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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Bernadette Mayer_State Poetry Forest_, reviewed by Sascha Akhtar

Bernadette Mayer
Poetry State Forest
ISBN 9780811217231
New Directions, 2008

reviewed by Sascha Akhtar

ffffffffffHappy new year, what’s the difference
ffffffffffbetween subjectivity & amaryllis phillis?
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffBernadette Mayer

A critical evaluation of the work of a writer who has laboured to free poetry, as it were, from interring itself in a poetry coffin with a headstone marked, “Here Lies Poetry,” is an absurd enterprise. Throughout her career Bernadette Mayer has famously defied all classification and critique. Not merely a poet, she is a movement, a genre.

In the poem “Winner of the Bad Poem Contest” (51), Mayer incites us to throw “all the poems of the twentieth century” out—the work of language poets, New York Poets, and humorously: “the sailboat poems, / the narcissistic poems, the ones about / hangovers…” In this call to anarchy it is clear Mayer does not affiliate herself with any particular planet. What she reiterates is the presence of her galaxy and its own orbits. It is important in writing about her to stay away from inflated rhetoric such as “pioneer of the avant-garde” for that in itself purports to pin her down. Bernadette Mayer is a poet of the sublime but also of the ridiculous and everything that falls in between which can include the quotidian, the absurd, the real, the validity of reality and other such conceptions, and misconceptions.

The absolute crux of the matter is that there is nothing mysterious about Bernadette Mayer. Neither is her work “progressive”; it is rather the pure clarity of a sensibility that cannot help but set free her inner birds whilst being hyper aware of the outer ones. Mayer has more in common with the hermetic than any other: “My way of writing poetry has always involved being a certain way so you could always write poetry, trying to is not even an issue, it’s like the dream-world always existing” (42), she writes in the poem “40-60.” It cannot get any clearer than this. In fact Bernadette Mayer has always provided her reader every clue needed to read her work. With Poetry State Forest she nails it, declaring, naming, and ratifying the existence of the territory wherein she dwells.

On Structure

You are in the Poetry State Forest, and some thickets are denser than others. If you don’t figure out how to navigate, you could get lost. This unevenness in the landscape comes from a few variables—conflict of Urban Bernadette viz. Rural Bernadette, or Old Forest viz. New Forest. Mayer left the city for a rural existence and has taken great pleasure in becoming a pastoral poet, albeit infusing the genre with a new lease on life. Best known for her work with Catullus and Horace, it is no secret that Mayer has a special relationship with the Greeks and the Romans. Living in the sticks, though, seems to have brought her closer to Theocritus.

She has always taken great pleasure in literally annotating her environs, and the rural bucolic of Poetry State Forest is no different. She references and creates idylls, whether overtly, as in the poem entitled “Idyll” (60), or with her trademark sense of mirth in the poem “Rural Drama”(92):


ffffffffffWHETHER OR NOT YOU PAY (92)

There are jumps in the book to what are obviously older poems, but Poetry State Forest is not manicured, trimmed and landscaped. It is essentially a forest, albeit a “state” forest which implies some control—a chaos managed as it were by the ranger Bernadette Mayer.

Mayer often takes leaps, like her beloved and recurring lemurs, flights of fancy to transcend the mundane, as in “My Hands Are Tied At Zulu” (16):

ffffffffffleaping like a Madagascar lemur
ffffffffffin dreams I pause to drink a drop
ffffffffffof vodka on the right side…we have
ffffffffffstuffed radicchio treats
ffffffffffto go with it & cranberry harems
ffffffffffnear the river in the sun
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffby the fire (16)

She is perpetually trying to reach Madagascar, another recurring theme: “I want to go to Madagascar & live with the lemurs; in dreams I leap like them” (40). If and when she does reach, to her mind she has been successful. However, sometimes she is not, and also admittedly: “we do boring / necessary things until the sun goes down” (79). And we too are left wanting to get there. The flight of fancy is not always satisfying for her, nor for the reader. Here Madagascar becomes a utopian device, a dream and a goal, another ever-present theme in Mayer’s oeuvre.

Continuing with the forest metaphor, there are clear trails, and there are gnarled brakes and thorny undergrowths, say, with a prose poem such as “Finch Sock Sonnet,” (85) which a reader/explorer can get frustrated with. With persistence, however, one may reach a magnificent clearing with a bush in bloom, such as this right at the end of the poem, which makes it all worthwhile:

ffffffffffI’ll be your mother, father, sister & brother in the community of
fffffffffflovers & we’ll see how many mountains there could ever be there in
ffffffffffthe midst of caterwauling spectacular waterfalls. (85)

By a strange coincidence in an encyclopaedic description of the terrain of Madagascar, a similar sentiment is expressed:

ffffffffffThe spiny deserts of Madagascar are stunningly beautiful and filled
ffffffffffwith amazing plants and animals. There is little shade here, and the
ffffffffffimpenetrable spiny thickets impede exploration, but a visitor here
ffffffffffwill be rewarded by the sight of bizarre and elaborate plant forms,
ffffffffffall adapted to the harsh conditions of this dry climate.

On time and mapping: “Summer Solstice 2006”

There are certain poems in the collection that feel like milestones, such as the one mentioned above, warranting special mention, orienting the reader in time and space:

ffffffffffToday it is warm and spectacular…
ffffffffffthere’s no humidity…
ffffffffffplaying at the local movie theatre now are:
ffffffffffthe DaVinci Code, the break-up, the fast & the furious (6)

You have enough to know exactly where you are, where the poet’s feet are placed to then take the journey with her.

More personally, the poet is in recovery after an accident, a perfect time for rumination and reflection: “the cars a goner / trampling on my independence" (7). In this poem she reveals much about herself: “As a 61 year old poet my aims haven’t much changed to change the world—but now more abstractly as I’ve seen the influences you can exchange with the dare I say it? universe…” (10).

“Summer Solstice” is an important poem for many reasons. It clearly shows Mayer as a poet who feels the allure of “universe,” which creates a desire for transcendence or escape in her:

ffffffffffI’d like to go to the canary islands for xmas I think or Israel or
ffffffffffMadagascar so I wouldn’t have to see any of these sado-
ffffffffffmasochistic crosses/indicating foul religion’s pull/like erosion’s
ffffffffffon people (11)

For those familiar with Mayer’s work, this is a reference to the poet’s lifelong hatred of Christmas. One reason is, her mother’s death on Christmas eve haunts her: “Today’s the day my mother chose / to die, how rude of her” (132). Another is that religion has simply always struck a sour note with her. In this poem, when touching on this subject, her language gets fiercer:

ffffffffffI wish I knew
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffhow to get hold of limitless cash
ffffffffffso you & I could be
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffin an anti-christianity place
ffffffffffI’m tired of seeing xmas decorations, support our troops signs
ffffffffffeverywhere, cars, SUV’s gas prices, who cares? (11)

This is Mayer’s recognition of maya, illusion. She simply does not care about this constructed reality when there is so much more world. This poem also returns us to the title of the book, describing an existence reminiscent of the pantheisms of Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley:

fffffffffflately I never leave my enclave here—I have streams
ffffffffffto swim in
ffffffffffffffffffffI know where & when to find the berries
ffffffffffI even have a forest
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffthe poetry state forest (12)

On the Nature of the Forest

Above all, Mayer is concerned with dream, nature, time, reality viz. maya and the poetry of the banal. The flights of fancy she excels in are almost always anchored in the mundane. In “Lever Bros.” we go from “cock wave or creek waves / signal to us from hollyhocks” (63) in the first two lines, to “see snow / while eating your grilled cheese or counting your steps” (63) in the last line. More often than not the poet places us very precisely, with a date, a place, and with a Japanese aesthetic, in weather, keenly observing the passing of seasons and often commemorating the first days of months or transitions: “The first day of autumn is spreading out / evenly beyond the little boxes of time” (107). Sometimes she creates a mapping to the point of compulsive listing: “today is February 28,2005 / phil is making pizza” (56). But she always gets to her main concerns, as in the next line: “I am an alien maybe sprayed with humanness / so as to become a maple tree willingly” (56).

The poem “Mostly Fair” (49) illustrates this further. It is set up like a pastoral or idyll but is more like a mapping of Mayer’s inner experience. Structured like a weather report it is a Mayer report:

ffffffffffSnow will fall in northern New England
ffffffffffand northern New York…Sun rises around 6:30 in the morning
ffffffffffand sets by about twenty to five

ffffffffffEverybody was in a bad mood
ffffffffffit was veterans day anyway….but they said the ink was harmless
ffffffffffso I guess were the gusty winds
ffffffffffand last night’s crowded & terrifying dreams. (49)

Here we have all the trademarks of Bernadette Mayer. She uses the elements of her public life to make sense of her internal world. The entire poem seems to be a way to get at what’s really going on: dreams, with the poet ever aware of being a human above all: “My feet are cold; I am a feeble human” (89). And despite a life troubled and fraught with illness and poverty, “I wonder if Catullus / ever sorted roman coins” (97), Mayer finds joy in details such as the name of the lake near which her house is situated: Tsatsawassa, and the particulars of the foods she has eaten, is about to eat or dreams of eating:

ffffffffff…red wine, infused with figs & lavender (99)

ffffffffff…making a chicken with mashed celeriac (56)

ffffffffffin imitation of all the great pastries
ffffffffffI’d desired in a bakery window (23)

In creating, or rather, so precisely recreating and deconstructing, reality, she is also always questioning the same:

ffffffffffWe’re getting a helium balloon
fffffffffffor Max’s birthday but everything’s
ffffffffffeither real or an illusion, what about

ffffffffffThe Sunday paper?
ffffffffffWhy is it so scary? (19)

This is the crux of Bernadette Mayer’s poetics. She is concerned with maya, illusion. She painstakingly delineates what is in fact “real,” but actually, what is more real to her is the dreamworld: “I was dressed in a mercury habit convulsively / it was as real as a dream” (28).

Bernadette Mayer has always been a master of the self-reflexive. This collection is no different: “I just said that to lengthen the line; so there” (81). Mayer breaks the “rules,” however, her sense of form is ever-present. She does actually “want” to lengthen the line, in order to create some kind of form…so there! Totally cognizant of her obsession with dreams she writes in the voice of her house: “I’ve had it with your dreams, you think anything you dream is true” (94) in “Conversation With The Tsatsawassa House.” To which she, the poet in the poem, replies: “And my poetry too.”

She is also self-aware as a poet: “Who can be as weird as me, this clear night?” (88). Is this a challenge? And to whom?

With this book, Bernadette Mayer illustrates a point that she has tried to make her whole life, that poetry is everywhere, and can be found everywhere, as in her poems “Conversation With the Tsatsawassa House” (94) or “The Flying Spatula” (18): “see how easy it is / to be a poet, you can say anything” (131). Statements such as this may seem flippant, but this is at the heart of her belief about poetry, so it is Mayer’s truth.

There is nothing flippant, however, about a classic lament to the muse, visceral and strangely unsettling, particularly if one is aware that for many years Mayer was unable to write due to a stroke:

ffffffffffMuse, you didn’t stand for me
ffffffffffon the gravely earth
ffffffffffwhen I was scared to be practical
ffffffffffyou appeared frightening in the kitchen (14).

The heart of the forest

As we manoeuvre through Poetry State Forest, going deeper, the epicentre at the heart of the book, from which all other poems ripple, is reached—a poem titled “40-60” (38), an account of twenty years of the poet’s life. “My method in writing this is to write non-chronologically as fast as I can, ½ page for every year” (39); in the heart of the forest the poet reveals absolutely everything to us. She has been in recovery a long time, and this poem answers any questions that people may have had about the silence.

We are reminded that this book is coming from someone who for the longest time had no muscle control. “When I was 49, I had a stroke, a cerebral haemorrhage & I can only now forget about it” (38). She continues the reveal, “I write unbalanced poetry” (38), or shares fun facts which deflect from the seriousness of the stroke: “In the 19th century a bad poet was called a candle waster” (39). The poem sheds light on the experience of living post-stroke: “pauses are spent daydreaming, not in thoughtless breathing” (39).

The ever-present utopia makes its appearance here also (and again), tempered with trademark humour:

ffffffffffI want to go to Madagascar & live with the lemurs; in dreams I leap like
ffffffffffthem now almost in my 60th moment, I no longer wonder at the
fffffffffffeeling I don’t belong here I have never fit in anywhere but who cares
ffffffffffApparently, me if I keep harping on it (42)

On Periods & Penises

No Bernadette Mayer collection would be complete without some discourse on the penis and/or menstruation. The poem “Ode on Periods” (26), both reminds us who Mayer is, and what she has meant to poetry. Those who rally around her brand of feminism shall do so based on this poem. The language is indeed very proto-feminist: “So Friends! Hold the bloody sponge up! For all to see!” (27). This is the kind of balls-to-the-wall joie de vivre that defines, in so many ways, the poetry of Bernadette Mayer:

ffffffffffthe penis like a tree fits into mouth, hand and asshole too
ffffffffffIt can be the subject of an academic poem/disguised as a sloop,
ffffffffffcatapult or catamaran’s mastpole (26)

This poem, and indeed this collection of poetry, reminds us that decades after emerging on the New York poetry scene with flair and aplomb Bernadette Mayer is still capable of throwing down the gauntlet to whomever will listen. Go forth then and explore Poetry State Forest.


Sascha Aurora Akhtar was born in Pakistan. She studied photography, filmmaking and multi-media installation art at Bennington College, and she earned her MFA from UMass Amherst. Her poetry collection The Grimoire of Grimalkin was published by Salt in 2007. She spends her time in London and Pakistan and is the co-producer of the successful La Langoustine Est Morte reading series along with Trinidadian poet Anthony Joseph. Her work appears in the forthcoming Shearsman anthology on UK women's avant garde poetries, "Infinite Difference." A 2008 article in the Guardian, "The New Beats," named Akhtar one of the top twelve poets to watch.