Thursday, January 5, 2023

Sarah Dowling : A Notation in Duration (for Pattie McCarthy

from Report from the McCarthy Society, Vol. 1 No. 1






In preparing to write this little piece on Pattie, I re-read a bunch of her books, looked at a list of individual poems, and then sat stumped. I didn’t know what to say or how to begin; I didn’t know if I would write a critical essay or a poetic response; I didn’t know what kind of tribute I wanted to offer. Something about looking after the dogs in South Philadelphia? Something about babysitting Emmett and Asher? But that wasn’t about Pattie’s poetry, which was—I mean, must have been—the whole point. So, maybe best to focus elsewhere.

But as I read the poems again, I couldn’t leave it out. Because there it all was—peeling apples for a child, a baby sleeping, all the things kids say, the dogs. Can’t omit what’s omnipresent. I read some interviews with Pattie, and something clicked into place: Pattie said, “I think my work is evolving in two main ways: to accommodate the many unexpected interruptions and selvages of mothering three small children and to welcome a wider range of research matter while focusing more tightly on whichever subject is at hand.”

The tension between these two directions struck me as particularly important. On the one hand is the dilation of the poem, its capacity to open itself to the inevitable “interruptions and selvages” of life. On the other is the impulse to focus “more tightly,” to stick with whatever it is that is being considered. Pattie’s poetry, working at the scale of the book as compositional unit, accrues over time—over a long time. In the duration of the book’s composition are the inevitable interruptions. In the duration of the book’s composition are the twists of life. But what the book’s composition is, is also the long-term dedication to an idea, a question, a kind of reading—Pattie’s poetry is the notation, the formalization of this simultaneity. It is the braiding of different ongoingnesses.

I don’t mean to juxtapose the momentary interruption and the endurance of research as if they are two completely different things. I have kids now too, so I know that the relationship between interruption and endurance is complex. I’m finding that it often isn’t clear what’s interrupting what. Is the long-term project these books I’m reading, or have I mistaken that interruption for the proliferation of life that has become my effort? This is why returning to Pattie’s poetry has been so helpful—the movement between these two impulses is less like a competition and more like the breathing of a single organism. The inhale and exhale are distinct, even opposing motions, but they aren’t separable from one another.  

Going back to poems of Pattie’s that I first read ten or fifteen years ago, and seeing anew how she combines the “shardy mess” of life with the dedicated project of reading and thinking, I’m struck by the depth of documentation that takes place across each of her books. Each of these books is about something, yes, but there is more to what they are doing than their ostensible subject matter. Each of these books is a notation in duration, a description of how a practice of research unfolds over a course of years—with every competitivity that that entails. Rather than trace a cordon sanitaire around what can be elevated as art, Pattie’s writing lets life in. It works like a body, expanding and tightening to accommodate the work of thinking in time.

Babies, dogs, a ball. A medieval manuscript. None of these should be beside the point. What Pattie’s work offers is a counterpointing, the relational density of a practice of writing in living.






Sarah Dowling is the author of three poetry collections: Security Posture, DOWN, and Entering Sappho, which was shortlisted for the Derek Walcott Poetry Prize. A literary critic as well as a poet, Sarah is also the author of Translingual Poetics: Writing Personhood under Settler Colonialism. Sarah teaches in the Centre for Comparative Literature and Victoria College at the University of Toronto.


Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Kristen Tapson : To Be Continued, Am Occasional Poem : On Bernadette Mayer





Bernadette Mayer’s Mutual Aid is a difficult book to access. I transcribed the copy at the New York Public Library for my records many years ago. It has a blue cover and looks homemade. You might read the lines above from the poem “Concluding Unscientific Postscript” and immediately think: Kierkegaard, Hegel, pseudonymous authorship, and alter egos (“by all that’s kind”). You might notice the references to altered states (“a natural helper,” “the joint we share”). Or, like me, you might read “a valuable book falls sophistically to floor” and think of the interplay between “valuable” and “sophistically” until it brings you to something like Lee Lozano’s intense, empirical note-taking practice, which at times renders explicit its challenge to the culture of book-based knowledge acquisition: “Do I want to study from books as weapon to use when participating in world? Or do I want to search for new knowledge/info systems, invent other ways of learning for myself?”[1] The falling book’s action is to floor, which all at once might mean to reject, to bewilder, to stun, to strike, or even to flower. The order of events is not clear. “Concluding Unscientific Postscript,” like so much of Bernadette Mayer’s writing, extensively layers meaning beyond its obvious source texts or formal constraints.


I have a slightly different relationship to these lines, however. I took them out of the context of the poem, and I memorized them. Otherwise, they might read quite a bit differently. (The poem begins “The pluralistic yellows of fall’s sun / Scare the wits out of me and my daughters,” and the lines in the excerpt get immediately reframed by what’s next: “Like the fooling afterthought of a notorious well-wisher / Like glass might know what its warmer heart did not”). I treat the excerpt as an invocation. It often runs through my mind when I feel particularly enthusiastic about a project or particularly frustrated with one. My writing projects position scientific practices within everyday routines, so when I recite these lines, I sometimes imagine myself to be addressing an abstract, looming, vaguely anthropomorphic entity associated with science. I am Kristen, and I am Science. Anyone who knows me could probably hear how I would intone these lines, correctly inferring that this practice plays out in a manner that is both totally serious and totally ridiculous. I know this. I don’t really seek divine intervention or the materialization of actual help. I don’t try to be everywhere and nowhere. I offer myself when I think these lines, and I occasionally take off into even more specificity relative to the situation in front of me. I will write only what I know empirically, I think to myself. But I will go beyond the sensible. That is, I let the invocation remind me that my primary writing interest is almost never located in the human world. Rather, I am more interested in devising methods for exploring sensation and feeling beyond human experience (“against / the wishes of everyone sensible,” “I would be more well”). This writing practice that mixes ritual, curiosity, dailiness, impossibility, experiment, idealism, ecology, and reverence for a never-quite-specified everyday science might sound odd or conflicted, but I would like to place it—along with the poem excerpt above—in another context. I was once a student of Bernadette Mayer.




In the fall of 2008, I found an advertisement for weekend poetry workshops with Bernadette. I can’t remember exactly where I found it, but it might have been in a Poetry Project newsletter. I sent a message to the email address on the ad and asked—Bernadette and her partner Philip Good directly, it turned out—if I could attend one of these workshops at their home in Upstate New York. I was not a poet then. I do not consider myself to be a poet now. I was in graduate school at NYU and living in downtown Manhattan at the time, and I had just read Moving, Memory, Studying Hunger, Proper Name, and The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, as well as many documents in Bernadette’s archives. I was taken with what I understood to be one of the implicit challenges issued by her work: to write continuously and breathlessly while lifting long sentences with phrase after phrase. I was fascinated with the way she took science and self-experiment seriously in her projects, though I didn’t have any clear sense of what that might mean at the time. I just wanted to learn how to write about everyday life in a new way.  


Phil responded to my email graciously and asked when I would like to visit. Early November sounded great, we decided. He asked me to send some poems ahead of time, and I didn’t have any, but I wrote a few and put them in the mail. I remember writing something on the twin paradox. On November 7th, I took the train to the stop in Albany, where Phil picked me up at the station. As we were chatting on the way back to the house, I asked if everyone else had already arrived. Phil responded that I was the only student visiting for the weekend. I tried to process this information without revealing that it had completely short-circuited my brain. I had not planned to be a center of attention. And I didn’t have a lot of time to reorient myself. When we pulled up to the house, Bernadette was smoking on the front porch, waiting for me. She was ready to discuss my poems.


I didn’t go to graduate school to study poetry or to learn how to write it. I wanted to study the scientific revolution, eighteenth-century amatory fiction, and Eliza Haywood. I particularly liked Love in Excess and Epistles for the Ladies. Above all, though, I wanted to learn how to think in a new way, and I was at a crossroads when I visited Bernadette and Phil. I was contemplating a switch in the trajectory of my studies to postwar and contemporary poetry. In the previous school year, I took a poetry class on a whim and ended up reading Bernadette’s prose poem Moving. I had never read anything like it before. In the special collections at NYU, I found a typescript for Moving that had been misfiled with letters in the Angel Hair archive along with some materials that evidenced how Bernadette put the book together. With guidance that I appreciated, I began to contemplate Bernadette’s influence and her reception as a writer. If I were to retrospectively position the visit to her home into that narrative—that is, to do something akin to mistaking lab notebook writing for a published report—then I would say I took the project of rethinking her reception very seriously. I went straight to the source. Here was this poet with a renowned writing practice, and there I was with an opportunity to get to know her as a person and a teacher.


The poems I sent to Bernadette were all practice-based responses to Moving (wr. 1969-70; pub. 1971), a book-length prose poem and collage work that is also ostensibly a protest poem. Bernadette describes her process by saying she was “only writing when I absolutely felt compelled” and “from somewhere other than self.”[2] The children’s geology primer The How and Why Wonder Book of Our Earth is the book’s most significant structuring device. Returning to fundamentals and working within the structure of the primer, she intersperses stories of a recognizably autobiographical “I” (or “B” or “b”) with materials from other sources, including solicited poems from friends (marked as speech), clips of unattributed conversation, newspaper articles, recipes, gossip, and appropriated material from science and technology reference books. Helpfully and amusingly for someone trying to get a sense of how the book works, the appropriated material includes significant excerpts from an illustrated encyclopedia called The Way Things Work. The contextualized deformation of the book’s main structuring device is the central conceit. That is, Bernadette and her social group naïvely infiltrate the “our” in Our Earth with their quotidian activities, eroding the organizing structure, changing language, and essentially changing the world. The expressive possibilities of everyday language transform along with the conditions for that expression.


I was immediately drawn to the way Moving openly exposes the seams of its construction throughout. It not only layers temporal scales but also shows the reader how those scales become equivalent in the context of the work. A week or so of Bernadette’s daily life becomes equivalent to the entire history of the world. Considered another way, a weekend of writing poems with Bernadette could be equivalent to an interglacial age, a pedagogical experience extending across many years, or the time it takes to read a sentence or a novel. Much later, I would draw a line from Bernadette’s Moving to Clark Coolidge’s Quartz Hearts and Own Face and then onward to a geology of everyday life, index fossils of the present, my own genuine interest in the nonhuman world, and a years-long grappling with Raymond Ruyer’s philosophy in The Genesis of Living Forms and Neofinalism in search of embodiable forms of force-activated transformation oriented toward repair. As esoteric as that project trajectory might sound, I think about its key tenets—perpetual motion, radical empathy, changing language—manifesting in the beloved image of my grandfather, a physician whose athletic rounding style and devotion to the difficult work of care was so distinctive that his colleagues would say they were going to take the “Billy Oaks elevator” and would mean, of course, the stairs.


As we sat together on the porch and discussed my poems, Bernadette asked me thoughtful questions about my process. I was mostly quiet, but I did my best to explain my thinking, and I asked her some questions too. She noticed that I was instinctively trying to get away from writing about myself and the body of knowledge already familiar to me, though at that point I was really only writing about myself. I am projecting a little bit into the memory here, but I felt encouraged to stay with science and to keep thinking about transforming its storytelling possibilities. My homework assignment was to “write a metaphor in dactyls on neutrinos.” I was not able to do anything interesting with the assignment at the time, but I do think it contributed somewhat to the way I thought about bringing the human and nonhuman worlds together on the page. She gave me a folder that contained her experiments list, and over the course of the weekend we worked through some of the prompts, alternating between quiet writing periods and discussion. She quickly figured out that it would help me to move beyond my usual syntax, so I wrote several cut-up poems. I would later incorporate a significant amount of cut-up into my writing practice as a way of working through in-process thinking.


When Bernadette speaks of her practice, she does so in straightforward terms. In a 2007 interview, for example, Charles Bernstein points out that her work explores “the way writing relates to states of consciousness” and asks her what state of consciousness one must achieve while writing. “You have to be a truth teller,” she replies. “You have to be a kindly person. Politically, I think you’d be totally on top of things. Be an anarchist.”[3] Although her writing practice is certainly multifaceted and irreducibly complex, she does at times explicitly connect her work, and especially her book-length projects, to science. Memory is an experiment. Studying Hunger is an experiment. In the preface to Studying Hunger, she describes her process as “emotional science.” Several years later, in a letter in Desires titled “Pursued as She Stumbled about You It Could Signify Nothing,” she presents experimental writing as a discovery process linked to speech: So thus I could find out in the talking from the words what thoughts were because I couldn’t find out from my silence truthful as it seemed … So I got the habit that way to experiment. To, like the other Alice, see what I would say.”[4] When I first started reading her letters and journals, I found the prospect of anarchic self-experimental writing—chaotic, up-to-the-minute truth-telling endeavors operating in vaguely scientific terms—to be absolutely thrilling. What would turn out to be true?


I ended up sharing a lot of objectively bad writing with Bernadette. Still, I never felt judged for it. She found things to praise. I tend to be stubborn about rewriting the same thing repeatedly until I can finally see something in the writing that might be immediately obvious to others on a first pass. I often need a nudge to step back to see the big picture—and how that big picture might change in relation to my tendency to get tangled in the details. That said, I do think I have to find a way to embody a concept in order to understand it, and the way that embodiment manifests itself establishes key terms for knowing. Working with Bernadette for the weekend made visible to me a pedagogical model of co-creation and attention to process that I have continued to develop and draw upon in the work I now do with my own students. My students are extremely perceptive, though; I can’t hide my methods from them. For a recent “thick description” assignment based on Sharon Traweek’s Beamtimes and Lifetimes, for example, I invited a group of BioArt students to explore our laboratory space as well as the biology building and the surrounding environment, hoping they would acquaint themselves with our strange, social, and somewhat expansive concept of classroom space while also honing their descriptive and observational writing skills. One clever student described not only the lab but also the person in the lab who wrote the assignment. Based on just a few classes and meetings, she was able to concisely articulate an impressively accurate description of my writing practice and teaching style: “Kristen Tapson; attempts to dissect a concept until finding way back to self, see ‘Droste effect.’”[5]


Occasional poetry can be like thick description—at least the way I present it to my students. When I visited Bernadette, though, I had never written that kind of poetry before. On Sunday morning, Bernadette and I wrote occasional poems. I had her experiments list to guide me, so it was also a lesson:

Write occasional poems for weddings, for rivers, for birthdays, for other poets’ beauty, for movie stars maybe, for the anniversaries of all kinds of loving meetings, for births, for moments of knowledge, for deaths. Writing for the “occasion” is part of our purpose as poets in being—this is our work in the community wherein we belong and work as speakers for others. 

I remember writing a poem that could be charitably described as a confusing Hallmark card. But Bernadette wrote something special for me. Using my first and last name, she wrote a double acrostic poem. It was both a very serious poem and a not very serious poem at the same time. I was immediately intrigued by the form.

When Bernadette read the poem to me, I thought it sounded like a prophecy. Of course, I knew better. Its purpose, as I understood it, was to encourage a young writer while also demonstrating that writing an occasional poem need not be more than an act of honoring the strange particularity of the exact moment of writing. I would assume she has written similar poems for friends and other students, but I really appreciated the aspects of the poem that felt personal: she knew I loved Moving (“Grace has been to London & Loch Ness”), she knew I was interested in science, and she knew I was observing her a little bit. Given Bernadette’s attention to fixing typos, “cpious” seems to have been a fortuitous mistake or an intentionally playful spelling. It certainly works well in the context of the poem and with the meaning of my name. (“Copious knowledge” would not have worked so well for me, as I’m sure I mentioned or demonstrated at some point). When she realized she had spelled my name incorrectly, she invited me to rewrite the line. It would be better that way, she told me, because the poem would become a collaboration.


In the rare instance I have mentioned this poem to anyone, I have joked that Bernadette set a high bar for anyone who might ever feel motivated to write any sort of occasional poetry for me. Having this kind of formative writing experience certainly contributed to my sense of writing’s capacity to function as a caretaking practice, a sign-sharing practice, and a way of lovingly marking significant moments or discoveries. In other words, just to go a little further with this (admittedly extreme) act of overreading a quickly composed poem, one might say that on this occasion, Kristen was doing her best to live [inattenT] / In the middle of nowhere near corpus christi while Bernadette observed carefully, In a tent / In the middle of nowhere near corpus christi. Knowing that this project would require Kristen to do some dedicated observational work, though, Bernadette would play along sometimes and allow herself the pleasure of being inattent[ive] too. Also, it was lunchtime.


Bernadette’s openness, playfulness, and generosity made an impression on me. She asked me questions about my family and entertained me with random musings. She told me stories about her childhood and her experiences in Catholic school. I won’t allude to any of those stories here, as I’m not sure which ones she felt comfortable sharing publicly. In the intimate space of her home, she seemed unguarded. And in that environment, I felt comfortable sharing a lot about myself. I also relayed some harmless gossip about the NYU scene (i.e., poetry readings I had attended, whose writing I knew well, who was writing about her work, etc.) and asked questions about how to develop my writing practice. I have a vague memory of striking upon a topic that intrigued both of us and I was touched when she responded that we should write something about it together. I admitted to her that I was too intimidated to collaborate. I wasn’t a poet. My writing was very clear. “No problem,” she responded, without missing a beat. “We’ll write it, and then we can give it to _______ and he can make it ununderstandable.” She gave me a conspiratorial look. She had been listening to my random musings. There was no meanness in this comment, only encouragement that I understood to be directed toward me. I now use the word “ununderstandable” in an abundance of contexts, and I always think of her when I do.


It was probably evident to Bernadette and Phil that the amount of attention on my writing stressed me out, so I appreciated the opportunity to immerse in everyday routines too. They took me to a nearby alpaca farm on Saturday afternoon, where we stood at the fence and talked about what it might be like to be reborn as an alpaca. I remember Bernadette saying she thought it would be cool. Later that night, Bernadette chose a movie for us to watch: Until the End of the World. I think she chose the movie because she knew I liked science fiction. I had never seen it. I had never seen a Wim Wenders movie before. Until the End of the World is a road story starring Solveig Dommartin and William Hurt that involves a car crash, a secret lab, self-experimentation, dream recording, aliases, world travels, a bounty hunter, espionage, an impending apocalypse, technology addiction, stolen money, the process of writing a novel, a quest for a Nobel Prize, and an invention that allows the blind to see. It’s a long movie, but I remember staying up late and talking to Bernadette about it afterward. As she predicted, I really liked it.


Over that weekend of writing poems, sharing meals, drinking beers, watching movies, and visiting alpacas, I didn’t take any notes. I didn’t ask interview questions or document events in any significant way. I did take one photo on my phone—a closeup while I was wearing Bernadette’s green boots—as we were heading out for a walking tour of the nature preserve just beyond her yard. Her boots were too big for me, so I’m pretty sure I took the picture because I was quietly amusing myself with the idiomatic or punny nonsense that is always passing through my head but usually gets caught by the filter of better judgment before I say anything too silly. (Hey Bernadette, it’s clear you have some big shoes to fill. Hey Bernadette, do you think I’ll walk a mile in your shoes?)


I never intended to publish anything about this visit to Bernadette’s house or to circulate the poem she wrote for me. She had many students, and I merely passed through her life for a few days. When I saw her in the city at poetry readings in subsequent months, though, she warmly introduced me as her student and made space for me in conversations. In retrospect, I appreciate the leisurely writing pace of that weekend. I didn’t know it at the time, but my life was about to change significantly. Just over a year later, I would be pregnant with my first child and moving away from the city. My writing life would become completely enmeshed with my family life for a long time. Earlier this year, I recounted some anecdotes from that weekend to Lee Ann Brown and Ann Vickery over lunch at a conference as we were talking about experiences that shaped our writing. Their positive responses convinced me that it would be a good idea to finally document these memories. Plus, I was beginning to worry I would forget important details. Just before Bernadette died, I decided to rewrite the line in my occasional poem, and the private work to retroactively collaborate with her became the groundwork for this essay. The writing process turned into a lengthy, associative, somewhat freewheeling exercise. At first, it was a Moving-inspired reverie patched together with borrowed source material, conversation snippets, memories, journal notes, reading responses, and wanderings through the real-time experience of writing. I was concomitantly reading Of Logic and the Theory of Science and The Philosophy of No, rewatching Until the End of the World, and attempting to tap into the thermodynamics of self-talk. I was also reading a good bit of nonsense poetry. Then, it became an effort (following Bernadette) to write the longest sentence I had ever written.[6] 




the corpus christi line


Sifting thru her cpious knowledge, she seeS / That it’s obvious she should visit the city just to say empirically I can tell this is not for me but sometimes you are getting exactly what you want at the drive-thru window and your mind wanders so you start to notice that there are lots of trees around and then you lament that there’s also so much haughtiness in the world which initiates an episode of mixed-up thinking so severe that suddenly everything’s on the party line even though now you’re just trying to make conversation while choosing milk in the refrigerated section of the grocery store so you might say something profoundly foolish like remember when doug funnie had heart eyes for patti mayonnaise but it also means hello on this aisle and it means I like you and it’s cringey but it means shit I was digging that joke and it means I’m talking about a dressing in a funny way and it means don’t forget condiments and beef and it seems sort of childish now but it means I am imitating a notorious well-wisher and an animated greeting card but if greeting is also attacking in an etymological way I could hyperbolically swear off this kind of real talk forever and start mumbling famous passages in literature to myself in the critical sphere of love and be silent where I could show you how to build a consentful world out of the discontinuous history of math’s non-progressive internal necessity just as jean cavaillès showed me from a cell under a microscope under unmentionable conditions till the training wheels come off my mixed metaphors and I collapse on the stage in love’s light so please follow me but know it will destroy me to see myself this way as I am running into a new year and the old years blow back like a wind that I catch in my hair so I will politely ask you to become someone else while I get a little crazy and act like bernadette mayer who wrote letters that diligent archivists will tell you are worth reading in all kinds of contexts and the force of this identification might cause the laws of the natural world to come crashing down at the feet of a scientist doing an elegant critical experiment so that in an earlier era lee lozano would feel compelled to write in her lab notebook that a saydist is someone who talks too much and if you are able to write-speak far beyond what you can possibly know then you’ve found a not-system that can begin anywhere even an idyllic location somewhere near an alpaca farm right around lunchtime where k balances a book on her head and repeats b’s boots are too big for me as she takes her alliteration final and pursues the poetic finishing school degree she’s after because sometimes important poets share signs with nobodies in kindly acts of semiotic husbandry but before the end of lee’s note and k’s examination a canvasser going door to door for an endangered species stops by to test out a script that keeps repeating itself I am honored by your enthusiasm while a well-dressed woman interrupts to add that you would really expect every person in green fatigues to tell you they’re a good guy and in recent years we’ve begun to learn that the universe might be less peaceful than we want to think and things often happen by chance and are manifested as great disasters and authority used for any other purpose than service leads to corruption so the only way to deal with it all is to stand very still for an entire ice age waiting for a butterfly to land on your shoulder just long enough to flap its wings and break pangaea because we all know this is a lush fantasy and in some cases 113 is the same as 74 and chaos and catastrophe become the rule and not the exception especially when the clock is set to post-apocalypse and the pressure is on for the last woman on earth but for now it’s memorial day weekend and someone at physical therapy for dogs points to a golden retriever and comments that she’s basically a puppy to which someone at home in grey sweatpants replies solemnly that the time to really act out is when you no longer need a letter of recommendation and also here’s a ring pop or a grenade or the oddly sticky body of kristen placed gingerly in your hands in the blasphemous communion story of lord killer who grew up on the isolation playground reading babel-17 or else this is all an intrusive thought that charli xcx should do a hyperpop cover of personal jesus which could be playing in the background when someone presents themselves as a snow leopard at a celebratory dinner even though they might actually be a goat and then you’re not sure whether to feel safe because this isn’t animal twenty questions and everything is starting to sound like a widely-used operating system with very high ratings but confusingly the world is also filled with barnacles centipedes worms mantids giant water bugs aphids weevils grasshoppers crustaceans katydids treehoppers leafcutter ants eastern tent caterpillars orb-weaver spiders did you know spiders balloon snails bumblebees sawflies scarabs roly-polies fleas monarchs blow flies silverfish hornets polyphemus moths ladybugs click beetles crickets and lots of birds like jays and yellow warblers and the list could go on and on and on until an old car enthusiast exclaims not my road runner! which is a b-body plymouth not a b-body dodge and some things are ununderstandable outside of particular contexts but the missing artifacts of another time can be sourced from an exclusive whatsapp thread on the subject of wish rocks which is the scientific name for the ones with the circles around them and all this means is that I see the world another way she said so they took her to poetry school on the poetry school bus where she tried on a letterman jacket enrolled in rocks for jocks and wrote a meandering sentence spanning multiple geologic eras while they insisted she take strategic headshots to put on the flyers for the book she was writing called what is a book and she nodded as they took her picture and reviewed her sentence with no firsthand knowledge of punctuation or the concrete forms a letter might take to be breathing cake to be breathing dolphin to be breathing investments to be breathing prisoners to be breathing all prisoners and then I confess to wondering what happened to make this method so ungraspable as life yet to hold it there and take the whole thing out of control like a pit viper or an unwieldy number of helium balloons and you don’t have to say it I know it’s not intentional when there’s always a new stranger to put my image in motion I guess you could say they’ll do what their mothers did in other ways but my project is not a patchwork or a hive or even this magna-tiles castle on a flickering light table it’s too attached to a preternatural kindness that’s why I put dynamite in the mine lit the fuse and wouldn’t leave it alone I know I punctured the earth just so I could have a moment to tell someone who reminds someone else of you that you’re awfully smart and intrepid but I’ve held monsters in abeyance every day in my antarctica for hundreds of years with a teflon pan and an ill-fitting suit and I could’ve asked for more resources but I thought I’d make snow angels all day for research instead it was my choice and I’m not too proud to admit I didn’t expect to find myself occasionally bored by dailiness or so utterly mesmerized by my own highs and humiliations yet I won’t be critical of intensity when it’s such an honest pleasure to watch power lines go out so whoever you are let’s decide quickly if we should institutionalize this altruistic patrol that’s working now it’s senseless that my agar plates were part of your experiment but maybe not and I wasn’t wrong when I remembered everything like something about her pistol something about nominal color codes flier arrangements and square pegs pleats do you even like science I need something that overlooks me inexplicably to learn I am quite oblivious even when I speak with the confident knowingness of a schoolchild learning pig latin it’s just spectroscopy to show you this pattern of lines over here which means someone is winding down after hours to admit with genuine cheerlessness that she only enjoys brandy as she sips it coolly from a limited edition baby shark water bottle at a junior varsity soccer game where one of the characters from before remains quiet and taps her foot till they call her drum and the secret messaging service gives her a back to the future trapper keeper covered in care bear stickers containing a hand-drawn map to the audition for the school metonymy play where she graciously accepts the role of a white lotus playing portia in a shakespearean remix with bows and flowers and a couple of state forest set pieces leading her back to b’s house just quickly enough to catch someone admitting that of course he was lying to the canvasser that time when he was scared and said his mom was upstairs when she wasn’t and it was all so emphatic that the canvasser thought he’d tripped some kind of elaborate home security system installed after a break-in attempt which prompts an animated film to play on a big screen once long ago a man of science proposed a trip to the moon to a girl with a bug collection and she said no what do bugs have to do with going to the moon whatareyouafraidofheaskednobodynocrime but that was exactly what she was afraid of imnotaskingforthemoonandstarsshesaid but this was a game of tag and the moon and stars were it and he followed her around until she placed a recording device in the celestial outpost of the department of the interior and in her long years of reciprocal observation she became the nocturnal princess of swan lake which means her situation made her knowing less evident while some people slept under warm quilts and other people appeared in ugly sweater contests and everyone decorated the christmas tree while they played dress up make believe guess who hungry hungry hippos d&d hearts candy land fashion show chess busytown mysteries light brite operation sum swamp uno until suddenly without warning or a proper goodbye there was no longer a place of work for the practice of science and just in time because it’s beyoncé’s renaissance and church girl is rewriting a familiar song in haute couture but the clock stops in mid-august as someone insistently circles a needlepoint pillow in a magazine that says what a time to be alive so it can be placed as a gift on an extravagantly patterned swivel chair for girls whose parents might quip that it’s very difficult when one of your children absorbs the weight of the world while the other bobs along on the waves so one must remember to be fair when one gets on the hook to help the local daisies make paper plate medals to earn their courageous and strong petals because you want to make sure they all grow up to live in norman rockwell paintings and pat benatar hits and also to appreciate it or else a kid could end up becoming someone who brings magic brownies to dumb ass barbecues or gives away big state secrets like that precogs are real and operation acoustic kitty is still going and the national academy funds a surprisingly particular study of everyone whose research derailed while contemplating the grandeur of emil fischer and the group for specialized tactics records dreams to please the united fucks department of commerce clearinghouse for federal & scientific information and the agreed-upon vernacular of the dirty climatological report is actually pornographic stick figures and all that’s legible on this torn policy memo is look I have real shit to do and what’s the crystal ball say because half a billion years ago there was no life at all on the land but just a few weeks ago a meteor fell in missouri which contained enough of the acids to make life appear anywhere even on the moon so yes it’s true that some people set their sights on nobel prizes while other people get really into weird science just as wandering pieces of space ice rock and metal prove we are finite and coincidences are the rule in this universe and scientific method is fallible but it’s our only reasoning scheme he said and logic is perfect by default and mathematics is almost perfect and physical science is far from perfect and someone said I don’t want to know everything for fear I will end up like the old man and the young boy who lost their minds on the mountain peaks even though it’s better to say I materialized in a laboratory rented from the harvard special researches project and had to be taught the words for bed table chair while they took my knife away from me but regardless of the path one stumbles upon the consequences are naturally magnified when a diy biologist gives an impassioned speech on the ethical implications of the gene gun which brings everyone around to the understanding that these are complicated times so it might make sense that some lady would reflexively throw up her hands and say for the love of ununderstandability who are all these characters who live in a tenT / In the middle of nowhere near corpus christI?


While I don’t know exactly why, I ended up turning a statement into a question in an homage sentence heading toward expansiveness. In theory, replacing an I-line with an E-line should have been an easy swap, but it wasn’t as easy as I thought. Reflecting on it now, I think I needed to find my way into the logic of the poem in order to understand something important about it. Then, I tried to carry the momentum of Bernadette’s line as far as I could possibly take it. In the process, I wrote six new lines for the poem.

Sifting thru her cpious knowledge, she seeS 
That it’s obvious she should live in a tenT 

Every so often, in commune with good naturE, 

On Friday night, Bernadette gave me a book called Dada to read in bed. She asked me to write down as much as I could remember from my dreams as soon as I woke up. We talked about them each morning over coffee.  

Earnestly testing a procedurE 

She taught me how to diagram sentences on Saturday afternoon while we shared a yogurt cup from the alpaca farm. Then, I wrote a cut-up poem using a book on butterflies. 

Ensnaring herself in a practicE 

Bernadette encouraged me to learn poems by heart. Before we watched the movie on Saturday night, I stacked firewood on the front porch.  

Eating bugs at the convention for matters of the eyE 

She showed me her library and gave me a copy of United Artists eighteen. I asked her which poets she thought I should read closely, and she suggested Philip Whalen and Clark Coolidge. She told me a story about making dinner for Philip Whalen when he visited the Poetry Project. 

Even in winter, for revolutions of history and sciencE 

On Sunday, Bernadette and Phil invited me to stay another day and night, but I had to get back to the city for a class on Monday. I was teaching Dorothy Wordsworth. We talked about Dorothy’s journals in relation to William Wordsworth’s “Daffodils.” 

Each day reworking the aims of science’s square onE 

The bus ride home was cash only, and I only had a debit card. Bernadette and Phil paid my fare and made sure I got home safely.  

Not to observe, say, lemurs but meN

Before I boarded the evening bus to go back to the city          Bernadette hugged me

She said

Be good



[1] Lee Lozano, Private Book 8 (New York: Hauser & Wirth, 2021), 113.

[2] Bernadette Mayer, “From: A Lecture at the Naropa Institute, 1989,” Disembodied Poetics: Annals of the Jack Kerouac School, Anne Waldman and Andrew Schelling, eds (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994), 97.

[3] Bernadette Mayer, “Conversation with Charles Bernstein,” Close Listening, 13 Sept. 2007,

[4] Bernadette Mayer, The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters (West Stockbridge: Hard Press, 1994), 94.

[5] I would like to acknowledge this student while also allowing her to preserve her anonymity. So, student, I propose that we collectively refer to ourselves as Sir Vincent Wigglesworth. Given that insects spark joy for both of us, I have no doubt you will appreciate this characterization more.

[6] Unmarked sources in the long sentence include Lucille Clifton’s An Ordinary Woman (1974), Lee Lozano’s Private Book 5 (wr. 1969-70; ed. 1972), Bernadette Mayer’s Moving (1971) and “A Non-Unified Theory of Love and Landlords” in Proper Name & Other Stories (1992), and Joanna Russ’s “The View from this Window” in The Hidden Side of the Moon (1987). 







Kristen Tapson is a scholar-in-residence in the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies at Duke University, where she is also an instructor in Information Science + Studies. Most recently, she co-edited All This Thinking: The Correspondence of Bernadette Mayer and Clark Coolidge (University of New Mexico Press, 2022). She lives in Durham, NC with her husband and three children.

I would like to thank Philip Good for supporting the publication of this essay.

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