Beginning with a sonnet, written to her then-partner, Lewis, Mayer’s “poems transgress the seasons of two years” of freeing the language and getting cold in late 1970’s New England. In these poems domesticity is a gentle tyrant – shaping the days and the work while creating unique spaces for the mind to wander – can we ever write well whilst waiting for the milk to cool?
She writes in “The Marble Faun,” ticking back and forth between everything ever and the thing on the stove. This pendulum moved me, and I looked back at my own poetry, so mired in one small thought at a time, and felt like I had a chance to escape from a trap. It was the poem “Essay,” though, towards the end of the book, that I found the most productively unsettling. “I guess it’s too late to live on the farm/I guess it’s too late to move to a farm/I guess it’s too late to begin farming” she writes, and continues – I guess, I guess – fourteen straight lines of uncertainty. All of the poets who might have been farmers, or failed to be farmers, all of the anxiety about doing the “right” kind of work, a poem about poetry, which can so often be annoying, that stuck in my gut through its grasp and exploitation of the mundane. A poem in which language is not enough. Which, ahem, reminds me of why I care about theater – but I digress.
I could probably write about The Golden Book of Words forever (along with “Midwinter Day,” Mayer’s epic poem from the same period), but I fear that it wouldn’t feel terribly interesting. As director of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in the 1980’s, Mayer taught “Experiments in Poetry” workshops, in which she encouraged participants to do things like “systematically derange the language.” It would be more fitting, I think, to write about these poems using only prepositional phrases, as she suggested, or perhaps using only letters that looked a certain way. Fortunately, everything I’ve ever tried to express about these poems in any sweaty late-night essays I’ve ever tried to write was immediately and completely communicated when I first read a few of them aloud to Piehole last January. We were meeting for a bit of a lazy Sunday book club at the time, looking for materials and flinging everything we’d ever enjoyed into the room. It was cold, and I brought in my copy of The Golden Book of Words. We’d just finished reading a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, and we noticed a Hawthorne quote at the beginning of one of Mayer’s poems, “Lookin Like Areas of Kansas” – it simply said “We had our first cucumber yesterday.” We felt like we had a puzzle to solve.