Saturday, July 24, 2021

Bernadette Mayer and Lewis Warsh, Piece of Cake


The thing about family life that’s amazing is you can’t keep anything, is that it’s chaotic and you can’t keep anything in order so you begin to go crazy because you can’t keep anything in order so you begin to go crazy because you can’t keep your own separate life in order. It’s probably the reason why more than one child is about ten times as chaotic as two children, I mean, as one child, you see what I mean? No children seems very orderly to me at the moment, as if you could place something somewhere inside your house and one month later it would still be there. I remember while I was pregnant still being able to know where my things were and to know what I was doing and even to be able to keep the kitchen in some kind of order when I wanted to—now there’s no chance of that and you must get used to a certain amount of chaos (I remember when I lived alone what a pleasure my little meager dishes piling up in the sink for days without getting in the faucet’s way gave me, as if I were being modest); I’ve always believed that one should be able to bear a lot of chaos but chaos has to have its rewards and this kind of chaos often seems gratuitous and with no beginning and no end. It’s interesting to have lived a life where you always knew your life could suddenly change; overnight you could be in another country, either rich or poor. And though this sensation could still persist, theoretically, the presence of Marie and our desire to be a little bit rooted makes life seem quite timeless and change of that sort a matter of indifference. So we must use the kitchen almost continuously. It would be good to have a mother’s helper, or a mother to help us. When Marie begins to talk everything will seem less chaotic, I know it, and even now, everything changes approximately every two weeks. But when she doesn’t talk she seems to me more of an object (keys banging) and certainly then an object of care. (Bernadette Mayer, “August 10”)

Working my way through a chapbook by Brooklyn poet Anna Gurton-Wachter recently [see my review of such here], part of my response included making my way to the internet and ordering an edition of American poet Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day (Turtle Island Foundation, 1982; New Directions Publishing, 1999), as well as a copy of Piece of Cake (Barrytown NY: Station Hill Press, 2020), a book composed in August, 1976 by Mayer and her then-husband, the poet and editor Lewis Warsh (November 9, 1944-November 15, 2020). For whatever reason, it was Piece of Cake that first caught my attention when the two books arrived: a book composed in first-person prose on alternate days, said to be “arguably the first significant male-female collaboration in 20th-century American poetry.” Mayer and Warsh each write alternate sections throughout the entirety of a single month from the relative isolation of a rental house in Lenox, Massachusetts, as they attempt to write and read, taking alternate days with their infant daughter, Marie, so the other could focus on writing. For whatever reason, this is a manuscript that was composed and completed, but lay fallow for some forty years, until prompted by the “determined efforts” of their now-grown eldest daughter.

The writing and the interplay between the two writers, including family moments, literary gossip and recollected stories are entirely compelling (the further one reads, the further one gets hooked), but I find it more interesting, in certain ways, the absolute pleasure knowing that Marie Warsh would have such access to an intimate, open and detailed paired document by both of her parents during her own infancy. I can’t imagine too many people who would deny that for any one of us, such a document, from either of their parents, let alone both, would be an incredible and uniquely rare gift. Originally moving in together in the spring of 1975, the couple would spend ten years together and have two children after Marie before they went their separate ways, and onto new relationships (the children, as what I can tell from online sources, remained with Mayer). As Mayer writes as part of her introduction:

            I had been reading the Swedish mystery novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in which they wrote alternating chapters without knowing what the other had said. In our book we also decided that when we mentioned a name, like Clark, we would describe a bit who that person is, a little about her or him.
It was in this neighborhood that Hawthorne said that the weather was always too hot or too cold. It was in the local Lilac Park that we had endless discussions about communes with Bob and Eileen Callahan. We were planning to buy an old resort in the Catskills to relive The Blithedale Romance, yet we didn’t, but books were written, this one and maybe others of which we can only find mouse-bitten remains.

In his introduction (dated December 24, 2018), Warsh offers:

            I don’t know who had the idea to write the month-long journal that became this book, but my guess is it was Bernadette, who had already written a month-long book on her own called Memory. I’d been a journal writer all my life, so the idea made complete sense. Most days we were content to simply walk around the block, carrying Marie in a backpack. There was much to write about, all the tiny details of daily life, plus all the flashbacks to the past, and everything that had led up to this moment.

Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart (1913-1986) began to keep diaries at an early age, and throughout the whole of her life, most of which exist as straight journal entries, but also include scraps of writing-in-progress, including the beginnings of her infamous novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept; and her journals have been published in various volumes over the years (I keep hoping someone might take on working to get more into print). There have certainly been other examples of compelling personal journals or diaries of writers and artists that have been worked into print—off the top of my head, I can think of Canadian writer Frank Davey’s devastating How Linda Died (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2002), as well as the two volumes by painter Barbara Caruso [see my review of the second volume here]—all of which exist as entirely worthy reads, but this is very much writing produced as literary writing, and not as (despite the four decades of distance between composition and publication) a writer’s private exercise. From what I am aware of Mayer’s work, at least, hers does work through gestures of private and the domestic as equally-important subject matter for literary work. Her Midwinter Day, for example, is a book-length composition around a single day on the calendar, and working through the material that was so often dismissed as “women’s writing,” and not worthy of actual literary merit. They take turns, and the back and forth is part of what provides this volume its heft; initially I found Mayer’s writing to be more striking: writing on more intimate details of the day with Marie, and more abstract considerations, including family history and contemplations around her reading of literature and theory (there is a lengthy stretch writing on Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example, who also composed a book in the area), with Warsh’s prose a bit more external: stories around publishing, and of other writers, friends and hitchhiking memories:

Another hitchhiking story, really a story about other things, takes me back to Christmas Eve, 1969, when I was stranded in San Francisco after a party at Margot and John Doss’s house with no way of getting back to Bolinas, the small town an hour north where I was living. Bill Berkson was visiting me then, I’d driven down to the city with him in his car, he’d met someone at the party and had taken off with her and the only available ride was with Joanne Kyger and her husband Jack Boyce, but that didn’t seem like a good idea, Joanne and I had fallen in love, and I told them to leave without me. I’d taken LSD earlier that evening and wandered down Lombard Street trying to locate the motel where I stayed with my parents on our first West Coast visit in 1958. The string of beads I was wearing around my neck, which Joanne had made for me, was a charm, or at least I hoped, protecting me from whatever the rest of the night had to offer. No one would hurt me as long as I wore the beads. Don’t hide who you are, the voice said. Be open. That’s the only protection. If you act suspicious or afraid a wild dog will bite you. (Lewis Warsh, “August 9”)

Both sides, really, focus on the immediate, with lengthy asides depending on where the mind might go, and include visits to the store, interacting with friends and what the other might be doing that day, all of which culminates in a visit by a group of friends near the end of the month (with his excitement building, and her excitement mixed with a bit of anxiety). For those interested in literary biography and connection, there are interesting interactions and stories around Tom Clark, Susan and Clark Coolidge and multiple others, and it is interesting to note the connections and overlaps, the ways in which circles interact with circles. This is a charming and compelling volume, especially when one considers just how young these since-literary heavyweights were at the time (she was thirty-three to his thirty-one), and attempting to live a combined literary life while raising a family.

I’ve written before in how I’ve long been interested in how couples, both of whom are writers, might interact on or around the page, especially since Christine and I began our own collaborative and as-yet-untitled project of back-and-forth poems (produced so far through two chapbooks), a half-completed manuscript temporarily put aside around the time our Rose was born in 2013. There are plenty of other examples of (Canadian, at least) poets who have interacted, whether in direct collaboration or as separate texts existing in conversation, whether Victoria, British Columbia poets Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier’s No Longer Two People (Turnstone Press, 1978) or Roo Borson and Kim Maltman’s The Transparence of November / Snow (Quarry Press, 1985). Apparently Toronto poets Stephen Cain and Sharon Harris did a small collaboration that might have appeared as a chapbook, but I haven’t yet seen it. There was Smaro Kamboureli’s poetic travelogue about being away, in the second person (Longspoon Press, 1985), and Robert Kroetsch’s poetic work-from-home about Kamboureli being away, his Letters to Salonika (Grand Union Press, 1983), and even break-up responses made between Roy K. Kiyooka via his Pear Tree Pomes (Coach House Press, 1987) and Daphne Marlatt’s Our Lives (Truck Press, 1975; Oolichan Press, 1980). There is the direct collaboration and the texts that exist, separately, in conversation; somehow Mayer and Warsh, despite not reading each other’s entries during their process, manage, somehow, to simultaneously exist as both.

It took a while for me to realize where I’d heard or seen Warsh’s name previously, and it was through The Angel Hair Anthology (New York NY: Granary Books, 2001), an anthology edited by Warsh and his first wife, Anne Waldman, selected from materials from Angel Hair magazine and Angel Hair Books edited and published by the two from 1966 to 1978. The anthology had sparked an array of further reading after it first landed at my doorstep, but not as much as perhaps it could, or should, so this is really the first of Warsh’s work I’ve spent any time with. Really, prior to this, I knew little of her work, but at least something, aware of her name for some time, and having gone through her more recent collections Works and Days (New Directions, 2017) and Memory (Siglio Press, 2020), some of which I suspect I’ll revisit, soon.



Lewis LaCook said...

I've always been a fan of Mayer's Studying Hunger!

Unknown said...

Just doing an annotation on Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day for my MFA and Googled a fact that led me to your blog! Day made :) Beautiful and entertaining post :)