What We Eventually Forget: Bernadette Mayer’s Memory

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During the month of July in 1971, poet Bernadette Mayer exposed a roll of 35 mm film every day and kept a daily journal. The result was what Mayer calls an “emotional science project”: a conceptual, hybrid work that incorporates photography and text to display the texture and raw material of memory.

Memory begins on July 1 as Mayer writes, “& the main thing is we begin with a white sink…” What follows in the next thirty days of July is a slipstream of consciousness, precise in Mayer’s desire to record things as she sees them, as well as lyrical and expansive. “I ate leftover chicken,” Mayer writes. “I ate colors in a dream.”

I surprised myself by reading Memory in an afternoon. I read it lying flat on the concrete slab that is my outdoor space, hunched over the glossy book, my legs hot against the new spring heat that bounced off the pavement. There was something I had been craving that Memory offered me in its precise record of time, its willingness to linger, its aberrant take on self-documentation.

When Memory debuted as an installation piece in 1972 in Holly Solomon’s gallery in New York, the piece incorporated text, approximately a thousand photographs, and audio recordings in a public space that people could move through at their own pace. Now, in book form, Memory invites the reader to engage with the work in a much more intimate way. The book reads as if we are seeing through Mayer’s eyes, immersed in her consciousness. Through rolling prose of half-finished thoughts, moving images, and fleeting emotions, Mayer attempts to document the mercurial present moment.

“It’s astonishing to me that there is so much in Memory,” Mayer writes in the preface of the book, “yet so much is left out: emotions, thoughts, sex, the relationship between poetry and light, storytelling, walking and voyaging to name a few. I thought by using sound and image, I could include everything, but so far that is not so.” What is illuminated in Mayer’s attempt to record what she experiences as she experiences it is the space where images, interiority, and action flow into each other and carry equal weight.

“Lights. Lights all electric electric machines,” Mayer writes. “& we are going to toronto tomorrow, something to put together, & more memory into a schedule of light: am I crazy & don’t I want to fuck.”

In a modern culture obsessed with self-documentation and with putting our best, most photogenic moments on display, Mayer’s attempt to show everyday life as it is—out of focus, strange, and repetitive—feels fresh. Mayer writes that “…everything that becomes popular [in our memory] is a very small part of the experience of being human, as if it were all too much for us.” And Memory, monumental in scope, sometimes does feel like too much. Mayer’s photographs, which range from dimly lit bars in New York City to a bag of onions to close-ups of lush vegetation to “corn yellow taxis” are aligned in a grid throughout the book, causing them to blur together as they would in one’s memory, reminding readers of the prodigious scope of daily experience.

In Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, Ruefle poses something in the first chapter, “On Beginnings,” that I’ve never been able to forget. She writes:

Now here is something really interesting (to me), something you can use at a standing-up-only party when everyone is tired of hearing there are one million three thousand two hundred ninety-five words used by the Eskimo for snow… Some languages are so constructed—English among them—that we only really speak one sentence in our lifetime. That sentence begins with your first words, toddling around the kitchen… and ends with your last.

I will leave you to imagine the long and strange monologue that is the spoken sentence of your life. If Ruefle explores the spoken sentence of our lives, I think Mayer, in contrast, considers the unspoken sentence: the vastness of our mind that is often forgotten and rarely shared. Some of the most famous last words are written by Emily Dickinson, in a letter before her death. Dickinson challenges the tired notion that she led the life of a recluse, that she had in fact been outside her whole life in her own consciousness. She writes, “But it is growing damp and I must go in. Memory’s fog is rising.”

When I finished Memory, I thought of the letter George Saunders wrote to his MFA students, published in the New Yorker when the shelter-in-place began. Saunders writes, “Are you keeping records of the emails and texts you’re getting, the thoughts you’re having, the way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of living? It’s all important… What you’re able to write about will depend on how much sharp attention you are paying now, and what records you keep.

It’s all important is exactly what I think Mayer is asking her readers to consider. I find a note I scribbled at the edge of my notebook from late March: The hummingbird out my window makes her minuscule nest out of twigs and fibers. I scroll through the news until my phone is hot and I have a sudden craving for harsh lighting. I go to the Walgreens on San Pablo Avenue and everything looks sparkling and useless. On my walk home, a fledgling crow is learning to fly on the sidewalk. Were the birds always this active in my neighborhood or is it just that I’m noticing them now?

How is it we choose what we pay attention to and in turn, what we remember? If Memory is a collection of the raw material of Mayer’s consciousness and experience, the question she leaves her readers with is: how do we make meaning from memory? “As a book, Memory will become the sentence in which science tells us what art is, or the other way around,” Mayer writes.

And so Memory comes to a circling halt. On July 31 Mayer writes, “A process fills its old bed & then it makes a new bed: to you past structure is backwards, you forget, you remember the past backwards & forget.”

We can’t remember every detail of our lives (“as if it were all too much for us”) and maybe we shouldn’t. As poet and philosopher Paul Valéry asked: “If we do not forget, what is there to remember?” And so I keep going back to the white sink, where Memory begins, because don’t we all have a white sink that we begin our day with, and which we eventually forget?

Natalie Dunn is a writer living in the East Bay. Her work has appeared most recently in the Kenyon Review, Entropy Magazine, Pithead Chapel and the Jellyfish Review. More from this author →