Couplet I adore you it's my habit
I want manly things & should not, women come to me1

Bernadette Mayer's poetry is finally getting the attention it deserves. But what form will this attention take? Feminist critics have so far focused on the expressive, demotic, and pragmatic dimensions of her writing projects and her community work, but I want to suggest that such portraits can foreclose our sense of the totalizing and speculative critique advanced in her poems. Indeed, for post-2008 feminists satisfied neither with a transcendent politics of the agential body, nor the earthy moralism of the kitchen commons, Mayer's work provides another form of totality-thinking: one that traces the dialectical binds of social reproduction suturing the abstract and the concrete.

For Mayer writes "manly" poetry of epic proportions precisely because she's a signal poet of social reproduction. From Memory to Sonnets to The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, she not only records the processual and monotonous patterns of reproductive activities themselves, but tracks the production of gender as a constant movement of recompositions in order to document what feminization actually involves. Mayer's encyclopaedic impulse does not mark a philosophical attitude of equanimity, but a way of questioning categorial ordering and hierarchizations. The sense that there is an objective reality to the world, and that reading and writing poems is not an "abdication of reality"2 but a way to register what's wrong about it, undergirds the often breathtaking beauty of her work.

With a couple of notable exceptions,3 the reluctance of critics to read feminized poets as critics of a capitalist totality can in part be explained by the banal sexism of a twentieth-century anticapitalist poetics that even when influenced by the idea of the "feminine" as a central category in the antihumanisms of Derrida and Deleuze still found in poems by actual women the wrong kind of "particulars" and "detail."4 One result of this horror feminae, I think, is that feminist attempts to defend the value of "particulars" in Mayer's work (but not only Mayer's) have tended to re-entrench a gynocentric gender binary that Mayer herself often works to undermine. Reading Mayer as a poet reclaiming the "filthy and female," for example, Maggie Nelson emphasizes the mystical aspects and excess verbiage of her projects as forms of sexed abundance. She compares Mayer's depictions of dirt with the matteral, earthy artwork of Robert Smithson, noting the idea that "female matter (mater) is different from other matter female dirt is different from other dirt."5 Nelson evokes this essentialist notion to contest "the obsession with controlling women's bodies" and to aver that "female matter" is a powerful, threatening surplus: "in short, women leak: their filth inaugurated by Eve's disobedience in the garden is punitive, dangerous, and redundant."6

This dated idea of feminine matter finds new expression today in the host of feminist new materialisms that pose, if not traditionally essentialist, a still very much feminized concept of plenitude against the idea of gender as a social abstraction. While Nelson notes Mayer's obsession with "economy" in Desires of Mothers, she means domestic economy in the sense of the oikos as it merges with "the economy of language production." It is as if, in talking openly about capitalism's rhythms, one runs the risk of acknowledging the fetters of their abstract reality: indeed, abstract Newtonian time is purportedly overcome in Nelson's reading, as she underlines how the textual and productive desire of Mayer's work resists the economy of (socially necessary) time measurement, and "reminds us that humans also take great pleasure in experiencing time, money, bodily sensations and/or words that also feel somehow impermeable to measurement."7 When Nelson describes Mayer's logorrhea addiction to talk as "the hallmark of contemporary discourse,"8 there is no mention of the increasing demand on women in the post-war era to chatter and smile.

Ann Vickery's Foucauldian study of feminist Language writing takes a different approach to defending Mayer and her contemporaries, situating Mayer in "a genealogy [that] interrogates the cultural space of poetry by approaching it horizontally in time (poetry as practice) rather than vertically (poetry as canonical tradition)."9 Yet the opposition of "practice" and "tradition" risks framing feminist poets as the pragmatic, sensible opposite of their modernist male forebears: Marxist poets like Charles Olson, George Oppen, and William Carlos Williams; masters of the Long Poem known for their speculative claims, totality-thinking, and appeal to abstraction.10 The contrast between a diagnostic and masculinized theory-poetry and an "experimental feminine" that was altogether more grounded (in expression, in "the body," in ephemeral forms of "practice") is especially prominent in appraisals of Mayer's work, which seemed to occupy both and neither of these camps. Indeed, it's an anxiety Gillian White traces in her account of Mayer's uncertain relation to the anti-expressive tenets of Language writing in the late 1970s: highlighting paternalistic remarks from male Language writers about the need for marginal groups to "have their stories told," as well as feminist worries about the egocentric heroics of "the self" and the use of "the domestic present" as material for poetry, White tracks Mayer's anxieties about choosing speech and writing, Lyric as well as Language, "with full knowledge of the avant-garde critique."11

White is sensitive to Mayer's understanding that expressive speech is not identical to itself. It is both communicative and mute, as Adorno might say, and as White also suggests when she notes how "the admonishment against expression produces an expressive anxiety"12 in The Golden Book of Words (1978). On this point, White underscores Libbie Rifkin's take on Unnatural Acts, Mayer's collaborative publication at St Mark's Poetry Project:

"In its desire to take on the 'unnatural' as its primary model for producing artworks" and in "Mayer's near-invisible self-positioning," Unnatural Acts and the workshops that informed it "deviate radically from . . . fantasies of self-legitimation and organicism."13

To be sure, "our poems aren't our appearances," reads the cover of issue 2. This view of Mayer as a poet recoiling from subjectivation, preferring the "unnatural" over the compulsion to identify with a gender or a poem, could not be any more opposed to Nelson's positivist emphasis on the textual pleasures of Mayer's work, which Nelson likens to Mayer's pleasure in the "excess" of having more children.

Mayer's ability to divide critics, but also to incite ambivalence,14 seems due at least in part to the relative imperviousness of her poetry both to textual ideas of the feminine and to the linguistic Marxism of Language writing. Might we despite Mayer's call to "work your ass off to change the language" put this down to a lack of faith in the insistence that it'll be language that brings about change? Rather, readers today might more readily perceive a deliberate ambivalence in Mayer's work in the wake of Alicia Silverstone's anti-hero Cher Horowitz in Clueless, Grace Jones' "over-coded persona,"15 or the rise of Riot Grrl-inspired glitter femme performances of hyper- or queer femininity both sincere and ironic that help us to appreciate the negative critique of books like Midwinter Day and Desires of Mothers. Here, feminized excess appears not in the guise of a productive body a figure Marina Vishmidt diagnoses as a symptom of "abstraction-phobia"16 but as a buoyant assertion of the thoroughly social constitution of a feminized "nature."

In his reading of Memory, Jasper Bernes argues that Mayer anticipates the proliferation of feminized labor through the service sector and white-collar clerical work. Observing how Mayer's transcription of the freneticism and "manic intensity" of the double-day marks the merging of "productive" clerical and information work with "unproductive" reproductive tasks in Memory, he suggests that the "subsumption of leisure by labor"17 in the postwar era can be theorized as a Hegelian logic of moments made apparent in her poetry.18 Dialectical totality-thinking thus guides our interpretations of the meaning of the poem's formal features its mix of verse and prose forms, use of meter and parataxis and enables large, ambitious claims.19

Yet the "logic of moments" that structures Memory also matters because it allows us to consider the process of feminization as so many categorial moments of a synchronic whole. The concept of the "feminization of labor" tends to take the category of the feminine for granted deceptively imputing it with static meaning and Bernes's focus on the technological sublime likewise leads us away from the question of how the becoming-alike of reproduction and production produces gender in the first place, resonating instead with something like Jameson's notion of a global cybernetic matrix, or Gavin Walker's fearful image of capital as a "spinning torus."20 When we are stupefied by that sublime whether we feel it as some primordial uncaptured (perhaps "feminine") energy, or understand it in Jamesonian fashion as the incomprehensible web of capitalist abstraction we can too easily lose a sense of how Mayer's work gives us tools for feminist critique. Her early "Incidents Report" sonnets, for example, place the speaker's active body, and the bodies of others, in awkward spatial and temporal relation to an object-world moving to its own electronic, mechanical, and capitalist rhythms. Hence:

but then on the boat ride my hand
got caught in the elevator door
by the firecracker tossed in
by a child who was a woman as missing
as the coffee money, anyway I
lost balance and, falling, woke up
jerking off through the chair,
another chair, was still falling
on my foot, sorry.21

What this "Incidents Report Sonnet" actually reports is an ambiguous mix of disorientation, accident, embarrassment, and guilt, where soporific "jerking off" marks the climax of a series of linguistic and grammatical blockages: "my hand got caught," or "I lost balance and, falling," and "another chair, was still falling / on my foot," situations in which a speaker pushed around by the world of capitalist objects can only apologize for being in the way in the first place. The production of gender seems caught frozen for a moment so that we might see it in Mayer's distorted syntactical units, temporally confused grammar, and self-consciously halting rhythms: "but then on the boat ride," and "anyway I," and "the chair, another chair," and the final, superfluous, "sorry." As the speaker's body slips out of step with the workplace implied by the poem's title, line breaks arrive mid-clause and a dissatisfying ending gives way to a sense that something is both deeply and familiarly wrong, and thus just beyond the speaker's comprehension but possibly not out of her (awkward) hands.

While Mayer's encompassing familiarity points us away from spellbound visions of a capitalist cosmos, her work also avoids the moralizing pragmatism that can characterize both affirmative, ethically-coded versions of social reproduction theory22 and the post-9/11 turn to the body as ground for analysis of political subjectivation the latter of which, Vishmidt argues, "presents us with the possibility of a pseudo-concreteness that often accompanies theoretical projects intolerant of the (real) abstraction that organizes contemporary social life." This is another form of mystification: one where "the body" provides a "jargon of authenticity" because it is productive, vital, foundational even it is "something which produces but is itself not produced."23

But the fact that reproductive activities resist measurement as socially-necessary labor time is no good thing. Indeed, this resistance might even be the root of the production of gender, as some communists have claimed.24 And in reading Mayer as a conceptual poet of everyday action, a poet of real abstraction even,25 we find a more sharply politicized yet still totalizing and speculative mode of cognitive mapping. Take the following section from an early point in Memory:

like holidays in the city, we must've done some wash either last night or this morning & hung it out on the fire escape to dry & I remember being really tired the night before this. There wasnt much recording to do this day though because everything was closed or empty. Ed was still asleep when I got up. I washed at least 3 blue shirts to take to massachusetts & overexposed them on the fire escape. Tom said the underexposed ones look like a casket. Then I washed our blue hockey shirt, my 30's outfit, alot of t-shirts including anne's tye-dyed one, two pairs of army green socks, ed's pants & hannah's green & white shirt. Put them out to dry. It was sunny. We went out.26

The washing gets done in the interstices of the day, when others are asleep, and before "we went out," while Tom comments dryly on Mayer's work but doesn't assist with it. Mayer's speaker is caught between the kinds of feminized clerical work tracked elsewhere in Memory and the reproductive tasks that do not disappear on holiday. It is left to her to deal with the persistent, conflictual fact that many reproductive activities cannot be rationalized since "you cannot look after children more quickly: they have to be attended to 24 hours a day"  27 or are not worth the outlay of capital that would require.

Must reading the systematic movements of capital in Mayer's work somehow diminish its magic? Why not read in the uneven, intra-historical, epic bathos of her poems in all their moments of clerical work, reproductive activities, dreams, translation, allusion, and violence an active and painful transcription of the production of gender itself? As Carolyn Lesjak reminds us, "relations, after all, cannot be seen in any solely literal sense."28 If doing (Marxian) theory means advancing forms of knowledge that you cannot empirically prove, reading Mayer's poetry asks us to attempt precisely that task. And it's because they are internal to a "hidden abode" of feminization, reminding us that capital is the product of human social practice, that the antagonisms of her work amount to a rather august theory of capitalist totality, and one that places feminism at the ground zero of critique.

Amy De'Ath is Lecturer in Contemporary Literature and Culture at King's College London. She is the author of a number of articles on contemporary poetry and Marxist-feminism, and a contributor to the forthcoming After Marx: Literature and Value in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge UP). She is working on a monograph, Unsociable: Antagonism and Abstraction in Contemporary Feminized Poetics, and with Nat Hurley and Sean O'Brien, a short book called Anti-Social Reproduction


  1. Bernadette Mayer, "Clap Hands," Sonnets: Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition (New York: Tender Buttons Press, 2014), 42.[]
  2. Mayer, "Note on Sonnets," Sonnets, 119.[]
  3. See Sianne Ngai's chapter "Paranoia" in Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005), 298-331; and, Juliana Spahr's reading of Mayer's sonnets in "Love Scattered, Not Concentrated Love," differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12, no. 2 (2001): 98-120.[]
  4. For an argument to this effect, see Naomi Schor's influential book, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, (London: Routledge, 1987).[]
  5. Maggie Nelson, Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions (U of Iowa P, 2007), 122.[]
  6. Ibid., 122.[]
  7. Ibid., 127. []
  8. Ibid., 120.[]
  9. Ann Vickery, Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2000), 15.[]
  10. In her study of US American modernist poetry by white men, Rachel Blau DuPlessis frames this as an "omnivorous" and "imperial" attitude. See Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2012), especially 6-26.[]
  11. Gillian White, Lyric Shame (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 175-176.[]
  12. Ibid., 189.[]
  13. Ibid., 161.[]
  14. Particularly for Rae Armantrout and Charles Bernstein. See Armantrout, "Why Don't Women Do Language- Oriented Writing?," L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 1 (February 1978): 025, facsimile at Eclipse Archive; and Bernstein, "Stray Straws and Straw Men" (1976, 1977), in Content's Dream: Essays, 1975- 1984 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001).[]
  15. Cindy Sissokho, "Grace Before Jones: Black Image-Making and the Gaze," Ocula Magazine, 16 December 2020.[]
  16. See Marina Vishmidt, "Bodies in Space: On the Ends of Vulnerability," Radical Philosophy 2, no. 8 (Autumn 2020). For related arguments about resistance to concepts of social abstractions, see Jordy Rosenberg, Critical Enthusiasm: Capital Accumulation and the Transformation of Religious Passion (Oxford University Press, 2011), and Alberto Toscano, "Last Philosophy: The Metaphysics of Capital from Sohn-Rethel to Žižek," Historical Materialism 27, no. 2 (2019).[]
  17. Ibid., 114.[]
  18. Jasper Bernes, The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2017), 110.[]
  19. Moving from the moment to the totality, Bernes's central claim, drawing heavily on Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello's theory of capital's internalization of "artistic critique," is that the ideas of experimental artists and poets in the postwar era provided important coordinates for new modes of labour organization that emerged in the postindustrial Western world.[]
  20. Gavin Walker, The Sublime Perversion of Capital (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016). Indeed, such renderings of capital swerve uncomfortably close to what Chris Nealon calls the "antihumanist tone," found everywhere from Afropessimist arguments to Silicon Valley, which insists on the insignificance and rapaciousness of humans "in tones both wonderstruck and baleful." In a recent essay, Bernes underscores this very problem: "we need to know what capitalism is, but not in order to wonder at it and enumerate its sublimities." See Christopher Nealon, "The Antihumanist Tone," Affect and Literature, edited by Alex Houen (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 267-283, and Jasper Bernes, "The Test of Communism," March 7, 2021.[]
  21. Mayer, "Incidents Report Sonnet," Sonnets, 55.[]
  22. As evinced, for example, in SRT's tendency to examine reproduction in terms that nearly always translate to the expressly concrete: the embodied, the biological, the physical and arduous tasks of cooking, cleaning, and caring, whether in the frame of a single household or in the context of global migration and labour patterns. The call to "return the control of our sensuous, tactile, creative capacity to labor, to where it truly belongsto ourselves" not only suggests a view of labour as ontologicala natural activity common to all societies as opposed to a social relation and an abstraction specific to capitalismbut opposes the "sensuous" to the abstract in implicitly ethical terms. See Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression, ed. Tithi Bhattacharya (London: Pluto Press, 2017), 93.[]
  23. Marina Vishmidt, "Bodies in Space," 34.[]
  24. Endnotes Collective, "The Logic of Gender," Endnotes 3, 86.[]
  25. The Marxian economist Alfred Sohn-Rethel first developed the concept of real abstraction, underlining Marx's point in Capital that the exchange abstraction arises not via thought but through people's actions. Sohn-Rethel's account explains how value slips beyond people's cognition"behind their backs"because it is not an ideal abstraction, which might be imagined or symbolized, but a real one a relational concept expressed only in equations. See Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology, edited and translated by M. Sohn-Rethel. (London: Macmillan, 1978), 33-34.[]
  26. Bernadette Mayer, Memory (Plainfield, VT: North Atlantic Books, 1976), 30-31.[]
  27. Endnotes Collective, "The Logic of Gender," 86.[]
  28. Carolyn Lesjak, "Reading Dialectically," Criticism 55, no. 2 (2013): 233-277.[]