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Marcella Durand
Bernadette Mayer & Clark Coolidge: Correspondence & Collaboration

Bernadette MayerWhile photocopying an old copy of the Poetry Project's Newsletter, per a request from someone or another, I happened to come upon the following: "Review of MINE: The One That Enters the Stories by Clark Coolidge" by Bernadette Mayer (dated October 1983 and now available on the Poetry Project's web site). On reading the review, I realized that there had been an important link between these two minds at one time--that there were intricate layers of association between these two brilliant, but under-studied, contemporary poets. I was enthralled by the find, both by the vividness of the writing I held in my hands, and also at the rich trove of correspondence and collaboration hinted at in this singular review. I think the following excerpt may demonstrate how potent, even revolutionary, this connection was.

Not everyone underestimates the bravery it takes to write real writing midst the vacuumous American 80's in a world where not only are poets and writers expected to think about having something to sell (a thought we can discount), but hardly anybody, or not many, yet seem to comprehend the changes in American letters that have taken place through the work of Jack Kerouac, John Cage and Gertrude Stein to name some, so that poetry, fiction, dreams, method, and prose can now all be together if you let them as one expression of the complexity, simultaneous nature & noise of modern and ancient human thought.

Coolidge and Mayer evidently shared a common "mission" in their writings to encompass consciousness, language and the intricacy of physical/scientific/geologic structures, and to cross whatever fake borders had been set up between genres, materials, or even words themselves. The review was written at a time in which this mission seemed urgently imminent, and yet frustratingly elusive. In a subsequent conversation I had with Mayer, she says, "We were big fans of each other's work--it was nice to know there was somebody else doing something interesting out there."

Mayer and Coolidge wrote to each other over a period of approximately 24 years, a correspondence that Mayer says ended with her stroke in 1994. In addition, they collaborated, from approximately 1972-1978, on a 71-page work titled "The Cave." (The individual collaborative pieces are dated September 10, 1972 to June 1978. In addition, one portion of The Cave, titled "KARSTARTS," was published in This magazine in Winter 1974.) I hope to read, gather and edit their correspondence, as well as reprint "The Cave," and other writings written by one upon the other (such as the review cited above).

At this point, the project stands as follows: I have found out that Mayer's letters from Coolidge are archived with the rest of her correspondence and papers at University of San Diego, while Coolidge's letters from Mayer are at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Both Mayer and Coolidge have written me kind letters granting permission to me to pursue the project and offering any help they can. Interestingly, both of their letters were typed on manual typewriters that seemed to have a similarly fading ink-tape.

Mayer, in addition, has spoken to me on some of the circumstances leading up to the writing of "The Cave," and sent me a brochure of pictures of the cave that served as the focus for the collaboration. The cave, called Eldon's Cave, is located in an area called Panama Rocks, in West Stockbridge, Massachussetts, and Mayer, Coolidge, Susan Coolidge, Ed Bowes (a filmmaker who was at the time Mayer's boyfriend) and Celia Coolidge, Coolidge's daughter, decided to go on a field trip together to explore the cave in the early 1970s. The brochure is detailed enough that I could see it would satisfy both Mayer and Coolidge's taste for in-depth scientific information. It begins "Panama Rocks originated as sand and gravel beaches and bars, along the shore of an ancient inland oceanů" and it utilizes such tantalizing vocabulary and phrases as "pressure compaction" and "ocean quartz conglomerate," as well as mini-list poems of bird and tree species to be found in the area.

I have one copy of The Cave, thanks to Ange Mlinko, who received a copy from Clark Coolidge, along with a note that somewhat mystifyingly says "Maybe we should have just titled it 'The Cave'?" The Cave, which is what I have been calling it for now, was typed on two different typewriters, so it's, for the most part, easy enough to tell who wrote what. Some sections are crossed out by hand--I see that I will have to go over the corrections/deletions with both Mayer and Coolidge to make sure that a correct version is printed when the time comes. It includes long prose sections, verse forms and some very amusing dramatic discussion between Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louis Malle and Sophia, Una and Julian, which further evolves (in contrasting typewriter "handwritings") into a discussion between "Becket" and "Collins," who, in a lovely confusion, have the same initials as the first names of the collaborators.

The Cave is quite definitely a working collaboration, with each writer commenting, sometimes through the voices of Becket or Melville, on the sentences and writing constructions of the other's contributions. And it's fascinating to trace how a writerly "ladder" is built between the two, with one inciting the other higher (or deeper, which is a direction more in keeping, perhaps, with the conceit of the cave). Even for these two poets, who are both masters of guiding poetry between minute lucid details and gaspingly large spaces of statement and consciousness, the compression and expansion of material in The Cave is remarkable. To give you some sense of this collaborative progression of The Cave, here are three consecutive excerpts, starting with one from the somewhat "blow-by-blow" introductory section, written by Coolidge, titled, "The Trip to Eldon's Cave":

We got up, gets steep over left lip of cave ravine. Dry as bone. Celia hop skip & jump. Get to Eldon's sinkhole up top & sit. Mosquitoes swarming around as ever tho no water in hole. Confusion as to who's going in, who carries what, what flashlights etc. Celia wants to charge right ahead in no light. You have to duck down slot tween two rock & slip in under shelf to flat low space (tunnel) to the right. I take off jacket to feel smoother in closerock space. Somehow it appears that I go first (with light), Celia next (no light), Ed next with heavy unwieldy fluorescent tube light for movies (& additional flashlight), Susan next (no light), Bernadette decides to stay out.

Mayer's response to this section immediately takes the collaboration into more experimental linguistic realms, while leaving the progression of this departure (or arrival, as you prefer) evident.

It corrects stands up & weight the weight is on your back at the small dont care stain the rock with reddest blood what a thing once more to get away with a presence what one to be denied as if it once more was is or something isnt sure of, negative space, an empty drone or drome. I insist on continuing continuing country whatever writes itself in the air. I am sure you are there in the house. I am sure you are there in the cave & will come out it is impossible to get away from anyone it is impossible to locate space & anyway surround it even almost completely a slow progress of revelation I decide to ask the rearranging question is it why wait you are so patient you are so dream once or twice a year & I am

Interestingly, in such a progressive collaboration with two clear-cut participants, the differences in perspective can be fascinating. For instance, in revealing "hidden facts" about their trip to Eldon's Cave, Mayer says that the real reason she did not go into the cave is that she started to menstruate heavily as soon as they got to the entrance, and that menstruating women were not supposed to go into caves, according to some 19th-century bit of wisdom offered by Coolidge. Once this is known, certain images in her rejoinder are made more referential.

And here is an excerpt from Coolidge's rejoinder to Mayer, titled KARSTARTS:

The marble resultant an absence of product. The cave may completely work in one place except in the one that it is now. The end means what is not found in moments. The dream of accurate information along the bottom of Tom Ball Page. Chairs without end. We make our way combining its process with an absence of product. We get flashlights and cameras which may completely work in one place. A ceiling goes on and on. Putting the flashlights together end-to-end may reach in across the field to dirtroad's end. Result: a duplication of the absence of multiplication. The directions for a multiplication of words may not work in one place in the usual amounts in many fields. Diurnal white dreams are a whole body of the visual. Duplication of the fences chairs of the gate that wouldn't shut in a moment. Only our information is portable as we wind in and it turns out.

I hope the writerly expansion and transformation of raw materials generated from Mayer and Coolidge's cave experience is somewhat visible in these excerpts, which are so thrillingly "combining its process with an absence of product." It is this evidence of a generative and creative collaborative progression that makes me so anticipate editing Coolidge and Mayer's correspondence, and that the eventual publication of such materials cannot help but enrich our reading of their already published works, as well as grant essential new perspectives on late 20th -century poetry, in all its wild and precise freshness.


Many thanks to Tom Orange, Ange Mlinko, Bernadette Mayer and Clark Coolidge for their support in providing materials for this initial essay.


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