Eating the Colors of a Lineup of Words: The Early Books of Bernadette Mayer

by Stephen Burt

This mammoth, long-awaited collection of seven rare books from the 1960s and 1970s (plus one never published before) is a book to get lost in; indeed, it could make almost any reader feel lost—and that’s part of its power. Mayer’s first books circulated in avant-garde downtown New York City, where second-generation New York School poets like Alice Notley mingled with proto-punk rockers and gallery artists like Vito Acconci (Mayer and Acconci coedited a magazine). The post–Gertrude Stein antinarrative of Story (1968); the endless rambles and catalogues of Moving (1971); and the scrappy, disorienting short poems of the provocatively titled Poetry (1976), breaking every rule about well-made poems, split the difference between conceptual art, with its defiance of feeling and personality, and confessionalism, with its emphasis on the same. Those who know these books might leap for joy at the long, never-before-seen volume called The Old Style Is Finding Out Something about a Whole New Set of Possibilities, from the late 1960s; some of it turned into Poetry, but much of it is new to the world, and wonderful: extensive, almost ridiculous lists, word games, quips about everything and nothing (“Some winds blow all year in the same direction. She came from the south.... Two drams borax”). Yet Mayer’s greatest work was still to come: in the late 1970s she became a mother, settled in the Berkshires, and created a loose, almost pellucid style fit for her day-to-day experience: “The second baby, we’ll have to / Turn up the heat, eat nothing / And breathe through a rose.” These poems could make you cry—but they could and did also open up the American language, making it friendlier, weirder, more available to you and everyone else.

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2015.