“I had an idea to write a book that would
… prove the day like the dream has everything in it.”
— Bernadette Mayer, Midwinter Day
Today marks the 40th anniversary of an important moment in twentieth-century poetry — the day the poet Bernadette Mayer wrote her groundbreaking long poem, Midwinter Day. To celebrate this auspicious occasion, there will be marathon readings of the book held in cities around the U.S. and across the world, from Akron, Ohio to Washington, DC to Glasgow and Malmo, Sweden. (Mayer herself will take part in the Albany, NY reading!). You can find out more about these events (which have been organized by Becca Klaver) here.
To help mark this important milestone, I’m posting an extended excerpt about Mayer’s Midwinter Day from my recent book Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture (sans footnotes). The following is one section of a longer chapter entitled “Writing the Maternal Everyday: Bernadette Mayer and Her ‘Daughters,'” which discusses Mayer’s work in detail and its influence on younger contemporary women poets, including Rachel Zucker, Hoa Nguyen, Claudia Rankine, and Laynie Browne.
On December 22, 1978, the young American poet Bernadette Mayer undertook an unusual experiment that she had been planning for weeks. She wrote an entire book-length poem during and about the events and thoughts she experienced on that particular day. She later described the resulting poem, which she titled Midwinter Day, as “a 120-page work in prose and poetry written on December 22, 1978, from notes, tapes, photographs, and memory.” The poem recounts an ordinary day in the life of a young woman, her husband, and two young children in the small town of Lenox, Massachusetts, where Mayer and the poet Lewis Warsh, had recently moved from New York City. As Alice Notley has noted, Midwinter Day is an “epic poem about a daily routine.”
Although it was not well-known at the time, Midwinter Day has increasingly come to be seen as a major long poem of the past several decades. While still hardly a household name, Mayer has lately become a beacon for younger American women writers who are still trying to negotiate what is often referred to as “the juggle”–the irresolvable balancing act of work and family that contemporary women endlessly struggle with. Many young poets today feel that Mayer managed to find a way to reconcile these competing roles successfully, long before the “mommy wars” of our day. Her books of the 1970s exuberantly demonstrate that one can be a poet and a mother at the same time and still survive, and even thrive.
In recent years, Mayer’s work has received a smattering of good critical attention, but her poetry’s outsized influence on more recent writing has still not received the attention it deserves. Critics have often focused on Mayer’s complicated connections, especially as a woman poet, to the two different, often competing movements with which she is associated, the New York School and Language poetry. They have also discussed her relationship to conceptual art, her feminist revision of poetic forms (such as the long poem and the sonnet), and her complex handling of gender and sexuality.
Despite this recent surge of interest in Mayer’s work and her example, there has been little attention paid to her role as an important poet of the everyday, nor to the significance of her quotidian aesthetic for contemporary poets who follow in her wake. By referring to an everyday-life aesthetic, I mean the broad turn away from the extraordinary, the exotic, or the heroic towards the mundane, the small, and the ordinary that has often been hailed as a central feature of twentieth-century literature and art: a literary and artistic lineage that stretches from James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Carlos Williams to the “New American Poetry” of the postwar period, especially to Frank O’Hara and the New York School, a movement known for its loving attention to the daily.
In this chapter, I argue that Mayer should be viewed as an important and under-recognized contributor to this tradition. But I make the case that Mayer not only draws upon the resources of this lineage, but also offers a powerful retort, a bracing corrective to its failures and limitations. To do so, Mayer develops a groundbreaking, influential mode that I call “the poetics of the maternal everyday.” I use this phrase to refer to a feminist aesthetic that explores how daily experience is inescapably shaped by gender, that strives to represent the lived realities of being a woman and a mother, and insists on the fact that motherhood is always, at some level, political. In short, Mayer’s work offers a stiff challenge to the supposed universality that has long cloaked the implicit male-ness at the heart of many models of dailiness.
The particular mode Mayer helped inaugurate – the poetics of the maternal everyday — has blossomed in the past several decades, as can be seen in the writing of a whole range of younger contemporary women poets, including Rachel Zucker, Claudia Rankine, Laynie Browne, Hoa Nguyen, Eleni Sikelianos, and Catherine Wagner, many of whom cite their debt to Mayer. And yet Mayer’s profound and widespread influence on contemporary poetry has remained mostly under the radar and is only just beginning to be recognized. The longer chapter from which this excerpt is drawn pairs Mayer’s poetry with the work of some of her most interesting descendants. By focusing on Mayer and her poetic “daughters,” the chapter aims to revise discussions of poetry and the everyday, and to question some of the gendered assumptions that still sometimes structure those discussions.
From the beginning of her career in the late 1960s, Bernadette Mayer has been fascinated by the quotidian in all its complexity and contradiction. “I love you and daily life, what life isn’t daily? … what poetry isn’t everyday,” Mayer proclaimed in “The Poetry of Everyday Life,” a lecture she gave in 1998. In an early poem titled “The Way to Keep Going in Antarctica,” Mayer tells herself “Look at very small things with your eyes / & stay warm.” The poem suggests that careful attention to the tiny and immediate can be a survival strategy – “the way to keep going” when faced with crisis, deprivation, and extremity, in the “Antarctica” of our lives. Throughout her work, she espouses an experimental realism designed to attend to the full range of immediate, quotidian experience: as she puts it at one point in Midwinter Day, “I want to get / A tight pair of paints and dance / With you with things as they are.”
Mayer’s desire to dance with things as they are, her attempt to honor the vast scope and richness of the everyday and its “very small things,” drives her restless experimentation with form – such as her delight in blurring genres, exploring mixing media, and devising conceptual and constraint-based projects. With one foot in the world of conceptual art, and the other in the New York School’s second generation, Mayer turns to avant-garde forms in part because she feels conventional forms and self-contained lyric poems do not offer an adequate mode of attending to and recording everyday life – especially contemporary daily life as experienced by women and mothers.
Like so many of Mayer’s other works, Midwinter Day is the result of a deliberate, constraint- and time-based project – a kind of “real-time” experiment written about, and during the course of, a single day. In deciding to create a book-length poem, Mayer quite self-consciously contributes her own effort to the storied genre of the long poem. But she provocatively shifts the typical concerns and scope of the form from that displayed in long poems like Pound’s Cantos, Hart Crane’s The Bridge, William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, or Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems to the domestic sphere conventionally associated with women and mothers, offering a provocative rejoinder to the epic tradition itself. Mayer’s book demonstrates that a poem about a single day in the life of a mother – even a day like December 22, which she seems to purposely choose because it is what she calls the “year’s least day,” “the shortest day of the year” – is so rich, complex, varied, and inexhaustible that it could include everything one finds in traditional epics: love, death, fear, war, violence, pleasure, loss, memory, sex, and dream. At one self-reflexive point in the poem she writes “I had an idea to write a book that would … prove the day like the dream has everything in it.”
Furthermore, by deciding to give a single day book-length treatment, Mayer both invokes and comments upon the familiar modernist tactic of using a single day as the focus and frame for a novel – a tactic most famously seen in Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. From the book’s first page, Mayer signals her intention to converse with these predecessors: Midwinter Day’s first word (complete with an oversized capital S) directly alludes to the famous beginning of Ulysses (where Joyce wrote “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan,” Mayer writes “Stately you came to town in my opening dream”). Mayer thus alerts us right away that she will be putting her own subversive stamp on this mini-genre. If those landmark modernist works were radical attempts to shift the scale of the novel to the daily life of “ordinary” people, Midwinter Day not only extends that project but takes it in a notably different direction. First, the events of those novels seem momentous in contrast to the much more mundane ordinariness of Mayer’s day, in which nothing conventionally “dramatic” happens at all (by far the biggest moment of conflict is a toddler’s tantrum in the town’s public library – a far cry from, say, the suicide of Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs. Dalloway). Second, Mayer pointedly replaces the concerns of the Joycean everyday (largely male and urban) with the thoughts and actions of a woman caring for little children in a small town.
In addition, unlike those examples, Mayer’s poem is not a fictional representation of a single “day in the life.” It was – or purports to have been – written on a single day, by a woman who was also a primary caregiver to two young children. In that sense, Midwinter Day ups the ante on its predecessors and their claims about the everyday: it becomes a performance piece and feat of endurance. It is also a feminist refusal to abide by strict divisions of labor and the engrained belief that the domestic and the intellectual are incompatible. As Maggie Nelson suggests, Midwinter Day is designed to confront, perhaps definitively, the problem of “the juggle”: it responds to the questions facing all women writers who are mothers: how can you be both woman and artist? When do you find time to write? “All day long” is the book’s defiant answer.
For Mayer, every element of a day can become fodder for a self-assigned research project: at one point she writes, “I would study the twelve hours of the day / Spending an hour in each” (94). In this case, studying the hours of the day entails carefully noting and documenting the busy activity of a home filled with young children who are doing nothing much in particular except playing, talking, fighting, reading, and eating. One passage reads:
Sophia sits on my lap playing with markers. She pulls them from a jar, opens them and puts them back. She does it repeatedly. Marie falls down.
Marie builds a farm from blocks, she puts two cows in a stall. Sophia takes them. Marie says don’t destroy my farm. Sophia walks. They shout.
Marie wants Lewis to read Curious George, he doesn’t want to. She says try it. (84–85)
By creating a work that devotes attention to such activities, Mayer makes a potent, even defiant point about content—about what material can be appropriate for, even thrive as, poetry. For the same reason, Mayer frequently weaves the language of her children directly into the fabric of the text, delighting in the strange poetry that crackles in the ordinary speech of kids—a tactic that will be picked up by later poets of motherhood: “Marie says children have candy my name is Betsy you’ll get sticky. She calls Sophia baby brother, it’s from a book. She says here’s a mountain I made I cut it sharp and thick” (84).
As such passages suggest, Mayer casts off the strictures of poetic convention as too limiting to capture the variety and complexity of daily life. Smashing the confines of the short lyric poem, Midwinter Day features a dizzying variety of forms, moving from disjunctive free verse, to strangely antiquated rhymed quatrains, to long-lined stanzas, to rambling prose paragraphs, and back again to poetry—with different sections of the poem (and of the day) corresponding to different poetic modes. The formal variety, fragmentation, and overall sense of flux and flow aim to convey the rhythm, the feel, the distinctive temporality of daily life with small children. For example, after one passage of scrambled syntax, kid language, and rapid jumps—“Where’s the chair it’s in the pail put the person in it, is it the teacher’s chair, I used to go to New York yesterday and have my hair shampooed, maybe it’s a sparrow maybe not maybe it’s just a bird”—she exclaims “What an associative way to live this is,” which refers equally to her lived experience and to the text we are reading (35).
As part of her goal of achieving radical inclusivity, one tactic (or “trap for the attention”) Mayer deploys is the use of extravagant documentary lists and Whitman-like catalogs, like the exhaustive tally of the “titles of all the current books” spotted at the local bookstore (53–54). In the second section, Mayer launches without warning into a Georges Perec–like inventory of every item visible in her home, naming objects and moving associatively, like a video camera, roaming through the space of the cramped, bohemian, art- and kid-filled home:
From the bedroom, curtains blue as ink I stare at, red Godard floor white walls all crayoned, from the bed raised on cinder blocks at Dr. Incao’s midwife’s request so Sophia could be born, fake Indian cover Ray gave us for Marie American Indian and Ray’s old real wool blanket and all our sheets her gifts, Lewis’s Aunt Fanny’s crocheted Afghan and Tom’s old sleeping bag, the mimeographic machine and its cover, diaper rash ointment, for the walls a butterfly kite, a leaf on a ribbon from nursery school, mushrooms by Joe, an iris and gladiola by Rosemary, the gladiola painted here, the stuck clock, the window faces south, laundry on it, closet doors hung with jackets, shawls, scarves and Marie’s dress. . . . (32)
And on it goes for another page and a half of unbroken prose, this careful and loving scrutiny of the messy but vibrant domestic space. As it archives and documents the mundane things that constitute her daily existence, the passage exhibits the leveling of hierarchies typical to everyday-life poetics, thanks to its penchant for the catalog, which presents all objects as more or less equivalent, none prioritized over any other.
Mayer takes this gesture of cataloging and documenting the mundane—familiar from other everyday-life artworks, from the lists of Whitman or Joyce to Perec’s inventory of every item he ate and drank for an entire year—but gives it a feminist twist. It is no accident that she doesn’t distinguish at all between the highest of high art (a poster on their wall featuring “A woman by Matisse in yellow and blue”) and her daughter’s art works (“a leaf on a ribbon from nursery school”) or the “potty chair, diaper pail for cloth diapers, plastic bag of used plastic diapers, toilet sink tub” cluttering their home (33). It is quite deliberate that the list of books she mentions borrowing from the library moves without pause from There’s a Wocket in My Pocket by Dr. Seuss to Samuel Pepys’s Diaries (43–44). Throughout Midwinter Day, Mayer refuses to see any division between the domestic sphere (typically linked to women and childcare) and the world of intellect and imagination: it is all one, big, jumbled, happy whole.
Another trope familiar from earlier everyday-life aesthetics that Mayer puts a feminist spin on is the flâneur—the walker in the modern city who serves as the very embodiment of the modern artist, both a part of and able to stand apart and critique the urban crowd and the emanations of capitalism. The flâneur is a motif central to Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway, Apollinaire’s “Zone,” and the city poems of Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan. But, as Maggie Nelson has argued, “the literary tradition of the writer as flâneur—a tradition of great importance to O’Hara, for example—simply cannot remain intact when the flâneur becomes a flâneuse” (Women, xxiv). In the third section of Midwinter Day, Mayer offers just this sort of subversive riff on the figure of the flâneur: Mayer transforms the observant male walker in the city into a “flâneuse”: a bohemian and politically resistant poet-mom strolling with kids around a quaint New England town.
In this part of the book, Mayer deliberately moves outward from the private, interior spaces of the book’s first two parts to the wider public world, as the poet and her husband and children take a walk around the town of Lenox, Massachusetts. By chronicling a noontime walk on the wintry streets, complete with errands, shopping, and pointed social observation, Mayer overtly invokes the premise and content of everyday-life “walk poems”—especially Frank O’Hara’s diaristic, “I do this, I do that,” “lunch poems.” At one point, she more or less directly echoes O’Hara’s famous mode when she writes “It’s 12:15 p.m. / Everything circumscribed” (48). But once again, she does so with a difference. The “hum-colored cabs,” the Manhattan bustle, the boozy lunches of literary gossip with writer friends that one finds in O’Hara, are out. Here, the poet walks with kids in tow, stops by the small-town post office and the library, and hauls her daughters along to bookstore and market, as in this passage:
Now Marie says her boots are getting too hot
We run the few yards to the market in the deep and cheerful snow
… To market to market to buy a fat pig
Home again home again jiggety jig
There’s the State Line Potato Chip truck
We all go
In the door of the mausoleum store lit like a jailcell
To get spaghetti, oranges, juice, yellow peas and some cheese
. . . I can’t get Marie in the cart too well with her Korean boots on (54)
In this manner, Mayer writes her own “I do this I do that” poem, but transforms the familiar New York School model of dailiness so that it now consists of household errands, nursery rhymes, and wrestling babies into shopping carts.
The third section also illustrates another aspect of Mayer’s poetry that has been very influential for later poets of motherhood: she erases the expected boundary between the private and domestic world of mother and family and the public world of politics, economics, and cultural critique. Throughout the poem, she reflects on the details and absurdities of local politics (“There’s a sign on the door that from the first of the year / Library hours will be curtailed due to fuel prices”), frequently contemplates the inequities and ironies of capitalism, and is especially sensitive to how class and money influence and structure so many facets of daily life (43). She returns especially to the difficulties of living as a poet and trying to raise a family, without a fixed income, on the edge of poverty: “But the neat dry bank is always the same big loss, even today / Though the pigeons from our roof feed in the yard next door / We are still as poor” (43). Mayer asserts that a life fueled by poetry and by children can be a liberating alternative to the mainstream’s consumerism and the acquisition of wealth: “intensest of storms to come, / Sickening holidays, cold rooms and running out of money again, / Nothing to do but poetry, love letters and babies, hope for spring / Coming to please us because now we are parents” (54–55).
By insisting on the interconnection between the mother-figure and wider public spheres of politics and capitalism, Midwinter Day refuses to abide by expectations about “women’s poetry” or the poetry of motherhood. Mayer consciously attempts to welcome everything into her long poem, to broaden the scope of the poem far beyond the confines of family, marriage, and “love” (conventionally understood), beyond the nursery or kitchen, to include the whole world. This feature of the poem becomes inescapable when, in the midst of the prose paragraphs of the book’s fifth section, she inserts a three-page list of news events arranged into lines of poetry:
So when I write of love I write of
Binding referendums, bankruptcy intent,
Industrials, utilities and sales
The petitions of a citizens’ group . . .
An exploding oil depot in Rhodesia,
A controversial nuclear physicist,
South Africa’s resources of chrome
And Russia’s stores of platinum and tin,
Intercontinental ballistic missiles,
Mexican oil, student assemblies,
Mobile homes uprooted by strong winds,
Book sales, Chris Evert’s engagement,
The uses of trees on the banks of reservoirs,
The victory of the Cleveland Cavaliers
And how the Sabres beat the Flames. (90)
On it goes—a dizzying list of the day’s events, stitched together as an enormous catalog that evokes the simultaneity and breadth of the everyday, of each and every day:
I write of bribery and surgery . . .
The Pope’s speech about his first trip,
Jet hijackings, price rises, a recession,
. . . the findings
Of the House Assassinations Committee
. . . New Federal oil-industry regulations,
Freed North Korean political prisoners,
The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty . . .
The financial default of the city of Cleveland,
Inflation . . .
The defeat of the Knicks by the Hawks,
Army allegedly breaking recruiting rules,
The Nets’ loss to the Rockets . . . (91)
This section of Midwinter Day demonstrates the kind of “time capsule” effect found in many everyday-life works, where the work functions as an archive that aspires to document and store for posterity the events of a given day. Mayer attempts to “prove the day like the dream has everything in it” by listing dozens of stories and items from the day’s news, from sports scores, to cold war politics, to celebrity news (89). With the benefit of today’s search engines, we can quickly discover that nearly every item mentioned in these three pages can be found in the New York Times on December 22, 1978. Thus, we are given a remarkable snapshot of the culture and politics of the 1970s as glimpsed on a random day in late 1978: economic crisis and inflation (“foreclosures,” Cleveland’s default), geopolitics (Taiwan, South African apartheid, the crisis in Iran), nuclear arms and containment (ICBMs, SALT), scientific developments (“information from the surface of Venus”), environmental crisis (“air pollution”), pop culture (“Clint Eastwood with a monkey”), art (“Andy Warhol and Red Grooms”), and so on.
The sheer variety and excessive volume of the material Mayer catalogs conveys the overwhelming abundance of information, drama, and activity contained in a single day and its news—a virtually limitless expanse of human experience. In doing so, this passage clearly anticipates Kenneth Goldsmith’s much-debated book-length poem Day, a transcription of a single day’s New York Times, that I discuss in chapter 6. In Mayer’s hands, though, the point is again a feminist one, as it is inextricable from her ideas about the maternal everyday: in effect, she argues that the poet, the mother, composing this book is just a single point within a whole series of networks, ranging from the most personal to the most public and global. We have seen the poem move from the speaker’s solitary dreams in bed, to her nuclear family, to the wider communities of town and coterie, and finally to nation and world. The implication? No mother is an island, and no poet-mother must write as if her experience raising children removes her from politics, history, and culture. Mayer drives this point home when she concludes the long list of news stories by adding her own name to the vast panoply of the day’s events, large and small:
A lost anarchist novelist, contract bridge,
biographies, the Bible, documentaries,
Cosmology and the Balinese dance,
By inscribing herself in this catalog, Mayer suggests that “Bernadette,” her life and her family, are no less important than “cosmology,” “air-pollution emission,” “a Basque militant leader,” Clint Eastwood, or the Pope. This passage seems to echo, or put into practice, Mayer’s concerns, expressed much earlier in the poem, about how her little family relates to the larger world, about “where we fit in the system of the news of the day” (32).
For all its loving attention to daily life with family and children, Midwinter Day is no simple hymn to the joys of domesticity and maternity. Rather than romanticizing or simply celebrating her own domestic bliss, Mayer explores the mixed feelings everyday-life engenders. She presents the everyday as the paradox it so often is, warts and all—the mix of repetition and change, the clutter, the chaos, the interruptions and burdens, as well as the delights and pleasures. Just as Schuyler shows us again and again that “each day” is “so alike and yet so different,” Mayer at one point posits that “every morning’s the same” and then almost immediately writes “then I’ll tell you how each day is different” (24). Midwinter Day frequently reflects on the comforts of domestic routine, but also the dangers of repetition and boredom it involves (“Pleasure without any change becomes a chore,” she admits at one point ).
Mayer also frequently probes the tension between her radical, pre-children days and her current, more “square” lifestyle. At one point, she waxes nostalgic about her lost freedom, all she’s had to sacrifice:
Before we had children
We used to work all night, eyes open, then sleep
For the day, eyes closed to people’s mornings (7)
And compares her old life to “the new ordinary way of being” that children and domesticity has brought:
Now that our days
Are full of normal parts
It seems we have all lived forever so far
Eyes open, eyes closed, half-open, one eye open
One closed to the coming day (7)
In another passage, she wonders “have I lost my tough or punk part among these kids who write on lines between the windows where I imitate them after they cover the walls with notes on making a face generous or a house a cave” (37). In such moments, Mayer directly confronts the mixed feelings that are perhaps endemic to the role of the bohemian, avant-garde poet-mother. However, Mayer consistently turns this conflict—her anxiety about being a poet of motherhood and family—into one of Midwinter Day’s central themes.
With works like Midwinter Day, Mayer established a powerful poetic model that combines avant-garde aesthetics, an abiding concern for dailiness, and a feminist, politicized consciousness about mothering, its pleasures and struggles. As I have suggested, this stance has taken root in many corners of contemporary poetry. Many women poets today refuse to segregate mothering from all other aspects of experience, or to treat it in a clichéd or sentimental manner, and exploit a host of avant-garde poetic strategies for the purposes of exploring motherhood.
To read more about Bernadette Mayer and her descendants, check out the rest of my chapter in my book Attention Equals Life.
Happy Midwinter Day day!