CRYSTAL SET #8: Ceremony Latin (1964) by Bernadette Mayer (Angel Hair, 1975)


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: 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.”

Crystal Set #5: The Basketball Article by Anne Waldman and Bernadette Mayer (Angel Hair Books, 1975)

The Basketball Article by Anne Waldman and Bernadette Mayer (Angel Hair Books, 1975). I think Cassandra sent me a pdf of The Basketball Article. I printed it out and stapled it together. It sat on a shelf for a while, then I read it, re-read it, saw there was an essay about it in The Color of Vowels that I didn’t read, saw it mentioned in an essay by Daniel Kane about Angel Hair, read it again. This is Bernadette’s note at the beginning, dated July 15, 1975:

THE BASKETBALL ARTICLE was conceived in November 1974 & written in April 1975 as an assignment for OUI magazine. We got to go to all the Nets games we wanted through Barney Kremenko, Publicity, but Jim Wergeles of the Knicks balked, “What do you girls really do?” We heard he was a jock. We went to the first women’s basketball game held in Madison Square Garden. We wrote a review that was rejected for being too technical. We tried not to make THE BASKETBALL ARTICLE too technical so it was rejected by a group of editors a few of whom thought it “was a minor masterpiece,” the others “couldn’t tell what the hell was going on” in it. We were rejected by the Village Voice for whom the work was not technical enough. An agent told us THE BASKETBALL ARTICLE was fragmented and could not be handled. We never got into the locker room. A purely prophetic work in the tradition of social realism, THE BASKETBALL ARTICLE is duplicated here in an edition of 100 copies, by a Gestetner 420 mimeograph machine using green film stencils no. 62. We express our thanks to Mr. DeBusschere, Mr. Kremenko, Mr. Padgett, Mr. Rezek, Mr. Robertson, & Mr. Warsh.

Is there a school for sports announcers? They should all have to read this. The note is such an amazing performance of the intricacies and tensions of how the female poets of the “second generation” New York school fucked with and played against the warp and mess of gender expectations in the 70s. The whole book takes those issues of male dominance and exposes them in the scene and celebrity of basketball. Two women conceiving together in spite of the jocks, how technical mastery or a failure to master (mister) is noticed/received/reviled, what it means to be seen and given access (publicity/privaticity), to have or not have titles, to be whole or in pieces, what it means to (mis)represent an ideology, to be rejected/accepted/handled/owned/duplicated, the clout of expertise and the disregard of being inept, the prophetic in the easily reproduced and popularly reported. “We never got into the locker room.” To be a charlatan, to be marginal, and to write out of and through the thrill and profanity of those deficiencies not as deficiencies but as channels of renewal. Joyful, flamboyant little aporias as the clock ticks down.

The Basketball Article predates the funny ESPN office commercials by 30 years, and undoes all of them. It’s only 13 pages long, but the prose has this irreducible audacity that so excellently combines Anne and Bernadette’s hilarious charm with their insistence on performing the complications of consumption and desire attached to being a female body. They talk about wearing lipstick to the games and flirting with the players. “We begin to dress in red, white and blue, we do not stand up for the national anthem.” They talk about how baffling they are to players, managers, and the press. “We enter their consciousness. We carry a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets with us.” They talk about their female bodies and the male bodies of the players and the exaggerations of bodies. “It’d be interesting to put Oscar Robertson into a dream laboratory. He never crossed his legs.” They talk about how they love it and couldn’t give a shit less. “We were sitting in our hotel suite at the Plankinton House in Milwaukee drinking Tequila Sunrises.” It’s really about pleasure, the pleasures of ritual and attention, how sports direct our pleasures, how poetry directs our pleasures. It wants us to talk about that space. The fact that they called it The Basketball Article, with the emphasis on the definite article “the” and how it names the text as a singular, authoritative gesture, like saying we, Bernadette and Anne, are going to write the article about basketball, is totally indicative of their audacity on a larger scale. Also, there’s a joke at the end of the book about Full Court Press, an amazing press that put out Frank O'Hara’s Selected Plays.

The picture on the cover of The Basketball Article is of a man speaking, who looks like a basketball player at a press conference, and a woman not speaking looking at the man. The picture really foregrounds the problems of reverence that Bernadette performs in her introductory note when she thanks the basketball people along with “Mr. Padgett” and “Mr. Warsh.” Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh, who edited Angel Hair together, used to be married. Bernadette and Lewis started seeing each other in 1975 and were having children together soon after. Anne and Bernadette’s shared pleasure in making this book, and their shared pleasure in these men, and how they articulate that pleasure on their own terms, is an incredibly radical sexual-poetic statement. It’s funny that Ron Padgett is mentioned though. Ron seems to continually end up being the butt of the joke whenever Bernadette, Anne, Alice, or Eileen talk about their relationships with male poets during that time. I’m writing this in Minneapolis where today someone told me they saw Ron read at a Swedenborgian Church. I want to play basketball with all of the poets at the Swedenborgian Church.