In the American tree

Pub date December 3, 2008
WriterJason Morris
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

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REVIEW I’ll remain calm while reviewing Bernadette Mayer’s new collection of poems, Poetry State Forest (New Directions, 128 pages, $17.95). It’s sort of a B-sides-and-rarities collection. I first heard "Easy Puddings" through a recording of a reading-interview Mayer gave with Susan Howe on KPFA-FM in the 1970s. While not all of the poems are new, all of them might be new to you.

This dense forest is, first and foremost, public property. Although Mayer’s poetry looks and often is intimidating, it also offers warm welcome: it comes straight out of the ground ("mud’s an introduction to thinking," she writes), and its loaded with good humor ("mother give me five I know not what I do"). Add to this the fact that Mayer has always been fiercely and unapologetically political:

I only have faith in writers

One painted on a barn "FUCK BUSH!"

This gives a bad name to fucking

Like Catullus, whose work she’s translated, local news and the people and places of her life (in upstate New York) flash in and out of the poems, creating a choppy river of narrative. These flashes of local news suffuse their subjects with a mythical quality. They come with creation myths: "& when phil first met max, born in henniker, new hampshire, he was jumping on the top of our yellow couch, saying, ‘i’m high!’." Mayer’s neighbor Helen Green ("i buy brown / beige & white eggs / from the greens"), who grew up in the upstate New York town of Troy, becomes "Helen of Troy."

Poetry State Forest is packed with weird trees and you may need snowshoes. But the experimental nature of the writing is born of necessity, not art: it charts a mind too complex, too humanly thoughtful and restless to be encapsulated into neat syntax. Line by line, ideas bump into one another in explosions of beautifully torqued grammar: a series of sonnets gives way to a long section of notebook fragments, or a dialogue between Mayer and her house.

Over the course of her long and awesome career, Mayer’s reverently studied and mastered one poetic form after another (the sonnet, epigram, and sestina, among others), and then gleefully watched each implode. She’s really the direct heir to Gertrude Stein. And if William Burroughs was right that "intellectuals are deviants in the U.S.," Mayer is living proof by the sheer force of her intellect, and the capable way it undoes syntax, form, and orthodoxy at every turn.

The first poem in Poetry State Forest, "Chocolate Poetry Sonnet," ends with the couplet "poetry is as good as chocolate / chocolate’s as good as poetry." I want to know where Bernadette Mayer gets her chocolate.