Jean Miller

Jenny Penberthy

Notes on Bernadette Mayer's Utopia


Utopia . . . "It would be great for all the people on earth, each to have what she or he needs to live, be healthy and do something as part or all of everything instead of some people's greed fitting in to old systems done when there was not any chance of knowing everything now cheating and doing worse to those who are not them, though before they knew that too."

It starts with a dream and with a vision of possibility. It would be great if--and then another dream, too. Dreams of a place that's like this place but a lot different and very similar. And there are footnotes and the story begins.

Bernadette Mayer's friend Grace (to whom the book is dedicated) has just come back from a trip to the future--she went, was taken, to see and people were flying and singing and this book is the story of what it was like there and how things were different and what we can do without. I mean 25 years from now a lot of things are changed. Like landlords who are kept by tenants as kinky sex slaves because otherwise it would be boring to pay rent. And the James Watt Prison Center, based in a former church in the South Bronx, houses the "most famous American hoods: Haig, Reagan, Coors, Kissinger, Goldwater, Nixon, et al." And "[o]ddly, all the ex-publishers & ad-people have now become approximately 12 inches high as human beings and in their entertainments they cavort about a large table like rodents. . . ." Oh, yes, and there's world peace and the word genius was changed to "everything," the word generosity was changed to "grace," the word cooperation was changed to "something," and the word honesty was changed to utter sound but the word truth was left alone.

The footnotes on such subjects as utopian chairs and care of the sick are signed by other people, as though written by others or by Bernadette in the name or style of those others. We don't know for sure and it doesn't matter because none of what's written in this book is about owning certain words. Instead it's about how the words are all of ours and we can make the meanings, too.

Mayer has written a book of prose/poetry/words/songs/wisdom/sense--maybe the next edition will come with a music cassette or a video?

My two favorite sections of the book are "Total World Wide" the long poetry piece which is one of "Two Notes on the World Government," and "Homage to Jonathan Swift," a story about the language of the past/present and its protectors.

"Total World Wide" is a lyric piece which considers the joy and possibility of peace. In the beginning
Disarmament was agreed to
to deceive the ghost
(armament was a greed too)

Mayer describes a time when

We do not meet in meetings
we've found nobody gets along
& comes to no conclusion by talking
even in noplace

So instead of "meeting in meetings"

Now thousands fly
by circumstance for free

and she draws us into a deep repetitive stanza about the layers, colors & meanings (nuances) of reality/language/history where

. .beings are traveling
all over in pajamas for free
asleep to solve problems by
condensed of an inspiration
heard written in pictures.

Repeated ten times with a slight variation of the first line, this stanza seems new or reordered each time it appears, familiar yet fresh as Mayer takes us into the land of freedom where

then thought is born

Police forces are done away with,

ostracism is the only punishment.

To participate in a meeting of the world government you must know the meanings of words & distort none.

Come anytime, stay as long as you want to.

. .No leaders to listen to, plenty of visions to see.
This secret )(dream)( is future public tense not re-
membered never learned.

This poem by itself is a major achievement in the engagement of experimental language and politics.

In the "Homage to Swift" section, Mayer takes a trip to a country known as gagengageaguelaputaragereurdfrent where she finds herself to be on an island of mostly men, a mass of poets, speaking a language "not unlike in sound to American." Mayer plays with her struggles toward communication with these men who largely ignore her. She discovers that decades before this enclave of men had created a scheme against speaking about any emotion. Now communication with them is virtually impossible, although they do manage to communicate with each other.

All in all, Utopia involves much of the best of what Mayer does--her humor, her poetry, her exploration of & experimentation with language. Often while reading it I laughed out loud. And what better way to start the future than by laughing about language? Then, of course, we must

add all you would to
what is already here
together we will put
things on paper that
've never been there

--Jean Miller

Utopia, by Bernadette Mayer, United Artists Books, New York, 1984. paperback.147 pages (including the index, which can be read by itself).

Jean Miller's poetry has appeared in HOW(ever) Vol. III, No. 4, If , and Feminist Poetics.

The New Niedecker

From This Condensery: The Complete Writing of Lorine Niedecker, edited by Robert Bertholf, The Jargon Society, 1985.

The long-awaited collected Niedecker is a work of breathtaking editorial sloppiness. My unfinished checklist of its misattributions, omissions, transcription and documentation errors runs to over 35 typed pages. So far, two reviews have registered alarm and drawn attention to its errors: Eliot Weinberger in Sulfur, 16, pp. 148-154, and myself in Sagetrieb, 5, no. 2 (Fall, 1986), pp. 139-151.

The editor's haste and defective acquaintance with Niedecker's poetry and archive are signals, I fear, of his low regard for her work. Patronizing statements from the introduction offer little reassurance:
The early letters to Zukofsky are those of a daughter writing to a father, a fledgling poet to a mentor.

The earliest surviving letter from Niedecker to Zukofsky is dated May 18, 1941. By this time their friendship was ten years old and Niedecker by no means a dependent, fledgling poet.
Well informed about national and international events, she knew something of music (and admired it), listened intelligently to radio and TV.

This condescending notion of daughter and fledgling informs much of his analysis. And when one has in mind a fledgling and a naif, then responsible scholarship begins to seem superfluous. Guesswork and hearsay will do. Niedecker's poetics of tact, deference, and authorial effacement has led more than one of her commentators to dismiss her work as slight. From This Condensery doesn't make quite the same mistake, but it certainly doesn't affirm her stature as it should.

Since it could be many years before the collection is replaced, Niedecker scholars are warned to view its version of her work with scepticism.--Jenny Penberthy

Jenny Penberthy lives in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. Her book, provisionally titled "A Proper Balance:" Lorine Niedecker's Poems and her Letters to Louis Zukofsky, will be published by Duke University Press.