Peter Valente Review: Memory, a Siglio Press book by Bernadette Mayer


Bernadette Mayer’s Memory contains around 1100 photographs, along with 31 poetic journal entries. Each day for the month of July 1971, Mayer would take photographs, using up a roll of film, and write in her journal: “take pictures for a week, say, then put them away don’t even show them around for a year & see what you remember & a week’s diary too.” At first, while reading the journal entries and looking at the photographs, I thought of experimental films, like the diaristic films of Jonas Mekas, and of films in general[1]. In ArtForum, Mayer writes:

I was twenty-six years old when I started Memory. I look like such a kid in the photos … I can see myself growing up through the course of the month. I got the idea from Godard, who said that image and sound make a film. Then again, he also said all you needed to make a film was a girl and a gun.

Film speed is usually 24 frames/sec. I imagined that if each photo was a frame in a film, the resulting film would be close to a minute long. Each image would go by so fast that the viewer would not be able to retain memory of it (the memories, at best, would be fragmentary), and the context of the photos would be lost in the rush of images. But there are also the journal entries to consider: I imagined each line (or groups of sentences) as images being spliced onto the page, the page itself as if containing a sequence of frames in a film: Mayer is “writing writing pictures of.” The “cuts” in the text are quick and often discontinuous; concerned more with recording “states of consciousness” than with a linear narrative. Bernadette and her friends are seen performing various tasks, or alone reading, or in a car, etc., and these images are hinted at in the text, as though they were brief and discrete moments in the continuous flow of consciousness. The relation of the photographs to the text is asymmetrical and dynamic. The space between the text and the images is where thought occurs; it is associative, rather than logical, and leads to alternative readings. We are asked to interpret multiple realities that occur simultaneously and to see, or rather, feel, resonances, in the spaces between the image and the text (sound).



New skins cells are born every 28-40 days. The rate at which the body completely changes is faster than the eye can see or remember. Change appears slow as we look at ourselves in the mirror each day, but rapid at the molecular level. Change is deceptive, like old photographs. The film image we see on a screen is the result of light passing through a projector: a construction. And our sense of time is subjective, despite the movement of the clock hands (“memory laughs at the intuition of time”). Light, time, language, memory: these are the central concerns in the book. Mayer often speaks of light, until it acquires a kind of eternal quality: “the light in the white room looks like itself, all the lights … between black & white is blue, all is light.” Anyone who has shot a film on a Bolex knows the importance of the light meter, which if not calibrated correctly, could cause the entire film to be underexposed.



Mayer quotes Robert Macfarlane in her short introduction to Memory: “Time seemed to express itself in terms not of hours and minutes, but of shades and textures.” Many of the photos are under or overexposed, giving the images a feeling of the passage of time. In a sense, they have considerably aged right after they were taken. The photos often border on abstraction. They are generally more a study of light and lines, the geometry of space, and only occasionally, of people. Riding in a train and looking out the window you see the trees flashing by, quick movements of green, and your mind wanders; memories do not follow one another in a chronological way, but are fragmentary, ambiguous. Memories seem to occur almost in a liminal state, where it is not a matter of the clear representation of images. The space between image and text opens up alternative readings, and a kind of third dimension of thought, but the ambiguity and mysterious nature of life remains. Photos in sequence create a provisional chronology of a life and help us remember people and events; it is a record. But even a clear photo of a person retains its ambiguity relative to time or place. Life is not composed of a discrete series of events in time. But, rather, according to Bergson, we experience a discontinuous succession of heterogeneous psychical states, all leading to a provisional unity, which discloses further multiplicities, and is not static. Mayer echoes Bergson when she writes that time is “a real duration, the heterogeneous moments of which permeate one another.” Looking at the photos, Bernadette and her friends struggle to remember the context of the photos, and even their initial meaning or initial reason for existing: When was that taken? Where? Was that after or before we went there? I’m not sure what that object is in the photo. I don’t even remember taking that one.



Of her process, Mayer writes, “as I write all this stuff down, I know it comes out of nowhere goes nowhere & remains, nothing leaves. It’s almost a truth.” This a metaphysical idea. Where does it all go? As the jazz musician Eric Dolphy once said, speaking about music, “It all goes into the air.” Mayer’s quote reminds me the Pre-Socratic philosopher, Parmenides: “How could what is perish? How could it have come to be? For if it came into being, it is not; nor will it be if it is ever going to come into existence. Thus, coming into being is extinguished, and destruction unknown.” Everything that is coming into being is provisional and returns back to non-being, “always back to where we both began no matter how far back.” The interaction of light and darkness (the photos/language), being and non-being could be understood as a kind of eternal cycle without end.



In the later journal entries, Mayer questions how we can have ideas at all: “this idea of my having had those ideas is a very complicated idea.” Mayer writes that it is mysterious “that brains should give rise to a knowing consciousness at all.” The mathematician Roger Penrose, offers an interesting theory where he suggests that a stream of consciousness is an arranged series of quantum physical events taking place in the brain and that is produced in the brain by a sub-protein called α-tubulin. Mayer goes on to question how we can have a consciousness at all:

That brains should give rise to a knowing consciousness at all & this is the one mystery which returns no matter what kind of consciousness it is & what kind of knowledge it may be & sensations, aware of just qualities, mere qualities, involve the mystery as much as thoughts, aware of complex systems, what other days?

Explaining consciousness has vexed scientists and philosophers for a long time, and with the introduction of neuroscience, the problem became even more complex. The American quantum physicist, John Archibald Wheeler, questioned whether life and the mind are irrelevant to the structure of the universe, or central to it. He originated the idea of a “participatory,” conscious universe, a universe in which we are co-creators. Wheeler’s theory replaced the accepted idea of an “out there,” which is distant from us. He derived his concept from an unusual aspect of quantum physics: before an observation is made, a subatomic particle exists in several states, simultaneously, but once the particle is observed, it instantaneously collapses into a single position. Consciousness is not static but fluid. Furthermore, Mayer writes, “in a system every fact is connected with every other by some thought-relation & the consequence is that every fact is retained by the combined suggestive power of all the other facts in the system & forgetting is almost impossible.” The thrust of the book is toward a collective memory, despite the mysterious nature of reality: “pooling our mysteries together we fall into one great mystery & tomorrow will come from the air.” Furthermore, the build-up of language/image[2] is there “to lull you then into now being for a while into being me, can you feel it, becoming part of the rest of the story …” We are part of the story. Mayer’s quotidian details are common to us: wake up, brew coffee, light cigarette, go for a drive, read, catch a bite at a diner, hang out with the same or different friends, talk, write, etc. Mayer’s language is at once particular and general, local and cosmic; images of nature and the sky, the darkness and the light, combine with images of Mayer’s friends. But the collective memory acts differently from the individual memory, which is more subject to forgetting. Memory is also a call for solidarity in the fight for justice. Today, we see this solidary in the protests by Black Lives Matter and others in the streets of major cities in America, after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer. And it is only by never forgetting the sheer brutality and the scale of the Holocaust that we can ensure that it never happens again.



But Mayer admits that she “can’t solve the mystery.” In the final pages of Memory, Mayer expresses fear and anger:

As a finish to memory I learn one thing, that the fear’s already started, it’s the same one, already begun, always back to where we both began no matter how far back & it’s sincere its’s boring for the words & it’s also anger, I just threw that in, don’t let anger have an effectiveness, drain it, use it, store it, whatever you do with it, never take advice like from a mountain running down & as far as it’s almost truth it isn’t worth syllables, the syllables break up to make a mask … I repeat you get harder tougher or sleepier; you sleep … do what I can, that’s shit & maybe it’s just the syllables that make words, try others …

In this complex passage, Mayer’s fear and anger cause her to question the success of words in expressing what is ultimately a mystery about life and consciousness. Knowledge can be like a mask we wear in the absence of anything better. So too, words reveal as much as they hide about the nature of reality, and can provide a cover instead of expressing the truth. Semantic meaning is the greatest mask: “meaning is a physiognomy.” But Mayer concludes that if language is all we have, we must create a new kind of language, which is exactly what she does in Memory. Mayer declares we must “defend our states of consciousness.” Because of the attempt by conservatives to enforce the homogenization of culture in favor of the white race, we must defend the idea of a true democracy, which is heterodox, and includes a diversity of ideas and voices.



In the book’s concluding pages, Mayer undergoes a metaphysical crisis:

I want to leave this space I want to get out of here I want to move into an eternal space the right space I want to design it have you freed me to addict myself to take that risk, escape no longer draws me in, just kill the pain … we have no regular plan, no drama, in the dark everything’s a mess, there’s no end to it in a space as big as this no walls & I hate myself for keeping on going as if the production of something out of nothing out of here where there is nothing were worthwhile.

The suffering of being human in a world where there is no guarantee of Paradise, or no observable order in the immense cosmos, is only made more difficult by the failure to remember, and the photographs and the text can give one no solace, because “in the dark everything’s a mess.” In one respect, nothingness is a state of “pure consciousness,” where the mind has been emptied of everything it contained. It is also the dissolution of opposites, but not the end of multiplicities. But Mayer writes: “observe me as I trance myself beyond death.” Not into a false Paradise but a deep transformation of consciousness. She continues: “write it down a written record dead poet flying crows & a trace, a stronger texture impossible to tear, I still imitate I still review, the fog goes on there’s a name for it: the surface of the eyes pervert senses.” This sentiment echoes Blake’s famous phrase from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” And for Godard, from whom Mayer got the idea for the book, “the eye must listen before looking.” There is a current between a person’s biological nature and their intellectual creation. Mind and matter are not distinct but permeate each other. Looking at an image you initially only see the surface (in this sense, meaning is like a face, as Mayer noted in the book) but to listen (thinking in the abstract) first is to see with the mind’s eye and move beyond merely semantic meanings. In Memory, we read the journal entries in conjunction with the photos, not through the normal lens of vision and the mind, but as though “listening” with the “eye.”



Mayer concludes her comments on Memory for ArtForum: “Memory was an attempt to find out if people would get into that funny space where the words are floating around the room and so are the pictures. I still am hoping.” Memory is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, and as a filmmaker and photographer, it has provoked a new way of seeing the possibilities of relating text to image. It is a complex and provocative work and now, in its new form, thanks to Siglio Press, with the original images on the facing page, it is sure to become a classic of contemporary American poetry.

Memory, by Bernadette Mayer. Catskill, New York: Siglio Press, May 2020. 336 pages. Over 1100 color illustrations. $45.00, hardcover.

Peter Valente is a writer, translator, and filmmaker. He is the author of eleven full length books. Forthcoming is a collection of essays, Essays on the Peripheries (Punctum, 2020), and his translation of Nicolas Pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2021). He’s presently working on editing a book on Harry Smith.

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[1] Mayer describes a “weird science fiction movie” she and her friends made and here her language is playful: “I looked like two strawberries trees rustling in the background noses, breasts, martians we make a weird science fiction movie where people shot at angles are still & and are still for a long enough time to alter your perspective & consciousness and so you begin to believe they are in the proper perspective as not-people, the movie can be all talk …” She also describes recording sounds in the streets or at a diner, for use in a movie. This reminded me of Harry Smith hanging a microphone out of Allen Ginsberg’s window to record the sounds of the Lower East Side.

[2] Mayer writes in the short introduction to Memory: “Then and now, I thought that if there were a computer or device that could record everything you think or see, even for a single day, that would make an interesting piece of language/information, but it seems like we are walking backward since everything that becomes popular is a very small part of experience of being human, as if it were all too much for us.

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