There Are Some Who Did Anyway: Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day

by Mia You


Have there been such dreams as I had today,
The 22nd day of December,
Which, as I can now remember,
I’ll tell you all about, if I can

Midwinter Day, as we read on the New Directions back cover, “was written on December 22, 1978, at 100 Main Street, in Lenox, Massachusetts.” It’s hard to imagine a more specific situating of a poetic work. You could even use Google Maps to see the actual trees and parked cars lining the surprisingly sparse residential street where Mayer wrote. You could also zoom into the gas station at the closest intersection, Franklin Street, and imagine that this is the precise place Mayer bought her Heinekens. Midwinter Day delights in this kind of specificity, and nonetheless I still find myself turning back to it again and again as a generative lyric encyclopedia on parenting and writing. 

                                                I thought I was going to write
A story of my theories tonight
Not this desirous essay on art and home,
This alarming dictionary of reformist love

The work is, above all, an epistemology of love, with love for one’s children, one’s partner and one’s work being its primary realms of investigation. And while Mayer’s emphasis on particulars seemingly thwarts prescriptive generalization, I continue to learn and to gain immensely from the book’s deployment of love as both its objective and its mode of inquiry. Love can be simultaneously the imagined ideal we use to guide our movements and relationships, and the sensible amalgamation of how we take care of ourselves and others.

I would study the twelve hours of the day
Spending an hour in each

The book, formed by six parts, accounts for a single day in a poet-mother’s life: beginning with the emergence from the previous night’s dreams; then progressing to the programmatic chaos (not an oxymoron for parents of young children!) of starting the day; to the errands, feedings and chores that counterpoint the mind’s wanderings into poetic heritage, current events, and the surrounding landscape and its history; and ending with the children in bed, the milk and beer bought, and the poet finally claiming her hard-earned time to write. This is a crucial paradox in Midwinter Day: the poet’s assertion that she must write at night, and yet we, in reading, experience her poetry-making as constant and unremitting throughout the day. We take from Mayer the sense that writing is both a luxury, occurring in stored and stolen moments, and a necessary labor. This highlights the peculiar (perhaps resistant, perhaps denied) standing of the poet-mother in a world that doesn’t quite know how to assess the value of her work.

An idea I have is to spend days walking nights writing never eating, sleep only when it rains and have an occasional beer.

The book accounts for a single day, the 22nd day of December, the day after the winter solstice, but Midwinter Day is one of the longest and richest days in literary history. A comparison to Ulysses is not amiss; Mayer directly connects the two books through their shared first word, “Stately.” Now brace yourself for modernist heresy: I personally find Mayer’s work more compelling in its nuances of emotion and its delicate— and therefore more convincingly woven— handling of interpersonal negotiations. Here is a mother and writer fully situated in the world of her children, her partner, her friends, her neighbors and her fellow poets. It’s not that she lacks for poetic pyrotechnics; there are plenty on display here. But there is simply no time and space for the extremities of alienation and ecstasy. Mayer’s poeisis is deliberately, brilliantly tender. To be tender is to be both vulnerable and solicitous; to accept that one’s form is determined by the simultaneous push and pull of interior and exterior forces. It is, in fact, to know irrevocably that the distinction between interior and exterior, between self and other, can never be clear. While, like Ulysses, we may not always be able to reason or to deduce why sudden changes occur in the writing’s style or register, we nonetheless always feel that these shifts are necessary and true.

                                                They say
Women love later in a more complicated way
Than men who never had to learn to change

One such dramatic shift occurs between Part One and Part Two. Part One is composed primarily of verse lines relaying the last night’s dreams. These dreams are not simply described, as if they are happening in real time, but interspersed with analysis and speculative association. In one Freudian riff, Mayer contemplates, “If Lewis/ Is my father and my daughter is my mother/ After whom she’s named/ Then all this confusion in the dream/ Legitimizes the scene and it is not incest.” In Part Two, however, the clutter and flurry of a young family’s morning routine is rendered through blocks of prose. This is a poetry of pure and immediate perception, in which the writing’s achievement is to collage multiple levels of awareness and activity into the linear shape of sentences. I find this shift between Part One and Part Two so remarkable because it reverses the conventional distinction between dreams and daily life. Dreams, rather than being the direct and unbridled realm of desire and unreason, are in fact the generous space where an extra layer of interpretation and contemplation can occur. In our dream lives, when we are finally alone and quiet, we can indulge in making sense of it all. Dreams are the space of meditation, and the quotidian then becomes the space of unmediated perception. When the children are awake and need tending, and when our attention is directed constantly outside ourselves, we grasp all that we can and keep going.

If everything could happen at once even as merely as only two babies crying and requiring everything but nothing at one time, the desire to control something as small as any destiny begins to seem like just will.

In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich writes, “I remember thinking I would never dream again (the unconscious of the young mother— where does it entrust its messages, when dream-sleep is denied her for years?)” For the poet-parent, to dream and to daydream is also both luxury and need. But if we feel guilty about turning away from our children to write, turning away from them to dream can seem unthinkable. Mayer offers a reminder that the distinction between work and life is never so clear, that a poet might be continually at work even when the pencil is not on paper or fingertips on keyboard. And sometimes one just needs to dream. Midwinter Day, we are told, was written on December 22, 1978, but we might be better served not to regard this book as a diary, as simply “another day in the life.” It would be impossible to lead so full a life and to write so rich a book simultaneously, all in the span of a single day. Any parent who tries to squeeze their writing into naptime or during the night knows too well that passion and dedication still have their limits. If only we could all get some sleep. Mayer may well have written Midwinter Day throughout the day and night of December 22, 1978, but the day lived here must certainly draw from the dreams and daydreams gathered across many days, and this particular night spent writing (the entire night, as Mayer concludes with sunrise) will inevitably take its toll on the following day’s living. Mayer provides us with an opportunity to consider the unspoken labor and cost for a writer— especially a writer-mother— to produce one extraordinary poetic day.

And for those days our dreams seem too brief or too impossible, we can find strength in this genealogy and reading list: 

If only we could all get some sleep
                                                 like Chaucer
Or a Latin Sabine or Etruscan mother
Who didn’t have the time, chance, education or notion
To write some poetry so I could know
What she thought about things
                                                There are some who did anyway,
There’s Anne Bradstreet and Tsai Wen Gi,
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alice Notley and me,
Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton,
Elinor Wylie, Louise Bogan, Denise Levertov,
There’s Barbara Guest, H. D. and Harriet Beecher Stowe,
Maureen Owen, Nikki Giovanni, Diane di Prima,
Murasaki Shikibu, Fanny Howe and Susan Howe,
Muriel Rukeyser, Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker,
Gwendolyn Brooks, Marina Tvetayeva and Anna Akhmatova,
There’s Rebecca Wright
and the saints

(Note: all italicized lines are quoted from the book’s 1982 New Directions edition. Megan Burns provides an elucidating section-by-section analysis of Midwinter Day in Jacket, and Jasper Bernes contextualizes Mayer’s conceptual project and its significance for capitalist critique on the National Poetry Foundation’s Conference on the Poetry of the 1970s mesh.)

Mia You is a doctoral student in English at UC Berkeley but lives with her family in Cambridge, MA. Her writing and translations have appeared in various journals, and she is the author of a chapbook, Objective Practice (Achiote Press, 2007), and an artbook titled YOU.