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Juliana Spahr
"Love Scattered, Not Concentrated Love": Bernadette Mayer's Sonnets 
This piece is 2,000 words or about seven printed pages long


It has often been noted: love poems are passionate about love's absence, about what the lover does not yet have or cannot have, about the damage done in the name of love. Eros in itself means want, lack, desire for that which is missing, Anne Carson points out. And she writes, "If we follow the trajectory of eros we consistently find it tracing out this same route: it moves out from the lover toward the beloved, then ricochets back to the lover himself and the hole in him, unnoticed before. Who is the real subject of most love poems? Not the beloved. It is that hole" (30).
      It is this hole caused by love's damage that tells the most about the sonnet, as about the lyric in general. For it is not merely that the hole is the subject of the lyric but also the troubled relation between the hole's intensity of emotion and the elaborate controlling form of the sonnet. And it is damage, the hole, and the control of form that is also the subject of Bernadette Mayer's Sonnets. Throughout these sonnets, Mayer turns love's damages into love's possibilities and similarly turns form's damages into form's possibilities.
      I want to start by pedantically examining Mayer's engagements with the larger tradition of the sonnet by looking at the poem "Sonnet," the one that begins "Other than what's gone on and stupid art." "Sonnet" is written in the Petrarchan octet and sestet but with an A A B B C C D E F F G G H H rhyme scheme (in other words, doggerel with one deviance). Like in the Petrarchan form, the octet in this sonnet develops the idea. It confesses: I forget people's part in bed. Mayer writes,

Other than what's gone on and stupid art
I've no even memory of people and their part
In bed I forget all details
The female with the male entails
For whatever that's worth who cares
He who worries or she who dares
To die practically without mentioning
Again our idiotic utopian friendships (37)


The word part here, similar to how it does if one follows it through the Shakespeare sonnets, can move between the role one plays, the section of the body (including the private parts), an opening, and the way one leaves. But regardless of how one reads part, the narrator makes clear than instead of the beloved, this lover remembers "stupid art." The rhymes here are close, tight, kindergarten-style: art and part, details and entails, cares and dares. As couplets, they make the poem sound silly, heroic. And the tightness of the rhyme in the first six lines then throws readers out cold with lines seven and eight's deviant "mentioning" and "friendship" pairing. It is, the octet suggests, that love's specifics are a close rhyme, silly, easily replaceable. Who cares about them? The poem turns, in the traditional Petrarchan style at line nine and turns from bed to poetry. Mayer writes,

All the city's a mass of slush and ices
You might know I don't about poetries
My hand's your hand within this rhyme
You look at me this is all fucked up time
I'm just a sparrow done up to be
An Amazon or something and he? or thee? (37)

Here rhymes loosen a little: ices and poetries, rhyme and time, be and thee. The analogy between the two stanzas is that as love's specificities don't matter, neither do poetry's. "You know I don't about poetries," this narrator claims. Points out that "this is all fucked up time." Yet at the same time, the lover notes a closeness within this failure: "My hand's your hand within this rhyme." This move from love's form to poetry's forms is traditional to the sonnet. And after this readers schooled in tradition might expect the couplet to be one that draws this failure of love and poetry together in neat summation. But instead the couplet ducks this. The lover states, "I'm just a sparrow done up to be / An amazon or something and he? or thee?" The poem has moved from comparing the lover's relations with beloveds to the lover's relations with poetries to the provisionally related thinking of identity's varieties. I've read this couplet as saying what I really am is just something small ("a sparrow"), yet in the confines of this sonnet I am something large ("an Amazon") and various ("or something and he? or thee?")
      I keep thinking also of Shakespeare's sonnet 20. 20 has the personified and female figure of Nature giving out the parts of personhood. While doing this task, Nature falls "a-doting" on a figure she has created with a woman's face and a woman's heart. But once she falls, she decides to gender the figure male (this is the young man of the sonnets) so he will be available to her. The couplet has one of those wonderful Shakespeare puns: "But since she pricked thee out for woman's pleasure / Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure." While Shakespeare, unlike Mayer, ends up insisting on the importance of beloved's parts, the fracturing of the body, long a convention of the sonnet, is similar. Shakespeare calls the young man in this sonnet, in one of my favorite lines, "the master-mistress of my passion." Mayer ups the multiple ante and yet puns similarly "the female with the male," pointing to the traditional relationship model but also the female with the male parts in all the complicated meanings of that pun.
      I begin with tradition because readings of women's engagements with the sonnet argue that it is written in response to how the form is often mythically gendered male in its too rich tradition. This criticism concentrates on women's subversion within accepted forms. Ann Rosalind Jones, for instance, argues that women poets of 1540-1620 act as negotiators who "accept the dominant ideology encoded into a text but particularize and transform it in the service of a different group" (4). More to the contemporary the argument remains similar. Stacy Carson Hubbard points to an appropriative practice in Gwendolyn Brooks' sonnets that work in a highly traditional form even as they articulate a non-traditional voice. Lynn Keller argues similarly for Marilyn Hacker's sonnets. Women, these critics often argue, take the form and move within its box to make room for themselves. So studies of women's subversion of the sonnet have tended to be looking at how women do not leave the box. But Mayer clearly is after something else. I'm interested in the move that the poem "Sonnet" makes where it refuses sexuality's gendered notions and then claims that "you know I don't about poetries" in a poem so rich in allusion to the tradition of the sonnet. The narrator here clearly knows enough to reference the Petrarchan tradition, mock its close rhyme structure with doggerel, use a Shakespearean pun, and refigure the courtly love sonnet's attention to the particularities of love which define it as a singular, unique act between a destined heterosexual couple. So despite constant allusions to the tradition of the sonnet, Mayer's are not within the box. One of Mayer's sonnets has a long prose note attached to it on landlords and rent. Another has eight lines. Another twenty-seven. Some rhyme in doggerel. Some in more elaborate patterns. Some have regular rhythm. Some not. The grammar continually violates the conventional regularities of the sonnet. Lines are split, are jammed; they spill over. Metaphors mix. The book as whole serves almost as an encyclopedia of the sonnet's possible violations while still remaining a sonnet, examples of Mayer's statement that while the sonnet is a form that is "public and notorious" it is also a form for innovative thinking. These disjunctions are not Dadaist destruction. Instead they celebrate multiples as they jolt readers out of the conventional patterns of reading desire in order to show other possibilities.
      These other possibilities that Mayer alludes to are not just formal. These are poems that emphasize the necessary relation between love's and form's multiplicities. Desire never follows patterns, never moves in a line from one to one. There are many partners, many genders. "I'll have a million neighbors in the city / All at once above below it's easier for love" "Sonnet Flanders Road" claims (59). Even the lover is not allowed stability. In "Sonnet for Fred Pohl" the lover claims "I'm not male or female either" (17). Similarly in "Of Question" the lover asks "Will you come / With clitorises and balls and all not hiding" (74). And in "Sonnet" the lover and the beloved and the hole and the ricochet merge as the lover claims, "You are who I am pregnant" (63). While much attention has been paid to the ramifications of the blurring of genders and multiple identity claims by narrators, this attention has tended to avoid the lyric and its paroxysms of love. Similarly, criticism has tended to avoid lyrics that celebrate love's multiply partnered possibilities.
      Yet once the lover merges into the beloved or once the lover's beloveds multiply or once the lover refuses gender's categories, what happens to desire's ricochet? When the atom turns unstable, one can make it into a bomb. And similarly in "Holding the Thought of Love" the sonnet explodes. The poem's octet starts midthought: "And to render harmless a bomb or the like" (10). And then moves to love's explosions: "Of such a pouring in different directions of love / Love scattered not concentrated love talked about" (10). When love is aligned with a bomb, even if it is a harmless bomb, it is no longer the concentrated ricochet of Sappho. Mayer's revision here of Sappho's ricochet is even more direct. The sonnet continues,

So let's not talk of love the diffuseness of which
Round our heads (that oriole's song) like on the platforms
Of the subways and at their stations is today defused
As if by scattering the light rays in a photograph
Of the softened reflection of a truck in a bakery window (10).

Mayer's bomb here, the bomb of desire, moves in many different directions, scatters, softens reflection. It is here rendered harmless ("today defused") by scattering and this scattering in itself produces the double vision of the truck in the balcony window. The sonnet here values that which comes through indirection, the oriole's song, through reflection.
      To render harmless a bomb, to scatter love, to celebrate love's differences. So these sonnets complicate the image of women as subverting the sonnet from within to leave it in place. Yet at the same time they are not really an avant-garde battle cry of make it new. There is some more connection, some more refraction that turns into a prism-like spray of desire. And this more requires variations on the sonnet's back and forth in fourteen lines. In this context, the real importance of Mayer's sonnets is in the alternate grammars of desire they build. Joel Fineman makes the bold claim that within the confines of the sonnet Shakespeare "invents the poetics of heterosexuality" (18). And Mayer realizes that breaking conventional sexuality's limitations means bombing to widen the hole of desire and also doing the same to forms. I want to cautiously assert an almost new thing here. Here are sonnets of inclusion; sonnets built multiple, not individual relationships. The book concludes with the sonnet "The Phenomenon of Chaos." Mayer writes,

Do you love me when the earth's sun
Sets on your song on your tongue
This is ridiculous the universe
Is no longer uniform
By this we mean the universe's nor or ain't
A standard of nothing love's turning no more (80)

Similarly, in these poems neither is love nor the sonnet standard. And all the better for it.

Works Cited:
Carson, Anne. Eros: The Bittersweet. Normal: Dalkey Archive, 1998.
Fineman, Joel. Shakespeare's Perjured Eye : The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets. Berkeley, U of California P, 1988.
Hubbard, Stacy Carson. "'A Spintery Box': Race and Gender in the Sonnets of Gwendoyn Brooks." Genre. 25 (1992) 47-64.
Jones, Ann Rosalind. The Currency of Eros: Women's Love Lyric in Europe, 1540-1620. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1990.
Keller, Lynn. "Measured Feet 'in Gender Bender Shoes': The Politics of Form in Marilyn Hacker's Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. Feminist Measures: Soundings and Poetry and Theory. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 260-286.
Mayer, Bernadette. Sonnets. New York: Tender Buttons P, 1989.

Juliana Spahr
Juliana Spahr (left)
currently lives in Hawaii.
You can read a review by Jack Kimball
of her book Spiderwasp or Literary Criticism
(among others) in Jacket # 8.


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