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Bernadette Mayer reads from Works & Days

“Here in beautiful aloneness forest” is where Bernadette lives in a house with a windowpane back porch looking out toward a stream (you must go down the hill to see it, but it is there) and a rectangular piece of woods (Poetry State Forest Bernadette calls it) surrounded by fields and farms. Although Bernadette may live in “aloneness” nothing makes her happier than company or a party—she likes to throw them—or a workshop—she likes to have them—or a poetry reading—she likes to give them. I have suspected for sometime that Bernadette is never alone; even when she is sitting quietly reading a book, she is having a conversation with that book, of course, and there was the conversation she had with the librarian checking it out, or perhaps the book was sent to her by a friend after a conversation. This often happens. “I really want a good book of Blake,” Bernadette once said to me, and I happened to have a good one that I bought from Elio Schneeman when he was selling his books on the street, and I sent it to her immediately liking the idea of Bernadette going to her mailbox and finding a complete volume of William Blake, a perfect surprise.

Perfect surprises, by the way, are what Bernadette’s poems are, parts of the conversation she is having with someone or something (even Wolf Spiders) that she leaves for us on the page.

I went upstate a few months ago to ask Bernadette some questions and record her reading poems. Trying to get answers from Bernadette is a bit like herding cats; she will go where she wants to go or she won’t go at all, but getting her to read her poems is much easier. You hardly need to ask. She really does get pleasure getting it out there off the page into the air and into the ear. Sometimes the refrigerator hums or a car passes by or a rooster crows, but Bernadette’s home on Tsatsawassa Lake Road is mostly quiet, the perfect place to listen to her read a poem.

Published by New Directions, Works & Days, is at first glance written in diary form starting on April 15 and ending on June 21, a matter of sixty-eight days, but notice when Bernadette opens the book to read, she doesn’t start at the beginning and work her way back. Payment for some Mohican land, the first poem in the book is dated April 15, which is tax day by the way, and was written a while ago—George W. Bush was still president, I believe, when I first read it—so it does belong at the beginning, an early poem, but it’s the sixth poem Bernadette reads. The first poem she reads, Climate Change = Text Messaging, is in the middle of the book. I’m not sure when she wrote it, but I do know the second poem in the book, Walk like a Robin, which she doesn’t read, was written on her 70th birthday, about a year before Works & Days was published so if there were any chronology this birthday poem would be at the end of the book and not at the beginning, but let’s forget about time and place when Bernadette reads—the poem is where she wants it and that is exactly where it should be.

A poem I like in Works & Days that Bernadette doesn’t read is Sardines so I will include it here, something pleasantly extra for the heck of it.



A New Yorker profile and a New York Times book review of Works & Days for anyone who cares to look:



Works and Days is published by New Directions. Check them out:


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