected to the Royal Academy, no that was Chekhov. This is the Russian Theater, it’s 1962 or so, the moralist of the venial sin is here, resigning over Gorky. Doctor. “The Seagull” defends Zola and Dreyfus, it’s the Moscow Art Theater. Chekov is Godard. This is what I learned at school. This is what I thought: Artaud, Antonin. Hemispheres become loose in the country, there are new forms.

     Stanislavsky, etc. Add up a column of numbers, it comes to William Carlos Williams to me. What are the spiritual heights, she said.  Just as Uncle Vanya looks like a dial, Paris comes and goes, prissy, lightfooted and beautiful-looking, but, by and large, outside forces come to the surface. By the same token, we seem fully uneven, without the bones and stays. The homecoming: she opened and closed her conversation with adequacy. There’s a picture of a man with a spring for a body. There’s a picture of a woman dancing with a leaf for a hand, her head on a string, hanging forward. It’s Madam Shaw. Relevant is relevant, irrational knot, unsocial socialist, unpleasant and pleasant Madam Shaw. Oh Shaw, polygammarian, the candidate, there’s a heart and a louse on the skunk."


      In Mayer’s recreation of what appear to be her school lessons, the doctor she visits or first conjures up is understandably associated with the great dramatist and theater director, Antonin Artaud, who spent much of his childhood and later life under the care of doctors, suffering, early in his life, from meningitis, neuralgia, and clinical depression, and, after years of visiting various sanatoriums, ended his later life with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

     Correcting her purposely “associative mistake,” Mayer quickly shifts to another great dramatic figure, Anton Chekov, who actually was a medical doctor, who proclaimed “Medicine is my lawful wife, literature is my mistress.” Many of Chekov’s plays, moreover, including Uncle Vanya—which Mayer mentions in the second paragraph—were directed by another great modernist director (with theories very different from Artaud’s theories of madness), Constantin Stanislavski, with whom she begins her second paragraph, whose “method” theories he brilliantly used to direct a revival of the previously failed Chekhov play, The Seagull, himself performing in the play as the writer Boris Trigorin. And, indeed, after growing weary from directing and performing another important Russian playwright, Maxim Gorky, Stanislavski did indeed take a leave from the Moscow Art Theater which he and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko had created. Chekov, who died early of tuberculosis, also had to seek the aid of several doctors, and died, so legend has it, soon after one of them offered him a last glass of champagne.

     Is it any wonder that these “figures,” if listed in a column, might “add up,” as Mayer puts it, to William Carlos Williams, who was yet another writer, medical doctor who was also major figure of modernism?

     The third major figure of this thumbtack history of modernist theater, inevitably, is the great Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw, who, born in the mid-19th century, certainly came out of the Victorian world of “bones and stays.”  Shaw himself married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, who refused to have sex with him, the marriage with the “Madam Shaw” which Mayer mentions, accordingly, never being consummated. The “irrational knot” which Mayer mentions is a reference to Shaw’s novel The Irrational Knot wherein he describes the failure of a marriage because of an upper class wife’s inability to share her workman husband’s interests. And, indeed, Shaw was a “unsocial socialist.” The reference to Shaw being “polygmammalian,” is, of course, hinting at his famous play Pygmalion.

     In short, in just two paragraphs Mayer sums up a history of important early 20th century theatrical works by purposely conflating literary figures who were doctors, and noted “theatre doctors,” men who changed the way theater was performed and created.

     For all of her wonderfully complex experimental works, however—and there are many, many others among her early writings—one might find it hard to love Mayer’s work as much as I do if one sought merely playful language. For Mayer is nearly always in motion in her life and writing, as she expresses it in the long poem “Moving.’ Throughout her works she shifts not only in her literary approaches but in her expression of self, sexuality, political viewpoints, and relationships with the world about her. As she hints of this in “Moving” and later in another poem, restating the same words:


we’ve solved the problem, the problem is solved.

men are women, women are men. i’m pregnant for a while you’re pregnant for a

while. “if someone doesnt change into an animal, we wont be saved someone

must change into an animal so that we can be saved” a man turns into a cat………                 


     For this reason, if for no other, Mayer is what I might lovingly describe as a “messy” poet, an honest writer who is utterly unafraid of expressing her emotional doubts, fears, and confusions in the very process of creating. Particularly in her love poems, but also in many other works, Mayer interrupts her own writing, asking herself rhetorical questions, berating her style, demonstrating her angers and frustration—just, to use the cliché, “letting it all hang out.”


   How can I write you about deanimation, love


   Deanimation, Love—

   My love

   & yours

   I am not on your shelf, you are not on my shelf


   I want you to be

   Your subject

   Subject to

   The greatest love of all time—a woman’s face with Nature’s

   own hand painted

   Forgive me now, I am putting you on my shelf

   The mantelpiece, the design, the waiting for your call



                    (“Deanimation Love” from Poetry)


     When I began to publish Sun & Moon: A Journal of Literature & Art I wrote to her asking for poetry for an issue, and finally in 1978, issue number 5, I printed four of her poems, “Very Strong February,” “What’s Meant for Pleasure,” “Baby Come Today, October 4th,” and “So I Spill the Ink,” all poems I believe from her The Golden Book of Words.

    In poem after poem, particularly in the last work of this volume, The Golden Book of Words, as she attempts to raise three children, feed them with little money, and simply keep warm from the cold Massachusetts winters, Mayer composes works that that reveal her everyday activities intruding upon her more intense poetic expressions and thoughts.   



            Full of animal crackers, I joke with you

            About buying a bra, I measure myself

            I have a 38-inch bust, as they used to say

            But with nipples excited by the tape measure

            It’s only 35, I guess this is not a decorous poem

            As Donne or Pope would have set it all up

            Fourteen hundred to eighteen hundred A.D.

            In the western world we’ve got

            Where the work of women holds up half the sky


            And yet the desire to write tonight

            Is borne, dare I say it, like a seed

            On the wind and so on, we were talking to your mother



                   (“Easy Puddings” from The Golden Book of Words)


Or, as in the previous poem in that volume, “The Heart of the Hare,” she is unafraid simply to list her daily duties for the week ahead:


              Tomorrow’s Monday maybe we’ll do some laundry

              Clean clothes for one night in New York

              I’ve got to hardboil some eggs for lunch on Tuesday

              Pack a complete bag and stay healthy



     In other words, if you really want to read this often-rewarding poet, you also have to deal with her as an everyday human being. If I seem to have inserted myself into this review more than usual it because reading and talking about the poems of Bernadette Mayer demands a very personal response. In Mayer’s work you must be willing to follow her along the valleys in order to get to the mountaintops.

Bernadette Mayer

     But oh how wonderful those moments of utter linguistic freedom and revelation are, as in the absolutely magical and joyously comic poem about a strange local family living near her in Lenox, Massachusetts:


They come down on their snowmobiles for the last time,

         come down to meet the car.

They’re shouting, “Hoo Hey! The snow! Give them the snow!

         Let them eat snow! Hey! The snow!”

Looking like wild men & women, two wild children & a

        grandmother too, they’re taking turns riding the

        snowmobile, they’re getting out.

 Hoo! Hey! The snow! freaking out.

 Everybody in town watches, standing in groups by the

        “Road Closed” sign.

 Shouting back, “Take it easy! The snow!

 On Bashan Hill they’ve lived in a cloud, watched. They’d had

     plenty of split peas, corn, Irish soda bread, fruitcake,

     chocolate, pemmican. But the main thing was—NO PLOW!

Day before at the Corners Grocery, news got around. “They’re

    Coming down from Bashan Hill—never to return!”

The snow!

          (“The End of Human Reign on Bashan Hill”

         from The Golden Book of Words)


In just 39 lines, Mayer creates a narrative poem that reveals, through her presentation of this wild family, the separateness, isolation, and inner vitality of the community so completely that we might almost read it as a novel.

     In such a constantly unstable world as Mayer’s you never know what you might find, as in the simple nature poem, “Instability (Weather)”


I must get back to the lilacs

So excited when I saw them first blooming in the back next to 

    the apple tree

I nearly jumped for joy my heart beats rapidly

Because they are late & we are moving


Blossoms for Lewis & Charlotte who’s here

The lilacs were so far away I didnt get to them

But I wont tell, I’ll go with a scissor tomorrow

The scissor I’ll hide in the woods tonight


For some strange reason I’ll never say

I’ll never have lived a more exciting day


     Even if one can comprehend why the lateness of the lilacs blooming might give the narrator some joy, what does the fact that family is moving have to do with the lilacs? Why won’t she “tell” and from whom is she keeping this secret. Why didn’t she “get to them” previously? And why has she hidden the scissors in the woods? In Mayer’s hands, even the simple discovery of a lilac bush and the process of cutting a few of its flowers to place in a vase becomes a magically ritualistic act, as if the narrator, presumably Bernadette, were connected to nature with forces that cannot be explained. And in the process of reading her poems, the reader, too, is taken there, a place where he might never have discovered without the poet’s very personal eye, voice, and hand to guide him. 

Los Angeles, August 8, 2015

Reprinted in different form as “The Drama in the Everyday: Bernadette Mayer’s Early Poems” from Hyperallergic Weekend (August 15, 2015).


"Robin Blaser in Conversation with Leonard Schwartz" | Interview [link]

For a link to an interview, "Robin Blaser in conversation with Leonard Schwartz," go here:

December 23, 2021

Robert Duncan (USA) 1919-1988

Robert Duncan (USA)
Robert Duncan was born in Oakland, California in January 7, 1919, named Edward Howard Duncan, Jr. by his father. His mother died in childbirth, and his father, unable to care for him, put the child up for adoption. In 1920 the child Edward was adopted by Edwin and Minnehaha Symmes, devout Theosophists, who renamed him Robert Edward Symmes. It was only later, after his discharge from the army in 1941, that the poet returned to his birth name of Duncan.

Reportedly, the young Robert’s early years were quite stable, despite the numerous occult beliefs of his adoptive parents. His father was a prominent architect and his mother devoted much of her time to volunteer work. The family adopted another child, a girl, Barbara Eleanor Symmes, shortly after they had taken adopted Robert.
      He began writing poetry while very young, encouraged by a Bakersfield high school teacher.
    After his father’s death in 1935, Duncan attended the University of California, Berkeley for two years, where he began writing poetry. Among his friends at the University were Mary and Lilli Fabilli, the later film critic, Pauline Kael, and Ida Bear. 
      In 1938, after a brief period at Black Mountain College and two years in Philadelphia, he moved to Woodstock, New York, where he joined a commune run by James Cooney and worked on Conney’s journal The Phoenix. He also became involved with the coterie that had grown around writer Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. Moving to New York City, Duncan also became actively involved in the art world, mixing with the Abstract Expressionist, with American surrealists, and with personal acquaintances, Roberto Matta and Hans Hoffman.
     With Sanders Russell, Duncan launched the magazine Experimental Review which published writers such as Nin, Henry Miller, Kenneth Patchen, Lawrence Durrell, and numerous others.
     Already in Philadelphia, Duncan had begun a homosexual relationship with Ned Fahs, an instructor from Berkeley, and had used his homosexuality to get discharged from the military. Although he briefly attempted a heterosexual marriage in 1943, it ended disastrously, and the following year had a relationship with artist Robert De Niro, Sr., father to actor Robert De Niro, Jr. During this period, Duncan wrote a landmark essay “The Homosexual in Society.” That essay, in which Duncan compared the plight of homosexuals with that of African Americans and Jews, was published in Dwight Macdonald's journal Politics. Today Duncan's essay is considered a pioneering treatise on the experience of homosexuals in American society given its appearance a full decade before any organized gay rights movement.
     In 1945 Duncan returned to the San Francisco Bay area, working with the active poetry scene there which would later come to be known as the San Francisco Renaissance. He befriended Helen Adam, Madeline Gleason, James Broughton and the novelist Philip K. Dick. Other friends Robin Blaser and Jack Spicer were developing their notions of “serial poetry,” with their repeating images, themes, and words, while poet and fiction writer Kenneth Rexroth held literary and radical political meetings, which Duncan, Blaser and others attended.
     Duncan returned to Berkeley to study Medieval and Renaissance literature. His first book, Heavenly City Earthly City was published by Bern Porter in 1947.
     That same year Duncan met Charles Olson, who had founded Black Mountain College, and over the following two years developed a relationship. In 1951, Duncan met the artist Jess, beginning a sexual partnership and artistic collaborative relationship with him that would last 37 years until Duncan’s death. 
     Olson introduced Duncan to Robert Creeley, and in 1956 invited Duncan to teach at Black Mountain. During this period Duncan composed many of the poems that were to make up his first major collection of poetry, The Opening of the Field
     Taking ideas from Olson’s Projective Verse and his own spiritual values based on the occult and theosophy, Duncan meanwhile, begin to develop his own poetic perceptions, most of which he continued to hold throughout his life.
     Beginning in the 1960s, Duncan published in major works: The Opening of the Field, Roots and Branches, and Bending the Bow. Other major works were Ground Work I and II, Selected Poems of 1959, 1977, and 1993, and his 1979 essays Fictive Certainties. Duncan also wrote three books of prose works, and a drama Faust Foutu: An Entertainment in Four Parts (1959).
     His impact on San Francisco writing has been formidable, and he has become a major force in American poetry increasingly since his death in 1988.


Heavently City Earthly City (Berkeley, California: Bern Porter, 1947); Poems 1948-1949 (Berkeley, California: Berkeley Miscellany Editions, 1949; Glen Garden, New Jersey: Libertarian Press, 1950); Medieval Scenes (San Francisco: Centaur Press, 1950; reprinted as Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Libraries, 1950 and 1958); Fragments of a Disordered Devotion (1952); Writing, Writing: A Composition Book (Albuquerque: Sumbooks: 1952); Caesar’s Gate: Pomes 1948-1950 (Palma de Mallorca: Divers Press, 1955; Berkeley: Sand Dollar Press, 1972); Letters: Poems MCMLIII-MCMLVI (Highland, North Carolina: J. Williams, 1958; Chicago: Flood Editions, 2003); Selected Poems (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1959); The Opening of the Field (New York: Grove Press, 1960; London: Cape, 1969; New York: New Directions); As Testimony: The Poems and The Scene (San Francisco: White Rabbit Press, 1964, 1966); Roots and Branches (New York: Scribner, 1964; London: Cape, 1970; New York: New Directions); Medea at Kolchis: The Maidenhead (Berkeley, California: Oyez, 1965); Of the War: Passages 22-27 (Berkeley: Oyez, 1966); The Years As Catches: First Poems (1939-1946) (Berkeley, California: Oyez, 1966); Six Prose Pieces (Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin: The Perishable Press, 1966); A Book of Resemblances: Poems 1950-1953 (1966); Epilogos (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1967); Names of People (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1968); Bending the Bow (New York: New Directions, 1968); Derivations: Selected Poems 1950-1956 (London: Fulcrum Press, 1968); Achilles’ Song (New York: Phoenix Book Shop, 1969); The First Decade: Selected Poems 1940-1950 (London: Fulcrum Press, 1969); Play Time: Pseudo Stein (San Francisco: Poet’s Press, 1969); Poetic Disturbances (San Francisco: Cranium Press, 1970); Tribunals: Passages 31-35 (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1970); Ground Work (1971); Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn’s “Moly” (San Francisco, 1972); A Seventeenth Century Suite in Homage to the Metaphysical Genius in English Poetry 1590/1690 (San Francisco, 1973); An Ode and Arcadia (Berkeley: Ark Press, 1974, with Jack Spicer); Dante (Canton, New York: Institute of Further Studies: 1974); The Venice Poem (Sydney, Australia: Prism, 1975); Veil, Turbine, Cord, and Bird (1979); The Five Songs (La Jolla: Friends of the UCSD Library, 1981); Ground Work: Before the War (New York: New Directions, 1984, 2006); A Paris Visit (New York: Grenfell Press, 1985); Ground Work II: In the Dark (New York: New Directions, 1987, 2006); Notebook Poems, 1953 (San Francisco, The Press Tuscany Alley, 1991); Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1993, 1997); The Collected Early Poems and Plays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012); The Collected Later Poems and Plays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014)