Ceremony Latin (1964) by Bernadette Mayer (Angel Hair, 1975). The book is 23 pages with no front or back matter and the Angel Hair address stamped on the inside of the back cover. The year 1964 is in the title because that’s when the book was written, so it is Bernadette’s “first” book, though it was her fourth published book following Story (1968), Moving (1971) and Memory (1975). In a July 17, 1989 lecture at Naropa, Bernadette describes Ceremony Latin (1964):
The structure of this book is simply the duplication of a journal that I kept when I was about 17, and it includes translation from Ovid, “The Golden Age,” and sort of funny journalistic notes and poems and things about how much I hated my grandfather. So all I did was print the journal itself and the reason I wanted to do it was because the keeping of this journal was what had inspired me to really want to become a poet, so I thought it might be beautiful and useful to other people.
Here’s a link to the full lecture: https://archive.org/details/Bernadette_Mayer_Lecture_July_1989_89P076.Bernadette would have been 18/19 in 1964, but 17 is a fair stretch. Ceremony Latin was reissued in 2006 by Shark Books, which is only $6 at SPD and worth buying. They also did a reissue of The Baskbetball Article. I ILLed an original copy from Ball State that’s been maimed by being unbound and restapled into unmarked hardcover vomit brown flaps, though the cover and interior pages are in pretty good condition.
The book begins with a translation of Ovid, followed by pages of what look like poems but could be lists of notes and imagistic jottings, some “formed” poems, quotes from Psalms and Genesis, and transcriptions of dreams. For as disjointed as the materials in the book might appear, and for as casual as Bernadette makes the book’s preparation seem (“simply the duplication of a journal”), Ceremony Latin has a deliberate structure and accumulative movement that show the early formation of her poetics. The integration and appropriation of multiple voices using quotes and quotation marks, rich syntactical juxtapositions (“smells / lemon satchet”) that led to Bernadette’s importance for Language poetics, the mixture of the contemporary and antiquity (“the western party, Vestal Virgins”), and a vernacular prosody that integrates dream into the consequences and crises of the everyday – all formal choices that would become important to works such as Midwinter Day – are at work throughout Ceremony Latin. At one point “Christ” and “Billy Budd” parallel one another. At one another point she writes “A couch is but an imprimatur / for farts.” I cried, on the beach, when I read that.
Her poems’ interest in desire, sexuality, and gender are also present here, most obviously in lines like “I masturbate with you I hope and my love is greater / than yours,” but in more subtle ways as well, like when she dreams of two women, “One is 189, the other 144 years old. Their breasts are / large and firm. They do not know how they can be so old. / Their conversation is trivial,” which echoes her earlier quote from Genesis, “And Lamech lived a hundred & 82 yrs and begot a son. / And Lamech lived after he begot Noe, five hundred & 95 yrs / & begot sons & daughters.” The tension here is between how men control the privilege of time, of being named, of being progenitors, and how women, despite their bodies, or perhaps because of how their bodies are compartmentalized based on male desire, remain anonymous, confused, trapped in “trivial” speech. Bernadette’s poems have never stopped insisting on the unacceptability of this paradigm, of confronting its violence, and forming movements through its difficulties. Later in the book she writes, “A nun helps me climb back up. I cling to her wondering / how my body feels to her. It is natural for me to be / clinging to her and not a man.” Her Catholic upbringing, and her struggle with its orthodoxy, is apparent throughout the book. The title Ceremony Latin, implying both the monolithic power-language of Catholic mass and the potential liberatory gesture of the poet-translator’s ritualistic attention to a “dead” language’s constructedness, foregrounds this question of language’s role in restricting/allowing certain ways of being in the world.
Overall, the book is funny, painful, and audacious, especially in its interest in the abject. How it is a book is also amazing to me, that it begins with a translation and moves through these various forms beyond a simple conception of “poem” and really kind of all collapses and rises together. It reminds me of the contemporary books I’ve been most obsessed by, how they break our idea of “poetry book” and “poem.” There’s also just no anxiety at all about this 23 page text being a book and not a chapbook, which is maybe a distinction we put too much weight on because of institutions. I don’t know, but I like how this book works as a book, and how it insists on being a book despite even how Bernadette tells us it is straight from a journal.
This is totally subjective, but the part of Ceremony Latin that most reminds me of “later” Bernadette poems is this page about halfway through the book, so I wanted to quote it in full. There’s no title. She mentions her sister, Rosemary Mayer, who became a visual artist, and Vito Acconci, who Bernadette edited the magazine 0 to 9 with in the late ‘60s.
Dream more real than life. Every old woman
is a fetus at a phony saints feet. There are no works
of art without sentiment. I doubt Rosemary’s interest
in art. I never dream about Vito. My conscious feeling
about him must be more real than dream. Jealousy is
worse than morality. Instead of a harmless father image
he has turned into a lover image and I was too slow in
realizing it I have committed my self to a whole set
of institutions superstitions prejudices projections and
customs which I denied & deny in my mind. Marriage
like this is half old and half new. I love queers.
The last page of the book has this one line on it: “Scorpions when threatened by fire commit suicide.”