#tbt: Barbara Guest’s “Collected Poems”

Here’s a review I wrote for Pleiades (29.2: 2009) on the occasion of the publication of Barbara Guest’s mighty Collected Poems, edited by her daughter Hadley (who was also a fabulous resource for interviews, cool old photos and memorabilia, and uncollected texts which I refer to in the piece– thanks Hadley!).




Barbara Guest, The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest

Edited by Hadley Haden Guest

Wesleyan University Press, 558 pages. $39.95

collected guestAt the crack of the 1950s, Barbara Guest moved to New York in a convertible. She was penniless, bringing along only her wits and a painter boyfriend she’d met through Henry Miller. She was a smart, reticent young woman, who wrote smart, reticent, painterly poems—a natural person of culture, an observer, an outsider. In the belly of the loud male-dominated scene of Abstract Expressionism, she took up art criticism; she married twice; she went to parties with Frank O’Hara; she drank at the poets’ bars and the painters’ bars; she befriended artists like Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Mary Abbott; she wrote on their canvases or they worked side by side. The first poem in her first book (1960’s The Location of Things) drops the reader all at once into the astounding familiar:

Why from this window am I watching leaves?

Why do halls and steps seem narrower?

Why at this desk am I listening for the sound of the fall

of color, the pitch of the wooden floor

and feet going faster?

Am I to understand change, whether remarkable

or hidden, am I to find a lake under the table

or a mountain beside my chair

and will I know the minute water produces lilies

or a family of mountaineers scales the peak?

The answers to these questions—the forty-five years of poetry that make up Wesleyan’s new Collected Poems of Barbara Guest—are easy to miss at first look. In fact, Guest’s body of poetry is best characterized by what it leaves out. Her twenty-odd volumes siphon away assertion, scorn biography, challenge denotation, skip exposition, temper humor, and warp experience. What’s left is Imagination, the same visionary strain of Keats and Adorno, Stevens and Baudelaire; a pre-postmodern sort of ecstatic displacement, from the world of facts into the world of interrelation. Her work glows.

Although she shared a nest with the New York School poets—with Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch—and although O’Hara was a passionate advocate of her poetry and a devoted friend, her poetics (or her “comportment,” in Susan Gevirtz’s phrase) fundamentally differs from theirs. She doesn’t fit in, and never founded, a particular avant-garde school. Her mixture of heavyweight aesthetic theory, gorgeous musicality, and a reticent, private voice has never really been emulated. Although the much-missed Sun & Moon Press afforded a national audience for her work from the late 1980s to the 90s, her early volumes have been hard to come by and her poems are underanthologized. There are other poets of Guest’s generation (Jack Spicer, Philip Whalen, Edward Dorn, Aram Saroyan) who have also been unjustly neglected. But Guest is a better poet than all of them, and this Collected Poems is a terrific volume gathered rather too late: after an unbelievably productive final fifteen years, Guest died in Berkeley, two years ago, at age 85.

barbara guestYears later, after she left New York for the west coast, Guest recalled her early years writing amid the New York School as an enthusiastic apprenticeship. “We were just starting out… We were not going to write about ordinary things, unless they were encased in an extraordinary kind of thought. We were not exactly daisy pickers.” Active as both a critic and as an editor for Partisan Review, Guest came to her own mature poetry later in her life than did Ashbery, Schulyer, O’Hara and Koch. The Location of Things (printed, as were John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch’s first chapbooks, by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery), didn’t appear until she was forty. These early poems—severely pruned in her later Sun & Moon Press Selected—are emotionally understated and executed with care, but they do share a situational resemblance to the brassy, inventive poetry of her friends. A poem, “Piazzas,” dedicated to the painter Mary Abbott, lives in an idiom not far off from young Kenneth Koch:

…I read the late Empress’s letters

and thought they were yours,

that impeccable script followed by murders


     real or divined

as the youth leaning over the piazza

throwing stones at his poems. He reads

his effigy in the one that ricochets…

Meanwhile, a faint, autumny irony hangs in the opening of one of her most famous poems, “Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher”:

I just said I didn’t know

And now you are holding me

In your arms,

How kind.

Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher.

Guest keeps a close eye on her safety and bliss. She was formidably smart, and even the early poems, produced in the thick of the New York art community, subtly expose a sense of outsideness, the observant mind of one just slightly removed. She was virtually the only woman poet in this realm of the avant-garde. “In that sense,” she later remarked, “I felt very lonely.” Guest’s late poetry was to operate mostly by fragments, bits of melody forced through syntax’s inadequate instrument. But in this early work—less uniquely, but perhaps more congenially—it communicates in flexible, energetic catalogue, in leaps of attention. The poem “Circassians” from the 1973 volume Moscow Mansions, cut from the Selected but restored here, opens:

I become excited when I am with Circassians

     I am almost in despair.

That cousin with his moustaches

they seem to know what to do

     with sadness and ecstasy

almost like the Irish


and who am I with my mixed feelings?

“Circassians,” balancing between description and enactment, keeps us in a recognizable poetic territory—the vital, plural, uneasy speaker of the New York School, frozen stiff in a moment of self-regard. But in her late work, Guest reweighted this balance substantially. Looking ahead twenty years, to the first poem of 1993’s Defensive Rapture, the reader finds the sequence “Paulownia”:

ravenous the still dark a fishnet—

robber walk near formidable plaits

a glaze—the domino overcast—


seized by capes—budding splash

whitened—with strokes—

silvertone gravure.

knifed tree.

The poet’s I has dematerialized, her imagery has become even brighter, her syntax has scattered, and her argument is more diffuse—something about chance and entrapment, about leaving a mark.

Where did this leap come from? Guest spent much of the 1980s occupied by the project which, in some circles, remains her best-known: a monumental study of the poet H.D., entitled Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World. Guest later admitted that she found large-canvas critical writing to be absorbing but also punishingly difficult; she may have emerged from the book hungry for a change. By the late 1980s, Guest also finally had followers of her own: she had settled permanently in Berkeley, and had attracted a cadre of admiring younger poets, such as Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Brenda Hillman, Patricia Dienstfrey, and Rena Rosenwasser. In 1989, Sun & Moon Press published her collection Fair Realism, renewing critical interest in her work, but the renewal was internal as well. All traces of New York School showiness had disappeared from her poems. The poetry, in fact, seemed to have dismissed the question of subject altogether, in favor of a subdued, hesitant awe both sought and enacted.

The necessary idealizing of you reality

is part of the search, the journey

where two figures embrace


This house was drawn for them

it looks like a real house

perhaps they will move in today


into ephemeral dusk and

move out of that into night

selective night with trees,


The darkened copies of all trees.

bguest2How un-frustrated a reader is with Guest’s late work depends largely on how carefully the reader rethinks the term realism. To Guest, realism is not the art of the world of facts, but is rather a full Platonic apprehension of underlying forms (Forms), concomitant with feelings of displacement and transparency; writing versed in the language of philosophy but also “narrow and sparse, pungent as the lemon tree.” Fair means equitable, but also beautiful—and literally, as in its oldest English sense, possessed of a shining countenance (“in my head,” Guest remarked, “I hear the word with an e on the end”). The question of how to enact this inhabitation of reality was to preoccupy the remainder of Guest’s productive life.

The first solution she arrived at was the fragmented phrase. Perhaps since normative syntax is the instrument of assertion and argument, it’s easy to take diffuse or fragmentary poems as muddled, or mild-mannered. But the strange poetry of Fair Realism and beyond—dominating The Collected Poems—is, if anything, more concerned than her early work with aesthetics and argument. The later poem “Leaving MODERNITY” memorably declares that “ ‘a disorder between space and form’ / interrupts Modernity / with an aptitude unties / the dissolving string”—leaving us to slip loose from what has already come apart. “Quill, Solitary    Apparition” sets us in a charged boundlessness:


Beyond hauteur a wandering mind

desires the latitudes…


will it yield

to the bronze cast —

(aired in profile)



   “far off face lit by fire”

The poems following Fair Realism—in their exploratory declarations, impressionist landscapes and romance with silence—are more noble than cryptic. Still, there is a lot to miss on a first read of one of Guest’s late poems. The careful scoring of white space and the suspension of fragments demand attention, a lot of it. The rush of an odd pairing, the melopoetic particulars of a given word, and a phrase’s relationship to the left margin might each score a particular line, sometimes all at once. Guest wants the reader to listen close, and certain late volumes (especially Defensive Rapture and The Red Gaze) ultimately reward this attention more richly—that is, more beautifully—than do others (such as If So, Tell Me).

But Guest’s surface difficulties are deceptive, suggesting a genealogy she doesn’t share. Despite her champions among postmodernist critics and poets (like Marjorie Welish or Rachel Blau DuPlessis), Guest prizes an attention to craft and architecture, a trust in the ecstatic power of capital-P Poetry, that feels much more modernist than postmodernist. To overgeneralize, one might observe that the difficulty of Language poetry, and of other postmodern art, forces us to consider a work’s context, to reflect upon the subjectivity of our experience, or to critique our assumption that any language is transparent. Guest’s poetry, on the other hand, is difficult because of the extremity of its reduction, and because she has put such pressure and care into construction. Guest was notably apolitical, doubted poetry’s ability to instruct, and dismissed biography as a “curate’s disease.” Her poetry creates, rather than reflects upon, its world: like the meadow to which Robert Duncan wrote of returning, it is a made place. Her vocabulary of inspiration was mystical, more medieval even than modernist, characterizing her poems as the distillations of encounters of frightening intensity. The poem, she says, “takes you and shakes you.” In “The Advance of the Grizzly,” Guest writes:

I will move in my skin with the hollow


the neck and the brimming over the latitude


over the latitude onto the brink.


frame of snow “within


squares of diminishing size”


ink hushed the snow; a blank sky rolled to the verge


parable heaved through drift…

In this way, Guest isn’t like the Postmoderns, but like John Keats, or Wallace Stevens. Guest’s late-career “realism” is not that different from Stevens’ “mundo of the imagination”; nor is it that different from the mysticism and purity of Surrealism itself. Guest, like Stevens, was her own sort of believer, trusting in the transcendent possibility of the non-logical relation. Her temperament was unattracted to the allegories of fabulist or magical realist art, the anarchic inversions of Dadaism, or the community redefinitions of Language poetry. Instead, she made her dwelling in Surrealism’s undivided creative environment, often blurring the line between poetics and poetry, or (in her prose work) between poetry and fiction, writing later in life that “those of us who shared this atmosphere brightened by Apollinaire, Éluard, Valéry, Breton, considered ourselves part of a hemisphere where all the arts evolved around one another, a central plaza with roads which led from palette to quill to clef.”

And, as with genres, so with experience. Guest’s poems—more so in the disrupted, “I”-less environments following Fair Realism—attain a translucent strangeness, a hyper-extension of Keats’s principle of negative capability into an ecstatic sort of sympathy. As she writes in the 1999 collection Rocks on a Platter:

snow footprints adieu


cold tears splashed acre is intimacy,


and many chimed things,

future’s conduit.


guest realismThe poet is magnetized by the back-and-forth calls of objects, arguments, sensations and natural forms, as the current of a plugged-in lamp might magnetize the scissors or the lead of a pencil next to it. So is it any wonder that, in her late work, linguistic consciousness, experience, art, and the natural world are made indistinguishable? They are, in fact, not to be distinguished: “The light of fiction and light of surface / sink into vision,” she explains in “Wild Gardens Overlooked By Night Lights,” “whose illumination / exacts its shades.” It’s worth noting that Guest’s vision doesn’t carry her upward: illumination comes to her speakers as a downward settling, an effortless diffusion that belies the architectural labor the production of her poems required.

Guest sometimes thought like a philosopher, and a philosopher might say that sensations suggest consciousness: that appetites, desires, reflections and memories don’t float free, that a thought implies a thinker. But there’s a firm mystical certainty in Guest’s poetry that argues otherwise—a certainty connected to her work’s withdrawal and privacy, an argument encapsulated in the passive-voice declaration of her poem’s title, “An Emphasis Falls on Reality.” The poet’s identity doesn’t survive being taken and shaken by her poems. In Guest’s late work, the consciousness of the poet is present, but it’s airy and impersonal, a sort of static electric crackle. This is the same consciousness Guest finds all around her: in realism, that is, in made reality.

Beyond her primary body of lyric work, Guest left a few odd texts, some anthologized in Wesleyan’s Collected, some not. Her prose pieces—prose poems? episodic novels? linked short-short stories?—The Countess From Minneapolis (1976) and The Confetti Trees (1999) are collected here, but her short novel, Seeking Air, and her plays are left out. Her piece of poetry-through-aesthetic-theory Rocks on a Platter (more lovely than middle Stevens) is collected here, but none of her prose statements on poetry and art (many collected in Forces of Imagination) are appended. The present volume deserves two cheers for bringing back Guest’s text alone from works produced in collaboration with painters, such as I Ching, Stripped Tales and Musicality. (Without their art, such poems are not really complete—one limitation of Guest’s sense of the page as notated musical score.) But the final treasure this volume does include are the half-dozen poems Guest left in manuscript at the time of her death (including the one where Shelley “breathes into the alphabet I found upon my chair”), digressive and alert, a last lasting addition to her body of work.

Contemporary poetry is showing, perhaps, an inclination toward the miniature; Aram Saroyan’s Complete Minimal Poems was awarded with William Carlos Williams Award last year, and some young poets are returning for inspiration to the work of Lorine Niedecker, Louis Zukofsky (of 80 Flowers) and William Bronk. Guest’s late distillations—her best and barest work following Fair Realism—represent another, maybe more mystical, approach to the small or abstracted in American poetry. Who will Guest now be the model for? Perhaps Wesleyan’s Collected is the volume that will secure a place for her poetry, and its resonance, reticence, architectures and ecstasy.

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