I’m always protesting that I’m not a passionate Bernadette Mayer reader. I was handed a tan pamphlet somewhere – I only regret that Harriet does not have comments because they might read this and remind me who they were – but whoever handed me this stapled version of B. Mayer’s 1964 ceremony latin said it was the first thing she published, or wrote or something like that and yet I think Bernadette Mayer once told me about something she wrote, a novel, when she was 19 and the date seems like this could be that, but is this a novel. It’s short. It must be excerpts from that, surely. It’s just too damn small to be what one would have stayed up all night writing when they were 19 and teaching themselves to write. This seems about 20 or 25 pages long. I’ve been leafing through it this week, a week in which I’ve been in Tucson, Austin and New Orleans. I  have so much to say about all these places and the great friends I’ve stayed with and even the readings I’ve given that were so much fun. And how many books I’ve sold which I’ve loved a lot. I have a blog I began (not Harriet but at eileenmyles.com) and kind of stopped in part because I had a feeling that I didn’t want to write about my book tour and yet there I was book touring. Why would I think there was something wrong with blogging about book touring. But now as poetry month ends and I’m blogging on Harriet, look, I have no shame writing about book touring. I’ve casually mentioned it. Mentioned my joy at selling stuff. Yet I’m writing about other poets’ work here and it feels awfully good. Bernadette’s book is faintly beige. Almost a passionless peach.


Whatever it is, the book, the poem, the novel rolls on. Sometimes a full prose-like looking page, some times quite poemy, or just three words do float in the upper left. That’s part of the Bernadette thing, a flowing experience. It isn’t quite a Stein float, yet it’s more streaming than most poetry. Kind of Olson-y, really. The words feel sort of appointed to be there, but not vatic, secular entirely even when in B’s case, she frequently uses the Bible and quotes from it happily. I’m thinking, I’m sure Bernadette Mayer was brought up catholic, but it’s quoted godlessly which is quite an accomplishment, so she’s probably godless like Voltaire if you know what I mean. Probably not even that passionate. But here’s the few words I’d like to think about:


Return of the parents dream.

Always pleasant, I am favored, prodigal.


These two lines seem very comfortable to me. It’s written for the self, by the self yet there’s a mythic quality to it. Is there an exalted first person that seems to be musing about a space you indeed occupy but you’re occupying it in the spirit of enjoying language that points and describes without really having so much body on it that it ever seems fleshy. In that sense I think it’s catholic writing. The subject is not bodily but the language is. What’s that word that means fat, or round. Orotose or something like that. It’s chubby thought. Also there’s a confidence in how the lines are placed next to each other that imply that they are building on one another but it’s a faux metonomy, or maybe that’s what metonomy means, a fauxness. Things next to each other are not necessarily related. One uses their closeness to imply relatedness.


I think the first line means “the dream in which the parents return”. And “[a]lways pleasant, I am favored, prodigal” builds on that obliquely but the story of the prodigal son is about the fact that he returned and subsequently is loved, despite the fact he left his family. Christianity poses here as an ultra-kind family. And in this larger picture returning parents don’t actually contribute or have any bearing on the prodigal-ness of the offspring.  I think Bernadette is using these biblical references to confer authority on her assemblage. But oddly, what feels most resolute and that’s the word I’d most use to describe Mayer’s writing - resoluteness, most resolute is the extra five syllables in the second line that surpass the first, and yet wrap around its meaning by means of this associativeness that seems true. Like Alain Badiou and others have  proposed, work that has versimilitude, that seems true often pleases people. They like it. The work moves with an assurance that ultimately goes well for all of us. What links Bernadette Mayer and Charles Olson is this air of confidence. As if truth were a direction, on a map, an outer verity which does sound like a place I think. Both these writers are New Englanders, after all. At heart.

Originally Published: April 29th, 2011

Eileen Myles was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was educated in Catholic schools, graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and moved to New York City in 1974 to be a poet. They gave their first reading at CBGB's and then gravitated to St. Mark's church where they studied with Ted...