Tutti Frutti

Niela Orr

In July 1971, Bernadette Mayer set out to capture ‘every smallest detail’ of her life in photographs and writing. She called Memory an ‘emotional science project’. When it was published as a book in 2020, Janique Vigier remarked in the LRB: ‘Time was her subject and her constraint.’ The book includes more than 1100 photographs, two hundred pages of text and six hours of audio recording. It’s now possible to record that much on a mobile phone without blinking, but fifty years ago Mayer was interested in zooming in on events as commonplace and strange as blinking itself. Memory asks what we gain and lose from concentrated bouts of looking, and how different perspectives sharpen our perception of the bigger picture, as well as snapshot-sized ones.

Writers, like everyone else, are constrained by time. Writing requires a certain kind of surreptitiousness: it involves snatching experience, but also stealing time. Between deadlines and other demands, it can feel like having to negotiate the crisscrossing laser lines that confront a diamond thief in a heist movie. In Memory and the other thirty-odd books she published, Mayer made Oulipian work of the chief constraint we’re all bound by.

She died on 22 November, aged 77. Earlier in the month, New Directions published the career-spanning collection Milkweed Smithereens. In ‘The Joys of Dahlias’, a nonsense taxonomy of sensual feelings inspired by flowers, Mayer writes:

sleep now, smart pants or the midnight dancer
will tutti frutti your fabulous memory

I don’t know who the midnight dancer is, but if I’m up late, grinding away for some deadline or other, they’re someone I might hallucinate. Listen how lovely Mayer’s invented verbs are: ‘tutti frutti’ could mean to chop up, desiccate and sweeten, like the ice-cream topping, or to reduce your ‘fabulous memory’ into little more than a rolling playback of Little Richard’s rock and roll squeal. (‘A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom’ might be sound poetry produced in the witching hour, the cry of an insomnolent artist under pressure to make a hit.)

Mayer’s best known work, Midwinter Day, was feverishly composed in 24 hours, on the 1978 winter solstice. She may have known the midnight dancer just as well as she knew the 1950s pop tunes she mentions in one of the pandemic diaries published in Milkweed Smithereens: Gene Chandler’s ‘Duke of Earl’, songs by Ricky Nelson and maybe by Little Richard, though he isn’t named.

The imagistic blast in ‘The Joys of Dahlias’ – which begins ‘ahoy matey, I’m peeling your lollipop’ – lays bare the pirate logic of making your own linguistic rules, as Mayer did here, striking through experiential and associative items on the list a mind makes without caring whether the synaesthetic transcription translates to the reader, though the poem ends with that jolt of self-awareness that’s also an imperative to lose consciousness: ‘sleep now, smart pants.’

Mayer explored the tensions between sleeping and expending energy, living and remembering, sharing and hoarding. She taught for a time at New York City’s Poetry Project (she also served, for a spell, as its director) and worked odd jobs, including editorial ones, at the art magazine 0 to 9 and as a proofreader at Random House. She demonstrated how living as a professional writer requires the stealth of a pirate, the resourcefulness of a castaway, and the searching self-suspicion of a person who routinely feels at sea, who often consults a compass or a clock. In Midwinter Day she wrote: ‘I am trying to remember where in time I am.’

If time was one of Mayer’s constraints, money was another. In 2019, an episode of the Organist (a podcast I helped to edit for many years) featured an interview with her. ‘You’d think I’d be not so poor at the age of 73, right?’ Mayer said. In 2018 she took home about $17,000, from sources including a disability cheque and reading fees. (Tutti frutti, indeed: poets, like early rock and roll pioneers, can end up astonishingly ‘impecunious’, to use Mayer’s word.)

Poets are often praised for the ‘economy’ of their language: saying the most in the fewest words. Mayer made an art of simultaneously negotiating the economies of language and US dollars. ‘So much poetry has a deliberate lack of meaning,’ Mayer told her interviewer, Rachel James, ‘because the only way you can express some aspects of living would be without meaning.’ Or, as James put it, ‘commercial work tends to be easy to understand, but Mayer wrote poems that resisted sense-making, so, right at the sentence level of her work is a resistance to commerce, to the market, to money.’

I appreciate Mayer’s willingness, in that podcast episode, to forgo the shame that’s often associated with speaking frankly about money. I’m grateful that she spoke a little of what it’s like to live on the edge of becoming – better known, more impoverished, appreciably more self-aware, closer to sorting out the indecipherable. Life can feel temporarily suspended when you’re living pay cheque to pay cheque, line ending to line ending. When you’re barely making by, the week before payday is an em dash without end.

In ‘Simon’s in China, Because but Yet or Still Again’, Mayer writes:

I have a craving to write
To someone who loves me without reserve
So it’s switched into my poems
To want to be loved all the time I think …

In harsh stolen solitude this midwinter …
Romance was once a luxury, now it’s hard
To abjure this winter

I’m sure poets will gather to read Midwinter Day later this month, as they have for decades now, but it will be a harder solstice without Mayer. There is relief, though, in reading her poetry, and luxuriating in the stretched seconds of her fecund verse. Here, punching in pays so much more than what you’d make on the clock.