The Poetry Project

“the fabric of human life”: Teaching Bernadette Mayer

Rona Cran

On the wall of my office is a poem by Bernadette Mayer—“Walking Like a Robin.” Although it’s a poem most obviously about age, for me it also shapes and informs the way I teach Mayer’s work, because it reminds me, as Saranne Weller writes, that “becoming a teacher… is first and foremost concerned with recognising ourselves as learners.”1 For me, teaching, learning, and this poem, are about encounter. In class, when I talk about Mayer’s long poem Memory (1971), I think about this little one—about poets and students and little round orange-breasted birds taking “3 or 4 steps,” before stopping, to “look smell taste touch & hear.” I think about how robins have been in the world longer than the word “orange,” and of Bernadette2 turning “like seventy,” and “falling apart,” only to offer the pieces of herself up to us to take “back home,” when her self-stitching falls apart. Such fugitive fragments coalesce in Memory, and are what we have of her there, dark young poet moving sensuously through her world in the moments that make up a whole month, five decades ago. I don’t talk directly about “Walking Like a Robin” with my students. This poem, for me, is a little bit like James Schuyler’s secret fifth season, in his poem “Thursday”—it’s “my secret, and I’m going / to keep it that way.”3 And yet, confounding my worries about how they will grapple with Memory’s density, length, and refusal of the easy lyric, my students’ approach is intuitive and affective, like the robin’s, like Bernadette’s: to encounter this text, they recognize, is to “look smell taste touch & hear.”
Memory arrives five weeks into my undergraduate course on twentieth-century New York City poetics, called “Multiple Voices.” I’m usually a little anxious about teaching Memory, because it pivots, ostensibly, away from the bright energy of Frank O’Hara, the navigable contiguity of Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and Diane di Prima, and the great anger of Audre Lorde, Amiri Baraka, and Sonia Sanchez, all of whom precede Mayer on the course. And yet I want to teach it, and relish doing so, because the vertiginous nature of Memory’s form, and its handling of ideas, is immensely freeing for students, meaningfully shaping their responses to (and experiences of) poetry and its contexts throughout the rest of the semester, and beyond. Memory permits them to ask—and to try to answer—what poetry is, and how we know. It facilitates new intersections between readers and writers, allowing for meditations on the promises held out by experimentation, on the unknowable shades and textures of time, on what happens when language resists us, on the ideals and practicalities of collective, connective reading, thinking, and remembering. It also enables students to connect what happens textually and photographically with their own lives, extending their studies beyond the classroom as they come to examine the ways in which what first appears to be a hyper-local artifact also relates to and illuminates the structures of the world in which they live.
In an effort to mitigate perceptions of Memory’s difficulty, and to offer a more accessible way into her pedagogically valuable work, I set Joe Brainard’s I Remember (1970–75) alongside it. The connection between them is thematic and contextual: these are texts produced by writers preoccupied with the tangled enmeshment of memory with art, who are associated with the New York School, and whose commonalities and differences take shape in the context of discussions about what it means to remember, and how we do it, and about the city, The Poetry Project, and the world beyond both. What are these texts, my students ask. Poems? This they take as given, because it’s a poetry course, but they also want more, and the texts themselves seem to want more too. This is partly why they are such generative texts to teach. They contain multitudes; they refuse the tyranny of the singular perspective; they open minds to the possibilities and opportunities that arise when texts insist on their own versatility. Other things too, then, though nothing wholly, or exclusively: Memory and I Remember are self-stitched fragments of autobiography, performance, documentary, memory, memoir, confession, oversharing. Objects. “Emotional science projects,” Bernadette might say. Places. Spaces. Ecopoems. Exercises in reading. Communal experiences. Enactments of the workings of consciousness. A means, pace Foucault, of dealing with time.
To prepare for class, I ask my students to read all of I Remember, and to engage with Memory in whatever way they find most enabling: some read it cover-to-cover, while others focus on the beginning and ending, on particular days or weeks, on the moments where prose is transmuted into poetic lines, on the photographs and their relationship to the text, on the scholarly and poetic conversations that Memory has given rise to, or on listening to recorded extracts. Our collective understanding of what the texts are, or might be, takes shape first through reflective writing, and then through a discussion that asks more questions than it can answer. “Memory forms the fabric of human life,” Marita Sturken writes in Tangled Memories; it “establishes life’s continuity.”4 How do Mayer and Brainard grapple with memory, we ask; how do they establish life’s continuity? What is the nature of their poetics and politics of remembering? How do the structures and forms of Memory and I Remember reflect or embody the ways in which we remember, and the significance of how we do so, or fail to do so? What do Mayer and Brainard share of themselves? Do they dramatize or mythologize themselves in any way? Where is the drama, where the myth? The private, the public? Where is New York? Here, but also not. What about the New York School? How do Memory and I Remember contribute to or complicate our assumptions about the New York School as a group (of friends), a movement, a collection of ideas, a radical center of community-building, a style, a voice or set of voices? We explore Brainard’s career as a visual artist and Mayer’s 1000-plus snapshots, and the students notice the color palettes (blues, yellows, oranges, greens) that emerge across Siglio’s beautiful 2020 edition of Memory, marking the time of day or the location the photos were taken, the temptation of the visual as it relates to the “temptation” of language, spoken and heard. We talk about excess, about putting in and leaving out, about the failure of language and communication, about how the doing means just as much as the done, about how nothing is too small to remember.

Whilst Brainard’s work proves more popular, the densities and maximalism of Memory strike a particular chord with several students, who subsequently explore in writing the distinct resonance they have felt with Mayer’s work. This is on account, variously, of Mayer’s “unconventional forms,” the “sheer scope of the work,” her multidirectional collaborations (primarily—and I love this suggestion—with different versions of herself). It’s because of what one student calls her “appetitiveness,” and the ways in which this extraordinary multimodal text reveals memory to be a “hyper-precise, individualized experience wrought with personal anxieties and recollections,” and yet, simultaneously, “an expansive, collective faculty” that elicits and requires sharing, or even over-sharing. The originality, ambition, and innovativeness that characterizes these essays emphasizes the pedagogical empowerment that inheres in Memory.

One assignment continues to develop our class discussion, reading Memory in dialogue with I Remember, paying close attention to the language used in both, and drawing out the anxieties inherent in their authors’ processes of recording and archiving memories. For this student—Alice—Mayer’s “multiple references to time and scope,” as well as her lineation, and her lingering on the word “forget” at the very end of Memory, speak to the endurance of “even the smallest of individual moments or experiences,” and to her “sense of anxiety and instability in her own internalized narrative.” Ella, meanwhile, reads the production of Memory in the context of Mayer’s Poetry Project workshops and Ed Bowes’s early 1970s film of her and Clark Coolidge reading Gertrude Stein while being chased (by Ed) around Coolidge’s home in the Berkshires. For Ella, Memory is an experiment in decentering, and thereby freeing, the self, enabling Mayer to engage in a process of self-collaboration in order to “form something new,” something that exists beyond ego, “beyond Mayer herself.” Poppy’s work, finally, thinks about the effects of “translating” Memory “out of its original form.” Poppy traces Memory’s development from unfolding, deeply personal, labor-intensive process to immersive gallery experience to unadorned manuscript to archive to sensuous, glossy hardback to performed parallel durational work to the PDF version in which she first encountered it. Poppy makes the case for Memory as fundamentally predicated on physical encounter, envisioning the gallery space at 98 Greene Street in 1972 as embodying “the experience of remembering itself… jumbled, both linear and non-linear,” and informed by “non-chronology and a sense of dissonance between audio and visual stimulus.” For her, memory and Memory are subjective experiences of seeing, thinking, hearing, touching, and moving, with the result that “a large part of the original Memory’s impact becomes invisible when translated into the medium of a book.” This, she observes, is partly because the “immersive audio dimension of the work is lost” and partly because “the book form imposes a much more rigid structure” on Mayer’s memories and our experiences of them than a gallery space, in which “linear documentation” communicates “delicately… with non-linearity.” Instead, Poppy suggests, we might imagine “an unbound ‘book’ of Memory, produced with pages packed loosely in a box,” or something akin to Eileen Myles’s Snowflake / different streets (2012), which “houses two separate collections of poetry printed back-to-back, and in opposite orientations,” in order to highlight how readerly interactions “extend into a work’s physical form,” and how, in life, we are recurrently “confronted by the material qualities of what we hold, view or otherwise interact with.”

Bernadette died shortly after our collective encounters with Memory. I stood in front of my students and said: “I’m sorry to tell you that Bernadette Mayer died yesterday.” Two years previously, standing in front of a different cohort, I had said the same thing about Diane di Prima, another bird poet on our course (the kind that “flies backward”5), another force of nature and poetry, another storyteller and voyager. Next fall, when I introduce a new cohort to Memory, Bernadette won’t be out there, across the pond, walking like a robin. But she will be in our classroom, astonishing everyone by putting everything in and leaving everything out, all at the same time. Like di Prima, she will “shine / and shine / unspent and underground.”6 And she’ll be in the work that results, in writing animated by original thought and attention to language and experience, each essay evincing aspects of Mayer’s own description of Memory, “short space[s] of time” that somehow “take up a lot of room.”7 Maybe next time I’ll let my students in on my “secret” poem, and we’ll all walk around like robins.


All student work has been used with permission. Special thanks to Poppy Baxter, Alice Millington, and Ella Morris-Skingley.

  1. Saranne Weller, Academic Practice: Developing as a Professional in Higher Education (Sage, 2015), 2.
  2. Bernadette is my mother’s name, and partly as a result of this, I find myself slipping with easy familiarity into referring to Mayer as “Bernadette,” though I never knew her personally.
  3. James Schuyler, “Thursday,” in Collected Poems (New York: the Noonday Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998 (1993)), 311-2.
  4. Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 1.
  5. Diane di Prima’s first book of poetry, published in 1958, was called This Kind of Bird Flies Backward.
  6. Diane di Prima, “The Window,” in Pieces of a Song (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1990), 18.
  7. Bernadette Mayer, preface to Memory (New York: Siglio, 2020), 7.

#272 – Spring 2023