On March 20, Burnside Review Press will publish Mark Baumer’s posthumous collection MEOW. Below is an excerpt from Blake Butler’s introduction to the book, as well as an excerpt of Baumer’s poetry.
It’s no sort of hyperbole to me that when Mark was hit and killed by a negligent SUV driver in Walton County, Florida, in January 2017, the quotient of America’s cumulative emotio-imaginative capability tipped below the holding point of modern stasis we’ve been living under all our lives. Only those who knew Mark at all could still detect this, despite the countless other warning signs, the sicko headlines streaming by the second through the skin that barely holds our faces together. Suddenly there was no one left to catalog the whereabouts of our meows, an intentionally impractical term Mark employs in the short, strange book you’re about to read as “a complex mixture of nonvolatile substances of large mass, present in small numbers, along with volatile odor compounds which are small in mass but present in large quantities.” It’s okay not to have understood that, to have let it wash past you, perhaps to have read it over and again searching for mythic meaning. Like so much of Mark, it’s hard to know what to do with the data derived from such supposedly surrealistically intermingled information in the present because it’s from the future. It works on paper like a dream, or like a drug (another less than ideal analogy considering Mark was lifelong straight-edge, though also true in how novel language offers temporary psychological change); and still, its essential kernel contains the very sort of empathetic drive that made Mark’s work feel at once so random and so alive; by example, it shows one how to see the world and all the strangers in it not as things to be feared, but to be astonished by, over and over, until the fact of existence in and of itself becomes as ridiculous and arbitrary as any trip to Whole Foods, or any corporation’s efforts to appear human; or, most of all, as any sentence’s desire to predict sense.
According to the theory of quantum physics, I am depressed and I will eventually not be depressed anymore because I will be dead, but before I die one of my heartbeats will teach one of my other heartbeats a mathematical theory that doesn’t believe in the limits of the human body and these two heartbeats will create a noise capable of vibrating beyond the universe’s final heartbeat.
The first sentence in this story was better than the rest of the sentences in this story because none of the characters introduced after the first sentence had any redeeming qualities and the developing plot had no structure. Plus, the grammatical syntax struggled to maintain its composure beyond the opening line and sometimes it even hurt my teeth to read the other sentences out loud. People who bought this book because they liked the first sentence were disappointed when they got home and found all the other sentences weren’t good at being sentences. Most of the reviews of the book said the author was disappointed with his own life, which was why he struggled to maintain the emotional intensity he developed in the opening line. One interesting book review said the author had not felt joy in almost three thousand years. I began to doubt if I would ever write another good sentence ever again. I worried people would remember me as the guy who only wrote one good sentence. Ideally, multiple biographies would be written about my one good sentence and how I never lived up to the overwhelming genius I wasted by only writing one good sentence. Whispers and accusations of drug use and large sexual parties began to circulate. None of these rumors were technically accurate, but a thirteen-year-old high school dropout made a documentary using his dad’s video camera, which revealed that my highly touted first sentence wasn’t even really that good. This movie went on to win a lot of prestigious awards. The year ended with my agent selling a dirty syringe on the internet, which he said I used to smoke heroin. The judge who bought the syringe made me go to rehab. This consisted of a bunch of celebrity drug addicts building a large, human-sized ant hill in the desert. When I got out of rehab, my agent told me I had to give up writing and I ended up working as an actor in a bunch of made-for-television movies about writers who once wrote books everyone loved but how these writers ultimately had to kill themselves because they forgot how to write books people loved. Everyone seemed impressed at how good I was at pretending to be a depressed author, but the television networks stopped making these types of movies after the most famous newspaper in the world wrote an article about the rise of suicide among middle-school poetry slam contestants. My agent was eventually able to find me a job at a normal cubicle place. Every night, after work, I would come home and make a tray of lasagna. Sometimes I would eat the lasagna, but most of the time I would smear it on my bed and then lay on my bed until it was time to go back to work. My bed turned into a large crusted pile of uneaten lasagna. During this particular emotionally dark period of my life, my mother became worried about my mental sanity. She sent me emails that were loving but mostly nonsensical. One time she sent me an email that only said, “u.” I think she meant to write, “Hi. It’s your mom. I was just thinking about that sentence you once wrote and how everyone really liked it. Maybe you could write a sequel to that sentence and then everyone would really like you again.” I began working on a book tentatively called “The book I wrote that made everyone like me again.” It took me a long time to write this book. Maybe like three or four hours. When I was finished I posted it on my secret internet account. No one knew this secret internet account existed. Then I waited for people to start liking me again.
The object children are fond of touching doesn’t exist outside this story. In the story, the object also works as a metaphor for modern culture. People reading this story will probably be reminded of real objects that exist in the world. A few people will stop using some of these objects. The story will be very powerful. Even people who can’t read will be influenced by this story. The children are still touching the object. One person reading this story is thinking, “Why do they keep touching that object?!” Every day I get thousands of letters from people demanding I rewrite the story so the children don’t have to continue touching the object. It is difficult not to give into these demands. I am not sure what the answer is.
Writer, poet, and activist Mark Baumer was the author of MEOW (Burnside Review Press, 2019). In 2017, he was struck and killed by an SUV in rural Florida while walking barefoot cross-country to raise awareness of climate change. A graduate of Wheaton College and the Literary Arts MFA Program at Brown University, he was working as a senior library specialist at Brown’s Sciences Library at the time of his death. Published in numerous literary magazines, he won the 2015 Quarterly West Novella Contest for his novella Holiday Meat and the 2015 Black Warrior Review Poetry Contest for his poem “b careful.” He once wrote 50 books in a single year.