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Megan Burns

Bernadette Mayer’s «Midwinter Day»:

Dream of the («Extra»)Ordinary


Imagining her self or, more specifically, how words have the power to give texture and dimension to one’s imaginings; these are just some of the mysteries of consciousness that Bernadette Mayer explores throughout her career as a poet and interpreter of language. Mayer uses herself as the test subject, continually examining and translating her mind’s workings to thoroughly investigate its secrets and by extension the secret to how writers can communicate these abstractions of the self.


Maggie Nelson considers Midwinter Day to be an extension of, “the New York School interest in contingency and dailiness, as well as part and parcel of other broader, interrelated contexts, including performance art, conceptual art… the tradition of the American long poem, especially the kind that collapses the boundary between poetry and prose… ” (100). This work steps outside the boundaries of traditional history, literature, and mythology challenging the reader to trace a feminine perspective through the dailiness of mothering coupled with the sacred act of creating and the mysterious investigation into the psychoanalytical exploration of dreams and memory. Mayer challenges the writing to stand for life, and the text forces the reader to accept the fiction of this premise and, at the same time, to marvel at the complexity of the mind’s experiment as drawn on the page by Bernadette Mayer, our hero and storyteller in this contemporary epic.


The trick of the “I” in Midwinter Day convinces the reader of its intimate nature and yet, the experiment remains one of objective searching into the limits of language and how words shape our narrative discourse. The experiment, leading the reader through December 22, 1978 from dreaming world to waking and back again, proves that the self is not the subject in this poem, but rather language and words and how this particular day is shaped by them.


It is necessary to look at Mayer’s writing history to understand the context for Midwinter Day as a time constrained experiment. At the age of 27, Mayer embarked on a conceptual art piece exploring memory that involved 1200 color snapshots and 7 hours of taped narration. She shot one roll for every day in the month of July, 1971. The pictures were exhibited at the Greene Street Gallery and Mayer explains, “It was an eight hour show. If you wanted to hear the whole show, you could follow the whole month by walking along with the pictures and spend eight hours in the gallery” (Nelson 104).


Portions of the text and some photos for the cover were published by North Atlantic in 1975 with the title Memory. Her next experiment, Studying Hunger Journals, tracks states of consciousness within a month. Again, only portions of this text were published as Studying Hunger [1]. So, Midwinter Day represents both a narrower time constraint, one day, and as a result a publishable venture, the entire text has been published in book form. The text Studying Hunger can be read as a precursor to Midwinter Day, one in which Mayer toys with the idea of writing a text in a single day and works through the problems of recording unconscious states.


What further differentiates Midwinter Day from other previous long poems is its collage of both the scientific experiment, with its nod towards Freudian analysis, combined with the feminist personal as political movement and the lyrical narrative that keeps the text from being overtly objective. Mayer is noted as, “the first to explore seriously the nature of consciousness and linguistic modes of thought taking up Gertrude Stein as a model long before many Language writers did” (Vickery 151). What balances the language experiment in Midwinter Day is the infusion of emotional complexity of the artist as a young woman: a mother, a lover, a creator conscious of time. The narrative of the poem moves forward propelled by the passage of time, but the tropes of love, death, children and writing recur regardless of the setting or time period. “Mayer’s two poles are the intimate detail of life as unfolding and the dream-life going on either through sleep or through recurrence of memory” (Baker 157). Midwinter Day recreates the day as it is imprinted and then recorded through the mind of the artist; its unique feminist perspective brings to the table the struggle of the intimate knowledge and experience of the mother and wife’s daily life as never before recorded in such detail in the history of the long poem.

Part One: Dreaming


Freud in his work on dream analysis stated that the dream instigator or the true source of the dream “must always be a recent impression, derived from the dream day” (Freud 37). The events from the day before the dream are not made available to the reader. Instead, the book opens in medias res of the dreaming, and the images and impressions of this first section reflect the incoherence that Freud noted was seldom absent, “especially in dream compositions of any considerable length and complexity” (Freud 19). The “I” of this first part is simultaneously a subject in the dream and the narrator attempting to view the dreams objectively.


This narration, though, is continuously plagued by neurotic doubts about the telling of these dreams. The dream imagery is constantly interrupted by an awareness of the experiment of recording the dreams as well as attempts to interpret and contextualize the imagery. The notion of seeing and seeing clearly recurs throughout this section; Barthes noted that: “dreams are a decrepit narrative, consisting of the ruins of memory” (264). This first section then engages in the fictive act of recreation, asking the reader to suspend disbelief and actively engage in this process through the inaccurate and foggy landscapes of both dream and memory.


This dreaming sequence in the beginning is not only the longest section, but it is more than double the length of the other sections of the book. The starts and stops of the dream narrative along with the digressions into memory seem to try to mimic the process of sleep. It’s as though the reader is led from dreaming to that half conscious state of being awake enough to recall a dream, (one imagines the interrupted sleep of the mother with two young children), and so the narrator, never fully awake, vacillates between these states of nodding and deep REM. Freud’s study of dream analysis can be seen in the narrator’s anxieties about what confessing the dream will reveal.


There is the desire to both recount the dream and to participate in trying to analyze the dream: “Is this a clue to wake up from dreams / And see what I’m forgetting?” (8). There is also a reiterated guilt about the act of revealing what occurs in the mind that should perhaps remain secret; she worries it will “kill friendship if I told all” (5). Mayer confesses as well as apologizes during the retelling: “Do I have to add / That in this sense I’m an incestuous guilty whore / Please love me anyway… Sorry, / That’s how it was” (8).


The threat is that the narrator has no control over the dream and therefore to tell it truthfully may reveal more than she is willing to share. “Beware of these bereft dream cakes,” Mayer warns herself as well as the reader; she is both fascinated by her mind’s unconscious wanderings as well as cognizant of their random nature. So, even as she affords them the importance of being retold in the poem, she is aware that the recreation is a fiction tempered by her own anxieties and fears. There is a circular nature revealed in her movement from dream to memory to dream, and the one constant factor is the shaky ground on which they both stand. Mayer questions whether a dream can represent truth and whether any true retelling of the dream can even occur.


Another question posed by this first section that recurs throughout the book is the idea of story, “What is a story (4).” The story is about the day, and yet the narrator attests that nothing happens: “the story of the day is embedded in the practice of writing with intersubjectivity at the core” (Baker 158). The traditional epic themes of action and struggles to overcome are not found here, and unlike other long poems by Pound, Eliot or Williams, Midwinter Day circles closer and closer into the intimate view of the family rather than out towards an all encompassing view of history or the tale of the tribe. Most of the events of the poem occur in the interior of the home and within these events most of the poem’s images and ideas occur within the writer’s mind as she goes about her day caring for two small children.


One unique detail of the poem is that there is no hierarchy of thought; everything goes in from lists of books to children’s stories to thoughts on word origins and Polar explorations along with the concerns of the act of writing and the intimacy of the married couple. And love, love is a theme that Mayer explores again and again prompting the sense that this is indeed a romantic text and not simply a stoic experiment or writing exercise.


It does seem natural that any investigation into poetry’s limits would delve into the nature of love since the earliest poems in recorded history revolved around the same theme. Likewise, an exposition on love and the intimacy of the family stands in direct opposition to the subjects of most male generated epics or long poems, and Mayer struggles to elevate the subject of motherhood to that pinnacle long held by subjects such as war or male aggression. In one sense Mayer mimics early Greek poets who Herman Fränkel notes, “[Greek lyric poets]… did not aim to make themselves interesting by their peculiar sensibilities but sought rather to demonstrate the general and the basic by example of themselves”(13).


This is precisely what Mayer does throughout Midwinter Day; she aims to capture the basic details of life which she believes are the essence of poetry rather than trying to create poetry that elevates or makes astonishing her life. In another sense, she is not only working in opposition to male epic traditions but she is also struggling to break free from the sensation of the confessional made popular by female poets who explored dark and secret aspects of their own minds whether it be fantasies of suicide or lyrics about women’s sexuality or bodily secretions. Mayer moves beyond the vicarious pull of the confession to explore the everyday, where “nothing happens” other than the routine of caring for children and attempting to maintain a writing life with a spouse who is also a writer (49). Mayer claims that poetry can represent this everydayness and pushes her reader to stay invested in the experiment of seeing how language can transform the most ordinary into a beautiful meditation on life.


What ties this dream narrative together is the “random rhyming,” as Mayer calls it, and the use of repetition, so that language becomes the constant rather than the reader’s ability to make sense of the dreamscape (11). Mayer at times is carried away by the pleasure of rhyming for its own sake: “It’s Midwinter Day today a day / To cause the sun to stand still as it will anyway / At a point on its ecliptic furthest away… ” (17). There is no formal rhyme scheme but Mayer consistently uses rhyme ceasing only during the prose section before returning to poetic stanzas and rhyme at the close. In fact, towards the end of this section, Mayer’s language and rhyme scheme seem to be imitative of Shakespearian sonnets. One quatrain reads:


What is your substance and wherefore are you made
That millions of strange shadows you tend?
Since everyone has, every one, one shade,
And you but one, can every shadow lend (25).


This stanza with its iambic pentameter form is interrupted by a return of the narrator anxiously wondering how to say what she means. She then begins another formal iambic quintet with an a bb cc rhyme scheme. This movement from formal to free verse puts both forms side by side; Mayer demonstrates her ability to work this experiment in both modes.


She is creating a parallel instead of a hierarchy between higher poetic language and everyday speech. Instead of choosing one form in favor of another, Mayer is consistent in her attempt to include all. Instead of an ‘anxiety of influence,’ [2] Mayer exhibits playfulness in regard to literary history and her place in it: “Don’t take what I say too seriously / Or too lightly… I was just playing around, I’m trying to find what I’d rather not know consciously” (26). These contradictory statements resemble Whitman’s famous declaration that he contains multitudes [3]; Mayer steps up to say that she too can be one and another. Her text is playful and serious in its task as well as experimental in its desire to reveal what words are capable of transmitting from any writer to reader on a conscious level.

Part Two: Morning Routines


Part two is written in blocks of prose, and more than any other section it details the movements of the mother in relation to her children during a morning routine. It is the shortest section with the action contained completely within the domestic sphere mirroring in its prose form part four. These two parts representing the interior life of the family at morning and at evening bookend the middle part three, which occurs exclusively outside of the home focusing on family errands and the history and mapping of the town. In this part Mayer’s obsession with including everything as well as her mnemonic ability to recall the details of the day becomes readily apparent. Listing is a device that Mayer returns to throughout the poem; in part two she uses it to set the scene cataloguing the entire makeup of several rooms of the house. Lists can be completely impersonal simply cataloguing objective data as one would in a scientific experiment. They also bring to mind their function, which is quite literally to stand in the place of remembering. Mayer brings attention to how lists replace memory and how memory functions to create lists and, in relation to lists, how one assigns value to the items encased in the list form.


Midwinter day or winter solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year marking the halfway point in the season; it celebrates the arrival of winter’s end but also marks the need to survive the remainder of the season. Light, time and death are intrinsically linked throughout the book, and Mayer returns to the connections between the three again and again. The importance of light parallels the motion of the story; the light is short and therefore there is a condensation of the events of the day recorded in these bursts of prose: “Divided in the light a length of day is measured more in numberless meals. Each of the two children needs to be offered two breakfasts… ” (31).


Mayer lays out the routine of the day in great detail cataloguing the children’s needs from clothing to food; each prose stanza is a merging of the mother’s innermost thoughts and her constant return to the present moment by the demands of the children: “Delicate tantrums in tints and shades of the same corner you like an aversion to memory’s rudeness in the form of what we call voices. You are being too loud” (30). The importance of time is magnified not only by the shortness of the day, but also by the act of mothering two small children, which takes a considerable amount of time and energy.


This is reflected in each prose stanza where the children’s needs seem to interrupt the poetry of a line or cut off a memory or thought. Instead of romanticizing the mother/child relationship, Mayer attempts to capture it accurately as if photographing the scene. If each prose stanza is comparable to a snapshot then it reveals the conflicting interior and exterior of the mother’s mind. Even as she goes about laying out clothes and listening to her children’s childish banter, her interior thoughts range from anxiety about what she is feeding her children to her frustrations about how much time is spent getting ready in the morning to memories of her own past. It is a rich and various landscape recorded in a seemingly banal routine: “What an associative way to live this is, dreams of hearts beating like sudden mountain peaks I can see in my chest like other breasts in one vertiginous moment I can forget all but the reunion and your original face, two shirts each under overalls over tights under shoes” (35).


There is the containment of language in recording what is occurring exactly placed next to the release of language to explore in poetic detail the extents of the mother’s imagination. What occurs in this conflict between the two is an examination of the psychological makeup of specifically the mother’s struggle with managing the creative aspects of her nature in her responsibility to her writing and her responsibility to her children and how the two intersect and overlap one another. Her experiment opens the field as to what the subject of a long poem can be in opposition to what her male predecessors viewed as worthy subjects for the long poem.


Simply by turning her attention to this subject and writing this poem, Mayer has changed the idea of what a poem can be about while at the same time furthering the long poem’s historical purpose by illustrating a world from a perspective held almost exclusively by women. The act of creating this book brings value to the work of motherhood and provides a standard for future mothers who struggle under the same constraints of finding time and energy for their creative aspects as well as their family demands. Instead of separating the categories of child rearing and poetry, Mayer attempts to merge the two since the combination reveals a more accurate portrayal of life.


The winter season, symbolic of stasis and death, brings to the forefront the mortality, or the dying of the light as it were, that Mayer is constantly drawn to in the poem. Death or the dissolution of self is a trope intrinsically linked to the idea of the day being shortened. There is a sense of urgency in the narrator’s need to get it all down as though any moment death might descend upon the family: “pity the race with the day if there’s a reason to be sad or thinking ahead of everything so as we’re leaving the house we must also be dying … (37). Thoughts of death seem to linger around the edges of this family scene from the winter flies “dying by the windows” (30) to dismal streets that “unearth a hideous memory of death” (36).


Mayer even recalls the dying Christ figure on the cross when she asks, “my father, have I left anything out, why have I been forsaken for this joy” (37). Of course the image is completely inverted as the voice calling out is a woman anxious to know if she has left anything out of the poem and instead of crucifixion the narrator has been forsaken for joy. The joy is what Mayer sees around her, and the need to get it in is almost a talismanic desire to ward off death with description. The high and low arts clash around her so the poem’s themes become “grotesque little figures released by a spring from a box when the lid is lifted by another” (37).

Part Three: Mapping Lenox


Part Three’s action takes place outside of the home as the family travels around the town performing errands; Mayer places an investigation of the town’s geography and history next to a description of the family’s adventures. The eye of the narrator telescopes outward from the detail of seeing the family unit poised on the threshold of their doorstep to a mapping of the small town in all directions: The description expands to place the family not only in a geographical setting but also in a historically literary one: “Nearby are the former homes / Of Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville / William Cullen Bryant … ” (42). The narrator is conscious of her task and her lineage as a writer; she wonders as they walk “ why we write at all” and acknowledges the images that the town lends that she recalls “while rehearsing for this narration” (43). Mayer records shifts in history, the action of the family as well as the narrator’s inner thoughts or memories, so that again the reader is presented with this conscious record of the inner and outer world of the writer’s life. There is never a shift in perspective that tries to dissolve the narrator or that tries to move too far away from the experiment at hand.


Mayer’s language attempts to capture thinking as it happens; Charles Bernstein notes the difficulty: “Thinking is certainly a private experience; the problem is that if we try to pin ‘thinking’ down we project an image of it as an entity rather than, indeed, the very content of language” (66). The obstacle then with the precise recording of the day as it unfolds is that: “we know that the telling of a dream is a quite different manner than the dreaming itself” (Bernstein 66). The form of the poem reflects this as Mayer tries different approaches to tackling the same problem, whether it is moving more into stream of consciousness or more objectively into a retelling of the town’s history; all of these techniques are employed to try and let language stand for the living.


Although the reader knows that language is not the living, the suspension of disbelief allows for the creation of a world, an entity as it is made of words that stands in comparison to the reality: “So to go from ‘thinking’ as an activity of ‘self’ to a world creating/ perceiving idea. Thinking things the world. So that in the end the poem stands as another particular being, hence object, like myself in the world and I beside it” (Bernstein 71). The poem is an object other and external to the self, and the poem is also a world created by language that references and influences our own.


An example of Mayer’s desire to record the emotion of the moment can be seen in the lines dealing with the tantrum her daughter throws leaving the library. The tantrum scene is written with all the flourish and eye to detail that a Shakespearian tragedy would give to the apex of the play. Mayer devotes 32 lines of poetry to this child’s tantrum, building in description after description a breathless recounting of the pressure and anxiety felt during this loss of emotional control. The overblown language adds humor to the retelling but beneath the surface is an honest look at the tenuous hold children have on their emotions and how this affects the adults around them. This outpouring of unbridled emotion makes “others” uncomfortable; it seems as though it will never end.


The child is described in terms comparable to a mythic creature, as choleric as Circe or Athena: “she is fiery and dark, nothing tempers it / It’s her nature she is bored, she’s magnetic… She has the strength of a thousand women and men, opposites / The veins in her neck bulge with rage, rapid and combust” (44). It becomes a truly horrific scene that ends with the child “exhausted” and culminates with the line “flying into the cold, we breathe” (45). Mayer does not just record that her child had a tantrum in the public library, instead she brings us into the emotion, into the chaos and the depths showing how language can go into an experience rather than simply retell the experience. The tantrum seems to last forever as the long lines pile up and indeed even the reader must catch their breath at the end. Mayer then turns the entire scene into an opportunity to explore the nature of rage and love. Just as quickly as the child’s emotion rages and dies, the narration of the poem quickly turns its gaze away from the family and outwards to a description of the town and its people.


The list form emerges again as she draws a mental picture of their surroundings: “The Lemon Tree, Cimini’s, the Crazy Horse, Lilac Park / The first dentist, the dramatic post office, the Academy landmark / Amoco Station, Dr. Tosk’s, Loeb’s Foodmart, Hagyard’s Drugs” (49). Mayer illustrates another use of listing as a way to orient oneself in a geographical sphere. One could draw a parallel between Mayer’s list within the domestic sphere and this exterior listing within the town to show how the “I” places itself in relation to the items around it. The list becomes a way to identify that other than the self as well as a way to say where the “I” is in relation to these other items. Mayer indulges in her lists again later in the section at the bookstore; 19 lines of book titles are listed with no comment other than to display in their listing the importance that Mayer gives these items. There is a consciousness in regard to the writing life always at work in the poem whether it is present in her obsession with book titles or in questions of poetics that come up: “As if a theory of writing poetry is useful whereas the poem is not” (53).


As with earlier descriptions, this investigation as well is interrupted at times by the actions of the children: “Then Marie trips over her own boots / And hits her head on a brick // Sophia’s mittens come off… ” (43). Mayer pushes her investigation to include not only facts, but the everydayness even its crude display: “In the driveway near defunct Rapid Repair their bulldog defecating / In the greasy spoon the acting Chief of Police eating liver” (49). Mayer in her view of the town censors nothing, and continues to push the reader to accept everything as the stuff of poetry. She also insists in this part that, “Nothing happens” (49), a statement that is in direct opposition to the classical heroic epic that centers around the action of the main character. Here Mayer subverts this notion claiming that there is no action when in reality the action is the daily routine. Mayer draws a parallel between writing and life through this example showing that the everyday is not only what makes up our lives, but ultimately also what makes up poetry as well.


Like Warhol’s pop art chicken soup cans, Mayer takes what is obvious and ordinary and places it in an arena where the reader can view it as something new: a poetry heightened not by its subject matter but instead by its use of language. “You think something like a book will change the world, don’t you / I do, I take pleasure in taking the milk with the most cream” (52); Mayer’s assertion is upheld by this poem, which changes the world simply by shifting the view of what poetry can contain. Mayer sifts through language seeking the most cream in order to build this day, “The year’s least day / Lost in the house of love’s safe locks / Movement’s chance perfidy” (55).


Mayer ends the section by placing the day as both lost in the house of love and subject to movement’s chance betrayal or breach of faith. The two opposing poles become then the safety of the family unit locked in the house and the threat of moving out of that safety where death or betrayal lurks around the edges. Mayer’s metaphor extends to language acknowledging it as a medium for communicating and creating, but seeing also its dangerous ability to be false, to deconstruct and destroy.

Part Four: Afternoon’s Desire


One of the recurring themes in part four is the narrator’s references to literary and scholarly sources. The melding of high and low art converges in this section through her descriptions and allusions to books. Mayer’s references to outside sources as she prepares dinner or puts Sophia down for a nap allude to texts that she has read in the past. These thoughts are interrupted by Marie’s desire to have her books read; Mayer takes the time to record a synopsis of each child’s book thereby according it an importance on a level with the adult literature.


So, The Tiny, Tawny Kitten is as much a part of the makeup of this poem as the Egyptian and American Indian mythology books discussed or references to poet Anne Bradstreet. In fact, in each synopsis, Mayer shows how the picture story’s tale spurs a memory or reference in her adult life whether it is Admiral Byrd at the South Pole brought on by reading The Three Little Pigs or Patty Hearst brought to mind by reading Big Dog, Little Dog. Mayer is more interested in recording and tracking the movement of her mind rather than trying to discover the psychology of why her mind leaps to these disparate points. As in part one, the idea of psychological analysis is hinted at in the desire to tease out why the mind would go to these certain subjects. But in this part, Mayer refrains in the narration from analyzing her mind’s pathways and simply continues to present each book’s response in prose chunks.


As the section progresses, the action occurs primarily within the contexts of the books; Mayer recreates in this focus how the narrator escapes her domestic sphere and enters an exteriority offered by the books. This escape begins with the phrase, “Marie’s asleep” and continues for four prose sections that deal exclusively with the book’s topics. Mayer then emerges from the books to bring our focus back onto the surroundings of the house, “I steal from the bed not to awaken Marie” (74–76). Mayer captures in these pages without directly stating it the mother’s pleasure in having a moment to indulge her own desires while her two children sleep and cease to interrupt her thoughts and actions.


This continues after she leaves the bed as she indulges in long prose sections that describe memories, dreams, writings; these sections capture the mother’s mind released from the demands of her young children’s needs: “The language into which we put the order of stories from this kind of memory is a mesmerization of sins like the ones I made up which were my first stories because when I still had reason to confess I was free of even the venality of my tales, though told with love… ” (77). The lines are longer and the thoughts more complex as the mother muses freely without being drawn away abruptly from her mind’s roaming.


In part four, Mayer returns to her interest in what a story is and how stories are constructed. In a way, her attention to books is another look into how stories are integral to life. Mayer shows the importance of the books that she has read by placing their tales directly in line with her tale of her family. The paragraphs become expositions on both her immediate present and the memories of books read that this present stirs up, and the two seem to be disparate but in fact illustrate the circuitous nature of memory and intellect. Mayer moves from a description of their friend Clark’s gift of apples to Anne Bradstreet, Lewis writing to Margaret Fuller and her children’s questions to Margaret Mead (62–3).


Her memories lead her not only into books but into personal stories as well: “Once I was carried out by the current of the ocean at Rockaway and had to be rescued by a lifeguard” (64). The stories that make up her personal retinue include as well thoughts about her own writing: “Barry told Clark I shouldn’t write about Lenox and he didn’t like Lenox. Someone else said I was no longer a true experimentalist. Alex once said my writing was rude… ” (64). Mayer layers story upon story to flesh out the workings of the mind and how integral the act of telling and retelling is to life. The form of the story varies from book summaries to memories recounted to word of mouth gossip, but its function remains important: the need to make sense of life with words.


Mayer draws attention to this unconscious tendency or this act that is taken for granted on a daily basis in order to question what the idea of story is to the reader. She tempts the reader to try and make sense of this jumble of stories piling up and this in turn prompts the reader to question the use of narrative in their own lives. Her subject matter is familiar to the reader and yet unfamiliar in its individual details, so Mayer both invites the reader into her world’s creation and brings attention to the limits that exist between ever really knowing the internal workings of another’s mind. She even notes the paradox integral to her own experiment: “Wittgenstein says there is no such thing as a private language. I think it would be worth trying to make one” (68).


Her statement reveals her fascination with the challenge between privacy and a function of language which is to communicate private thoughts. The poignancy of any memory or tale truly stops with the teller; Mayer explores how truthfully words can express individual experience. Memories are vast, dense and colored with images and emotions; Mayer is cognizant of this gap between the individual’s experience of their memories and the role words play in conveying these memories to another. She works within this gap trying to see where language fails and where the disconnections or spaces between people, via their perceptions, exist.

Part Five: Love’s Letter


Part five begins with Mayer going into great detail about the actions and language of both her young daughters. She records their fragmented and disparate phrases showing the malleability of language as well as the interiority of language within the family unit: “Marie says children have candy my name is Betsy you’ll get sticky. She calls Sophia baby brother, it’s from a book. She says here’s a mountain I made I cut it sharp and thick” (84). The children’s language play by extension shows the malleability of their interior worlds as when Marie declares her ruler is a penis (86).


Their use of language allows them to shape their world in the same way that Mayer uses language to shape the world of the poem. Mayer seems to recognize that the adult’s world by comparison has more of a need to be understood through an ordering of language or through the narrative of the story. She questions this double bind: “Sometimes the story changes in remembering like the threat of extinction… I long for childhood to recite this introduction to love, it’s so long” (86). There is a realization that language is more malleable to the child who has not yet fixed words to certain memories and abstractions.


At the same time, Mayer again links the difficulty of recreating any story with the threat of extinction in the natural world. Mayer recognizes the conflict between the desire to tell a story that extends in some way one’s mortality and the reality that language is neither static nor permanent. Language is slippery in the same way that recalling a dream is or in the same way that the young child sees her own sexuality.


At some point, the child will see her sex as more permanent, Mayer infers, the same way that language seems to develop permanence in its representations and meanings. By calling attention to this, Mayer questions the reality of this notion; does language become more fixed in adulthood or is that a misconception that is simply accepted and not questioned? And if language does not adhere to any fixed principles then what does this do to the notion of the story as it functions to relate one’s experience; Mayer is interested in seeing language as an object separate from its usual storytelling or narrative context. She also reveals in the text a schizophrenic tendency of the writer who is both threatened by the breakdown of language and desirous to excavate and examine this same breakdown.


With the children asleep Mayer introduces another form in the poem, the epistle. She writes a long letter to Lewis Warsh, her husband and fellow writer in the house. The epistle form is one that engages in the fiction of being a private exchange between two people, presumably the writer and the one addressed. The reader then is forced to be an interloper, peeking at lines that were meant to be shared exclusively by others. Mayer creates an interior world between her self and Lewis “made up of words” that is conflated on top of the world of their domestic sphere where Lewis and Bernadette are somewhere within the house on this particular day. In fact, they have just put the children to bed and Mayer states, “You’re standing in the kitchen making coffee” (87).


Why then does she choose to write a letter to her spouse who is so close? Mayer deliberately puts the reader in the position of questioning the function of words said aloud versus on the page. She provides this intimate glimpse into the complexity of a union between a man and a woman, which in this specific case is further complicated by their careers as writers. Words take on a supercharged role in this household, Mayer points out, and the responsibility she and Lewis have to words can be seen in this letter where Mayer struggles to be understood by the person closest to her who is also the only other adult in the house. Unlike a spoken conversation that can be misconstrued or colored by emotions, the letter is composed in tranquility, a recollection of thought that is more permanent simply by its object presence in the world. The letter opens with references to synesthesia, a term used to define people who interpret the world through a combination or overlapping of sensory preceptors.


Interestingly, synesthesia has been connected to the act of memory [4]. In a way, Mayer’s attempts to enter this realm of cross sensory understanding of the world could be seen as another way of bringing memory to the forefront. Just as the poem explores different forms to capture memory in words, Mayer herself employs various methods for capturing the mind at work. Within this letter Mayer superimposes colors over the words or letters; this is the most common form of synesthesia which attaches a visual spectrum to particular words (Cytowic 16).


Mayer states: “I’m lost among everything, which is a green word… I am going to do something, a yellow word with some brown and green in the some and a main gray in the thing… Always has red in it” (87). Mayer relates certain colors to either a word or letter in the alphabet; this technique is thought to further imprint language and experiences with language on the mind as the individual has a doubled sensory imprint from both the meaning of the word and the visual display of colors attached to the word or letter.


She uses the letter as a way to further examine her experiment: “I had an idea to write a book that would translate the detail of thought from a day to language like a dream transformed to read as it does, everything, a book that would end before it started in time to prove the day like a dream has everything in it… because having it all at once is performing a magical service for survival by the use of the mind like memory” (89). Again Mayer reiterates the need to include all, referencing the idea that the dream has this quality and therefore she wishes to create a poem to mimic that inclusiveness. As well she refers to the magical quality the poem has; it becomes a way of survival or in other words the memories laid out in the poem work as a talisman to ward off death.


She returns to the lineage of the writer and the function of story: “In the past of the west and maybe further, poets told stories, they sang, they wrote epics, the composed for the occasion. Inherent in the history of our lives together since I, all the while wanting to write this book, met you is a story” (89). Mayer again places the story of their life in direct descent from the stories and epics of the past told by the poets; Midwinter Day reflects the story of their lives and Mayer points out that as long as she has known Lewis, she has wanted to write this book. In a sense the creation of this poem mirrors the creation of their lives together, and Mayer implies that the creation of poetry runs parallel with the actual living of life. She implies that the germination for this poem lies in the unfolding of their lives and in a sense shapes their existence and is shaped by their existence, the two worlds of the living and poem influencing one another.


Mayer closes this section talking about love. The letter to Lewis ends with a long list of what she writes of when she writes of love and, once again, there is the sense that Mayer is trying to capture all so nothing is left out from love’s writing: “Reborn Christians, women in the Jaycees, / The Council on Aging, protesting teachers, / A nuclear power plant” (92). Most of her list is not usually synonymous with talk of love, but Mayer’s argument is that the writing itself is an act of love and the words her magical totems of survival. “We’re allowed to crowd love in / Like a significant myth” (92). After the letter, Mayer moves back into poetic lines no longer speaking directly to Louis but still addressing the subject of love: “I turn formally to love to spend the day, / To you to form the night as what I know / An image of love allows what I can’t say” (94). She returns as well to the rhyming seen in part one.


This return signals a circling back towards the dreaming world and foreshadows the next section which leads to the close of the day and the end of the light. If the goal is to capture the day, then the end of Section five represents the end of that day and for Mayer to turn towards love and its importance signals the intimate nature of this experiment. She not only uses her life and her family to carry out this experiment, but she is willing to lay bare her deepest feelings about the functions of love in relation to her commitment to the poem. The literal end of the day brings with it the long night, and the topic at the forefront of the poet’s mind is love: “A shadow of ice exchanges the color of light, / Love’s figure to begin the absent night” (95). As the long midwinter night begins, love and language become the two beacons that the family has against the darkness. The poet’s job is to survive to tell the tale, and the mother’s job is to wield love like a shield that can deflect all harm.

Part Six: Writing Life


“In Yokuntown we write all night / In the literal, love and experimental ways,” Mayer begins this last section with a romantic image of the writing life (99). With the children asleep, the writers forego sleep sacrificing their literal dreams for the writing world. Even now the reality of life seeps in interrupting the fantasy, “I lie down and think / how we still need diapers and beer / I begin to dream I’m an undertaker” (99). The night has just begun and already the dreaming world begins to infiltrate the writer’s life, and Mayer’s dream recalls that death is always at the edge of their lives. She wakes from the dream “less rested than relieved” and states “I hate dates and their significance in death’s memories,” as if the dream brought to the surface the recollection of those who have passed and how dates are used to both celebrate life and commemorate death.


Mayer leaves the safety of the home to enter the cold, dark night and relates a sense of urgency to return to the home and to her desk to write. The need to go out and purchase these necessities is told in a dreary light, which paints the mother as an old world scavenger hoping to return to her den in one piece. Death, maybe brought on by the initial dream, seems to haunt this opening piece: “I am ashamed that death obsesses me… The obsessiveness is something I won at poker / Where I’m remembering what’s been played / So I can play my hand so no one ever dies” (102). The metaphor is that writing is a game that through the use of memory can somehow be played to ward off death. Again the image is that the language contains the “magic of survival” and this is triggered by the excavation of the memory.


Mayer engages once again in a self conscious examination of the writing life. She questions her own writing practice as it has been revealed within this poem: “How preoccupying / Is the wish to include all or to leave all out / Some say either wish is against a poem or art” (102). There is an anxiety surrounding the act of writing because it reveals something about the author in the same way that the telling of a dream reveals something about the dreamer. The anxiety seen in part one around the telling of the dreams is revisited here, but in the context of what writing reveals or leaves the author exposed to: “When I think each time I write a line / I know someone I know won’t approve of it” (103).


In fact thinking about writing inevitably takes the poem on a discursive path that the reader is invited to follow, which leads from mothers to Artic explorers and from hijacked planes to running out of matches. Finally Mayer returns to writing, “I thought I was going to talk about reading and writing… Writing is a need / And when there’s time a pleasure” (106). This is a telling line as the poem itself is working under a time constraint and within that constraint it reveals how much of the time of the day is devoted to other activities besides writing. “Living together / On the schedule of babies in the country’s luxuries,” Mayer notes in a romantic description of how pressed the two writers are in the house in their need to balance writing with the demands of the family. If anything the entire poem becomes a testament to the fact that even with a lack of time, the writer must creatively invent ways to make writing and life meld into one.


The subject matter of the poem is not only an original exploration led by Mayer into the realms of motherhood and domestic turmoil, but it is also an example of the need to use what is at hand to spark the creative writing force. In part four, Mayer states that Lewis “goes into his room” to work while Mayer continues to balance putting the children down for a nap, making dinner preparations, calling the nursery school and preparing the grocery list for the week (62). Even as they eat dinner, Mayer notes that Lewis is eating in his room, which leads one to wonder who in fact writes all night while the children are sleeping: the person in the house who has not had the privilege and luxury of solitude and privacy throughout the day. The fiction of the book leads the reader to imagine that the whole poem is constructed while the day goes on, but in fact the writer needs the time and solitude to recollect and arrange the events that make up the poem.


So, the night time becomes the literal place and time of writing for Mayer, the day makes up the context but the act of writing itself occurs at night once the children have gone to bed. It makes sense then that this section would be preoccupied with the act itself and the life that she has chosen as a writer: “Some say / The life we have is wrong because we’ve been lucky / And don’t work in a factory or at a CETA job” (108). For Mayer the choice of the writing life is exemplified in this decision to write about her children, their playthings and diaper changes rather than simply putting down the pen to attend to the work of raising a family. And even if one has to forego sleep and lay bare their private dreams and daily rants, then Mayer is willing to do this as a commitment to being a poet.


Writing inevitably is linked to love for Mayer, and the last section wraps the act of writing around the family as if it were a magical cocoon which could keep out death, “We always were… At once rushing to be loved ridiculously freely / At once hiding the place of love in the closet” (108). Love and death go hand in hand for Mayer, but the act of writing and the telling of the family’s story provides an outlet to the anxiety surrounding her lack of control over death’s presence in their lives: “I am bewildered then / By death, we all read about it like fear / As if every day we make sure like another / To put in time being crazy with fear / we will not ever die” (109). The idea of spending time fearing death is in contrast to the idea of having more time to enjoy the pleasure of writing.


Writing about death becomes a way to mitigate its approach; if the writing can be a container to handle fear than it is infused with a magical quality to ward off death. The act of writing within the context of the family dynamic becomes a “magical service for survival,” and one that allows the writer to gain some measure of control over this inevitable event that threatens the safety of her family. Mayer desires to keep the family “lost in the house of love’s safe locks”. The entire poem is a metaphor for a house with no doors or a day that exists outside of time, frozen where death cannot find the family that Mayer has immortalized with her words. In a sense, Mayer uses memory to battle death’s approach, the memory of this day laid out on these pages becomes detached from time and the family here “will not ever die” (109).



A long held tradition on Midwinter’s Day was to let the hearth fire burn all night, literally keeping a light alive through the longest night of winter as a source of both heat and a symbol of inspiration to come out the other side of the long night closer to spring and rebirth. It is fitting that a poem about surviving death and the intimacy of the family would be centered around this particular day that traditionally has focused on both. The hearth is the center of the home where the family gathers, where the food is cooked and where warmth is provided. Metaphorically, the poem Midwinter Day stands in for the hearth gathering the family into its folds, detailing the preparation of food and sleep and taking care of the family’s memories and dreams.


Mayer fills the poem throughout the day with these sacred and precious revelations, confessions, details and dreamscapes trying to include all in this small space. Death is always present in the poem running parallel to the fading of the light on this short day. The poem burns through the night in the last part literally welcoming the first rays of the light since Mayer has written all night. There is a sense of relief that the poem is both finished and the writer can sleep as well as relief that the family has avoided death on this long night. The family survives the long night, and Mayer stays awake literally stoking the fire with her pen and her endless memories that she lays out to keep the dark at bay.


In the last stanza, Mayer recognizes both the end of this day and this experiment: “Welcome sun, at last with thy softer light / That takes the bite from winter weather / And weaves the random cloth of life together / And drives away the long black night” (119). Mayer returns to her rhyming from part one as well as her imitation of classical forms with the pentameter lines of this final quatrain. She ends on a celebratory note praising the sun’s ascent with its symbolism of rebirth and new beginnings. Mayer implies as well that the threads of life although they may appear random are in fact connected and that the dawning of the new day symbolizes another opportunity for understanding.


“And in the end there’s no end but forgetting,” Mayer’s statement reflects what keeps the poem alive: the writer’s commitment to exposing and reiterating the mind’s vast collection of memories and dreams (105). For Mayer, death is analogous to forgetting, and the poem stands in as a physical object that subverts this natural order of birth and death. Mayer attempts the impossible task of transcribing life in all its finest details and various connotations. Success is not as important in the end though as the poem itself, and Midwinter Day opens up a new space in both women’s writing and the use of the long poem especially in regard to subject matter and form.


Mayer blends poetry and prose to capture in her experiment the various events, memories, dreams and conversations that when examined contain a remarkably complex retelling of this particular day. Mayer not only asks what language is capable of, but she also asks what poetry is capable of as well. Is this book a poem, a memoir or a psychological experiment? Inevitably when examining Mayer’s work there is never a simple answer as she maintains the right to encompass many forms and genres. She would certainly argue that poetry is life and therefore just about anything that one can imagine.

Works Cited

Baker, Peter. Obdurate Brilliance: Exteriority and the Modern Long Poem. Gainesville, Fl: University Press of Florida, 1991.

Barthes, Roland. The Rustle of Language.trans. by Richard Howard. Los Angeles, CA. University of California Press, 1989.

Bernstein, Charles. Content’s Dream: Essays 1975–1984. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University press, 2001.

Cytowic, Richard E., M.D. Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002.

Frankel, Herman. Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy trans. by Moses hadas and James Willis. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1962.

Freud, Sigmund. On Dreams. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1980

Mayer, Bernadette. Midwinter Day. New York: New Directions, 1999.

Nelson, Maggie. Women, The New York School, and Other Abstractions. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2007.

Vickery, Ann. Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Langauge Writing. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan Press, 2000.


[1] New York: Adventure in Poetry and Bolinas, CA: Big Sky, 1975; Available online:

[2] Harold Bloom. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Oxford Univ. Press: NY, 1973.

[3] Walt Whitman “Song of Myself” Section 51

[4] See A. R. Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory originally published by Basic Books, 1968.

Megan Burns

Megan Burns

Megan Burns has a MFA from Naropa University and edits the poetry magazine, Solid Quarter ( She has been most recently published in Callaloo, New Laurel Review, YAWP Journal and the Big Bridge New Orleans Anthology as well as online at horseless press, shampoo, trope_5, Exquisite Corpse and BigCityLit. Her book Memorial + Sight Lines was published in 2008 by Lavender Ink. She lives in New Orleans where she and her husband, poet Dave Brinks, run the weekly 17 Poets! reading series (

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