This month, we asked our regular contributors to write about the feminist books that they love—books that struck a chord, for one reason or another, books they couldn’t put down, that they’ll never donate, that are underlined and dog-eared and bookmarked eternally, that you can maybe borrow, but you most definitely have to give back. Here’s Becca on Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day:
Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day (1982) has everything: dreams, daily life, memories, poetry, prose, rhyming, abstract concepts, proper nouns, flights of fancy, pure mundanity, the plots of children’s books, “Lives of the Poets”-style histories, and many epic catalogues of everyday life—grocery lists, titles of “all the current books,” names of the town stores, a list of people Mayer would buy “Xmas presents” for if she had any money (which ends up being a snapshot of a poetic circle), and a list of the contents of every room in the house in Lenox, Massachusetts where she was living with poet Lewis Warsh and their two small children, Sophia and Marie, on December 22, 1978, the day she wrote Midwinter Day, which Alice Notley calls on the back cover, “An epic poem about a daily routine.”
Mayer and Notley are two of the poets in the dissertation I’m writing, “Include Everything: Contemporary American Poetry and the Feminist Everyday.” The impulse to “include everything” wasn’t limited to women poets in the second half of the 20th century, but it’s in their work that this impulse achieves its most brilliant, groundbreaking effect. As Notley writes in her lecture Doctor Williams’ Heiresses (1980), in which Mayer is one of the titular “heiresses”: “Too many people have always already been telling you for years what your life includes.” In books like Midwinter Day, we watch women poets taking inventory of what their lives include, and deeming even the most banal details worthy of poetic attention. It’s a poetics of radical inclusiveness, feminist in its insistence that women’s everyday lives belong in poetry—not only women’s lives made to sound lofty or “universal,” and not only women’s secrets or confessions, but also friends’ names and spaghetti-sauce-making and folding clothes and a family dance party to the music of the Talking Heads.
Yesterday, I co-hosted a solstice reading of Midwinter Day at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop, their last event of the year and a felicitous send-off for the other hosts, Berl’s owners Farrah Field and Jared White, who are about to have their second child and begin an even more Midwinter Day-style life made up of two poets with two small children. (In another echo of the two-poets-with-two-children pattern, early in the reading Anselm Berrigan read pages full of references to his parents, Notley and Ted Berrigan, and to himself and his brother: “So even if the two men were Ted and Alice’s two sons / It’s clear the women they became were my two daughters,” Mayer writes at one point, analyzing a dream (10).) It’s sometimes difficult to sustain attention at a marathon reading (even though, heads-up to future event planners, Midwinter Day only takes three-and-half hours straight through, which led Jared to dub our event a “Midwinter Day 5K” rather than a marathon). But hearing Midwinter read aloud yesterday was consistently exciting: it’s a book packed with pleasurable swerves in content, rhythm, tone, and full of humor, wisdom, and anecdotes. Perhaps what the event most resembled was, fittingly, childhood storytime, with Mayer as mother-bard, reanimating our wonder at everything that a single day can include.