A Relief from Belief: Bernadette Mayer’s /The Ethics of Sleep/

Trembling Pillow Press, 2011; New Orleans, LA

by H.K. Rainey, special to Kelsey Street Press

I see a confluence
& dream
a new relation appears

– Bernadette Mayer, The Ethics of Sleep

The mind is a connection  machine.

–      Jonah Lehrer, in an interview with Stephen Colbert


A Revolution Against Syntax

In her latest book, Bernadette Mayer offers us the gift of freedom. If the Greeks believed that true democracy was chaos, it is this particular incarnation of democracy that is most at work in The Ethics of Sleep. From her poems, Mayer removes any progression of ideas, any structural syntax that offers us a footing in “meaning” and serves us instead the cold soup of language: imagery without the restraint of patriarchal influence. In this war against patriarchal ideals she has chosen the idea of sleep as her weapon: her tank, her M-16, her hand grenade.

Whether we realize it or not, we have certain predisposed beliefs about sleep.

“Why do I want you to be a certain way, sleep,” Mayer asks. Sleep is expected at night, or during structured times of the day. Like traditional poetry, sleep is the slave of structure, considered more of an evil to the industrious human than a boon, if it is left to exist outside of structure. Patriarchy dictates that citizens need structure in order to become beneficial members of society. Thus, by patriarchal standards, poetry needs structure in order to get its point across. It requires hypotaxis and progression in order to make sense. Mayer despises and challenges this assumption, as evidenced by her conversation with Dave Brinks and Jamey Jones (included as an Afterward to the collection):


MAYER: Here’s a good question: is there a progression of things? Because as a human being, you get this illusion that there is. But probably there isn’t.

JONES: So to think that there’s a progression… maybe that’s what’s wrong with humanity?

MAYER: Well, you know whose fault it is, it’s Aristotle’s. Aristotle is to blame for all these matters. The whole cause and effect idea comes from Aristotle. I hate Aristotle. A lot of what he said is totally nonsense. It’s a whole way of thinking that a lot of people in the western world have adopted. It does nothing but harm. It’s the reason for wars. It’s the reason for patriarchy. It’s annoying.

So how does a poet relieve society from the bonds of patriarchy? Mayer eases us into the idea of this type of freedom with her first poem, “Max’s Dream.” The dream is being narrated outside of sleep, in retrospect, from memory. The sentence structure here differs from the other structures (or, rather, challenged structures) in the collection. The dream is related in full sentences, in a subject-verb-object model of construction; and from the narration, it is clear that the waking mind attempts to string ideas and images together so that they make “sense.” The poem’s images move smoothly from one to the next showing the previous item’s relation to the following one in a kind of hypotaxis:

…Then they said
they had built a psychiatrics ward. Soon
after a man who looked like Jack Nicholson
came running out. I shook his hand for
some reason and then he turned into a kid
and ran away. Then without knowing it I
stepped into the Alarm and went inside the
building. I looked around and I saw some
weird-looking people. They screamed when
they saw me but then they just kept asking
if I wanted to have dinner and all without
moving their mouths… (11)

The scaffolding of this poem resembles the structure of a dream (sleep) when the rules of patriarchy (awake) are applied. In this poem, the human brain “recalls” the content of the dream, and rehashes it using the syntax of accepted grammatical rules. The use of “then” to string the sentences together grants “meaning” to the poem. Structure dictates that one item must follow another item in order to give the mind closure. The other way in which the patriarchal model prevails is in the connections the human mind makes to the images in the poem. It is not difficult to imagine that “psychiatrics ward” and “Jack Nicholson” are ideas that can be connected by considering the film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But the concepts of book, movie and actor are all false structures: structures made to look real when, in fact, they are totally contrived. The book itself, while containing verisimilitude and realism, is still a fiction, the story’s outcome controlled by the authorial presence of Ken Kesey.  The film is not the book exactly as it was written, but an adaptation. Jack Nicholson is not R. P. McMurphy, but an actor portraying the written character. In reality, structure is a type of ventriloquism; speaking for us when the power of speaking for ourselves is taken away. This idea is mirrored in “Max’s Dream” by the people who “just kept asking/if I wanted to have dinner and all without/moving their mouths.”

But, Mayer argues, we do not have to be slaves to structure. We do not have to accept our loss of power. “The Buttered Key” removes the hypotaxis of “Max’s Dream”, replacing it with more liberating parataxis:

Philip’s workplace Marie’s workplace Peggy’s workplace Rosemary’s
workplace two arrested in appliance thefts a cross is
turning into words over the phone it is a sentence of information
about women’s freedom & everybody else’s too the
cross’s words make no sense (13).

Here in the second poem is our first glimpse of freedom. The reader unfamiliar with “language poetry” will undoubtedly feel uncomfortable with the shift that is occurring. The awake mind struggles in vain to make connections between the workplace and the arrests, between the cross and the words. Only it doesn’t mean anything. But in Mayer’s way of thinking, it does have meaning. Mayer gives us the key to understanding the rest of the text and the concept of freedom. The title, “The Buttered Key,” uses the word “key” outrightly to help us understand the importance of the poem. The word “buttered” can also indicate a smooth transition from one power structure (patriarchal) to the next (personal). The following statement suggests parataxis: “Philip’s Workplace Marie’s workplace Peggy’s workplace Rosemary’s workplace.” We are on our way to understanding that a revolution against Aristotelian syntax will ultimately free us. Following it up with the statement “words make no sense,” Mayer shows us that we can’t expect to find the same syntactical meaning in a world free of patriarchal influence. In this revolution, we may not even be able to figure out which “side” we are on, since it is patriarchy itself that requires “sides”: day and night, black and white, male and female:

“What side are we on?” I say
“I don’t know, the last cut on the first side I guess,”
he says (19).

A Revolution Against Meaning


What does it mean to mean? The human mind is great at making meaning. Even if the meaning is false, even if it is harmful, we still craft it until it feels right. “Everything happens for a reason,” we say, and we believe it. When the police in our television shows make a stomach-churning deal with a serial killer to find the buried bodies of other (usually female) victims, they justify their decision with statements like, “The family needed to gain some closure.” As if burying the body will remove the pain of the loved one’s passing and allow them to “move on.” Like Aristotelian logic, Mayer’s work seems to suggest that this idea of closure, of progression, is nonsense. Closure is a ventriloquism. The mind outside of sleep craves closure and meaning. But closure and meaning are weapons of the patriarchal model. They take away our freedom:

Does that mean meaning anyway? As in to give way?
Have we been charged with following? (23)

But, does removing all meaning make us truly free? Unlike Charles Bernstein’s The Sophist, Mayer’s attack isn’t purely to decry all meaning. It’s speaking out against the origination of that meaning. Mayer’s work advances the idea that the making of meaning relies upon the reader, not the author. Using structure indiscriminately, the author can (often unknowingly) influence the meaning gleaned by the reader. A declarative statement followed by a period encourages the reader to comply, while a question mark suggests that the reader has been granted the freedom to think for herself; to fill in the blanks with her own original thought. Everything belongs in its place. In patriarchal society, there is a time for the woman to speak and there is a time for her to be silent. (Politically, within the last several months we have seen this idea played out. Particularly, during conversation of contraception in which women were banned from speaking out, and those who did were punished with epithets and derision.) But how can the author encourage the reader to craft her own meaning? How can she encourage the reader to take the first step into challenging the usual language model? In her poems, Mayer solves this problem by forcing the reader to function like the human brain, making connections, accepting some and discarding others of the myriad of stimuli that bombard it each day. We do not perceive objects wholly along with their context. What we might eventually perceive as a sunset, comes to us first in individual elements: red, circle, violet, distance, night, year, Morocco. When we connect these elements together, we perceive the entirety of the sunset over a rubbled field in Morocco. But we just as easily forget what we were wearing when we viewed that sunset, the actual date, or whether or not it was a Wednesday. Similarly, structure and memory collide in “Golden Up The Glass”:

…to whom we don’t listen: ‘No form,
no structure’
I was thinking of these problems
just as I went back to the collapsing refrigerator
which has to be transported. Well the memory
of the part
is subject to but does not bring back the memory (49).

A Revolution Against Worry


Sleep allows us to relive our fears (dreams of being chased, teeth falling out, etc.) while protecting us from physical harm. Perhaps dreams even prepare us for the act of living daily. But living daily comes to us with its own set of worries. In “On Sleep,” Mayer struggles with these trepidations. The syntax of this poem, like “Max’s Dream,” shows it was written during waking. Syntax has re-emerged. Subject precedes verb. Verb follows object. One sentence more easily relates to the next. Mayer shares her views with us from her authorial voice. But, the poem is perceived by a poet on the verge of sleep. Not every statement makes literal sense. She weaves in and out of liminal space, but still, the ever-present worry seeps in, because sleep has not yet arrived to free her from context. While the obviously “awake” parts are fraught with negative words like worried, broken, stealing and killed, the parts that slip into meaninglessness are more likely to contain words like safely, healthily, successful and laughing. Mayer’s “awake” stanzas are lists of fears

that I will become a bitter person, that I am so unrealistic as to be surprised about what happens in nuclear power plants and NYC public schools, plus something I cant say here about love (58).

The poet desires sleep, not only to release her from worry,

knowing the dream
has no meaning
dream life the relief
from significance (77)

but also because worry is the one thing the patriarchal structure desires for her (and us):

After all if they want us all to move to the suburbs or to the country where it’s much quieter and cooler, there’s plenty of other nuclear power plants there we could live near so we could still worry homeopathically… (59)

The poet speaks of worry as something that, if we were prevented from doing it, we would be at a loss. In a patriarchal society, worrying keeps us in line.

Michael Moore, film-maker and critic, suggests in Bowling for Columbine that fear is what those who have the power in society want us to feel. News agencies and government agencies are constantly giving us something new to be afraid of in order to make us more tractable. Thus, dreams are our defense against this fear-mongering power structure. Dreams are the essence at the core of freedom:

I first studied them
as ways of surprising
a finding awake then truth
in the uses from sex
in the arms of
the forearm obsessionalist
relief from belief (70-71)

If we were to embrace what Mayer calls the “ethics of sleep,” perhaps the world we live in would be less fraught with conflict. There would be no haves and  have nots, no right and  wrong, no powerful and powerless. Perhaps these ethics would be used to create in us:

…the desire to sleep forever
in a big cold loft,
then later
as a way to end wars (71).

H.K. Rainey is the author of Memory House. She co-curates the Anger Management & Revenge reading series in San Francisco. She currently lives and writes in Hanceville, Alabama.

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