Against the Willowy Rascal with Giant Phallus
Bernadette Mayer has always been an outlier with the confidence of an insider. Since her days editing the Conceptualist journal 0 to 9 with Vito Acconci, publishing the likes of Ted Berrigan, Sol LeWitt, and Kenneth Koch, she has channeled the most progressive trends in art without losing her own particular voice: working-class, old school, old neighborhood, cranky New York. Mayer is a punk yogi who can bite one moment, drop Dharma on you the next. As she writes in “Dangerous Solamente Sense,” one of the first poems in Works & Days, published by New Directions in July:
A preoccupation with time which
Involves movement, hilly upstart
With a gun, he fires it, that sound
It’s a rifle, why? A duck flies away
Using circles, a certain amount of money
Say $11.16 becomes the cost of cremation
On main street or under an old el
You should go to the lobster support group
Works & Days is Mayer’s twenty-eighth book. It has received positive reviews from the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Paris Review, and Publishers Weekly. It was also the occasion for a recent New Yorker profile that attempts to situate a poet who has spent her career resisting such formality. Longtime readers might consider the attention overdue; others might concede that given the current climate where poetic traditionalists and experimenters occupy separate ends of the academy, a firebrand that draws from everyone might be difficult to place. In a Hyperallergic review of her collected early works last year, she was called a “messy” poet by critic and publisher Douglas Messerli—one “who is utterly unafraid of expressing her emotional doubts, fears, and confusions in the very process of creating.”
Works & Days
(New Directions, 2016)
(Black Ocean, 2016)
Works & Days displays a similar mercurial fearlessness. Taking its title from Hesiod, the book is a poet’s almanac, offering a meditation on age and monetary concern, amidst the effulgence of spring. In “Could You Bring the Wine?” she seems at her most vulnerable, while trying to lighten the mood with a neologistic punchline:
Today, poor as church mice
We go to the Hannaford’s
Spend fifty-eight dollars and seventy-three cents
For a week’s worth of food, the eggs
And cigarette’s got with a credit card
Soon we’ll be free-vores and
Dumpster-dive and glean
Composed between March and June, the book introduces itself as a “spring journal.” Its alternating poetic diary entries and lyrics begin on April 15 (Tax Day) and take the reader through Easter, Passover, Earth Day, Arbor Day, even National Pot Day. The book ends on June 21 (summer solstice). Mayer is the generous, often hilarious polymath throughout, weighing in on Aristotle (“asshole”), the Rent Strike of 1848, Donald Trump (who reminds her of a grackle), the IRS, even Bill Berkson’s dildo. She excels in poems like “April 21,” where she delivers hyper-specific details of the everyday, alongside word fragments derived from cutting holes in a piece of paper and other Dada-influenced practices:
Today last year Max drove a small U-Haul full of Rosemary’s work up here. It said Mom’s Attic which is where it was going. We couldn’t get all the sculptures upstairs so the amphora’s on top of the refrigerator. On the way to Wassaic, driving Max to Metro-North we passed through Webutunk and Amenia.
glefan pleeo fuyin stumco adfair riafda
slyte etyls ceenf sirnap panris stturyzirep
Mayer claims to make “syntax not sense” with such pairing. The words float on the page like a verbal mandala. Their presence stops the reader, gives pause amidst the rush of details from the poet’s life. They are Mayer’s pastoral gift, offering serenity to the reader tracking alongside her. Mayer repeats the technique in multiple poems. The recurrence forms a linguistic diptych, framing her expressiveness against the nonsense language of early influences like Heinrich Böll.
Works & Days shows a veteran poet as relentless innovator. Perhaps its greatest achievement is the subtle argument it makes against the world beyond Mayer’s Albany environs. The book progresses with Mayer’s various targets (such as the IRS and role of commoditization throughout history) becoming part of a larger case against hierarchy, against patriarchy, against anything that creates unequal value in a universe where everything is blessed. Mayer formulates her grand theory without leaving the ground. In “Geology Night Sky,” perhaps the collection’s finest poem, she looks into the evening sky, with the telescope of a mystic:
The nuclear cooking of free electrons creates spirals
oolitics or pisoltic, it’s a stalactite wheat sheaf
I vanish into the universe like a wave, cosmologically
while you are a crenellated coxcomb, let's be twinned
rolling into a ball of wind & water
equal areas equal spaces equal times equal rights for women
their beautiful & often elegant crystal form
The differences of the Euclidian world are atomized into sublime music. The poem’s grand tone combining scientific terms with spiritual aspirations are reminiscent of Charles Olson and Ronald Johnson at their most rhapsodic. The infusion of social politics is Mayer’s delightful addition. The music is her divine response to the issues Works & Days raises.
Kelly Schirmann pursues similar transcendence against a different landscape. A young poet and musician from Northern California, Schirmann is the author of Popular Music (Black Ocean, 2016), her newest full-length collection. Whereas Mayer is a homebody contemplating the immediate in a poetic almanac, Schirmann gives readers an expansive poetic travelogue. Yellowstone, Austin, Mississippi, Phoenix—these are a few of the places she explores with fierce lyric intelligence. Popular Music is an Emersonian meditation with a kickass playlist set on shuffle. Its hybrid style mixes essay and lyric. Its journey eschews the narrative tropes of On the Road, Travels with Charlie, and other classic tales of self-discovery. Popular Music instead forges its own path as a true 21st-century work: abstract, self-absorbed, random—a non-linear odyssey of the Internet Age, whose sections feel like movements of the poet’s private symphony.
Part one is a poetic essay. Schirmann sets forward a mystical argument that is as much about music as it is about the music of her craft. In the section’s conclusion, she offers a summary of her poetic thesis:
I know that all music is true and that none of it is. Language works the same way. Something inside of both makes facts irrelevant: the sound of a voice echoing from deep within a new cave, scraping itself against something too enormous to see, something it might never find again, something I am invited to look at while it’s there.
Schirmann invites the reader along to chase this music. Part two is a series of lyrical meditations that jumps between the sound of popular music and the sound of nature. It might be the collection’s strongest section. The meditation is a form that she owns. It’s as if she has updated Juvenal and Donne to the culture of social media. About halfway through the section, the writing bristles with the excitement of where Schirmann will drop her needle next:
I’m boarding the plane
with the other American mystics
I’m eating dried apples & watching their news
There are feelings in the air here
I can’t recognize
I’m charging my electronics
in my own little corner
of this cemetery
The poet shares Mayer’s contempt for institutionalized capital. Her anger is the rage of a young person trying to figure her place in a hostile order. There are moments when Schirmann aspires to the authority of a millennial Ginsberg. In the conclusion of part two, she rages: “I watch my generation get fucked / against the walls of clever speech.” Channeling “Howl” is a worthy goal, yet its effectiveness can feel limited by the heat of political rhetoric.
Popular Music is part of a new trend of poetry collections that draws inspiration from rock music. Among the most notable examples are Robert Fitterman’s Nevermind (Wonder, 2016), Micah Ling’s Flashes of Life (Hobart Handbooks, 2015), and Devin Kelly’s Blood on Blood (Unknown Press, 2016). Popular Music differs from these books in the way it scales its ambitions far beyond its source material. Schirmann may channel the poetic commentary of Ling and motion toward covering Nirvana or Springsteen’s Nebraska (Kelly’s Blood on Blood) down to the crackles between the songs, but she never lingers long enough for one song to get stuck in her head. She is a striving, musical mystic whose struggle is worked out right on the bandstand. The scope of her energies and the gut-bucket improvisation places her more in the realm of Coltrane and Ayler than anything a pop star would recognize. Later in the collection, toward the end of part five, the chorus of the Stones’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” becomes an extended solo where she considers the limitations of self:
I am a naked human body in a stream of sound.
The sound has authority and charisma. Over and over, I give in to the colors, the waves of noise.
I want the echo of life in my own ears, I want the words I’ve memorized in the mouth of another.
Schirmann leads the reader as far as she knows to go. Whereas Mayer concludes Works & Days with a solstice celebration with multiple generations of family, Schirmann walks away alone, her voice echoing as she disappears from the reader’s glance. It’s not the satisfying ending that the veteran poet delivers, but, after all the wonderful moments Popular Music leaves the reader with, it is going to be interesting to hear what Schirmann has to say in new choruses of her ongoing song.