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Writers seldom live their biographies, Elizabeth Hardwick said, however they play a part. Despite their reputation as the most truthful, authentic form of self-writing, personalities develop in letters that aren’t there in the readings. In the letters exchanged between poet Bernadette Mayer and her sister, the artist Rosemary Mayer, Bernadette plays a non-conciliatory, didactic role. Bernadette and Rosemary Mayer were artists who remained faithful to the promise of their time, New York City of the late 60s and 70s, broken subways between galleries, scrounging for survival. Both died in our present era, though neither seemed out of place in it. Rosemary, the painter and sculptor, died in 2014 and Bernadette, the poet, died this past November. As painful as it is to imagine a world without them and their tireless dedications, it is also difficult to imagine a world untouched by their influence. Bernadette’s career shaped modern writing on the everyday, and her influence as a teacher and mentor shaped generations and revitalized the East Village Poetry Project. “You’re tired because you’re angry, that’s what anger does,” Bernadette wrote Rosemary in 1976: “Don’t waste your energy.” She was two years younger, but had twenty the moral fire. The Letters of Rosemary and Bernadette Mayer 1976–1980 was published in 2021 by Lost & Found Elsewhere, released with a few other institutions in concert with an international retrospective of Rosemary’s work in 2021. Art historian Gillian Sneed edited the collection with grace and the proper distance, with help from Maria Warsh, Bernadette’s eldest daughter. The book is a gorgeously marble-bound objet d’art worthy of the delicacy with which both sisters approached correspondence.
It’s a volume of primarily benevolent exchanges, at times startling in their formal avoidance of conflict. For all the siblings’ openness, what are they hiding in such moments? Letters are great vehicles for the unsaid. The most heated their missives get is in their entreaties to the other to respond or, in Rosemary’s case, for the other to shed some wisdom, invoking “Poloniusisms,” a term coined by the sisters in reference to the unbidden, overblown advice of Hamlet’s Polonius. Rosemary’s letters are terse, consciously abbreviated and sometimes obtuse. The letter forms a therapeutic space for Rosemary, an echo chamber. Bernadette, on the other hand, allows for digression, instruction, and bounces in flirtation with the formal language of letter writing. Although no less therapeutic, she appears unable to lay on the couch without being aware, too, of its architecture. In a letter from November 1976 that Rosemary professes to have reread multiple times, the coefficient of a typographical mistake delights Bernadette:
I’ve begun this letter a few times, throwing them away, hand-written version, mostly because I got so involved in my own Polonius-like sayings that I realized that it was all trash & where do I get off giving anybody advice when I can’t even go to Pittsfield by myself without getting scared or leave my baby for an hour without feeling sudden sense of loos.? Loss. Typing is always interesting.
Elsewhere, she displays a playfulness with the material process of letter writing, here producing a line close to the heights of her poetry:
I’m writing you on the back of one of Marie’s latest works where she is discovering what shape a face is.
Contrary to the implication of the volume’s forward, these styles are formed less out of deference to the other sister, giving “shape to . . . life and work through language,” but in reaction to the ecosystems the sisters inhabit: Rosemary in New York, the city that Bernadette has escaped yet still desires, and Bernadette in the country, in a quietude that often seems more suited to Rosemary than to the social Bernadette. In Sneed’s thorough introduction, the collection is billed as a testament to intimacy between sisters, and even a testament to the bonds of sisterhood. I was surprised to learn from the same introduction, that these years were the closest the sisters would ever be. “Visits are unreal to me. The phone is worse,” Rosemary writes. Though visits did occur, in the letters, the prospect of a visit often seems impossible for reasons logistical, financial, and perhaps intangible, and the renegotiating of such terms of a visit, interminable. When visits do occur, both sisters seem unsatisfied in the aftermath, as though they’ve been unable to actually say anything to each other. Perhaps what this reveals more than anything is the degree to which all family ties are threaded equally with love and duty. It’s a wonder they’re even sisters, I thought, these Mayers, and yet sisterhood is a wonder. The constant sharing, the soundboard for various refrains, the acknowledgement of shared secrets. They talk on the phone quite a bit, and this is corroborated in the letters, some of them beginning where a previous phone call ended—Bernadette: “Please don’t pay attention to anything I said on the phone!”—or where a conversation broke off when one or the other had the privilege of an in-person visit. Even after, though, they frequently lament not saying enough: “I had the feeling you didn’t want to talk personally when you were here, but it’s hard to say anything real in a letter.” Perhaps the letters were, in the cradle of expected form, a space safe for them to believe the relationship still had standing.
Though interest for Rosemary has been piqued in recent years—thanks to curatorial efforts by Sneed, especially—Bernadette has always been the born star. She had at least a healthier relationship to status than her sister, but this is often the case with the more successful. At the time of these letters, she has a husband—with whom she has a mostly peaceful relationship, and with whom she left the city in 1975 for lazy Western Massachusetts—a child, Marie (Sophia and Max are soon to follow); and she had the editorships, and the publications and exhibitions that garnered her more than a littleauthority among the second wave of the New York School of poetry. She was always distinct from them, though, going less “on her nerve” than according to almost scientific constraints. Her multi-media work Memory had reached acclaim among the artists and writers of mid-70s post-conceptual art. The work compiled the musings of her daily journal and the photographic results of completing a roll of film every day for a year. A similarly inspired work of molecular reportage, Studying Hunger, came out just after the family moved to Massachusetts. Her best books, such as Golden Book of Words, Midwinter Day, and The Sonnets, had yet to be released. She was an avid reader of psychoanalysis, the classics, as well as her poetic contemporaries, many of whom she published or helped to do so.
Rosemary appears less sure of her talents, relations with others, romance, and intellectual bandwidth. She was depressed, but depression can’t discredit the work. She was entering a fresh period of inspiration during the span of these letters, articulating concerns that would follow her through the end of her life. She became enamored with time, with temporariness as a concept, and with communication as a form of survival. Sneed writes that “Rosemary’s letters seem to function as an extension of her journaling practice and the interest in marking the passage of time that influenced her artwork.” This period followed the most impactful period of her work, in which, after turning away from painting, she helped catalyze feminist formal practices in art. She helped found the first all woman cooperative gallery, the A.I.R. Gallery, in 1972. In the photographic detail of one of her works, included on the promotional mailer for her 1976 exhibit at the Monique Knowlton Gallery in New York, we see billowy, translucent fabrics heaped around what appears to be a type of wooden hanger. Textile work, whether in its production or its at-home maintenance, remains heavily gendered, and this was at the forefront of the artist’s praxis. Hanging, draping, or folding, Rosemary’s work defiantly asserted the material (and materially feminine) into an exhausted, de-materialized arts culture. The work she would produce within the span of the selected letters took a more public, no less material form. Still, things could have been better.
It should make a little more sense how Bernadette could weigh in on her sister’s life with so much conviction. “You may think that all your friends are neurotic too,” she writes, “+ of course they are, that’s just the world.” She is not above gesturing to their shared, painful history when perspective is needed to weigh their life to the way it could have been. “But our past is extreme,” she continues, “+ we have the world to deal with as well.” That extreme past haunts both sisters in its insistence on meaning something. Their parents died in the late 1950s, when the two were on the cusp of an adulthood that was then forcibly inaugurated. “My relatives were afraid that if they adopted me, they would die too,” Bernadette relayed in a 2020 Artforum interview, perhaps only somewhat jokingly. They were, so to speak, condemned and abandoned to their freedom; their shared secret, the guilt of not always being satisfied with their survival, which ought to have been the most precious.
It’s a testament to the sisters’ spirits that after surviving such a calamity their lives neither hardened, as it does for many, into normalcy, nor blistered from the abrasion of destructive behaviors. Unchained and seeking to utilize their intelligence, both eventually found colleges congenial to their aspirations, though not after some wrong turns. Rosemary attended the University of Iowa and the Brooklyn Museum Art School, where she met her first husband, artist Vito Acconci, and Bernadette went to the New School, where she found the cadre of Frank O’Hara acolytes that included Bill Berkson, Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, and the rest of that tight-knit crew, made tighter by their home-grown publishing apparatuses. Collaboration was king. Rosemary’s early work appeared in 0-9, a magazine edited and published by Bernadette and Acconci. Bernadette stayed in touch with all of these people throughout her life, especially while she and husband Lewis Warsh lived in Massachusetts, the seclusion of which represented an emptiness alien to the New York City initiates. “We are so lonely on account of how people feel about where we are” (10–11/1979), she wrote one Fall.
Above anything else that could be said for their characters, the sisters were exceptionally hard workers. Bernadette stayed up late after putting the kids down, tirelessly poring over journals, typing them up or re-plumbing their depths. A lot of the letters seem to have been written in between these bursts of day-to-day practice. Letters were a separate, distracting production, an analgesic. When the letters begin, we find the sisters amidst that work, having been separated for about a year. Western Massachusetts, though geographically adjacent to New York state, is not so easy to get to from the city, especially in winter, where a blockade of blizzards perennially obfuscates travel. Rosemary has begun her first serious relationship to a man since her divorce, with the younger artist John Boone. Rosemary is hopeful but wary about the relationship though Bernadette tries to chill her out: “I think you should let yourself relax a little + enjoy John,” she says Poloniusly, as if it were easy as mind over matter.
Aside from work and toddler Marie’s “antipathy to driving,” what most often kept them apart was money—the lack of it, the asynchronous dissemination of grant funding, and the overwhelming labor of applying for ever more of those grants with any free time. “What’s happened in the last year and a half is that I get less back from my efforts,” Rosemary writes her sister in 1976. “I work, I have to work, too long for too little money, leaving me too little time for me and my work.” Bernadette responds that Rosemary “must promise, as soon as [her] job ends and the CAPS money comes, to plan to visit.” This back and forth may be the most persistent theme of the selection: money circulating in its very absence between the two sisters. They cobbled together their careers with whatever resources they could glean. There is evidence in the letters that sometimes money was lent, but only promises, never confirmation, that any debts were paid.
On April 17, 1978, Rosemary debuted one of her “temporary monuments,” Some Days In April. “On a slope of a hill near Hartwick, New York, seven balloons were inflated with helium, moored with cords to wooden stakes in the ground, and allowed to reach altitudes between ten and about thirty feet,” her artist’s statement reads. This statement can be found in an attending book of collage, which acts as a “monument” to her creation–all that’s left, really. On the balloons were written a list of names, of stars and flowers—“Narcissus,” “Corona,” “Borealis”—also “Marie” (her mother), “Theodore” (her father). The Mayer-Warshes couldn’t make it; besides, they were coming to New York that week, anyway, and with Passover and public television appearances, it just didn’t work out. “I really feel we’ve hardly been able to see each other this year though I don’t know exactly why,” wrote Bernadette a week before the show. A supernatural reason, or reasons all too natural in the adult life of siblings? Like Persephone, the perennially rescued wife of Death herself, Rosemary ends on a note of contingency: “There could have been more balloons with other names.”
It’s difficult as a fan of Bernadette’s work not to read the letters as a narrative of the composition of her masterpiece, Midwinter Day, the multi-form feat of a book which purports to have been conceived in one long day—in fact, the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice of 1978. The Letters includes a photograph of an unsmiling Lewis during that wintry night. All the way back in May of 1976, Rosemary refers to a “Ulysses-type” book that Bernadette has apparently already mentioned, which the editors attribute as the project that would become Midwinter, though it would not be written (or conducted) until two years later, or published until the next decade. The letters are, however, almost more intimately, a facsimile of the composition of an even later book, The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, which came out in 1994. The Desires of Mothers is a nearly 350-page book of, as the dedication says, “letters written but never sent to people living and dead during a nine-month period in 1979–1980.” One practical utility provided by the collection of “sent” letters is that we now know that two of the poems were in fact sent to Rosemary in 1979 when the Mayer-Warshes moved to Henniker, New Hampshire. She was pregnant with her son, Max, teaching students who “look like all they eat is steaks,” and weighing the cost-benefits of moving back to New York City—in other words, characteristically busy.
Rosemary sends two letters between the two immortalized by her sister. In the second one, her list of questions implies a lack of reciprocal specificity: “How are all of you? Tell me about your house. How is it being pregnant this time? What’s the teaching like?” Bernadette Mayer’s greatest pedagogical contribution was the seemingly endless list of journal ideas and writing experiments, which, with the help of her students, continuously renewed Mayer’s passion for the intervention of writing into daily routine. For example, “Every day, write a letter that will never be sent to a person who does or does not exist, or to a number of people who do or do not exist.” Rosemary might as well have been adding to that roster. In response, Bernadette writes the only letter with a title: “THE VANITY OF MOUNT HUNGER, a letter? _____.” It would later be published in The Desires of Mothers without the query. Snippets of the letters to Rosemary appear in Midwinter Day anecdotally—Marie learning what shape a face is, for example. The Desires of Mothers is the first substantial instance where the wall between the creative and the communicative collapses.
As nowhere before in the letters, she echoes Gertrude Stein, her madonna, evoking the poet’s syntactical redundancy and run-on, her pleasure in history, and in naming and adjectiving:
We have a mount hunger and mount misery here, I guess it all has to do with the poor pioneers, we have enough money for once but not enough time, there’s too much happening all the time and at the same time too little.
How come you aren’t writing, I mean letters. In the midst of all this change it makes me feel disconnected to you, is it the result of so much isolation this summer or just gearing up for the cold weather’s work.
Perhaps the last two letters from Rosemary hadn’t arrived, though it’s hard to imagine. She must be referring to the length and depth of the letters. Rosemary’s next letter, marked yet another month later, makes no mention of the poetic quality, and answers only one question: “I’ll tell you why I haven’t been writing much—because I’m in pretty terrible spirits. . . . That’s not much to write about.”
A couple times over the years, Rosemary mistakenly recognizes herself in parts of Bernadette’s poems, which Bernadette truthfully denies while affirming its possibility: “We’re so alike in some ways. I can see why you might’ve thought the beginning of my poem could be about you.” A primary draw of Bernadette’s poetry is a type of recognition on behalf of the reader as a reader, that is, the share they take in the production of meaning. The elevation of daily tasks—making lunch, watching squirrels—to the status of poetry requires the addition of the reader’s own evaluation of those tasks. Here, the poet is self-aware of the language used for letters, dramatizing the balance of news and concern. “I mean letters” she writes in a letter, or rather, in a poem written to make letters mean. “I wrote this for you,” she concludes, “sort of a letter mixing together more direct love that’s briefer said, and all the rest of everything, views and names and stuff, that’s why it has a title.”
In the catalog of her career, The Desires of Mothers is lesser-known, perhaps because like many of her books it has long been out of print, although it was reissued conjointly by Nightboat Books and SplitLevel Texts in 2017. Perhaps it doesn’t get much recognition because it’s so taxing to read. As poetry, it should be considered an early example of what we call a project book, a sequence of poems representing a unity in utility. Its movement rests on carefully balanced seriality rather than narrative or disjunction and coheres, however hermetically, in its insistence on that form, a wager of exhaustion. Like Studying Hunger and Midwinter Day before it, The Desires of Mothers broadens the scope of poetry by shaking its lyric foundation. It is the book, not the individual poem, that is guided by formal constraint: in regards to Midwinter and The Desires of Mothers, respectively, the interval of a single day and the nine-month gestation of an infant. In these books we see the schematics of book-length concerns to come, from C.D. Wright to Claudia Rankine. One big voice is sustained throughout the text, woven as tough as papercraft.
In the span of years that Bernadette had been away from New York City, a group of her former students, such as Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews, began to organize around the moniker Language Poetry, a DIY, print-knowledge equipped group that defected from New York School hegemony. It was their intention to produce a kind of writing, as Bernstein would write in 1982, “that takes as its medium, or domain of intention, every articulable aspect of language.” Since at least the early 70s, Bernadette had been presenting quotidian or hypomnematic forms of writing as an artistic endeavor. It was a democratizing gesture that, as with the intellectual generosity of her Poetry Project workshops, encouraged the flourishing of difference in ability and subject focus. Lyn Hejinian, editor of Tuumba Press and Poetics Journal, both influential in the Language poetry movement, published her own Bernadette Mayer-style book in 1980, a Proustian autobiography titled My Life. “I’d been thinking that at least in poetry there’s no such thing as autobiography,” Bernadette writes in her review of it, “and very often not in prose either because even if you write about yourself if you’re really writing you are being the medium.”
When one is really writing the letter one is, in a sense, being the letter. “The desire of letters,” wrote the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their book on Franz Kafka, another prolific letter writer, consists of sparing the author of the letter “all need for a real movement,” putting the onus, instead, upon the subject of the statement, the “I.” One, of course, signs for the letter, on behalf of what is expressed in it, as an exchange for the same. The “I” is sent away and then, just as miraculously, sent back in the evidence of another signatory. Letters necessarily place trust in others. This, in fact, is their pleasure: allowing the other space to respond, an invitation. In this way, the letter resembles such gestures as the smile or the wave in the way it puts faith in the signs we move between each other as subjects. The letter, too, is a gift of recognition, an authorization of the narcissistic recognition of one’s most intimate property, memory, which, in its being, is something to which content is constantly added, like correspondence. Purely infinite, re-appropriative love. For Bernadette, the letter is an invitation to mark time, and by one’s echoing of the existence of one’s language, to in turn authorize a response, a recirculation of the envoi, that is, an opportunity to please.
No letter aims to be inscrutable. The letter version of “THE VANITY” included several lines I thought it a crime to have edited out of the poem in The Desires of Mothers, such as an extended exegesis on Stein that recalled Stein’s own many prose “portraits.” Even without the context of the original letter, the letters-as-poems throughout the collection are clearly edited to resist the typical semantic flow of narration one expects from a piece of mail. Where sentences would have ended, clauses in the poems arrange themselves into different synchronic sets with every reading. Initially this torquing of meaning would seem to run counter to the intention to please, let alone the desire, but from the perspective of that re-arrangability, pleasure is all there is to it. The letter that affords infinite readings—or as close as we can get—is sent over and over again; it never truly arrives.
The collection ends with a piece titled “A Few Days Later It’s with Pleasure I Write.”
Dear Peggy, baby’s born Max Theodore, though you are already here and have held him, I thought you might like to have this written record of it, love, Bernadette.
As a letter, it presents straightforwardly the paradox of its never having completely landed, a redundancy that shakes one out of language into the only possible route left between speech and silence: physical presence, a hug that is said to have happened in the past. Isn’t that all either Mayer sister ever wanted? For their readers, the letters alone bear witness to these touches, these sendings, never fully extended, though impossible to retract.
Cary Stough is a poet and critic from the Missouri Ozarks and a library worker in Massachusetts. Other critical work can be found in The Cleveland Review of Books, Annulet: A Journal of Poetics, and The American Poetry Review.
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