The Written Image: Bernadette Mayer’s Memory

From the May/June 2020 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

It’s astonishing to me that there is so much in Memory, yet so much is left out: emotions, thoughts, sex, the relationship between poetry and light,” writes poet Bernadette Mayer in the introduction to her new book of the same name, published in May by Siglio Press. Memory is what Mayer has called an “emotional science project,” an experimental attempt to record the complete experience of her consciousness for one month in 1971. (“I really thought it would be interesting for other people to become me,” said Mayer, laughing, during a 2017 panel discussion at the Canada gallery in New York City.) Every day for the month of July forty-nine years ago, Mayer shot a 36-exposure roll of Kodachrome film and wrote a journal as an “excavation” of her mind, capturing images of daily life at its most quotidian and most lyrical—the back-seat view from a moving convertible or light passing across a rain-green field.

Excerpt from Memory by Bernadette Mayer (Siglio, 2020). Images courtesy of the Bernadette Mayer Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University of California, San Diego.

Together the text and images create a procedural work of extraordinary scale: Memory comprises more than 1,100 photographs and 200 pages of writing, a document that makes a moment viewed in retrospect feel immediate, granular, visceral—and still inevitably out of reach. As in installations of the work, Siglio’s edition arranges Mayer’s photographs in a grid, allowing them to be surveyed simultaneously and in multiple directions. “While you’re reading it, you end up seeing in your peripheral vision the other photographs that are from different times, just like memory works,” Mayer has said. The result is a singular rendering of the way we make meaning of and across time, and of one summer in a legendary poet’s life, almost half a century ago.