Ethics of Sleep by Bernadette Mayer
(Trembling Pillow, New Orleans, 2011)
Stunned positively by the first few poems in this book, I avidly gobbled it up. It starts with “Max’s Dream” that reports just that in a maturing kid’s voice. It has the poetics of the dream-report that seem easier than they are until you try it. That piece sets up the next several pages that form one long piece called “The Buttered Key” (13-19). That title has to be a reference to getting a key to slip into a reluctant lock, a metaphor I guess. The poem has thirteen pieces in it, all called “A dream called …” something. These pieces are each one long “run-on” sentence long. That breathlessness gives the tumble of dream and something more to them. They have lines kind of but are more about the enjambments of dreaming rather than enjambment in poetry unless there’s no difference which maybe there isn’t; get it?
My favorite, of course, is the last, which starts:
A dream called Conversation with Ted Berrigan. That’s it for the rest of
the glow, there’s the lace and the prolific by the ocean’s
rose hip blossom pressed to recall the ignorance of homilies
there’s a whole lot more the spider who swings down and around
the green gangrene of influence like your toes might fall off
if you don’t get to holding hands very soon,
pies and jazz with Ted while he’s the vice presidential
“What side are we on?” I say
“I don’t know, the last cut on the first side I guess,”
What social linguists have called the “parsimony principle” sets in here and directs us to make something of what we’re given in the directest way possible; I get an accuracy of image and memory packed with feeling from the first part and an open joke from the last that also is bound to the memory of LPs dear to my heart almost as Berrigan is and must be to Bernadette.
After that comes an eight-page poem composed almost entirely of questions that asks:
Have you read the sonnets of Rototeille?
Are you reading books in the middle or in the center?
Have you found a number of genres?
Did the snow park separate at the top & slide down on bellies?
Try to describe everything.
The modern mix of the mundane and the deeper is used here, as well as the trick of curious elisions, to get a sense of mystery and meaning from these queries. The un-question there that I stopped on to me relates a set of questions all at once, like “what did it look like?” and “how did it smell?” and “what were the sounds?” etc., but a writer too has to put in or allude to “what were you thinking?”
There is a three-person conversation/interview at the back of the book that relates some thinking one might do about this work. Dave Brinks comments:
Truthfully I would discourage anyone to begin with your work who doesn’t want to feel frustrated as far as writing reviews, and not because your works are difficult, because they’re not; but simply because your works have too many delights which just aren’t easily pinned down. (89)
He says this right after commenting on an “angry review” of her Poetry State Forest that Bernadette mentions. Brinks says, “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was written by someone who was just experiencing the initial struggles of finding their own way of talking and writing about poetry at the same time.” This I take to be an accurate assessment based on Bernadette’s practice and its debt to Gertrude Stein’s dictum about talking and listening at the same time being the basis for genius and how the gossip of her aunties on a Baltimore stoop gave that idea to her. The genius of Ethics of Sleep and much else in the Mayer oeuvre is based in the talking mind. She gives it both a lot of permissions and a lot of modernistic editing, but it is the voice in the head that rattles us nicely in Mayer’s works.
The cover blurbs for this book on the back are hilarious and to the point. I bet somebody made them up, but I also bet that the purported speakers wouldn’t take them back if they could.
We finally understand how the brain works!
--John Lilly, M.D.
I’m leaving all my money to Bernadette Mayer because she’s the best writer, especially Ethics of Sleep.
I have to agree with Ashbery, even though I know if I called him he might say he has never seen this cover nor said or written those words. The poems between the covers have an ethic of their own; they sound as if taken straight from a tired brain but have much more going on. The poems are written not rattled off. There are lines or bits that re-appear here and there in different contexts in the book as if to prove this. “On Sleep” appears here in a version that is better spaced than the one that New Directions published in Scarlet Tanager in 2005. This spacing makes a difference and again shows a level of attention to how a poem reads that is consciously writerly; in Ethics of Sleep, we see a poem built of units—some are lines and some are chunks of thought or anecdotal reports of worry and insomnia—each given equal weight and having something of their own about them and about sleep. Here are a few:
You could only feel the air like cold’s envelope surrounding the body
Sleep is the stealing of beds inside and outside
and the simple finding of them
I do not know how to write commercially though some commercial writers who are quite successful also cannot sleep I’ll bet sleep means something, look it up in Skeats Etymological Dictionary. Let me tell you what I’m worried about, my unbent block of wood under rails, my slipping sinking gliding dormant soul of myself, I am worried about these things: [and then a list]
I know how to attend to the moment of the text and all this writing about oneself, this is not the point. I worry about that. Maybe if you went to Harvard it’s o.k.. Besides not going to Harvard I worry about the other mistakes I’ve made in my life, I won’t trouble you with a list.
This is a work in progress. I invite you to contribute to it. A railroad tie is called a sleeper, that’s why we sometimes sleep like logs
This is progressive work. It builds momentum, and not just for itself but for others who might read it and weep with the sense of possibilities for their own writing.
Bernadette is a treasure.
T.C. Marshall is busy occupying his life, seriously supporting movement actions on the Cabrillo College campus where he teaches and in the S.F. and Monterey Bay areas where he lives. He has been writing and publishing poetry since first grade, literary criticism since his college days in the U.S. and Canada, and nature writing here and there. His latest publications include online essays and reviews as well as poems online and on paper in magazines. His next project is a set of poems incorporating photos to be published on a blog, all of which were originally posted on FaceBook. They are called Post Language.