The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, Bernadette Mayer

The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters' title forecasts the run-on emotional, syntactical, and imagistic complexity and playfulness of Bernadette Mayer's "series of letters written but never sent to people living and dead during a nine-month period in 1979-80," a period coinciding with the pregnancy that resulted in the birth of her third child, Max Theodore.

These nearly eighty letters form brief two to five page vignettes (from the French vigne, "little ornamental vines") are anything but the focused, static sketches often connoted by the term "vignette." As letters, they are chatty, intimate, breathless, inclusive, leaping in scale (within a single sentence sometimes) from the minutely observed insect remarked upon when playing with her daughters ("... let's feel the stunned caterpillar we find to look at, it stands out in the landscape ... " [149]) to ephemerally brilliant observations about American literature and the relationship between writing and sex ("A good course in American writing study would be Hawthorne, Whitman, Kerouac and Stein, see how much each did for the sentence and the line, what queer attitudes to sex they all had, Hawthorne the stiff-backed fantasizing Puritan who was so cute and had such sensuous lips, who walked and had a neurasthenic wife, two religious daughters and one dutiful son, who said after his third child was born, no we will certainly have no more of that but he didn't say how; Whitman the man autoerotic who was nearly perfect, the wanderer, the fucking mountain, Kerouac the crazed, a retroactive family man who wanted work; and Stein the expatriate lesbian who loved her country and a big fat woman Donald Sutherland the critic said you trembled with sexiness when you shook her hand, another talker, food lover, I wonder what Hawthorne's and Whitman's voices sounded like, you can imagine, family life" [153]) (here and in the passage that follows, Mayer is also clearly comparing her own family-way/writer situation to theirs); to Steinian remarks about identity and/or writing ("There is an object which exists, in duplication, all over but it is neither here nor in the lake." [90]; "Mothers are different from sisters, long walks in the woods, every place is circumscribed because of seeing it, do people think t.v. shows are like friends" [143-4]); to acutely insightful descriptions of the struggles of a young family low in financial resources but high in/on energy, intellectual ambition, and commitment to alternative visions of literary creativity, "family values," and daily living.

I was fortunate to sit in on a class in which Lee Ann Brown was teaching this book: she mentioned that Mayer deeply admired the sentences of the great writers of the 19th-century "American Renaissance" such as Hawthorne and Melville, and had been experimenting with long, complex sentences that focused, pulled back, refocused at different registers of concreteness, abstraction, intimacy, distance, etc. Her sentences, though, are unlike theirs in that she cuts loose from their intricate bondage to causality and linearity, syntactical models of subordination/domination (one would be hard pressed to identify her clauses as "subordinate," "dependent," "independent," etc.), and embraces instead a paratactical gush of simultaneity-lusher and less deliberate than, say, Stein's domestic idylls, warmer and more "real" (Mayer is not afraid to talk about poverty, irritation, disappointment)-but equally daring in breaking from their nonetheless-much-respected male forebears. Also interactive with (I hate that passive phrase "influenced by") European letter-writers Mme. de Sevigny, Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu, Mayer nonetheless does not subscribe to the decorous manneredness of these models, while resonating with their intimate, warm attempts to impart worldly knowledge and support to their daughters.

Any one of these letters could be savored analytically, lived with at length, explored in depth. This bookful could keep you busy a long long time if you like to unearth and flesh out allusions, read closely (as in "perform close readings"), engage theoretically in the minutiae of textual pleasures.

If you like to catch inspiration on the fly, wordloading for imagination's marathons, this book can be consumed in a big delirious gluttonous orgy as well -an it please you as it desires, let it be fuel to your own fires.


-Maria Damon