Milkweed Smithereens by Bernadette Mayer
Runestone, volume 9
by Bernadette Mayer
Runestone, volume 9
by Bernadette Mayer
New Directions Publishing
Reviewed by Amelia Johnson
A well-constructed conglomeration of work surrounding an ambiguous epitome of the covid pandemic here in the United States; subtly dispairing, debatable, erotic and playful all in one book.
Bernadette Mayer, whose decades-long career stems back to the New York City avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s brought us her newest publication Milkweed Smithereens, a careful collection of present work alongside the old, with melding bits of entries from her personal covid diary. Alongside her previous publications such as Poetry State Forest (2008), Midwinter Day (1999) and her infamous work, Memory (1971) which takes form as a 1,100 photograph gallery with more than 6 hours of recorded poetry, her newest and final book challenges poetic conventions by experimenting with form and stream-of-consciousness. Published just weeks before her passing, Mayer continued to pursue soft urgency on the topics of the rapidly declining natural environment and climate change through a more narrative approach adding in her own view on the shared experience in the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic here in the United States.
Along with an overall capture of the pandemic, Mayer’s entries talk about some specific events that occurred during those initial years, mentioning the murder of George Floyd and the tirade of Trump’s presidency. In one entry she states: “some mistake was made that we need leaders! leaders lead to monuments and they just have to be taken down. the future’s more in the
past but what is this that’s happening now?” Tapping into modern politics along with a deep dive into her parent’s views that shaped her in My Parent’s Politics, her covid diary fully uncovers how her last years were spent; enraged, anxious and seething about the news unfolding on the tv screen. As she sits in her studio looking out at the birds on her feeder, she playfully writes the thoughts of the future that haunt her mind: “i wish i was something / the size of a squirrel / i’d not need a president then / or worry what is democracy!”.
Mayer’s work ponders human’s influence on nature in a matter-of-fact perspective on the page; a new look at everyday life. In her poem Don’t forget Volcanic Salt, she looks upon the ironic disruption of nature: “the war on winter weather warms indoor plants /people gather around fires and put ice in their drinks”. Her perspective-altering lines unveil the truth that lies outside of nature’s cycle and how far humanity has deserted from its path. Throughout the entirety of the work, Mayer forms this dichotomy between the harrowing stink bugs and the forever shrinking ladybugs; is this her own rendition of America’s civil unrest? Given what’s been provided, it’s hard to make a definitive answer.
This subtle feeling of despair that lingers throughout the entirety of the book is unstoppable, patient and persistent like the unsettling thickness of the air before an oncoming storm. With all this despair painted on the page(which I am all for), this opens up questions as to how these viewpoints came to be. Given how long Bernadette’s career has been, I’d be inclined to ask how her views from past decades, presidencies, and world topics have influenced her perspective of the pandemic today. Has the world changed for the better in any way and has it been for better or worse? Have we regressed the planet beyond repair? And what are her thoughts of humanity’s future? As Mayer takes us on this journey through the thickets of American society, we are left with the same questions to wonder what’s next for our planet and what are we gonna do about it.
Amelia Johnson is currently a senior at Hamline University in St.Paul, MN. After obtaining her Bachelor’s Degree in creative writing spring 2023, Amelia hopes to continue her work in poetry alongside her passion of gastronomy. In her free time, she tends to wade out to the depths of what nature has to offer and eventually returns through the rabbit hole back to society