BERNADETTE MAYER'S UTOPIA
October 21 2016
BERNADETTE MAYER PRESAGES THE INTERNET IN 1984
Utopia by Bernadette Mayer (United Artists Books, 1984). This is Bernadette’s little red book. It is 130 pages + 17 page index. In addition to the index there are 21 sections including a preface, introduction, epilogue, “Utopia Address Book,” and selected bibliography. All the front and back matter, and the footnotes throughout, give the book this faux-scholarly/faux-encyclopedic feel. As Bernadette says, “One of the things about Utopia that I really wanted to do was to make it be sort of tongue-in-cheek like a textbook with a table of contents and a preface and an introduction and also, thanks to a friend of mine, a great index.” On the back cover there are 14 blurbs all written by Bernadette, like this one from Plotinus, “As for the sublime, little one, eat lobsters in your time,” and this one from Gertrude Stein, “Darling Bernadette this shit couldnt be better I’m proud of you.” My favorite is the one attributed to Ted Berrigan: “Utopia’s a terrific book, though I hate it intensely.”
I can’t describe how good this book is. The conceit is basically that Bernadette’s friend Grace Murphy, who the book is dedicated to, comes back from the future and describes a future utopia to her. The rest of the book is generated out of this conceit, like there is a section that describes all kinds of social arrangements and a section on utopian prisons, but nothing necessarily connects back or pretends to have formal or narrative fidelity to this beginning. Each section is formally different, mostly in prose, and with a lot of epigraphs, which gives it this feeling of constantly beginning. Because utopias are collaborative there is writing from a bunch of other people like Joe Brainard (about cockroaches), Rosemary Mayer (about utopian chairs), and Hannah Weiner (an incredible poem that takes on our cultural imaginary of government and peace in Native American cultures). There are also things by Anne Waldman, Charles Bernstein, Lewis Warsh, and others. Many of Bernadette’s friends also appear as characters in the book, like in the Gulliver’s Travels-like section there’s “Capt. John Padgett, a Tulsa man, commander, bound for Sure” and “the oldest sailor on board, Dutch Berrigan." The book fluctuates between the fantastic and the realistic as it maps out its utopia, a place/space that the book itself, with its permeable authorial borders and abundance of presence, comes to embody. There’s really not any other book like it, but it’s kind of like a cross between Edmund Berrigan’s Can It! and Stephanie Young’s Ursula or University, or imagine adapting Lisa Roberton’s Nilling into an absurdist action movie in the late 70s. At one point there is this frenzied dialogue between a couple dozen characters where Plato walks in and talks about "wielding my cunt like the state.”
I finished Utopia on the beach yesterday and was laughing a lot. Midwinter Day is funny sometimes, and Bernadette’s work is always funny in general, but this book is hilarious. Nada Gordon has a great series of essays online about a bunch of Bernadette’s books that she wrote as her thesis in 1986, and she has one on Utopia addressing the book’s humor: “The work’s playfulness in fact enhances its liberatory gesture; it proposes that a world of benevolent pleasure replace the existing one of exploitative power structures.” Really, there is so much pleasure in this book. I was in such a warm buzzy space reading it, especially after watching a seagull stand on top of another seagull. But there were military jets flying back and forth over the coast from Eglin Air Force Base, one of the largest bombing and training ranges in the United States. The jets were the same color as the pelicans. I think Bernadette wrote Utopia planning to publish it in 1984 as a nod to Orwell, who is listed in the bibliography. As noted above, Ted Berrigan appears in a few ways in the book, and when he is mentioned it’s clear Bernadette is writing about him while he’s still alive. I don’t know, but Ted’s poem “In Your Fucking Utopias,” written (I think) in the early 80s, could have come out of a conversation around Bernadette’s book. There was some serious fighting in 1982 over the United Artists reissue of The Sonnets, and though that’s not something important to the book itself, Utopia, as a utopia, is a complicated embodiment of how tenuous and difficult love and friendship can be. But it’s also an embodiment of how we have to insist on and love through that difficulty.
At one point Bernadette misspells falafel. You can listen to her talk about the book and read from the index (the extensive “love” entries, of course) in this 1989 lecture at Naropa (HERE).
-Nick Sturm, St. George Island, May 6th, 2014