The Poetry Project

Life and Death

Rainer Diana Hamilton

In a Tuesday bed, I woke up my phone for its final scroll, as if I feared saying goodbye to the internet, and I saw a tweet that I knew meant that Bernadette Mayer was dead. It said something vague like “o no, Bernadette,” but if she were living, I reasoned, and merely suffering, it would have started “be strong.”

Though I found no confirmation, I didn’t doubt it: she had been dying, after all—this poet who had also lived, and who, by living, had contributed to the conditions of possibility of the writing and the friendships of many of the people I love most—and dying is difficult work that, like all labor, must be followed by rest. Instead of replying to Ian Dreiblatt, whose tweet it was, or having an understandable emotion, or reading a poem by Mayer, I went to my bookshelf and found Dreiblatt’s Forget Thee. His narrator tells “Thoth the ancient / egyptian god of / wisdom who is / also a white-haired / baboon and / sometimes an ibis” not to be too sad. Fine advice.

This guy is talking to a lot of gods, reflecting on the remarkable and miserable set of circumstances that has comprised human civilization. Thoth in particular is regretting having given people writing, which he meant only to offer us “another / kind of body to / escape to,” because we have misused it. Instead of using writing as this extra body, he says, we have hidden everything we know there. We have converted all things to words, with little to show for it. Dreiblatt’s narrator reassures this god that it wasn’t all a waste: the poems of Bernadette Mayer, after all, remain among the accomplishments of man:

Thoth gets

sad, in a way, he

says, this is all

my fault, writing

is the gift you

didn’t survive

but we achieved so

much, I tell him: pinball, the

poems of Bernadette

Mayer, the music of

Lonnie Johnson, frozen

pirogi, little rooms that

glide between mountains

for a little while, he

says, sure, I mean I

used to be the freaking moon

but you don’t hear me bragging about it

I liked letting the Mesopotamian gods be the nihilists, leaving the friendly New York poet to defend humanity on the grounds of dumplings and books. I felt good, reading this, and forgot the assumed news, which would remain untrue so long as I avoided it. (I have been listening to In Search of Lost Time on audiobook, and I just got to Sodom and Gomorrah, where a running bit of the first chapter is the Duc de Guermantes’s efforts to avoid confirmation of his cousin’s death, so that he might retain his social license to go to the costume ball; I promise myself that’s not what I was doing on 11/22, when I had no ball but sleep to attend, and no claim to Mayer but that of obsessive reader.) I was ready to have a good dream.

I slept for an hour, in a lost scene that was adjectival and sexy, like a good review on Fragrantica, until the cat began his nightly song, and, irritated with Monster, I scrolled sleeplessly again. Corina Copp, in an email addressed to me and to Shiv Kotecha, with the subject line “<333333,” had attached a PDF of Mayer’s “Attempt to Write a Love Poem.” Shiv, more purposely awake in Istanbul, had written back: “this is so good!!! I have never read it before, and it is perfect for the morning I'm having (trying to write a poem!)” Right away, he wrote again: “Oh no did she pass.”

I didn’t reply to any of the messages in this thread, the expressions of love or of missing one another, the sign of affection that is deciding with whom you’d like to be sad. I didn’t open the attached poem, even though I could have used its model. Having already enjoyed one metonymic avoidance of her death by way of reading a friend’s work, I opened a new tab, searched, “Corina Copp poem,” and read the first one that came up: “Praise Pseudograph V.2 (La Vue),” from The Green Ray. I read it aloud, but at a whisper, although I was the only person home—it’s spooky to speak loudly in an empty room, and anyway, I was afraid of making false promises to the cat about my continued availability to hang out—and my volume led me to the lines most like prayer:

[ … ] the Evolutionary Transformative

Agent, a quality well we all have that

instinctively understands the greater

plan; if we are especially playful,

we have the potential to become

the very ETA itself, just to see

what will happen. Sugarcube struc

ture faces the morphinists we’ll

all soon treat, a red hole perceived

Lost, as a red trout enters

It is hard to be playful in the middle of the night, but I thought then that I would have preferred to be the ETA itself—to embody that instinctive understanding—rather than merely possessing it as a quality. By the morphinists, though, I understood that I had invented my insomnia. In a dream, I learned that everyone I knew had been secretly writing “poems of their lives”—long narrative verse meant to continually summarize their sense of self before death—but had been forbidden from telling me; I alone was not meant to write my life poem.

I woke up, saw the email thread again, and tried to change my mood by listening to Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much,” where he says that “a thousand kisses from you” will never, as the title suggests, be overdoing it. This song always reminds me of Shiv’s The Switch, where he includes a transcript of Samuel Delany leading a Poetry Project workshop and talking about Mayer’s translation of Catullus 16. This section begins by telling a character named Diana (who Shiv, in his poem, is refusing to sleep with)—who functions, within the poem, by way of her possible reference to me—to remember:

Remember Diana,

when he started at the end of the poem,

basiorum, and worked his way up the stanza

Bernadette wrote for her friends,

Followed by a long transcript of the workshop conversation. And now I remember:

She reminded him what he had told

to him and not to her,

that for him, Brandon,

it wasn’t so mechanical. And the number

of the kisses

mattered less than

the deranged state of

the pervert that counts them.

That’s (real life) Brandon Brown, whose translation of Catullus fictional-Diana insists that Shiv read in order to correct his interpretation: Shiv, she thinks, is too focused on counting kisses on fantasized abaci, whereas Brandon argues that “conturbabimus is a metaphor for confounding the coinage,” for messing up currency. At that moment, I hoped, Brandon was asleep, in California, with no sense of foreboding; for him, Bernadette still lived, and work was still far off, safely in the non-compensated hours documented in his book, Work, which takes place on Midwinter Day, as if he were Mayer. I knew Brandon’s translations before I knew him, who I now also know to be the best reader of poetry, and honestly, the best person to have dinner with, but I couldn’t find my copy. I read The Good Life instead, specifically the poem “One Fine Day,” where he wants to join the tooting flautists, but he is

troubled by the history

of flautists honestly

they turn out frequently

to be the rottenest

motherfuckers, yes

there is Bernadette, yes

there’s you and you,

my friends, you pipe

you pipe beautifully

and are not evil but look in the book of

pipers and you’ll see

the pages are soaked

in gore, I read the book

all day, one whole

day, a long day of

reading, piping, breaks, ooh

I take a flute and I put

it up in the best parts of

my lips I keep thinking

one fine day I’ll, one

fine day I’ll...but

when is the fine day?

I then had to listen to the Chiffons and weep, not about Mayer, whose living remained plausible, but about “You'll come to me / When you want to settle down, oh,” and about the Shoobie-doobies, such that I cried myself back into a sleep that showed me Jameson Fitzpatrick conducting operas that, via musical properties she arranged in advance, healed the audience’s wounds, however mortal. Woken by my alarm, I checked the time, learned I was running late, and found a message from Ted Dodson—“if you have five minutes, you should call me and we’ll read a couple bernadette poems.” I called, but the wrong number, his cell phone, which does not get reception in Woodstock, where he had just gotten a half cord of firewood delivered. Not knowing this, I read a poem into his voicemail, which he could not check. On the train to work, I read an excerpt of Stacy Szymaszek’s Famous Hermits, a book that, though new, was written when Mayer was among the hermits still living, with or without fame, and Stacy reminded me—


I’m going to live my life this way

xlanguage arrives xxx attention to commonplace

can that energy age us

differently? xx keep old souls youthful?

you can look at yourself

more closely from a distance

having left documents

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxto let go of former selvesxxxxand their demands

still all I want

xxxxxxxxxxxxxx is for my friends xxxxxx to read me

—that I was doing all she wants. At the same time, in a different tab, Kay Gabriel was doing all I wanted, reciting dreams I had forgotten back to me—in an excerpt of Perverts, drawing heavily on the dreams of others (loosely following one of Bernadette’s experiments, where she recommends forming a group and “writing off of each other’s dream writing”):

in another dream of Diana’s we taught

a class together, where Diana was mad at me: she kept “trying

to sneak away to be bad,” but I would pause class until she came back,

in Diana’s dreams I’m an icon of patience, not a party monster

not the kind of grad student who checked Grindr instead of studying for quals

and nearly

flunked out into a marriage fated to crack

for you Diana I kept my infuriating cool

the dog was saved, we taught our class

in another dream I’ll reject your cross-borough marriage proposal

Having elected to stay on the R train the whole way, to make more time for reading and less time for transfers, I instead lulled myself into a commuting sleep, where, using the tunnel under the East River as a weighted blanket, I dreamt that Kay and Ian and Corina and Stacy and Shiv and Brandon and Chip and Bernadette’s words were one. The latter’s lines from “DEATH & RAGE EASILY”—

Now another death makes me think, enters in & out simultaneous with the thought

Somehow of all that is being written by people

And stored naively in closets & vaults & letters stacking in libraries

And whatever will ever be read in any future

—seemed now as if Mayer were repeating, though forty-something years earlier, Ian’s pinball and pierogi, Stacy’s living through journals, Kay’s cool and collected records of the night, Brandon’s rotten pipers, Shiv’s dictation from Delany’s kiss lecture, and so on. I became briefly lucid, psyched that I would soon weave, conceptually, if I focused hard enough, a collective fabric from the language various loved ones had added to the otherwise private and naive closets containing poetry. But dream lucidity, for me, when combined with pleasure, always breaks up the party; and I awoke, as the train pulled into Union Square, just before this vision approached crispness. At the office, there was no longer sleep or poetry to turn to, so I read Mayer’s unofficial obituaries.

Two hours later, I took my lunch break and went for a walk, where I could finally listen to Ted’s voicemail. He read Mayer’s poem “February 25”:


and resourceful, succumbing to the most secure fantasies,

fantasies of not writing, even fantasies of being scared or

unhappy, careful what words I use but not so careful what words

of other people stick in my mind, as if, “in trouble”

and loved, denying at the least a desire & a swing

of fantasies evolving & getting lost in the intimacy of desire

as only one's own, not shared, and at the most an assertion of

that love which can be rendered, almost picked, for a portrait,

it is so clear

and clear, I had even anticipated the bookbag, clear as that,

not in doubt that, what I want or even need, but doubt that space

of energy where this clarity remains intact without violation of

the poses, not of that portrait, one of assertion, but of the

others standing still & still watching

and poses, my own, of the body's exhibition of strength,

the agility that performs around the exact center of a mesmerizing

talent for the new, & now I've said the opposite of what I mean,

this is the pose but it is also the strength

and you, the correlation of the resourcefulness the love the

clarity and the pose with you in the arc of the painting that

is being made, in an obsession to be exact again & that is,

clearly happy in a state of our own possession, as you possess

yourself when you are writing that poem

His reading was tender, as if each stanza’s “and” really was moving, inevitably, towards that you, and I played it on repeat, pacing 3rd Avenue. Despite the relistening, though, I thought the poem was new to me when I read it, one week later. On December 1, Ted texted me a picture of the poem and asked if it was a form he “should know.” I wasn’t sure, but I was drawn to its repetition, the way the “clear” at the end of the second stanza becomes the repeated term of the third, and so on; it was a repetition both loose and repeatable enough to be propulsive. Both Ted and I being resourceful and secure, we tried the form out, then asked others to do the same, forming The February 25 Society, whose members include, in order of their application’s arrival, charles theonia, Vinson Cunningham, Kay Gabriel, Shiv Kotecha, Joey Yearous-Algozin, Elena Comay del Junco, Marina Weiss, Isabelle Olive, Anna Gurton-Wachter, Alexis Almeida, and Corina Copp. For reasons of life and death, our dinner on February 25, 2023 was small—six of us—and also big: poems fried over anchovies, five or more loves. You can read volume 1 at If you’d like to abandon, briefly, your own fantasies of not writing, send a 2/25 poem to

This concludes my true and unaltered account of the night of November 22, 2022, when Bernadette Mayer stayed alive so long as I read, instead of the internet, my friends.

#272 – Spring 2023