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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12.2 (2001) 98-120



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"Love Scattered, Not Concentrated Love": Bernadette Mayer's Sonnets

Juliana Spahr


I

Sexuality provokes anxiety when it illustrates how social institutions and norms are not necessarily natural. This was all too evident when Hawai'i had a same sex marriage law up for ballot. Sexual anxiety seemed to be everywhere: in the classroom, in line at the grocery store, at faculty meetings, at poetry readings.1 While it is not exactly analogous, poetry illustrating that western forms are not necessarily natural (but are contested spaces) often provokes a similar anxiety. A few years ago on the email list cap-l@virginia.edu, Ron Silliman simply pointed out that he liked Bernadette Mayer's sonnets. Steve Schroer responded by saying, "If you have a question about rhythm, diction, structure, enjambment, or tone (just for example; the list goes on and on), ask an orangutan. Don't ask Bernadette Mayer. As for Ron Silliman's contention that Mayer's sonnets deserve to be set alongside those of Shakespeare . . . I don't think I can address it without becoming rude, so maybe I'd better leave it alone." I mention Schroer's comments here only because they point to the anxiety around poetic form and sexuality and gender that Mayer exploits throughout her Sonnets.2 While the lyric is a form that in most instances is all tied up with the "poetic" (with individualism, with assumptions about [End Page 98] aesthetics and greatness, with romantic and courtly love), these sonnets refigure lyric intimacy as collective and connective spaces.

"Lyric intimacy" is a term that is tossed around a lot but is not often defined.3 In its most general sense, which is how I use it here, it refers to lyric poetry's tendency to be written by a lover about and/or to a beloved, a poem that is speaks to one person and that readers overhear. But intimacy, as I understand it, includes desire, and conventional domestic relationships, and unconventional ones, and fucking, and friendships, and close momentary contact between strangers in urban areas, and identity and identification with those like and unlike. I prefer this larger term to the psychoanalytically inflected "desire," although these are, of course, not totally separate realms. There is a lot of overlap and, even within this article, some unavoidable slippage. But what interests me in Mayer's work, and in the work of a number of women writers and critics, is how they turn to intimacy so as to present a broad range of extra-desirous moments of relation. Mayer's Sonnets, for instance, point to intimacy's multiplicities and place these multiplicities in a larger cultural and social context. Most obviously, Sonnets brings to the forefront a wide range of sexualities and pleasures that are often overlooked in the sonnet tradition. But most importantly, Sonnets suggests that the intimacy defining lyric has a public aspect and responsibility. By treating moments of encounter on the street with strangers, with landlords, and with friends as a form of intimacy no less important and transformative than sexual intimacy, Sonnets places personal relations in a larger nexus of concerns. It opens intimacy into a productive space that is not limited to the domestic or the male and female couple.

Sonnets was written between 1965 and 1989, and published in 1989. Most of the poems are post-Stonewall and pre-queer. As Mayer was well aware while she was writing these sonnets, gender and sexuality, and the relation between these categories and economic power and agency, were being much discussed and debated both in academic discourse and in popular media. Mayer's poems have their roots in these discussions of how gender and sexuality differ and in the debates between constructionism and essentialism that were being argued in those years. As such, Sonnets is a complicated document written out of the changing definitions of sexuality of the last half of the twentieth century.

Mayer is a poet who, until she moved upstate two...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1986
Print ISSN
1040-7391
Pages
pp. 98-120
Launched on MUSE
2001-06-01
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2004
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