I’ve been reading Piece of Cake, by Bernadette Mayer and Lewis Warsh. Or had been: more on that in a moment. The couple wrote the book over the course of August 1976, each in turn writing the “entry” for alternating days; but the book was only published this year, in an attractive illustrated edition from Station Hill Press. Mayer and Warsh are best known as poets, but Piece of Cake is written in prose, detailing the daily happenings of the 30ish couple raising their infant daughter, renting an apartment, writing, not writing, etc. Occasionally there’s a charming or racy flashback. And there’s the occasional passing insight which may oft have been thought but might or might not have ne’er so well been express’d: “That was a year ago and all those states of being alive in the moment are just facts now, recent memories.” And the occasional droll aside: “The trick to dealing with shopping centers is to ear a hat so your soul doesn’t escape through the top of your head.”
Ah . . . shopping centers. It was a simpler, more innocent time. There was bad inflation, but not 20% unemployment. There was Legionnaire’s Disease, but not COVID-19. There was a Republican President, but not for long. The American worker was just beginning their steady pauperization, their unending drop in real wages.
Piece of Cake is the perfect bedtime reading: interesting enough to want to read, but not so interesting that it will keep you awake. I was mildly enjoying its clement quotidianess; it made for a welcome relief from the unremittingly gloomy news of the day.
That is, until I read this line: “Ray and I discussed the names of antimacassars and tidies when we saw some today in their room at the inn.”
Something snapped. “This is bullshit,” I said (aloud) and tossed the book aside (literally). “Who are these assholes?” By which I meant: tens of thousands of people are dying, tens of millions are out of work, and all they have to talk about are some bourgeois victorian doo-dads at a bed and breakfast?! They don't seem to be getting up at 6 am to go to work while wearing a face-mask, that's for sure. I guess this was how leftist critics in the 1930s felt when they read Wallace Stevens or Sherwood Anderson: What the hell does this have to do with anything??
From a purely rational point of view, this reaction is . . . well, irrational. And unfair (esp. since I haven’t been able to finish the book!). Mayer and Warsh in 1976 can’t help it if the world isn’t falling apart around them. They live in a charming Massachusetts town, but are in with the in-crowd in New York. They seem more or less happily married and have a healthy baby girl. They aren’t rich, but they’re getting along. They’re young, gifted, and white. Why should they be like Jethro Bodine on the Beverly Hillbillies, who, when he wanted to be an artist, went around hitting his head with a board because he “hadn’t suffered for his art today.” No reason — that’s why.
Did they realize those were the good ol’ days, as a song of the time had it? Probably not. Did any of us realize how much better we had it in January 2020 than we would in April 2020? Probably not.
And do any of us imagine we might look back on April 2020 with fondness? The possibility of waves of pandemics in the coming months, on top of the waves of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, landslides, droughts, wildfires, mosquito-borne diseases, human displacement and hunger that are steadily increasing, makes me think it’s possible. It’s very likely that by the time the economy recovers from the coronacession, we’ll be entering a new, permanent recession — due to crop failures, disrupted transportation, displacements of people, and costs relating to property damages, sickness, and deaths; and these things have a way of intensifying one another.
I suppose that, taken together, is what made me bridle at the very mention of antimacassars. Shit’s getting real. And Realer. But reading Piece of Cake, one discovers that there is in it after all, a place for the genuine, a la 2020. For instance, Warsh writes,
I know that feeling self-sufficient leaves one vulnerable and dependent on things going smoothly and that, almost as a fact of life, things do not go smoothly indefinitely. The high for this day was a hundred and eight in 1918.
Or this meditation, on the very topic of this meditation:
For a long time I couldn’t believe the past was dead or could die. I saw each experience as a “still life” somehow preserved in time. Cauterized. What had happened in the past was still going on and I was a memory, as well, in your life, as you were in mine. “I’ll keep it with mine” was a favorite song. The moment, each individual moment, extended towards infinity, like a spiral staircase inside the heart.
Whatever the emotional or metaphysical case may be, it’s certain that the present experience will be cauterized inside all of us for a long time to come. The past isn’t dead: it is coming to life all around us, like frozen microbes awakening from the permafrost, extending onward like a double-helix. It is living in our bodies as trauma. Hopefully, the feeling of being burned will stick. Hopefully, we’re learning anything.
I'm a writer & teacher in Lawrence, Kansas who actually believes the scientists. I wrote a book of poems called Of Some Sky that seems to have something to do with all this.