The Poetry Project

Always Inviting: On Bernadette Mayer’s UTOPIA

Marcella Durand

My copy of UTOPIA holds a folded letter from Bernadette Mayer. It is typed on yellow paper and she mailed it after my child Ismael arrived. She begins, “congratulations on INTRODUCTION TO CHILD-PROOFING. ONE OF THE GREAT THINGS about anything to do with children is it doesn’t last long.” She hopes to meet Ismael in person and please, come and visit this summer. And here is a copy of UTOPIA, “which I published myself so it could always be free, as any utopia should.”

I had desired UTOPIA ever since I heard Brenda Coultas read out the lines, “If a person wanted to be carried about the city I would be happy to do it with 2 or 3 strong friends.” (“My UTOPIA for the sick & dying,” Anne Waldman, 29). Around the same time I heard Brenda read these lines, I visited “Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World” at the New York Public Library. The exhibition included an early version of the Declaration of Independence with an antislavery passage crossed out (with what I prefer to remember as a shaky hand), Russian Futurist posters, and various plans for ethereal, often unbuildable cities and monuments. One such piece was pre-revolutionary architect Etienne-Louis Boullée’s proposed reconstruction of the Bibliothèque du Roi, with rows of books endless and uncontainable, fading into an arch of light at the vanishing point.

Much as I loved the exhibition, the idea of Utopia it presented was immense and remote, comprised of paradises that could exist if we just built pristinely and properly enough in what seemed hues of crystal circles emanating outward from angel wings. In cold-water contrast, UTOPIA’s vision of being carried about the city—by friends, strong ones—was so earthy and attainable that I clicked. I clicked with Brenda’s The Bowery Project, with the Poetry Project, with Bernadette Mayer. While the lines that initially caught me were written by Anne Waldman, they are so much an expression of Bernadette’s experimental and generous vision of “Utopia” that they hold the whole within their holographic spirit. Through Bernadette’s invitation to Anne to UTOPIA, I felt invited too, carried by strong friends, like Brenda and others who inhabited similarly striving-poet-utopia spaces.

Brenda encouraged me to ask Bernadette and Phil for a copy of UTOPIA, which helped me overcome my shyness and write to her (was it really OK to contact a poet to ask for a book?), and then UTOPIA arrived in its soft red cover, with its “Utopian Copyright” that offered “every part of this book” to everyone. An entire paper could be written—probably it already has—on the subversiveness of Bernadette’s Utopian Copyright. It establishes UTOPIA as what a book should be, a freely available repository of human knowledge to be handed (literally, by hand) generation to generation. And it is fully manifested as a Book with all its bookish components: an Introduction and an Epilogue; a “Utopian Address Book” including where (but more correctly, from whom) to get food, information, clothing, housing, advice; an Index; a Selected Bibliography; and Blurbs, including Herman Melville, who gushes, “The man is the man and the woman is the woman still no matter what: this Mayer has clear in her head, despite the bulky world.” (I still laugh every time at “bulky world.”)

UTOPIA also contains the threads of community about Bernadette at the time. Parts of it are contributed by friends, like Anne, or dedicated to friends, like Grace, letters are written, such as the one by “Mary Cadey Grade 6” (I have no idea if this letter is “real,” whatever real means), writers living and dead are quoted, interacted with, channeled, conjured. A vision of utopia is situated with epigraphs from “Socrates” and Bernadette’s daughter, Sophie: “I’m going to make dinner for all the people in the world, the sun will come but it won’t melt the food, and the clouds will sit quietly at the table without raining, and the moon will come but it won’t get too dark.” Writing so intensely within one’s family and circle of friends could be (mis)interpreted as insular, but Bernadette’s reach—again, her invitation—is expansive—to children, lovers, friends, strangers, writers past and present. It finds spaces of possibility between worlds: if you wrote/write/read, you are alive, to me, the reader, hello Stein, hello Plato, hello Hawthorne, hello Melville, hello Jonathan Swift and your floating island, hello Anne, hello Lewis, hello Sophie (and hello Marie and Max!), hello Marcella.

But how, within the warmth and equity of Bernadette’s invitation, the specificity of her relationships, do we manage the cold capitalist predators who chew at the lines of our circles?

One sentence in UTOPIA still shakes me to my core:

If, on the other hand, in the midst of a world that needs work and wherein we all know all about it, you are on your way to an important meeting to finally get rid of the landlords for good and your lover leans weakly on the table and says, “I don’t feel right tonight, please dont go,” that is a whole other problem because just as a human being one should be able to be free and not have to work at a job changing the world all the time… (6)

How often have I been in this exact same situation: do I go to the rally or do I make dinner for my son and hear about his day or do I read a book or do I write poetry? The lover’s plaintive “I don’t feel right tonight, please dont go.” The punctuation of it! dont go. please. And not have to work at a job—changing the world is a job. Mayer observes the complicated and anguished emotional state of living in a capitalist society with all its incessant and exhausting obligation; it imagines another way (a meeting to finally get rid of the landlords for good! Can you imagine?); it connects intimacy to transformation. It acknowledges the immensity of the system stunting our bodies and souls, how we live with tenderness within an atrocious machine of exploitation, of continual payment, the painful beauty of tender choices within a brutal system. How extraction whispers behind even the most necessary and nourishing relations between us. And how this must/should change, but how to work toward change within the confines of body within time? (And especially within creative spaces that are already a struggle to maintain?) When I am struggling with parenting or poetry or work or advocacy (which parenting these times seems also to be), that line restores me—I am not alone and Bernadette gives me permission to write into, about, and all about it. In another red-covered book I recently received, A Family Recipe, Rachael Guynn Wilson writes:

Now we’re all sitting down

on the rubberized ground

of the city park. To say grace?

Because, Bernadette,

We want to thank you for giving us

permission to live. That was

really something,


really kind.

Mayer is kind but she is also so funny. And she is totally irreverent, which I realized after reading UTOPIA, is an essential quality of any true utopia (as utopias that take themselves too seriously end up stifling dissent and possibilities. See Louisa May Alcott’s excellent, and hilarious, satire of her family’s experience in a New England utopian community, “Transcendental Wild Oats.”) In “A Fish that Looks Like a Bishop,” Alcott joins in debates between fellow utopians such as Thomas More, Clark Coolidge, and “four American senators,” as well as Plato, who asks, just before Hawthorne arrives to the party, “why are you such an asshole as to think love can be dealt out at any moment and not at every moment, you forgetful fool!” (97)

However, even with competition like this, “Total World-Wide,” in “Two Notes on the World Government,” takes repetition and refrain to the farthest corner of funny. It begins seriously, with disarmament and ghosts, at a meeting-free meeting where “people are powerless by choice.” Then it continues onto an incredible jumble (yet a structured jumble) of colors and dinosaurs and geology and galaxies and dragons and caves that repeats with minor variations, like a new kind of sestina, but one that activates repetition throughout its entire line, not merely the end-words. One starts to smile before even realizing it.

history tellers blue layers

truth geological red exacts

transition mountain a story

invented genetically to let

yellow down to the humans o

all sights languages vision

black & white extant & lost

hieroglyphic color galaxies

monkey lost history purples

dinosaurs caves by monsters

dragon human green the tool

hit yr ancestor head become

weapon beings are traveling

all over in pajama for free

asleep to solve problems by

condensed of an inspiration

heard written in pictures

Here is an echo of the extravagance and joy I once had in hearing Bernadette read a hypnagogic piece for three hours on the colors she saw on the inside of her eyelids. (The reading took place in the late 1990s at the Bubble Lounge in Tribeca.) I also think of the mysterious Renaissance book, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, that one reads less than wanders through words (that I was unsure were “accurate” translations as the work is famously untranslatable, yet translated). I think of Bernadette reading the Science section of the Times and reaching after the real, the world made new, always something new outside the body to bring in and explore through language of the body surrounded by others, strong friends and children, children’s toys and drawings all colors in organic crystal form, accessible to all.

#272 – Spring 2023