Maple Syrup Sonnet

for Grace
by Bernadette Mayer

for over ten years now
if you can imagine that
confluence of the east and west
I have been wearing pearl river boxer shorts
they are like persian blue irises
no, hyacinths no midnight blue rooms

for eight years, willy-nilly
I’ve been trying to get more
they are 100% cotton

if I were getting them for you
I would not only have them but see
a plethora of wonderful things that day

today we are making maple syrup again
I pray for them

our father who art in heaven
please get me some maple syrup 100% cotton
boxer shorts because of the war amen


Evan Kindley Writes:

Bernadette Mayer is usually associated with the second generation of the New York School of Poets, but her work has taken a while to arrive at the state you see it in here. Ironically, it’s only since leaving the city for rural New England that Mayer has begun to write in a recognizably “New York School” style. At first glance, the poem may seem like one more Frank O’Hara imitation: casual, personal, light and small. But where O’Hara’s poems tend to be little hymns to life, “Maple Syrup Sonnet” is all about lack and longing. Where O’Hara would exult in plenty, Mayer writes about feeling squeezed and deprived. One might even say that the third stanza imagines an archetypal O’Hara poem, one of the ones where he’s walking around New York City buying things and recording observations on “a plethora of wonderful things,” only to give them away as if they meant nothing.

In “Maple Syrup Sonnet,” by contrast, the narrator regrets her lack of access to a commodity she once prized. Somehow the idea that she can no longer get the boxer shorts she likes is both funny and poignant, and becomes especially so when she imagines giving them as a gift to a friend. This in turn is relayed into a brief prayer for the soldiers of the Iraq war (the poem was first published in 2005) which, in context, is just one more fact of life the speaker can’t change. In setting up this complex of longings and constraints, desires and realities, Mayer suggests that the act of gift exchange is both a tiny, daily ritual, pregnant with personal meaning, and an economic and social fact, enormous and out of our control.

8 Thoughts.

  1. Re the sonnet question: for some time, thirteeners or poems of fifteen or sixteen lines have been spoken of in terms of “conversations with the sonnet,” and at times, in shorthand, as sonnets themselves. I’m in agreement with Matthew, though, here –

  2. I wonder, too, if “maple syrup” isn’t a sort of anti-figure for oil, from the way it turns up in sonnets that are obliquely about the Iraq war.

    In that case, the individualism and domesticity Evan points out take on a political dimension..

  3. She does, in fact, have many poems about maple syrup. (Here’s a video of her reading another one of them: I think that, amongst other things, the maple syrup is a figure for (a certain kind of) domesticity and rural remove. It feels to me like Mayer is deliberately expanding the frame of the Frost-style rugged individualist lyric, insisting on that idyll’s intimate connection to the larger world-system.

    As for the making of maple syrup, it seems to be equal parts inspiration and perspiration:

    Sorry to be so linky, but the internet is smarter than I am.

  4. I love it. Two six line legs (one with a hole for, forgive me, the willy-nilly) and a two line waistband. Brilliant. I noticed that it had 14 lines without that prayer, but then I started thinking about why the prayer had to be outside the sonnet. And what’s with the syrup?

    Evan, I forget about Berrigan’s sonnets (so distracted by Berryman’s sonnets). Could you tell us a bit more about this poet? Does she have other poems about maple syrup? I’m curious about it since I thought (like inspiration) it just needed to be “tapped” from the tree & not necessarily “made” but I am no expert.

  5. James’s keen eye for sonnet forms has made me see the things everywhere, but it occurs to me that if the prayer is a portion of the last line (hence the indentation), the poem is exactly 14 lines.

    It’s a cool take on the sonnet, too: 6 lines, 3 lines, 3 lines, and a rhyming couplet (again & amen). It’s a combination of the Petrarchan and Elizabethan versions.

    I may be being silly, but I keep thinking about the way “midnight blue rooms” resonates with the idea of a sonnet as a little room. Does this sonnet/room/pair of boxers have two six-line legs (one with a hole) before a two line waistband?

  6. Good point! I have no idea why it’s called “Sonnet,” although I like your “unfulfilled form” hypothesis. (Reminds me of Stephen Dedalus’ definition of a pier in _Ulysses_: “A disappointed bridge.”) It *is* sometimes a New York School thing to frustrate formal expectations, but just as often they follow them exactly, as in Ted Berrigan’s _The Sonnets_. So I don’t know what Mayer is doing with that title.

    (Another, less happy possibility: I copied the poem from Mark Ford’s anthology of New York School poets because I didn’t have Mayer’s book, _Scarlet Tanager_, in front of me. It’s possible that Ford, or the typesetters at Carcanet, simply got the line breaks wrong. I’ll check and get back to you.)

  7. Why does she title this poem “sonnet”? Is it a New York School thing to reference a form and then decide not to bend to its conventions? I was thinking that a sonnet, a “moment’s monument” as Dante Gabriel Rossetti called it, and a stanza, a “room” for a poem, might be read as fluid, 100% cotton commodities that the poet is searching for but can’t quite replicate. She only has the original, and she’d like more, but it just isn’t possible. Even the maple syrup that she is making isn’t within her grasp; she has to pray for it to be given to her at the end.

    Rather than the form as a box, then, her sonnet is a pair of well-worn boxers; for eight years (an octet of searching) she has been trying to secure another pair. That “eight years” is the only thing close to an octet in the poem. I wonder about the two years in between the ten (time in which she’s been wearing the boxers/sonnet) and the eight in which she’s been searching. Was she happy in those two years? No longing, no constraint (as Evan writes)? Her couplet happened before the poem & her coda a prayer that has no place in the form itself (the stanzas, 6 lines, 3, 3, 2, then the prayer). An outrider second-thought. A love poem to the poet’s own unfulfilled needs?

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