People say, ‘What is it?’ / I ask if I must tell all the rest / For never, since I was born / And for no man or woman I’ve ever met, / I’ll swear to that, / Have there been such dreams as I had today, / The 22nd day of December
Though the weather on the east coast doesn’t quite feel like winter, it is indeed the 22nd of December and just off of the winter solstice, and what better way to commemorate the day than with a post about one of my favorite poems, Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day.
As the story goes, Mayer’s greatest work was written in a single day on December 22,
1978. The poem is a full 119 pages long, broken into six parts, and follows the meditations of a woman throughout an entire day, from dreams, to awakening, to morning, afternoon, evening, night, and finally returning to dreaming. Alice Notley said it the best when she described Mayer’s poem as “an epic poem about a daily routine.”
This is an interesting feat in itself (who writes a perfectly brilliant poem in a single 24 hour period…?) but the poem wouldn’t be nearly as impactful if it weren’t for Mayer’s brilliant voice and observant mind. From the fraught beauty of a dream, Sometimes dream is so rampant, so wild / As to seem more luxuriant than day’s repose
To the convolutions of love, what I mean is love astonishes my feeling with its wonderful working so ardently so painfully that when I’m thinking about such certainty I don’t know like the earth if I’m floating or sinking,
To long form meditations on life in an almost narrative style, Sophia eats lunch playfully, she reminds me of a penguin or a porpoise or a whale or a Buddha. A couple of weeks ago a bird got caught in the closet that has our air and water heaters in it. Then when we looked again so we could throw a pillow case over it and pick it up and release it as we once had to do with a pigeon who walked into Lewis’ room through the open window, it was gone, I don’t know how it got out.
Mayer seamlessly floats from outward observation of the every day, Incorporated in 1767 / This town’s not very old like hotdogs and Pampers / Everybody who visits us finds it kind of unwitting / To walk around a town like any other, just a place / Except it’s New England which is defended, tight and cold / I’d rather live someplace higher, warmer and a little freer / Where money was like matches and words were wine, to relatively odd observations within a dream, Next I dream I am imitating your handwriting.
In many parts of the poem, we can see one thought appearing in her mind and on the page almost as quickly as the next one appears and we are reminded of our own inconsistencies and randomness through her words, I‘m not playing. I’m cleaning though I’m crawling around. Are these dishes clean or dirty. I’m afraid not. Shit. The trees lose their leaves so you can see through them. A man and a dog in a yard. A person who doesn’t have friends must explain himself to strangers. Sometimes your mother does on the phone, which religion is it that doesn’t deny the lost self. Old morning prayers said in the cold church. Dear mother dear mother.
Through this, we find ourselves relating to her tangentially connected thoughts as though they are our own, and we can feel the process of freeing oneself enough to write continuously and without restraint, in one day.
Another thing to note is Mayer’s form, which vacillates throughout, from a somewhat structured poetic style, to chunks of justified paragraphs, to indented paragraphs, to seemingly random indents, to long lists, each line ending in a comma. The form may be random, but I choose to think it not, and instead an intentional and particularly interesting way to delineate the poem.
Mayer’s Midwinter Day is an exciting twist on contemporary poetry. It was ahead of its time in the 1978, and can still be enjoyed for its beauty and poignancy now.
An idea I have is to spend days walking nights writing never eating, / sleep only when it rains and have an occasional beer.
I wonder why we write at all / These trees have seen all this before / but they are glad of an encore
Now I see / What’s ordinary like a sky / Or weather I can hear without ever looking / As blind people suddenly given sight / Sometimes will abhor it and shut their eyes again / To be more conversant with the actual view / And I know / You too can see better in the dark / Love’s eyes open anyway behind your quiet shoulder / I dream you awaken and it’s day