1. "I set myself up"

On a visit to the Naropa Institute in 1978, Bernadette Mayer regaled students with a story about the remarkable Russian memory artist Solomon Shereshevsky, the subject of A. R. Luria's classic study The Mind of a Mnemonist (1968).1Luria had spent thirty years accounting for Shereshevsky's ability to commit instantly to heart and then rattle back, on command, vast arrays of information. Mayer recounts one instance in which Luria presented his mnemonist with the first four lines of The Divine Comedy. Fifteen years later Shereshevsky could reproduce these verses "with the exact stress and pronunciation," despite knowing no Italian.2 Asked to describe his mnemonic process, Shereshevsky explained how he linked the Italian syllables, via Russian puns, to episodic memories, discrete nodes he then strung together with the associative logic of a dream. The result is an extraordinarily personal translation of Dante, from Italian into the crammed, jump-cutting idiolect of a brain that can't forget anything. Listen if you can to Mayer's thrilled rendition of the mnemonic she plainly regards as a literary artifact in itself:

Bernadette Mayer class on Memory, 1978, Naropa Institute, 7:3810:083

Mayer shares this anecdote during a discussion of her own rather marvelous "commitment to memory."4 In July 1971, the twenty-six-year-old Mayer had resolved to document the full course of a summer month spent shuttling between New York City and Western Massachusetts, where her boyfriend Ed Bowes had a gig making set films for a Terrence McNally play. She would shoot a roll of 35mm film each day, keep detailed journals, and make tape recordings. Five months later, the product of this conceptual procedure Memory debuted at Holly Solomon's 98 Greene Street Loft in Soho. Mayer's 1200 color snapshots girded the gallery in a four-foot band while the poet herself recited, in "six hours of taped narration," a text she assembled from her diaries, tapes, and post hoc scrutiny of the photographs.5 Gallery goers were invited to sync up this "book in the air" to its corresponding images as they tracked the month's progress in "that funny space where the words are floating . . . and so are the pictures."6

I begin with Shereshevsky's Dante in order to suggest that Mayer's Memory is also a mnemonic device, with one important difference: whereas Shereshevsky remembers for himself, Mayer remembers for others. This is why Ann Vickery calls the work a "collective reenactment" of the past, and Linda Russo a recreation of "cognition as communal experience."7 When Mayer says hers is "not a struggle to remember [but] a struggle to include," she invokes not only Memory's ambition, as an "Everything work," to ingest every minutest flutter of experience, but also her desire "to include" other people, not least her audience.8 Including everything is a means to an end in Memory, the end of inflating an artwork such that everyone can fit inside:

these precious little words, written small, are not meant to come on too strong but just to lull you like the whirr of a car or an airplane interior or like the sound of birds clinking glasses together at tea, glasses of tea, to lull you into now being for a while into being me, can you feel it.9

"Could I get them to be me?"10 Mayer's ambition is a tall order. The work's interfusion of text, image, and sound supplies a super-calibrated instrument for opening her memory to others by dilating, in material form, the experiential processes of recollection. Her main discovery is one to which Shereshevsky testifies: memory is already a social occasion. Consider that the mnemonist enlists seven different people to stitch together one line of verse; Mayer's own mnemonic bursting with friends, acquaintances, and "strangers up close" is equally as collaborative.11 In a profusion of senses, the work is composed of others. Shereshevsky calls his mnemotechnical machinery a "set up": "I set up an image . . . " Mayer subjects this same phrase to a constructivist twist "I set myself up" for in Memory she remembers not lines of poetry but her own life: "you set up your life so you can run it."12 She makes her memory an apparatus, so others can "run it."

One important element in the set-up of this "emotional science" project tape recording has received little attention in the flurry of recent scholarship on Memory, a fact explained by the work's unusual reception history.13 Following the gallery installation in 1972, Mayer substantially revised the Memory text for print. The version brought out by North Atlantic Books (1975) included just a handful of photographs, a situation superbly redressed by Siglio's handsome 2020 reissue, which restores the full roster of snapshots. For obvious reasons, the text's original version the one put to tape in 1972 remains largely unsounded and outside the orbit of the work's critical reception, though these reel-to-reel tapes are publicly available in digital form online, courtesy of Special Collections & Archives at the University of California, San Diego.14

I want to reissue make once again an issue of these tapes, but not simply to restitute the work's first horizon of publication. With its complex objecthood distributed between the art installation and the printed book, Memory is unique among tape works of the 1960s and 1970s in that magnetic tape serves both as a medium of presentation and compositional device, an essential part of the work's DNA in any of its material forms. Because this odd mnemonic turns on a riddling encounter between tape and writing, to understand what kind of record Memory is, and how the work even in silent print remains a "set up" for socializing memory, we have to listen in.

2. "I talk her ear off we listen to tapes"

In both versions of the Memory text in print and on tape Mayer produced her shifting cascades of language by cut-up technique, typing, slicing, and recombining the text of her July notebooks, tape transcriptions, responses to the photographs, and a range of found language from the archive of the everyday, from letters and recipes to the phone number for the deputy fire commissioner and advertisements for dial-a-steak dinners.15 A substantial portion of this material was generated after the fact, when Mayer sat down at her desk in August or September to review the photographs, diaries, and tapes, and to "recreate . . . reargue reascend reassemble . . . reassert . . . reassess reassign reassimilate . . . reassume . . . reattach . . . reattack reattempt reawaken rebind rebloom . . . reblossom reboil rebuild . . . [and] rebury" the month of July.16 The resulting confusion of time-stamps performs the recursive, layered, leaping arcs of a recollecting consciousness. Taking a cue from photography, Mayer calls this folded temporality "double exposure," the superimposition of memory on memory.

In the entry for July 1, Mayer details a snapshot sound reels catching gray Manhattan light in a high-rise window with references to the Attica Prison uprising (September 9-13) and "Hurricane Erica," by which Mayer likely means Hurricane Edith (landfall September 9), the name transformed by the dictates of the poet's ear:

Bernadette Mayer reading final text of Memory, Part 1, 7:167:3517

In the printed text, Mayer has pushed the cut-up further, splicing into the text a meditation on the jarring "rest" of construction workers outside:

outside they've turned the people working
it starts up again to drive down. heroin-strychnine. will our teeth
into rest
start to hurt & rear window in the rain did I hear it: hurricane
have turned the saw drill or scooper off it's
erica attica state prison and demands free
lights off ed rests in bed but i'm already dressed in a
imagine in the window sound reels half18

The protocols of double exposure make it hard to determine whether this construction noise transpired in July or September. The pleating of time is Memory's basic strategy a persistent conflation, in Mayer's own words, of "the idea of myself of the present moment remembering & that of myself of the past moment conceiving & the whole series of the states of consciousness which intervened between myself remembering and myself conceiving."19

Listening to Mayer affords access to yet another fold, a third temporal stratum in the compositional "set-up." Occasionally the audiotape explains or underscores events in the text, as when the printed phrase "cut my cut" is explicated by an audible cut in the soundtrack, when reference to a piece of jewelry receives the serendipitous pun of an actually audible telephone call ("ring!"), or when the microphone picks up a voice other than Mayer's "outside someone's calling Ron" just moments before Mayer herself celebrates the clamorous sociality of everyday life, roll-calling the thirty-six friends she saw on July 4: "ed, eileen, barry, marinee, chaim, kay, denise," et cetera.20

Bernadette Mayer reading final text of Memory, Part 1, 54:2755:3621

Just as often, though, the tape furthers the program of double exposure by unseating the interpretive priority of the text itself, scrambling distinctions between signal and noise, text and context. A minute-and-a-half into her recitation, Mayer advises her listeners, over the low rumble of traffic: "All this is being done on a street where large trucks go by on their way to the Holland Tunnel, so if you hear any noise that's what it is." Mayer sounds like she's reading this comment from the prepared script, but no printed traces exist. Later in the July 1 entry, she lets fly a genuinely impromptu aside "a truck going by again" and substantiates a claim from just thirty seconds earlier: "sometimes memory / is noise."22 When this latter phrase appears in the filtering alphabet of the text, it's close to paradoxical there how can language capture noise? Only the tape, guarantor of actual nonsense, makes it true.

I suggest that in sounding Memory we confront the work not only as the ghostly product of double exposure, but also as an "acoustic palimpsest," a concept that nicely apprehends the work's interminable openness, the actively unfossilized aspect of its accumulating layers.23 "[I]ncidentally how long is my assignment here," Mayer asks herself.24 The assignment the "set up" does not conclude on July 31. The recursive logic that fuels its composition continues to swallow the experience of its own reception. Take for instance one uppermost layer of the palimpsest, the muffled quality of the digitized recording itself, with its missing high frequencies, and the squelchy roar that mires Mayer's voice at the end of the tape. We are hearing the misalignment of tape heads, the result of less-than-perfect transfers from tape to tape to MP3. We might lament this degradation, the material trace of memory's lossiness. But Mayer would call it "live memory."25

Bernadette Mayer reading final text of Memory, Part 1, 13:5114:2226

3. "you whisper into the tape another person is there"

In 1969, Mayer contributed an audio piece to Tape Poems, a collection of "works created specifically for tape" assembled by Eduardo Costa and John Perreault. In their introduction, Costa and Perreault announce their pathbreaking ambition to "regain for 'literature' tones of voice, pitch, and the other characteristics of spoken language that are lost when it is translated into the printed word." 27 By way of the sonorous voice, poems "specifically for tape" can encode social data ("age, sex, class," et cetera) otherwise filtered out by symbolic text. It's possible that in sounding Memory we can restore precisely that which the work's relentlessly inclusive processing of experience into "so much information" threatens, potentially, to exclude: Mayer's embodied social position.28 Our interest in Memory's recursive modes of composition and its performative briefs for a social mnemonic should not distract us from simply listening for all we can in the grain of Mayer's voice, with its countercultural patina of twenty-something affect and slight Brooklynese. I advise listening especially to Mayer's whisper.

Whispering provides a useful figure for the way taped speech contributes to Memory's social mnemonic. A whisper registers its speaker as a sound-making body in social space, for one can't whisper in writing, and one rarely has cause to whisper alone. Whispering instantiates a very particular situation of address an inverted variant, in fact, of J. S. Mill's definition of lyric speech as "overheard" utterance, where "the peculiarity of poetry . . . lie[s] in the poet's utter unconsciousness of a listener."29 The whisperer's struggle not to be overheard by third parties conspicuously indexes the presence of just those others. While ostensibly private, the whisper bears its sociality negatively within itself, as gentle paranoia. The charge of this negative address accounts for why in hearkening to Mayer's voice we aren't in much danger of shoring up an expressive image of the individual poet, undermining her own attempts to "deny autobiography" and betraying Memory's intersubjective set up.30 Of course, there are moments where Mayer's audiotape seems to solicit our investment in a confessional voice. Consider the following avowal, which Mayer bookends with two instances of misogynist aggression, her sick grandfather's mistrust of "women or just women with[out] children," and a confrontation with a "guy who tried to pick me up yesterday":

Bernadette Mayer reading final text of Memory, Part 2, 10:3010:5431

In the printed text, Mayer throws a revised version of this passage from the first to the second person:

You listen & you become strong in your resolve & you move never to give anyone a way to identify you, a sense of your ease maybe but no word & what's the word it's poet, son. It's lamppost fence: you're a fence & you're perverse, thief, I hope & a woman was an outcast32

We might suppose Mayer's recourse to the printed second person itself signifies an evasive "move[ment]," a means of dodging the imposition of identity by direct address. But such a reading fails to register the negative sociality of Mayer's whisper-like address: regardless of its grammatical person, Mayer's voice already composes an address. It's fully caught up in relation with others. And in the absence of an actually audible whisper, the tape machine itself secures this sense of averted speech. Indeed, Mayer's direct address to the recorder distinguishes Memory from other contemporary tape works like Andy Warhol's a, A Novel, where tape surveils the artist's conversations, but"he's not talking into the tape all by himself."33 By contrast, Memory shows how talking "all by oneself" to the tape recorder opens her speech, paradoxically, to encounters with difference. "You get into bed at night you whisper," Mayer reflects in the entry for July 19, "whisper into the tape another person is there."34

To whisper into a tape recorder and then to play that tape for a public audience both ironizes the whisper's negative address and permits it to resonate freely. Listeners are gathered to an intimacy that can never grow too crowded, an address whose compelling specificity is always guaranteed by the fact that "another person is there," someone to address and someone to keep from earshot. None of this, by the way, is merely figurative. Mayer begins the tape for July 28 with three minutes of whispering, unmarked in the printed text:

Bernadette Mayer reading final text of Memory, Part 2, 2:35:202:38:2035

"[T]here are no secrets here," Mayer says in the final throes of July 30, but I think she comes closest to describing the public intimacy of the whisper on July 29: "calm secrets, soul, weather."36 Memory is a climate of whispers, a roomful of interiority, a "public ora aura."37

4. "your foot could write a boot about you"

Notwithstanding its whispers, the search for noise is a salient theme in Memory. Ed Bowes's film assignment sends him, Mayer, and a Nagra tape recorder into the streets of New York hunting for sonic artifacts: traffic, the bustle inside Bloomingdale's, the floor bells at Macy's, Horn and Hardart's lunch counter, "musak & all," and cherry bombs at the end of a July 4spent milling around the World Trade Center construction site.38 Conspicuous ethnographers of the New York soundscape, Mayer and Bowes frighten a 3rd Avenue passerby who "thinks our boom's a geiger counter."39 The text recurs often to the analogy between Memory and film ("if the sound don't match with the image then recondition the machine"), and Bowes's sound-work indicates tape's role as a compositional device one capable of collectivizing Mayer's memory as surely as a Geiger counter paranoically galvanizes Cold War subjects.40

Entire segments of Memory are sourced from transcribed tape recordings. The entry for July 20, for instance, concludes with a September conversation between Mayer and an unnamed friend regarding a series of doubly exposed photographs, including one of Mayer herself, reclining, filling the sky like weather:41

Bernadette Mayer reading final text of Memory, Part 2, 1:05:391:07:4442

This double-exposed passage an overlaying of September's recollected tranquility upon July's spontaneous photography reminds us that Mayer's process of double exposure was by no means a solitary one. "[M]emory gets improved," she writes, "in fact it's exactly doubled by the recognition of other people."43 Memory puts its audience gallery visitors and readers both in precisely the position of Mayer's unnamed interlocutor, co-compositors staring at her photographs, puzzling out their referents, setting up Mayer as the subject of her own collective mnemonic. It's no wonder Mayer describes her attempt to socialize memory to convey an "intuition" of her own recollected experience with an analogy to theatrical illusion: "the relation of conceived time to intuited time is just like that of the fictitious space pictured on the flat back scene of the theater to the actual space of the stage & the objects painted on the backdrop . . . we think we see things in a continuous perspective, when we really see this way only a few of them & imagine that we see the rest."44 Here Mayer cannily inverts the old mnemonic concept of the "memory theater," where the mind's eye, standing on stage, deposits mental content for orderly safe-keeping to the rows and boxes of an empty theater.45 In Memory, Mayer peoples this theater with a live audience of listeners, and then "lulls" them into intuitively constructing her own interiority. 

When I wrote at the beginning of this essay that tape is sunk into the essential DNA of Memory, I had in mind the two ways that magnetic tape models the kind of writing the project demands. First, because it enables one to "write without writing," tape keeps up with the speeding plenitude of consciousness.46 When Mayer puns, "your foot could write a boot about you," she limns one tape-addled fantasy of Memory: to be surrounded by a book you yourself have written simply by living (in) it.47 But Mayer wants not only to record the protracted present, in the manner, say, of Gertrude Stein, but actually to "write remembering," which Stein said couldn't be done.48 Hence Mayer's recourse to the more specific and specifically plastic affordances of magnetic tape: its possibilities for rewinding, rerecording, real-time manipulations, cutting, splicing, looping, and printing-through (double exposure's audio counterpart). Remarking this suite of compositional possibilities, Steven Connor has called tape "a technic that teaches technique."49 When Mayer imports this technique into her writing practice, she exploits with unrivaled devotion tape's capacity to effect "the rapid alternation of past, present and future, in a kind of eddy," its capacity for uncongealing time into something "susceptible of being looped as well as lopped, knotted as well as pooled."50 So it's in the spirit of tape that Memory's experiment in collective mnemonics concludes with Mayer enjoining her audience to "pool all our mysteries":

I had to go get, watch it, stop, & pool all our mysteries into one great mystery & back to magic . . . A process fills its old bed & then it makes a new bed: to you past structure is backwards, you forget, you remember the past backwards & forget.51

5. "but who's gonna read it?"

On the first pages of Studying Hunger (1975), the journal project Mayer began two months after Memory's debut, Mayer introduces an idea that will pursue her for decades to come:

I had an idea before this that if a human, a writer, could come up with a workable code, or shorthand, for the transcription of every event, every motion, every transition of his or her own mind, & could perform this process of translation on himself, using the code, for a 24-hour period, he or we or someone could come up with a great piece of language/information.52

This transcriptive fantasy crops up again and again in Mayer's literary record, sometimes with a nod to tape recording, more recently with references to "a computer or device that could record everything you think or see."53 In a recent interview with poet Rachel Zucker, when Mayer again voices her gleeful anticipation of computers that "will automatically be recording everything you're thinking," she parries a familiar line of skepticism with what seems, to me, the animating principle of Memory.54 If we mistake Mayer's enthusiasm for mind-reading machines as techno-utopian hype, we miss the point. It has little to do with transhumanist link-ups or the prospect of a fully downloadable document of experience. It's about reception not writing. To sound the Memory tapes is to hear the cultural possibilities of a technical medium shaped and delimited by one question, a rubric for new technologies we might do well to raise oftener: to what extent are we of interest to one another? In Mayer's case, no limits in any direction.

Bernadette Mayer featured on Commonplace: Conversations with Poets podcast, 52:1753:34

"Do you like that idea?"

"Yeah. I do. And you know what? Everybody says to me, but who's gonna read it? And I say, here's my answer: me."

"Read your own . . . ?

"Read everybody's."

Matthew Kilbane is the Joseph F. Martino Lecturer in the Department of Literatures in English at Cornell University. Beginning in fall 2021, he will be assistant professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. 


  1. Bernadette Mayer, Bernadette Mayer class on memory, 1978, Archive.org, Naropa Poetics Audio Archives, taped by Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, 1978, streaming audio, 36:06.[]
  2. A. R. Luria, The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 45-46.[]
  3. Bernadette Mayer class on memory, 1978, retrieved from Archives.org.[]
  4. Bernadette Mayer, Memory (Catskill, NY: Siglio, 2020), 272.[]
  5. Ibid., 7.[]
  6. Bernadette Mayer, untitled poem, program for Memory show, February 4-10, 1972; Bernadette Mayer, "Bernadette Mayer Remembers Memory (1971)," Artforum, 25 May 2020. []
  7. Ann Vickery, Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing (Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 200), 152; Linda Russo, "Poetics of Adjacency: 0-9 and the Conceptual Writing of Bernadette Mayer & Hannah Weiner," Don't Ever Get Famous: Essays on New York Writing After the New York School (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2006), 141-142. []
  8. Mayer, Memory, 115. "Everything work" is a term shared by Mayer and Clark Coolidge, quoted in Peter Baker, "Bernadette Mayer," American Poets Since World War II: Fourth Series, ed. Joseph Conte, vol. 165 of Dictionary of Literary Biography (Detroit: Gale Group, 1996). []
  9. Mayer, Memory, 260.[]
  10. Mayer, Bernadette Mayer class. []
  11. Mayer, Memory, 119.[]
  12. Ibid.,256, 215.[]
  13. Bernadette Mayer, Studying Hunger Journals (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 2011), 2. []
  14. Bernadette Mayer, Memory - [Mayer reading final text], recorded 1972/1975, streaming audio, Bernadette Mayer Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University of California San Diego. []
  15. See Bernes, 137.[]
  16. Mayer, Memory, 103.[]
  17. Bernadette Mayer Papers, Mayer reading Memory, Part 1. MSS 420. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.[]
  18. Ibid., 10-11.[]
  19. Ibid.,324.[]
  20. Ibid., 153, 75, 47-48.[]
  21. Bernadette Mayer Papers, Mayer reading Memory, Part 1, UC San Diego.[]
  22. Ibid., 22.[]
  23. See J. Martin Daughtry, "Acoustic Palimpsests and the Politics of Listening," Music & Politics 7, no. 1 (2013). []
  24. Mayer, Memory, 22.[]
  25. Ibid., 208.[]
  26. Bernadette Mayer Papers, Mayer reading Memory, Part 1, UC San Diego.[]
  27. Eduardo Costa and John Perreault, eds., Tape Poems (New York, 1969). See Tom McEnaney, "Real-to-Reel: Social Indexicality, Sonic Materiality, and Literary Media Theory in Eduardo Costa's Tape Works," Representations 137 (2017): 143-166.[]
  28. Mayer, Memory, 26.[]
  29. J. S. Mill, "What is Poetry?" Broadview Anthology of Victorian Poetry and Poetic Theory, edited by Thomas J. Collins and Vivienne J. Rundle (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 1999), 1216.[]
  30. Mayer, Memory, 144.[]
  31. Bernadette Mayer Papers, Mayer reading Memory, Part 2, UC San Diego.[]
  32. Ibid.,161.[]
  33. Mayer, Bernadette Mayer class.[]
  34. Mayer, Memory, 199. []
  35. Bernadette Mayer Papers, Mayer reading Memory, Part 2, UC San Diego.[]
  36. Ibid.,326, 309.[]
  37. Ibid., 275.[]
  38. Ibid., 36, 52, 55.[]
  39. Ibid., 36.[]
  40. Ibid., 115.[]
  41. Ibid., 217.[]
  42. Bernadette Mayer Papers, Mayer reading Memory, Part 2, UC San Diego.[]
  43. Ibid., 204.[]
  44. Ibid.,207.[]
  45. See Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (London: Routledge, 1966).  []
  46. Mayer, Memory, 48.[]
  47. Ibid., 127.[]
  48. Bernadette Mayer, "From: A Lecture at the Naropa Institute, 1989," Disembodied Poetics: Annals of the Jack Kerouac School, edited by Anne Waldman and Andrew Schelling (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994), 98-99. []
  49. Steven Connor, Beckett, Modernism and the Material Imagination (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 87. []
  50. Ibid., 90.[]
  51. Mayer, Memory, 321, 333.[]
  52. Bernadette Mayer, Studying Hunger (Berkeley: Big Sky Books, 1975), 7. See also Bernadette Mayer, Studying Hunger Journals (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 2011), 2. []
  53. Mayer, Memory, 7. See for instance Mayer, Bernadette Mayer class; Bernadette Mayer, Midwinter Day (New York: New Directions, 1999), 89.[]
  54. Bernadette Mayer, interview with Rachel Zucker, Commonplace: Conversations with Poets (And Other People), Episode 15, podcast audio, December 22, 2016.[]