Failure in Infinitives: A Remembrance of Bernadette Mayer

Grid from July 1971 in "Memory" by Bernadette Mayer, Siglio, 2020. Courtesy Bernadette Mayer Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University of California, San Diego.

A raccoon was screaming in agony with a gash in their side in Mollie’s backyard when I called to check in. “Animal control refused to put him down,” she said. “They would have to shoot him, and the bullet might ricochet through the courtyard—he’s slowly dying back there.” We both groaned. Two people close to Mollie had died in as many weeks and now this. She loved this raccoon. It was a shitty fall, punctuated by a solar and lunar eclipse—the sun went out, then the moon. I had just broken up with someone who couldn’t commit, said our love was a “fantasy,” and then officiated a friend’s wedding a few days later. I had been divorced and came from a robust lineage of divorced people. I wasn’t sure how to believe in marriage, my heart had a fresh puncture, and there I was joining people together in holy matrimony—what a fucking joke. It didn’t help that I was asked not to say anything mystical during the ceremony even though I’m a witch. After the wedding I drunkenly wandered around a nearby graveyard in the dark trying to pull myself together and set off a car alarm loud enough to wake the dead for ten miles in every direction. Mollie and I needed cheering up fast.

“Let’s do witchcraft about all this,” I said to Mollie before hanging up the phone, and got to work. The next new moon was in Sagittarius, the sign of the archer. I thought of Saint Teresa’s account of getting pierced by the flaming arrow of an angel who was “thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan.” We needed flaming arrows.

I ordered a children’s wooden bow-and-arrow set and carved words that represented our desires into the arrow shafts with a wood-burning pen. We needed money, we needed love. When the moon was new and Jupiter went direct I took the train up the river to Mollie’s. We doused our yearning-arrows in lighter fluid and shot them into the Hudson, shouting passionately through the smoke. It was exhilarating. Teresa was right; pain yields pleasure. Mollie and I hugged at the train station feeling intensely alive, laughing and bucking like horses. I boarded the train home with the scorched bow slung over my shoulder and looked at my phone. From J:

“R U OK? Bernadette Mayer died.”

He knew how much I loved her, how I especially turn to her poetry during hard times. Her caustic wit and her lust for capturing the fullness of life by recording its microscopic details helped me laugh in the face of catastrophe. I noticed right away that the numerology of her death was stunning. She died at age seventy-seven on November 22 in the year 2022. J let me know that Bernadette did not like astrology or numerology and would not care for me charting her departure in the stars. “Strong opinions make people feel solid,” I replied. My love for Bernadette is big, and it makes me real. I feed it like a stray animal that lives in me, and I do that however I can. I got home and burned this passage from one of her sonnets into the magic wooden bow and nailed it above my bed:

Love is a babe as you know and when you

Put your startling hand on my cunt or arm or head

Or better both your hands to hold in them my own

I’m awed and we laugh with questions, artless

Of me to speak so ungenerally of thee & thy name

I have no situation and love is the same . . .

It was true—I had no situation and love was the same. That night I read Bernadette’s “The Way to Keep Going in Antarctica” out loud on the phone with a friend. We both burst into tears at the opening lines: “Be strong Bernadette / Nobody will ever know / I came here for a reason / Perhaps there is a life here / Of not being afraid of your own heart beating / Do not be afraid of your own heart beating.”

Bernadette Francis Catherine Mayer was born on May 12, 1945, in Ridgewood, Queens. Her father died of a cerebral hemorrhage when she was twelve, and two years later her mother died of breast cancer. Bernadette and her sister, Rosemary, also an incredible intellectual and artist, were left almost entirely alone. “Everybody in my family died by the time I was sixteen,” Bernadette told Artforum in 2020. “My relatives were afraid that if they adopted me, they would die too.”

From July 26, 1971 in “Memory” by Bernadette Mayer, Siglio, 2020. Courtesy Bernadette Mayer Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University of California, San Diego.

Her uncle sent her to a Roman Catholic college at age 18. The priests and nuns there hated her sandals and choices of reading material. She eventually finished college at the New School for Social Research, where she took a poetry class with Bill Berkson who introduced her to John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. In 1967, she and the artist Vito Acconci cofounded the magazine 0 to 9, which folded in 1969. In the 1970s, Bernadette moved around New England with the poet Lewis Warsh. They had three children and started United Artists press, finally going separate ways after ten years together. She moved back to New York City in 1980, where she became director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery until 1984.

Bernadette steadily published and exhibited her work throughout her life, writing over thirty volumes of poetry. In July 1971, she began experimenting with her memory. She shot a roll of 35mm film each day and kept a rigorous daily journal. The exhibition Memory, held in 1972 at 98 Greene Street, included 1,200 photographs arranged in sequential order and paired with a thirty-one-part voiceover narration lasting seven hours in which she provides musings and memories about the images. On December 22, 1978, Bernadette wrote Midwinter Day, a book-length poem during and about the events and thoughts she experienced on that particular day, relentlessly examining motherhood, her body, her relationships, her grievances.

During a reading at Columbia University in 2016, as an editor at Columbia’s student-run news site recalled, Bernadette was asked what it was like to be a younger poet “with all those older influential poets defining what poetry ‘should be’ in New York at the time.” She responded, “Well, everybody was a guy. Not too many women were around, so the men thought of me as someone to fuck. My work was never taken seriously as poetry, because I was just a woman to them. So what I learned—and I’m sorry to say this to you, a man—but what I learned was that men are assholes.”

When I was twenty, an older poet friend of mine gave me a copy of Bernadette’s Utopia. Bernadette and I both lived on our own in New York City as teenagers with little family or money, we both used art to get through, we both took poetry classes with Bill Berkson—my friend thought I’d relate to her. Utopia is a sprawling map of her 1984 New York with its jealousies, poverty, poetry, and desperation. The text is written in various tangled-up formats with lovers and friends writing in from their heavenly hell. A poem, a play, a letter, made-up indexes, and inside jokes ripple out into a book-length meditation on the problem of life under capitalism. Landlords are evicted from Bernadette’s utopia: “A fine resolution is passed that all landlords will have to go live in isolation on the fucking moon in domes where their air will be paid for and metered by a limited partnership and if they cease to pay for it, by the heavens they will die!” Children are raised communally, no one has to work except to take care of one another, everyone is fed, accidents don’t happen, pleasure is paramount. I fell in love with Bernadette instantly, reading and rereading Utopia, making what turned out to be a rare book into a grubby mess of chocolate and tear-stained pages.

Sonnets is probably my favorite work of hers, written between 1965 and 1989. A sonnet is a poetic form made of fourteen lines and characterized by a “volta”—a swerve in direction or tone that complicates the poem’s meaning. The form was popularized by Petrarch, who, in the fourteenth century, wrote 317 sonnets for someone named Laura whose love he could not get, and when she died, he worried about that problem some more. In Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets, the pleasure and pain of all kinds of relationships are sifted through—between mother and children, lovers and ideas, partners and family members, poets with poems. These poems are relentlessly personal, hanging on the meat hooks of failure, devastation, breakdown, and disappointment, as in “[Sonnet] You jerk you didn’t call me up”:

You jerk you didn’t call me up

I haven’t seen you in so long

You probably have a fucking tan




 Nowadays you guys settle for a couch

By a soporific color cable t.v. set

Instead of any arc of love, no wonder

The G.I. Joe team blows it every other time


Then a choose-your-own ending:


To make love, turn to page 121.

To die, turn to page 172.

I went to see her read when I could, enthralled with her wit, the way she flirted with problems, her profanities. Her droll voice and acid humor lit me up and lightened my burdens. Her words gave me permission to be flawed and devastated and, in doing so, to also be illuminated—able to look at life without flinching, to observe it with a new mysterious power—an honesty that reveals the incredibly weird distortions of living and perceiving. “My father died of a hereditary condition at age forty-nine, so I thought I had to hurry up and do everything I wanted to do before age forty-nine,” she told Artforum. Like her father, Bernadette did have a stroke at forty-nine, but it didn’t kill her. She told Allen Ginsberg the stroke made her bored; Ginsberg suggested she meditate, to which she replied, “Fuck you, Allen!” The stroke did permanently impact her health, and a few years after, Bernadette and her partner, the poet Philip Good, moved upstate, renting homes in Red Rock and East Chatham in Columbia County before settling in a converted church in East Nassau. It was there that Bernadette started an unofficial writers’ school where poets could gather to collaborate and sharpen their skills. They called the woods around their house Poetry State Forest.

I had heard she was unwell in the last few years, but I took for granted that she’d always be around to get me back on my feet with a new poem or a fierce joke made during an interview. There was something in Bernadette’s relentless curiosity and quickness that was child-like and endlessly fresh. She could often make the problems of illness and old age seem like play. When she spoke at Columbia University in 2016 she said, “I don’t understand this push as we age to make more sense and be logical. Everyone thinks it’s cute when a baby falls down and says nonsensical things. But actually it would be just as cute if adults did that, too. Well, more accurately, if they made no sense and then fell down.”

It’s been several months since she died. When I was first asked to write this remembrance, I immediately wanted to say no—so many tributes had already been written, many by amazing poets who were actually close to Bernadette. What could I add that was of value? In Experiments, her manual of writing prompts, Bernadette Mayer says to “attempt writing in a state of mind that seems least congenial.” A state of grief is definitely my worst one for writing—it leads straight to melodrama. I’d been loving and losing people all year, but then again this was something that Bernadette had wrestled with her whole life until we loved and lost her too. In a letter to her sister Rosemary, Bernadette says, “It’s almost impossible for you + me to put ourselves in any situation that creates the chance of loss, without (our) exhibiting masochistic impulses.” Maybe in writing about Bernadette I could learn something, or at least follow a masochistic impulse to fuck it up.

I remembered my friend Linda Montano, now eighty-one, lovingly describing her own brain as getting “bigger, softer, wider, less specific” as she ages. I realized that loss had made my mind softer and wider, too, less concerned about the “right” words and extremely affectionate toward my mistakes. Bernadette’s poem “Failures in Infinitives” opens with the line “why am I doing this? Failure,” and goes on to explain how she’s failing at a life that can hardly support her art. It’s enormously comforting. If I’ve failed to explain my love and gratitude for Bernadette Mayer’s life and work, at least in my floundering I’ve taken the time to sit with her, to notice how she’s rearranged the way I think and live. I’ve noticed, too, that what she taught me most is how precious losing is, and how to do it with candor. What I have to say is simple, really:

I love you, Bernadette—rest easy. And thank you.


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