What Lives Inside Bernadette Mayer's Project, "Memory"
The poet's durational experiment wherein she wrote about, and shot a full roll of film every day for, one month in 1971 is being published in book form for the first time by Siglio Press.
From Memory by Bernadette Mayer, Siglio, 2020. Courtesy Bernadette Mayer Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University of California, San Diego.
Because I can be sentimental, and sentimental because I’m nostalgic, I often think about this line from Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay: “I can feel that day running underneath this one/like an old videotape.” The tape not seen but felt, as if the VHS hum spirits forward an ambient claim from the past; low vibrations, tactile but elemental enough to sneak across time. Lately, though, it’s like someone has raided my stash and glued the ends of some tapes to the starts of others, doctoring a permalooped curse of boundless days. Too dizzyingly diffuse for analog metaphor, actually—maybe like, somebody has fucked with my Cloud.
Tapes, Clouds: just archives by any other name. It’s disorienting to think that, even in the thick of stasis and decline, the crisis continues to archive itself. I’ve been reading a few of the pandemic diaries that have sprung up alongside all those pictures of focaccia and desolate cityscapes (the sudden nothing between stacked buildings; unpeopled parks in spring bloom). It makes sense, this spate of journaling to weather catastrophe: the diary is the most forgiving written form, a necessarily spontaneous and intuitive space for rehearsing what is felt before (or while) it’s properly thought. I just wouldn’t know what to write now, since any kind of documentation confers worth against imminent loss, and I don’t think I’ve felt anything worth keeping in words.
In the summer of 1971, when the poet Bernadette Mayer began her durational experiment, Memory, everything was worth keeping. For the full month of July, Mayer wrote and shot through a roll of 35mm every day, seeking something as close as possible to total recall. That month yielded some 1,100 photographs and reams of text, which made their way to Holly Solomon’s Greene Street gallery the following year. A thousand tiny grids were arrayed in a 36-by-4-foot sweep across a gallery wall, set to six tape-recorded hours of Mayer reading out her prose. Those thirty-one days, she’d hoped, would unfurl as an atmospheric facsimile. With Memory, Mayer had briefly left page for installation space; this month, nearly half a century on, the exhibition’s reincarnation from Siglio Press commits all text and images to print for the first time.
Mayer carried out the project a few years after her experiments in the late ‘60s with 0 to 9, the short-lived and cryptically logophilic magazine she co-edited and published with Vito Acconci, and just before the near-mythic writing workshops she’d go on to lead at the Poetry Project in St. Mark’s. Unlike the canny spontaneity of the First-Generation New York School poets, who’d staked out the Lower East Side with their romanticization of the local (“I never go above 14th Street!,” mocked Charles Bernstein, an early acolyte of hers), Mayer brought a denser, more theoretical practice to her teaching and writing. She was, as she wrote in Studying Hunger, “waging a constant battle against traditional language.”
I’ve seen “plainspoken” attached to her style, though, like Gertrude Stein’s, Mayer’s candor still sings mysteries on the page. Memory is not strictly a diary, but it pockets the day with similar devices; the entries read like consciousness spilled, even though, after the fact, she used both journal notes and the photos to refine and complete the text. Lines fall and trip over themselves to keep pace with her thought; objects are pilfered from their verbs; words and phrases repeat so many times they end up aural refrains cleaved from ordinary meaning. Is a “deer” still a deer, six rounds later? “You do look all the time at some of the same things until the names of objects might as well fall off,” she would eventually write in Midwinter Day, her epic six-part poem penned in and about the stunning trifles of one cold dawn-to-dusk.
She would also write, as that midwinter day drew to a close, about its spontaneous translation into language, a kind of psychic livestream delivered by the hand: “Writing continuously for as long as you can stand up till you fall down like in a story to show and possess everything we know.” With Memory, Mayer varied her tools in her search for total documentation. Try as she might with words, but what could anchor an instant faster than a photograph? Some of the pictures in Memory fall into easy groupings, thanks to the steady slant of light in a barn upstate, or a driving day told through windscreens and rear view mirrors. Bedroom shots surface here and there, mostly backlit, less portraits of their shadowed and supine subjects and more records of the outside world as it windows in. On a first read, I dash through the book and take in pictures without their adjacent text, assembling a jumbled montage: a coffee can of wildflowers on a mustard pillow; red-meshed sacks of onions on the street; diners in daylight and neon; a lamp-lit ass on white sheets, and the sky! So much sky in so many blue pieces, which remind me of William Eggleston’s skyward shots from his roadtrip in ‘78. In fact, some of Mayer’s photos seem a lo-fi East Coast complement to Eggleston’s late-century visions of white America, polychrome and sun-kissed.
While Mayer’s other work can be read in that densely textual, self-contained way of “language school” poetry—look into the words and keep on looking— Memory asks us to look sideways from words to photos and back again. Here is an artist’s early push against limitation, vacillating between mediums in search of a form that can hold all the sensory matter that makes up the present. Without the gallery space and the sonic surrounds of Mayer’s recorded voice, we can only ricochet between pages of text and image. It’s a movement that reminds me of a thaumatrope, an old optical toy with two different pictures on either side of a stringed disc, feigning a complete one when spun. Say, a dove and an empty cage, tricked together as a jailed bird. Maybe going back and forth between things is the only way to see it whole.
Although, even that “see” is specious; in Memory, Mayer often collapses senses synesthetically—“we dont hear images from you anymore”; “i ate colors in a dream”. And I say “collapse” even as her writing seems to dilate split-second impressions to house a moment in all that it is, and all that it can suggest. There are no clear beginnings or endings, except the dates that mark each entry. A sentence leads to the next only in space, not in sense. Collapse and dilation; if it sounds like a paradox, then I guess it is. Any project so voracious for its own completion is prone to fall short, contradict itself and its aims. Memory was animated, Mayer writes in the new foreword, by the thought that “if there were a computer or device that could record everything you think or see, even for a single day, that would make an interesting piece of language/information.” What Mayer is looking for seems like a total affective inscription, so more or less, a set-up for failure. She laments as much in the foreword; even in that deep July, so much was still left out.
This past month, I’ve already seen a sort of anticipatory nostalgia circulating online, mostly as a way of coping (this, too, shall pass). I give it half a year before the zeitgeist-crafters turn their consolidating eyes to early 2020 and coerce some dominant, universalizing affect out of violently unequal experiences, though I do wonder what I’ll retain and if, like Mayer, I’ll remember what was left out. What I lack in words I’ve made up for with a bulky camera roll, mostly screenshots and pictures of other screens, dotted with squares of spring ephemera: green sheaths on bare branches, boughs pinking with petals, tufts of white blossom like fallen clouds. When the first tulips pushed through in my neighborhood, I took so many photos you’d think I’d never seen a tulip before, and would never see one again.
- bernadette mayer