Sunday, April 23, 2006


The epigrams that ought to be The Talk of The Town

The epigrams that ought to be The Talk of The Town are not those of provacateur Kent Johnson, but rather those of Bernadette Mayer.

It's wonderful the way she can combine forthrightness & mystery in these short pieces. Take the 2nd of her "wal-mart epigrams" as found on page 10 of Scarlet Tanager:

phil and i went to one of the marts
and bought a rug like we're supposed to
only thing is
it's purple, we're not married,
the rug is the wrong size
and my name is bernadette

It's charming how the phrase "only thing is" refers to a list of four things that are inappropriate, but which coalesce into a single feeling of un-ease. A single queasiness combining disturbance about characteristics of the rug, and about how buying what you're "supposed to" mixes with not doing what you're "supposed to" (getting married if you live together).

The great puzzle, of course, is the final line. Almost anyone might wonder how the statement about being named Bernadette fits here. Still it's a ringing conclusion, and one senses that there's something, or a lot, right about it.

Over a period of many months in which this epigram has been one of The Thousand Things on my mind, I've thought of various interpretations for this final line. The latest interpretation that has occured to me--involving the etymology of the names "Bernadette" and "Phil"--just popped into my head a few days ago. This interpretation (which will be #4 in the list that follows) is the most satisfying signifigance I've yet arrived at. Still I like to think of the epigram's mysterious conclusion in terms of all the meanings that have suggested themselves to me, excluding those that are really stupid.

OK--(hopefully non-stupid) interpretations of "and my name is bernadette":

(1) One could imagine a narrative in which the store has mangled the name "Bernadette" in their oral or written dealings with her concerning the rug, maybe calling her "Bernadine" or something.

(2) Mayer may be invoking the visionary nature of her namesake, the 19th Century French shepherd Bernadette who had visions of the Virgin Mary and is said to have discovered the fountain at Lourdes, and thereby proposing herself as above this rug-your-supposed-to-have crapola that she had a momentary weakness for at the Mart.

(3) There may be puns hidden in the name Bernadette at play. "Burn" signifying the fire of a soul that is, once again, "above" trifling with this lousy rug. And "debt": well that would be a tricky pun. One could read it like this: "I'm a person who knows what a true debt--to one's friends, lovers, influences, etc.--is, not someone who wants to go into debt to finance all the things a USAmerican is "supposed to have".

(4) Finally etymology: "Bernadette", like "Bernard", is derived from "bern" (bear) and "hard" (hardy, brave).

"Phil(l)ip", from "philo" (love) and "hippos" (horse), means "lover of horses", but when shortened to "Phil" you can focus only on the component of loving/liking, and leave out the horses.

Indeed in Issue #1 of the magazine apex of the M (Spring 1994), Mayer published an eight-page poem, "The Phil-Words", that is a gathering of Greek words for loving various things. Here are the first four lines of the main section of that poem:

philabros, loving delicacy or refinement
philagathos, loving goodness
philaglaos, loving splendor
philagretis, loving the chase, the huntress

(In this poem, most of the definitions of the "phil-words" being with the word "loving", but some begin with "fond of", such as "philochlainos, fond of a cloak").

In the "wal-mart epigram" Mayer may be proposing that "phil", as is his inherent in his name, too easily likes things, including the dreck that the Mart tries to convince everyone that they're "supposed" to have, whereas she, as is inherent in her name, is a fierce bear who knows what things have to be hated, even if she is momentarily talked into acquiring them.

Whew! I've said what I have to say about that epigram. I was going to tack on a short discussion about Mayer's quite different "sundial" epigram, but I think that this initial post has become long enough.

Let me just say that pages 2 to 24 of Mayer's Scarlet Tanager (2005), a New Directions book, consist of epigrams, and there are also a lot of them in Indigo Bunting (2004), a sort of companion volume from Zasterle Press--but I don't know if you can still get that one.

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