Bernadette Mayer
New Directions ($16.95)

by Todd Pederson

Like rutted footpaths, the poems coiling through Bernadette Mayer’s newest collection, Poetry State Forest, steers readers into the scrubby undergrowth. Indeed, Mayer’s poetry is so wildly overrun that the simple business of moving ahead takes discipline and effort—every root and leaf is suspect. Since Mayer often conceals intent beneath dense canopies of language, her work can seem deliberately evasive, leaving readers to guess, “What’s the point?”

With Poetry State Forest, Mayer arranges strangled, fantastic settings where no association is carelessly set aside. Anything her intellect stumbles across gets in, almost to the point of overstatement. Comprehension is rough going, but Mayer asks that readers remain alert to happenstance, because any occurrence or chance encounter has relevance. For example, consider the last stanza of “Start Almost Over,” in which Mayer cross-examines her present life against the reflection of another:

i was rolling dough for rolls—
hard to do cause it had asparagus in it—
in imitation of all the great pastries
i’d desired in a bakery window
in which i’d seen reflections in my early poems
i bought a gay pastry, words i like
to read & write, it has asparagus in it

The poem seems, initially, without clear meaning; but hidden underneath the green asparagus spears lay sentiments of longing, want, and meditative regret. Mayer speaks figuratively about the lure of imitation rather than living one’s life authentically. This theme is commonplace among contemporary poets, but in Mayer’s hands customary topics feel warm and fresh as baked bread, not derivative in any way.

Like “Start Almost Over,” Mayer’s poetry is generally uncontrolled, and its arrangements often seem arbitrary. The tangled images crowding many pieces are pleasant, but the philosophy linking each distinct idea can feel scrappy, making the poetry’s ambition appear carefully sequestered. In its worst moments, Mayer’s work is almost too loquacious, too witty for its own good. Readers who appreciate poems with a balanced narrative and unmistakable conclusions may find most of Mayer’s page-length rambles difficult to navigate. Her longer pieces are so discursive, so overweight with description and fragmentary patterns of speech, that they seem more concerned with lively chatter than a concise viewpoint.

These contentions may seem an indictment of Poetry State Forest, but if the poems disappoint as archetypes of orderly thought, they do successfully demonstrate the attraction and worth of a vigorous personality. Mayer’s preoccupation with artistry and her work’s bursts of activity imply a frenetic, intimidating intelligence which might place her audience at a distance; nonetheless, the inventive ways in which Mayer renders this turbulence encourages conscientious readers to lean in closer and take an honest look. Foremost, Mayer’s tone evokes an urgency and presence too often lacking from contemporary poetry. One long poem, “Summer Solstice 2006,” could easily menace, but Mayer sympathizes and accompanies instead:

i’ll protect you
from the guy who drives a pickup with a confederate
flag as decoration

Mayer offers a comparable solace with the concluding lines to “1980”:

Space of the waiting pastures, empty of snow,
Now for spring as in any place
We sit around and wait too

“We sit”; “I’ll protect”—given her work’s convolutions, these are crucial statements. With Mayer’s poetry, an impression of companionship, above all else, prevails. The poems are overgrown and their language is complex, yet she never abandons her readers, and even manages a surprising sense of intimacy throughout the collection. Mayer’s responsive temperament, evident in her good humor and enthusiasm for vivid illustration, engenders trust. Her readers are spoken to, never at—which makes all the difference. With sincerity established, one imagines Mayer’s poetry as an invitation to ignore disorder and enjoy, instead, her craft’s more fanciful elements.

So what’s the point? Grasping at the significant, or “getting it,” doesn’t seem Mayer’s aim with Poetry State Forest. Instead, human camaraderie is the issue at stake. Yes, the poetry is untidy, but readers who invest the time will find tame pathways among the trees, and, in this poet’s voice, damn fine company for their wooded strolls.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009