At first, there was only the Creator. "All else was endless space. There was no beginning, and no end, no time, no shape, no life," wrote the Christian mystic & theologian Howard Thurman.1 In his 1971 book, The Search for Common Ground, Thurman spends an early passage relaying "two remarkable creation accounts, the first as found in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, the second as expressed in the creation myth of the Hopi Indians." Space, time, & body existed only as concepts in the mind of the Creator, Taiowa: "All 'thisness' and 'thatness' came into being by his projection." To bring the finite into being, Taiowa's first act was to give Sotuknang life. "I have created you, the first power and instrument as a person, to carry out my plan for life in endless space. I am your Uncle: you are my Nephew. Go now and lay out these universes in proper order so they may work harmoniously with one another according to my plan," the Creator said. Sotuknang set about his work, giving form to nine universes, each with land, water, & air. Taiowa was pleased. Next, he instructed Sotuknang to create life. So Sotuknang created a woman to help him, & he named her Kokyangwuti. Upon the first spark of her consciousness, she asked, "Why am I here?" Sotuknang replied, "Look about you. Here is the earth we have created. It has shape and substance, direction and time, a beginning and an end. But there is no life upon it. We see no joyful movement. We hear no joyful sounds. What is life without sound or movement? So you have been given the knowledge, wisdom, and love to bless all the beings you create. That is why you are here."2 Creative intention, order, time & space, land water & air, light, pleasure, wisdom & love & responsibility all of this from the dark, lonely beginning. As Chinua Achebe and John Edgar Wideman remind us, all stories Kokyangwuti's origin, Toni Morrison's Beloved, William Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom!, Jean Toomer's Cane are true. (Fiction, as it's currently conceived as the opposite of nonfiction, may just be one more indication of the human weakness for denial.) Like those novels, Bernadette Mayer's 1994 book The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters traces the contours of the human search for freedom. Mayer is appreciated as having been vital to the second wave of the New York School of poets. Consistent with that group, her work relays the ups & downs of everyday living in a plainspoken, often stream-of-consciousness style. Mayer's attention to the mundane often draws power from her use of time. "I've always written using set intervals of time as a kind of constraint, because I never really knew how to end anything. When you have a time frame, you know when it's over. A day, a month, a year," she said.3 In the nine months that span The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, spring emerges, troubles with money come up & are resolved, children grow older, the summer heat descends, the family buys a new car, packs up, moves to a new home, and at the end, Mayer's third child is born. But the stripped-down style of Mayer's poetry isn't just a post-beatnik affectation: that getting to the essence of things and their beginnings & endings signifies the spiritual searching in Mayer's writing. The mysteries of Christianity what is the meaning of life & death? what is the source of suffering? what is the use of suffering? and their attendant rituals & stories ground Mayer's poetry of the mundane in a timeless search that is both constituted by and greater than those details of daily life. Like a relief sculpture that simultaneously depicts a scene and boasts of its raw material, The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters tells you what it's about and what it is. The book echoes the first utterance from the first Hopi woman why am I here? and scrutinizes the modern expressions of the answer Kokyangwuti was given to create life and bestow knowledge, wisdom, & love. Another feature of Mayer's poetry that comports with its conceptual resonance is that she's often not so concerned with refined meaning; she accepts her rough edges. "I put these words on paper because they were once written by me, no, I too yearn for a world without meaning," she wrote in 1977's Eruditio Ex Memoria.4 Without any knowledge of which passages have been chiseled, sanded, & oiled, reading The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters takes a lot of work, but with enough rigor and stamina, the moments of clarity pay off. About midway through the book, in a letter titled "Niagaraphobia," Mayer gets to one of the book's resounding propositions: "the tree is not, never is, would not be, couldn't be, is rooted, doesn't move, like we might wind up wishing we didn't either, we couldn't we had no feet, just that kind of trunk, instead of the rented truck, two feet so stuck in one place, that resilience in the wind, not to run away from thunder storms, to be cracked in two if need be, or uprooted, sawed and chopped and carried away if threatening, sprouts easily and the afternoon of nothing, with that grace."5 Here, Mayer's desire clarifies the fear of (fatally) falling, or drowning, that's implied in the letter-poem's title. In one sense, she is expressing her simple aversion to moving into a new house, with all the busy doings that requires; in another, she's expressing a more existential desire, to be more like trees, firmer & steadier in the acceptance of her nature. (The visual near-harmony of "trunk" and "truck" suggests a third way: as humans, we have the ability to move, and sometimes we're forced to, but the possibility for settling down anew, god willing, remains open.) The irony of Mayer's expression is that she invokes another life form to convey her wish to be more herself. She uses the image of a tree to convey a profound spiritual yearning, but the image itself may be little more than fantasy. According to this view, to be resilient and unafraid like a tree not only requires grace, but also may necessitate unmitigated self-sacrifice one would "be cracked in two if need be" rather than act against one's own nature. The book thereby threads together a variety of aesthetic and metaphysical propositions that are often addressed singly: the vitality of form, the relationship between immanence & transcendence, and why art matters in society. (What does this all mean for mothers? The title of the book signals a sort of prayer: through her letter-poems, Mayer articulates her desires to please almost everyone except herself, giving shape to the book's hope that we might move past our need to make scapegoats of our mothers.) Like the characters in Morrison, Faulkner, & Toomer, freedom is what Mayer wants and often seems unable to grasp. (What is the source of her suffering? What is the use of her suffering?) The poet and theorist Fred Moten proclaims fugitivity as the pathway or the state of being by which freedom is reached. Being on the move from somewhere to somewhere else can lead to a kind of transcendence over, or around, a person's circumstances a way of getting to a place where a person can be themselves where immanence can flourish. Fugitivity may also be a means of avoidance: where Moten sees freedom in movement, Mayer sees disruption to her order, her sense of self. He wants to go, she wants to stay put. (Howard Thurman began his 1949 book Jesus and the Disinherited with a theological realignment: "Many and varied are the interpretations dealing with the teachings and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. But few of these interpretations deal with what the teachings and the life of Jesus have to say to those who stand, at a moment in human history, with their backs against the wall . . . The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. What does our religion say to them? The issue is not what it counsels to them to do for others whose need may be greater. The search for an answer to this question is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life."6) The spirit and aspiration inherent in Thurman's question traverses the boundary of religious inquiry; his question suggests an interpretive framework for evaluating poetry and critical theory indeed, any story. What does The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters have to say to those who stand with their backs against the wall? What does Moten's fugitivity? Asking Thurman's question outside of the ecumenical context opens up the truth that, in at least three different senses, we all stand with our backs against the wall: that each of us carries our own individual burdens, that as people alive at the same moment in time we carry collective burdens, and that one way or another each of us will die. The heightened awareness of our shared threats, with media and apocalyptic rhetoric everywhere, seems, however, not to have brought us closer to clarity about Kokyangwuti's question why are we here? What is the meaning of our suffering? In The Search for Common Ground, which Thurman wrote in the aftermath of the protests, assassinations, & fragile progress of the Sixties, he questioned the impulse to view our world as a secular one, as one that's been ordered (given or taken form) without a Prime Mover. "In all of this thought the one idea seems to be to rid the mind of the necessity for positing a First Cause, a Creator, a supernatural Being, without at the same time undermining the concept of order, behavior, and integration in that part of the natural world in which mind as we know it is not actively present," he wrote. "Every effort is made to make even such a term as immanence unnecessary because its twin, transcendence, might slip by unnoticed."7 Thurman's claim that immanence & transcendence are twins suggests that the two are easily confused for one another. It also suggests that a person's understanding of the world and their place in it would be incomplete without both of them. The question of whether to stay put or flee, then, is subject more to circumstance and context than it is to whether one or the other is the right route to freedom. The tree, rooted & stable, reaching to the heavens, is a nice, even profound, metaphor, but humans are not trees. We can plant ourselves and we can run. (Complicating the metaphor further is the truth that, even though it can take generations of humans to see it, whole forests migrate in their own ways.) In "Niagaraphobia," Mayer expresses the fear, common among humans, that she'll die before she experiences love, or without knowing the freedom that comes from a loving fulfillment. "Maybe there are things that will never happen again, but how come people die anyway so suddenly, I know it I have proof, remember the causes of God like the telephone it would be good to receive with your phone bill Aquinas's list parents think and act the part, so important, so unimportant."8 (By this point in the letter, it's become clear that Mayer is writing to her sister, the visual artist Rosemary Mayer.) It would be good, that is, to be reminded of the Five Ways to prove the existence of God in the course of mundane modern tasks. Why is proving the existence of God important to Mayer? Here, she confronts the same challenge that Thurman took on in The Search for Common Ground: to counteract the tendency to view the world as ordered without an Orderer. As a poet, Mayer deliberately imposes formal constraints on her work at the same time that she explores the subject matters of life''s constraints, death being its most salient. And in "Niagaraphobia," addressing a population with its back against the wall, Mayer approaches the notion of poetry as a ritual reenactment that prepares both poets and readers to live with greater fluency extemporaneously. "Will you let me let you do whatever you love to do. I have it secretly in mind, many to women, especially to women."9 Will you let poetry free your consciousness? That so many people seem to reproduce confusions about such a bottom, low frequency thing as what freedom is & what it isn't (land of the, market economics, or death) suggests that other confusions will continue to trouble us. (To take one example from the news, abolishing prisons & police will move people from bodily incarceration to bodily liberty, but will it generate freedom? This is not the basis for an argument to keep them in prison, it must be said. That people who lived as slaves in America were able to find freedom in ways that their "masters" never did remains an under-learned lesson of history. It's one truth that binds Morrison, Faulkner, & Toomer.) It may be possible and productive to view the crises of climate catastrophe, war, incarceration, poverty, hunger, alienation, poor health, policing, hate, & violence as a single spiritual crisis that originates with our confusion about what freedom is & what it isn't.

St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic, wrote of the process of spiritual maturation as "the dark night of the soul." In such a situation, a person's decision to flee or not hinges on their ability to discern the truth of what's happening whether they're in the middle of discrete life-or-death situation or in the midst of a difficult passage toward enlightenment. As a poet, St. John of the Cross invoked the nature not of the tree, but of the eye: the state of temporary blindness that can occur facing both darkness & light. When we discuss today's news, and slip into the despair that seems almost trendy, are we seeing the unfolding of justice, light, & love or the coming of a dark, apocalyptic catastrophe? Art, just like religion, Mayer suggests, is a conduit for discernment. In the middle of packing up her house, she asked her sister, "Please send me some more works to hang on so many walls otherwise we may just fall."10

Matthew McKnight is a writer and editor. He was a 2019-2020 fellow at The Leon Levy Center for Biography at The Graduate Center, CUNY, in support of his biography of Albert Murray. His writing has appeared in The NationThe Baffler, and The Point.


  1. Howard Thurman.,The Search for Common Ground, 16.[]
  2. Ibid., 15-21.[]
  3. Bernadette Mayer, "Interview with Bernadette Mayer," interviewed by Janique Vigier, May 25, 2020.[]
  4. Bernadette Mayer, Eruditio Ex Memoria, 5.[]
  5. Bernadette Mayer, The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, 112.[]
  6. Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 1-3.[]
  7. Thurman, The Search, 31.[]
  8. St. Thomas Aquinas's Five Ways. []
  9. Bernadette Mayer, The Desires of Women to Please Others in Letters, 113.[]
  10. Ibid.[]