Bernadette Mayer - East Nassau, NY - April 9,2011 (c)Bill DeNoyelles
Eating the Colors Off A Lineup of Words
When the infinite servitude of women shall have ended, when she will be able to live by and for herself; then, man hitherto abominable- having given her the freedom, she too will be a poet. Woman will discover the unknown. Will her world be different from ours? She will discover strange, unfathomable things, repulsive, delicious. We shall take them, we shall understand them.”
One afternoon in October of 1985 Bernadette Mayer and I set about photographing the streets of New York's Lower East Side. Our cameras, however, had no film in them. A practice I was encouraged to do in my foundation year at the School of Visual Arts from which I had graduated a year before. A practice I had either declined or ignored completely for I adhered to the thought that art must be an object, a commodity. It was a practice Bernadette was no stranger to. After viewing a recent show of Willem deKooning's at the Xavier Fourcade Gallery (and over a few beers on York Ave.) Bernadette had successfully convinced me to join her on this outing, if for nothing else, for the sake of experimentation. I consented.
In 1985, Manhattan's Lower East Side was still a colorful epicenter for immigrant cultures of varying economic strata, Hell's Angels, old hippies, ill defined outlaws, drugs and (as Bernadette referred to them) Punk people. Gentrification was ever present, ripening at a slow but noticeable pace. The streets of Alphabet City had not yet been redesigned out of desperation and greed. There remained an air of criminality that darkened the doorways of corner bodegas where, I was told, you could buy a gun if you knew the code. A location brimming over with an onslaught of pictures, an overload of information at every intersection. We shared thoughts and clarified shots while pointing out visual dramas to each other. We walked slowly and were often silent. Our shutters clicked against traffic signals, the sky a penetrating blue, cloudless as only an October sky can be. A handful of memories remain with me - the deep, brilliant yellow of New York taxi cabs, a heady autumnal haze in a sideways shaft of late afternoon light, the softened reflection of a truck in a bakery window. And like Bernadette, I both understand and don't understand what we found out. As the day faded we made it back to 172 East Fourth street where we sat cross legged, facing each other, drinking a potent tea. At some point Bernadette asked me what I hoped to do as an artist, photographer and poet. A question that, had it been asked by anyone else, would have locked me up in fear, nervousness and confusion. Yet when Bernadette posed the question I felt honored, invigorated, confident in my future. It suddenly seemed that all things were possible and that art could exist outside the realm of precious commodity. Art could be casual, every day, disposable. It could include everything in one's dailiness and perhaps even exist only for the nourishment and edification of the creator. I was stunned at the revelation. We shared a hearty laugh. Bernadette reached behind her, pulled AD Coleman's On Photography out from her bottom bookshelf and let me read his review of her work Memory. She also gathered up some notebooks and a copy of Robbe Grillet's Snapshots. As I readied to leave to head back home to New Jersey Bernadette handed me an impressive stack of notebooks of varying size and thickness. They were, in fact, Studying Hunger Journals as she had written them. An honor I regard highly to this day.
I spent the next two weeks transfixed, reading and rereading Bernadette's journals chronicling April 1972 through December 1974 . Words written in her impeccable hand. Words that cascaded over each other, where each letter was a different color, words vertical and backwards, written from corner to corner. A forest green word mapped out diagonally across an entire page, sentences that faded from lack of ink - the black pen replaced by blue, by brown, by red, by black again. Face-like drawings, multicolored diagrams, scrawled messages to David her psychoanalyst. A field of exploration that made every element of language a possibility worth mining regardless of the outcome. A realm where dreams merged with waking states indistinguishable. And like her question to me Studying Hunger Journals made everything in thought and the English language possible, full of future promise.
Amazingly enough, whole sections of Studying Hunger Journals have remained in the folds of my memory for over 25 years. Alas now, after almost 40 years since their inception, we have them to read - handsomely bound, accessible. The delay in this masterpiece's availability has been, in part, the reluctance of publishers to take on such a long, diverse volume that defies category. This is an unapologetic work of grande depth incorporating poetry, prose, autobiography and psychology. Bernadette had (and has) few peers who can match her ingenuity or craftsmanship. As much as Bernadette's previous work Memory(completed between July 1971 and February 1972) had taken on the exploration of memory within a smaller, dense, more concrete time period, Studying Hunger Journals are a a thorough exploration of cellular memory, eternal & timeless, bravely merging states of consciousness into a dream life of being awake with a new language. Levels of consciousness that merge in an accelerating narrative geared toward psychological freedom and holistic love. Shamelessly Bernadette offers us neurosis, repressed trauma, desire, sex, politics, her address, the agonizing guilt of Catholicism and her healing. From the beginning, Bernadette clearly realized that if you delve into your consciousness you must also delve deeply into language as well. She rises to the occasion: dense torrents of words are piled on layer after layer, often scraped away in a process designed to expand the limits of language and in doing so there is the uncovering of a poetry that (as of then) hadn't been written or uttered. Artless and dazzling yet always full of new territories Studying Hunger Journals becomes a signpost for new space in the realm of modern poetry. We are blessed to have them. The curative powers of this work are undeniable as we are taken into Bernadette's personal process of psychological excavation. And what a privilege that is.
At the initial onset Studying Hunger Journals reads as seemingly straightforward journal entries, somewhat embellished with a twist, coded. There's an underlying uneasiness, a shadow of anxiety as Bernadette sets about her dailiness. The narrative quickly gathers speed and proceeds at a manic pace akin to the racing myriad thoughts of a panic attack. It is this pace that sustainsStudying Hunger Journals. Yet it is within this speed we catch glimpses of autobiography both lovingly and brutally rendered. There's an almost claustrophobic sense at times. You feel like your living in the deserted, desolate Soho of the early 1970's. You feel as though your pacing the floors 74 Grand Street with her - north to south, south to north, dimly lit, as she collects the shifts, the fluctuation, the dissipation of fears, hopes, plans, decisions, ponderings - recording, coding them with her pen along with the notations to David, her psychiatrist.
There are few writers who can translate the complexity of an anxiety attack let alone carry it off in one sentence the way Bernadette can: The t.v. Set just scared me out of my wits, it isn't even on (.page 10). She rivals anything written by ole Bull Burroughs with her succinct rendering of Washington D.C's corruption, hypocrisy and deceit in a scatological paragraph about Pat Nixon and the street gangs (page 109) where the finest White House China becomes a toilet to our nation's leaders. No doubt influenced by the 1972 Republican Convention, there's no fear and loathing in her minimalist prose. No one can do it so accurately or hit the nerve so precisely with so little. Woven within the greater text are vignettes that nail and define the very premise of this work. Some as small as a page, others a half page. They resonate none the less. There's the innocence and adoration of a little girl who helps her father make furniture in the basement of their home. And the aching loneliness of the young girl afraid to miss school as she reads by herself into the wee hours of the morning in a the linoleum light of a 1950's kitchen as she does her best to care for her terminally ill mother. There's even a small section we could aptly title The Merry Christmas of Death as Bernadette focuses her rage at the cold inability of the Catholic Church to comfort the suffering. Herein lies the essence of the work that enabled Bernadette to transcend the crippling confinement of her grief in order to become a more full being in the world. A redefining and coloring of language that reorganized the contents of her mind. A gift she has passed onto us with her brave writing.
Having finally been acknowledged as one of America's best and influential poets, it is time to rightfully acknowledge Bernadette as one of America's most innovative conceptualists, for as breathtakingly beautiful as the poetry in Studying Hunger Journals is, it is also an important contribution to Process Art. Destined to influence generations of future artists, now (in the 21st century),Studying Hunger Journals can stand proudly alongside Andre Breton's Nadja, deKooning's Excavation and William Burrough's Naked Lunch. And in finishing I find myself doing nothing more than holding the thought of love.
This review has appeared in Exquisite Corpse, Big Bridge (Vol.4, Number 4 Spring 2012) and in a highly edited version in The Poetry Project Newsletter #229 Dec. 2011. Special thanks to Bernadette Mayerwho suggested I write this (April 9,2011) for her upcoming Birthday - May 12, 2011.