The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest,
Edited by Hadley Haden Guest, © 2008 Wesleyan University Press 516 pp.
A Review by Grace Cavalieri and Merrill Leffler
What do you do in preparation to review a 500 page book. Well, you set it down in the middle of the room and circle it for awhile, then each day, read a little, each night read a page or two, like the Bible or the Koran. And then decide what poems are thoughtfully arranged and how they sound.
A lifetime of work in one volume cannot be overpraised. Given the power to judge it, I demur. Given the power to respond, I’ll gladly take it up. In a way the world is entrusted to the care of poets so I take this seriously and read this book as one long lifetime, a proposition of some human consequence.
Barbara Guest was born in 1920 .She died in 2006. She wrote poetry, plays, art criticism, a novel and a biography of the poet H.D. She was part of the New York School which made such a splash in the 1950 ’s and her compatriots were John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch. And like those others was affiliated with the art world, counterparts to The New York School of Painters. Abstract painting, expressionistic poetry, Modernism in its bloom, surrealism and experimentation propelled poetry forward in a way never seen before. This book comprises Guest’s life in sections , poems grouped: 1962,1969,1973,1976,1979,1980,1988,1989,1993.1995.1999,2000,2002.2003.2005 and some new poems. And yet if we ask opinions of poets and teachers of poets, many have never read her work. She had a following and she has a following, a cult, writers of like spirit. To others unlike her, the work seems unfriendly, not enough story telling. This book may dispel antagonism. In fact, this book will make Barbara Guest a lot of new friends. To see her writings through the years is story enough.
Some poets write because they have something they want you to hear, something they need to say. Others write to play with language and to juggle balance and perception particularized by poetry. If we want over arching word for Guest it probably is “surprising.” See this poem, Elf: (pg.511)
Whatever is whitening the curbside. Whatever is mildew, the whitest
green I knew. The disarray. They may be honorable attendants of sorrow
or happiness. In my hands, in light, they crimson.
With happiness? The highway stretches before me. Wind lather? I heard
elf in tree and lot he was near and reverential.
SLOWLY HE STEPS INTO THE TREE IN KNITTED ELF COSTUME.
HE LIVED ON THE BOTTOM BRANCH AND WAS ACCUSTOMED TO
BREAKFAST BEFORE HE WENT AWAY.
Certainly we have tonal contrasts, germane thought, emotions in the line, but its expression comes not from a fusion of ideas but the vectoring of idea and image. Here is another poem from the section BIOGRAPHY, and no one can deny the submerged feeling, the tumult beneath the line. Guest takes large occasions but knows that disaster is boring, so she changes it to many small acts.
TWO (pg 184)
Did you locate the forms in the vests,
the particular bride's visit to the magistrate,
the divorces, were they hidden under twine?
Delving into the lime, unscrewing
taking out the corks at last discovering
the white shawl; not so much climate with
the exception of rain; a few good days
for bathing, the usual fog, however later
a wonderful isolation surrounded by plants
with doctors securing the ice lanes.
(When we foundered in the labyrinth of word
puns set like traps, and when the first Angel ...)
The day it snowed on the statues and the light
whispered of coming to grips with the problem, of a thaw
when the sun it the mounds, the sky grew blue as its
burden fell in drops and over my shoulder a new atmosphere
of comprehension, of desire, of yearning ...
There is a woman’s sensibility at the heart of these poems, especially those in the section The Blue Stairs, I believe one of my favorite books. And here in the first portion, is Barrels Pg.76
I won't let anybody
take a drink
out of this barrel of tears
I've collected from you.
Least of all another woman.
I see her coming along.
I know the type.
I can tell you what she'll
I know the type
I won't like it.
She'll look at that barrel
she's had a few in her day.
Not that she's ever filled one.
She'll remark casually,
good to wash my hair."
And who doesn't know
tears are purer
than rain water
and softer on the hair.
That is pretty straightforward and about as close as she’ll come to cozy up to you. No one can accuse Barbara Guest of being unable to write the linear. However, the narrative line comprises about 4 percent of this book. Otherwise we have another, a more discursive truth. She perfects traditional poetry and wishes to move on to leave larger spaces in our mind. She is not afraid of invisible bridges. She is not afraid the reader will fall off. Her power comes from taking things apart and making something new, using pattern on the page a device as old as the metaphysical poets, but she takes it further, arranging words so illumination comes from dismantling , not from sequence. One of the best books on this subject is The Constructivist Moment to Cultural Poetics by Barrett Watten (Wesleyan 2003.) It is one of the finest presentations of the new poetic paradigms in print. Guest is part of a poetic tradition — sometimes called systematic poetry in Europe — an arm of the concrete- an arm of Language poetry where, the poet uses words as elements of pure, dimensional substance, as a painter uses line and color.
A poem like this below causes negative reactions in some readers : (from I CHING pg.95)
What I like best is thinking of Guest in her own time period. In the 1950’s women were still wearing gloves. She literally took hers off and stood shoulder to shoulder with the boys on the block, with a fearless frenzy of energy; and a great discipline which resulted in a productive output that would last a lifetime. When she began her radical journey in writing, there were not many women of her courage. Most were still trimming a line to curl it toward the next. The entire philosophy behind Guest’s work is nonnarrative implosion. Abstract expressionism on the other hand is explosion, and was a social force. This writing, this poetry, cannot really be named because it jettisons historic precedents and relinquishes voice and authority. In a way it is the most generous of all poetic forms because it gives up ownership. Were these poets evolutionary toward a future where intuition and psychic connections are trusted? Or is the nonnarrative poet interested in creating an experience of the moment -- being fully responsible for the moment in its shattering of thought (and ego). All art exists only by the definition of different histories and “borders.”Those artists who synthesize, cross, and trespass make new esthetics..
From the book IF SO, TELL ME Guest writes a poem called The Luminous. (pg. 378)It begins here:
Patches of it
on the lettuce a geography
on trucks brilliant noise
on the figure disrobing
radiance sweaters dumped
I find no quarrel with this. It feels the way we think. I see what the poet sees. I understand as the poem goes on the actual nature of love. The uncertainty. In her poetry she demonstrates her process as she magizes her thoughts: “The animus containing bits there on its subject/perched like sails…” there is a trail left, disjunct emotions about love that I do not think representational poetry can express as well. “Many loves change to many times falling into/the day’s lucid marshes…” THE LAST LINE OF THE IS POEM ALMOST AN EXPLANATION OF HER SCHOOL OF POETRY “The fierceness with which it forged its memory,/ its daylight, its absence.”
Beneath the lines, (and some pages are pretty wild in appearance and delivery) is tumult. The wreckage of words. No matter how stimulating, wreckage comes from breakage. A kindergarten analogy is to think of a glass bottle shattered. It will no longer serve to be used as before, it may have no use at all, it will hold nothing, quench no thirst, but the shards may stop your heart with the way they shine in the light. That is the closest I can come to what Guest does. Guest explains her own methodology within her own poems. See this in the poem The Trickster : “ Corrective light that carried shadow away/to another visibility.” She is always telling you what she is doing, by doing it: In the poem The Past, this instructive line : “The form of the poem subsided, it enters another poem.”
I suppose all we need to know is already in her work. Barbara Guest through the materiality of language hopes to reach the unobtainable…freedom from form...and in her great leap creates new structures, new texts for us to disrupt. Cognitive linguistics, notwithstanding, from this book emerges not a typology of language so much as a woman unafraid. Barbara Guest demonstrates the temporality of language, our state of ever changing organic Beings. She deserves much more recognition than she has been accorded.
No historian tells us as much as the poems themselves. The poet’s experience is the poem. We have the essence of a life well lived in this book, a literary life with its pleasures, peculiarities, relationships. With wit and imagination Guest has given us poetry. She does not owe explanations. She proves in her poetry that nothing is static, language is not to be trusted. She demonstrates from this hill of sand always changing, we can make beautiful shapes. Why Guest offends so many is hard for me to understand . A newspaper editor once told his drama critic that the reviews were not to help the theater or the playwright, they were for the readers. Quite the opposite, Guest seems to further the language rather than satisfy the reader. Her cultural coordinates are defiance, anti-authoritarianism and sheer stubborn originality. Merrill Leffler now opens the discussion further with the following review:
Merrill Leffler on Barbara Guest, The Collected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2008)
Love, the Dark Sea
And the red tumid
turbulent sea tumescent
foundering the sea yes and you
and I perhaps the preening self
cockatoo the line dis-
O cockatrice apples a black
bow reality founders
and the stippled word
the canvas its grammatical wings
preening red the blue darkness
Yes! now faltering
What do you know
what It is
slips between the space between
what you can never know
This is not a poem by Barbara Guest. It is an improvisation that “rose up” after some hours of reading around in the Collected Poems of Guest’s that Wesleyan University Press brought out late in 2008. Those who know and care for her poetry—and there are many—will justifiably feel that this handsomely designed volume justly honors her work, as Wesleyan has in previous books by Guest over this decade, each individually designed with great care—Rocks on a Platter (1999), Miniatures and Other Poems (2002), and The Red Gaze (2005). A decade ago, Douglas Messerli’s Sun & Moon Press brought out her Selected Poems in an oversize, again beautifully designed, edition.
I say that “Love, the Dark Sea” “rose up.” This is passive voice and I use it purposely: I was moved to play with words and lines, line breaks and pauses, to see what would happen. My aim was to disengage the story making part of my brain and try to move by association, word by word, ad not be concerned about meaning. I started with a prosaic if not banal line as a title, “I truly love the sea,” and then let one word spring another, indicating for myself pauses and hesitations, either by a breath space in the line or a line break (there’s a qualitative difference). By the time I got to the end, I knew the title was not right. How did I know and why did I change it to “Love, the Dark Sea” I cannot say—I liked the sound and to my ear its provocativeness.
I kept playing with the words and the lines like a kitten that keeps coming back to a ball of yarn (I just mistyped it as “yearn”), nudging it here and there, walking away, then abruptly coming back at it again. But yarn/yearn is not words, so my nudging was in the form of numerous word alterations and breath pauses. I’ll spare you the revisions—suffice it to say that the changes were not guided by meaning. I wasn’t engaged in the spontaneous overflow of emotion, or conventional self-expression—if anything, I purposely tried not to get caught up in saying anything that was paraphrasable, for example, a memory or reflection. I was trying, however, to get it, the poem, right. What do I mean by “right”? Words and images and pauses and line breaks in relation to one another. And how did I do that? By feeling my way to them. This revisioning was play—but it was serious in that I was focused and engaged. When did I know I was finished? “You never finish a poem,” Auden wrote (via Valery), “you finally abandon it.” I would add that there are different stages of abandonment, and I felt that I was near the end.
So I’ve abandoned “Love, the Dark Sea,” for now at least. I loved the process, the seeming freedom from restraint. Is the so-called poem solipsistic? Does it disengage me from a reader? Is it cynical? The answers, or my answers: Maybe, Maybe, and No.
I don’t in fact know just how Barbara Guest wrote her poems, though from the few remarks of hers I’ve read and by staying with numbers of her poems, word to word, line to line, I think that is how she may have worked, more or less. Here are the first and last sections of “A Reverie on the Making of a Poem, June 1998,” a long poem—they give a glimpse of her process (I’ve kept the poem’s spacing).
Arrived at the terrain of her sensibility
–a stasis and
pull in the composition physical–
remember, a contradictory tug phantom-like–
upon the environs of the poem–;
think of poem going through these stages
balance and non-movement
always an inert force in poem to try to bring it back and force this on the
surface of poem
and all the while movement coalescing
with the strict idea–
Startling these maneuvers!
of idea and erasure.
not to lose sight of the ideas, and movement they must meet
not to tell all possible choices in poem
Giving way to the associations that arise.
* * *
Asked in an interview how she writes, Guest replied, “Each poem is composed differently. It’s what I call ‘shuffling mind.’ I do a good deal by sound, and I mean I can write on sounds. I guess you can say I write by ear. That’s what I really do . . . with a kind of aural intuition. In some poems.” It is remarks like this one that were behind my improvisation, as was the title poem of The Red Gaze.
Red, purple, brown Guardian leaf.
Complications of red enter the leaf
and it is more accomplished,
turning brown then gray in varying attitudes
after the snow begins. Colorful complications
disturb serenity, causing our eye
to wander over the shaking tree.
Morning began with a concert of white.
Blue enters later.
Shortly after Guest’s death, HOW2 magazine put up a special page on its website for the Barbara Guest Memory Bank and asked for contributions—some 25 poets wrote, reflecting on Guest’s personal generosity, her influence on their own work, and in a couple of instances some specifics about poems. One example: Stephen Radcliffe reflected on being in touch with Guest about “The Red Gaze,” which she had sent him, soon after writing it. The last line then was, “Blue enters from the left.” Several days later, she wrote Radcliffe with a revised version, the line as it now is. When he asked what led to the change, she replied, “It’s all in the sound of the Ls.” And then some time later, she wrote Radcliffe again, remembering that he had asked her just what the line meant. “How did I ever think of that?” she asked rhetorically. “Around the edge of that poem was always the terrible war in Iraq, and even the hotel in Iraq, the Ishtar Sheraton.” Iraq?! You could never know that of course, nor does it make any difference—this was just shoptalk. Besides, Guest did not write the poetry of episode or memory. The poem either works or it doesn’t. Right? Or Wrong? Devotees of Guest’s would likely not question it at all. Those who reject improvisational writing, or language poetry, as an end in itself, would probably throw up their poetic hands. Maybe not if this were identifiably a surreal poem—I don’t see it that way, even though Guest spoke about her leanings towards surrealism in her later work. I think of the poem “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain” by Louis Simpson, a poet at a far distance from Guest and language poetry in general. How different is the last stanza of this otherwise-linear poem: “The clouds are lifting from the high Sierras,/ The Bay mists clearing./ And the angel in the gate, the flowering plum,/ Dances like Italy, imagining red.” (My italics.) I remember first reading this poem many years ago and asking myself, where the hell did that come from. I don’t think I ever answered it. And yet it felt right—meanwhile, I’ve carried that poem in memory for nearly 40 years.
The point is of course that Guest’s poems do not tell stories like so much of our poetry—they are not a vehicle for getting at experience, inner or outer; they don’t go for the heart-rending gestures, the poet’s wounds, that Wordsworthian overflow of emotion, the epiphanies that have become such a staple of our poetry. They are at the far extreme of the drama-of-the self party of American poetry. Rather than the first-person I in the foreground, for Guest the play of language and all that it may discover or happen upon is at the forefront. Again I say play—yes, but again, it is serious play. In her poetry, the poet is not the central ton of every place (my apologies to the ghost of Delmore Schwartz).
All of these seeming encomia are not to ignore problems (and limitations) that I personally have in reading Guest’s poems. (These are not problems that poet such as Douglas Messerli or Charles Bernstein or Rosemarie Waldrop have because they have been immersed in her work for several decades.) For me, poems or lines of poems haven’t planted themselves as though involuntarily in my brain; I don’t carry them with me in memory as I carry so many poems that have become part of my life. “Respect your private language,” she has written. Can that private language become so hermetic that it becomes more of a black hole? There’s still a part of me that reads Robert Graves on poetry and nods mostly yes:
"Poetry is more than words musically arranged. It is sense; good sense; penetrating, often heart-rending sense. . . . I should define a good poem as one that makes complete sense; and says all it has to say memorably and economically; and has been written for no other than poetic reasons."
I remember first reading several of Guest’s poems, or trying to, in the latter-60s in The New American Poetry that Donald M. Allen edited and Grove Press published in 1960. Allen grouped her understandably enough with the New York Poets, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, Edward Field, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery. I could read Koch and Field and O’Hara (like many I was swept up by his poems) but I couldn’t really make out what she was getting at, even in what is today more of an accessible poem, “Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher”: how do parachutes take us higher? And then there is coral below the surface, and sand, and berries/ Like pomegranates grow”:
I just said I didn't know
And now you are holding me
In your arms,
Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher.
Yet around the net I am floating
Pink and pale blue fish are caught in it,
They are beautiful,
But they are not good for eating.
Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher
Than this mid-air in which we tremble,
Having exercised our arms in swimming,
Now the suspension, you say,
Is exquisite. I do not know.
There is coral below the surface,
There is sand, and berries
Like pomegranates grow.
This wide net, I am treading water
Near it, bubbles are rising and salt
Drying on my lashes, yet I am no nearer
Air than water. I am closer to you
Than land and I am in a stranger ocean
Than I wished.
This is to say that over these years I have been learning how to read Guest and some of the language poets--and one has to learn how to read this poetry. You can’t read Guest in the same way as you read James Wright or Jane Kenyon or Louise Glück, or even Charles Simic. Her poetry inhabits a different poetic world. Does living in one world mean you can’t live in the other? I have long carried in memory Coleridge’s exclamation when asked how he could possibly love and memorize hundreds of lines by Alexander Pope and at the same time be devoted to Wordsworth’s poetry. “Let us not introduce an act of uniformity among poets,” he replied. If you are compelled by the paintings of Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth, does that mean you can’t look at and care for Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock or Barnett Newman? One could speak analogously of Guest’s work and that of other language or sound or abstract or non-linear poets. This writing has been with us for more than a half century (though one could make a far longer heritage)—from Don Allen’s The New American Poetry in 1960 to Ron Silliman’s 600-page anthology, In the American Tree (1986), Paul Hoover’s 700-page Post Modern American Poetry (1994), which has the imprimatur of being a “Norton anthology,” and Douglass Messerli’s 1100+ page anthology, From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry, 1960-1990 (1994).
* * *
There is no finality to these reflections, only provisional ones. While I increasingly have come to understand (I think!) and admire Barbara Guest’s poetry, I still haven’t been swept up by it, at least not yet. I have glimpses into the discoveries her poems only seem to happen on, I still haven’t felt the physical sensation in reading them, physical “as if the top of my head were taken off” (pace Emily Dickinson). And yet I’ve read other poets who have:
“The courage and beauty of her poems grow and grow in my apprehension. The force is like a surprise.”
“She made so much possible because of her integrity, that combination of rigor and playfulness—her poems no longer about the words, but stretching into shimmering mysterious presences.” Elena Rivera
“I’ve always admired her combination of lightness and passion, her sudden veerings in unsuspected directions . . . the infallible rhythm, ,the purity of her line.” Rosemarie Waldrop
“Guest’s work [is] a gorgeous mystery, gems constellated in a black sky. Not mysterious because meaning is not available in her writing—it is available—but because the relationships between word groups s are so tensely and intuitively constructed; lines are balanced like the objects hanging from a mobile . . . I don’t understand what happens in my mind as I move from one line to the next: I’m just electrified, quietly and beyond reason.” Catherine Wagner
What I do believe, however, is that Barbara Guest's poetry and the work of improvisational poets share something essential with more traditional poets—and what they share is fundamentally political. Political in that at bottom the focus is on a commitment to keeping the language vivid and therefore alive. The tendency in culture is towards a language usage of cloudy abstractions, dead metaphors, clichés, plug-in phrases, all of which, as George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language,” are not only insidious but dangerous: their daily usage, accelerated by 24-hour television, are planted in our brains and like weeds crowd out critical thinking, thereby leaving us vulnerable to mind-numbing and dangerous rhetoric. Just think of how “9/11” has been used to whip up uncritical public support of American aggression. All poetry making, whether so-called language poetry or drama-of-the-self poetry, by (my) definition runs counter to this tendency—it is ultimately committed to keeping our language vivid and alive.
Grace Cavalieri is the author of several books of poetry and 21 produced plays. Anna Nicole: Poems was published by Menendez Publications in 2008. What I Would Do For Love, poems in the voice of Mary Wollstonecraft, (2005) was a finalist for the Paterson Prize. Water on the Sun (2006) won the Bordighera Award and was on the Pen Center’s BEST BOOKS LIST. She produces and hosts “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress “for public radio now in its 32nd year.
Merrill Leffler has published two collections of poetry, Partly Pandemonium, Partly Love and Take Hold; forthcoming is a book of poems, Mark the Music. He guest edited The Changing Orders: Poetry from Israel for Poet Lore and, with Moshe Dor, translated and guest edited a special issue of Shirim on The Poetry of Eytan Eytan for Shirim. Leffler has taught literature at the University of Maryland and U.S. Naval Academy and was a senior science writer at the University of Maryland Sea Grant Program. He lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.