Barbara Guest was one of the finest of that extraordinary cohort of American poets born in the 1920s, a generation various enough to include poets as dissimilar as Allen Ginsberg and James Merrill, Adrienne Rich and Robert Creeley, not to mention Guest’s friends of the New York School, such as John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. But the notion of a school does little to clarify the nature and significance of Guest’s particular poetic achievement. Better just to say that Guest had a knack for catching sight of time in its act of escaping one’s grasp. Time is the subject, for instance, of a long poem that has haunted me for nearly thirty years now, The Türler Losses (1979), a meditation on the compulsion to repeat the act of losing things, in this case a pair of fancy Swiss watches, Türlers, one of which, Guest writes, “loses time.”
Perhaps the poem is a rejoinder to another great poem of the 1970s, Elizabeth Bishop’s marmoreal “One Art,” with its famous opening line, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”–an assertion that Bishop miraculously makes good on. Guest’s repetitions and self-revisions are not tightly coiled into a villanelle as Bishop’s are, however. For all the wisdom and poignancy of Bishop’s poem, the reader cannot escape the disturbing sense that one is dealing with a sort of showpiece, not unlike a fine watch. Guest, by contrast, eschews the tactile compactness of “One Art,” its reduction to a pith that can be held and turned over in the mind like a protective amulet; The Türler Losses is designed to keep slipping from your grasp as you read on. Digressive, at once restless and leisurely, its self-revisions appear gradually, almost indiscriminately, as “more and more memory begins to circumambulate” and Guest entertains a possibility that Bishop never would have, “a lessening perhaps of fastidiousness/the Timex phase.” Guest does not propose to master time or loss. While instructing the reader or herself to “Look out for the watch/called ‘Never Loses,'” she holds only to “the homespun/logic of our twosomeness, a fabric time/will displace the threads, a shrivel here,/there a stain, the rotting commences like lanes/of traffic hurtling into air as the sun comes down.”
Like time, Guest’s poetry is elusive, moving from one thought or image to another almost before one has quite caught its drift, like the changing configurations of a kaleidoscope. No wonder her work has been slow to catch on. Yet Guest’s readership has been growing, especially in the decade or so before her death in 2006. In 1994 she moved from New York City to Berkeley, California, in order to be closer to her daughter Hadley Haden Guest, who has now edited her Collected Poems; perhaps it took a certain distance from New York for Guest’s work to be seen more clearly. But to a great extent the interest in Guest’s work has grown thanks to a new generation of women avant-gardists who were drawn to her–for instance, those who publish in How2, the “gender specific magazine for experimental writing,” where Guest’s work was repeatedly featured from the journal’s inception in 1999 through last year, when its most recent issue included a special feature on Guest, with four papers taken from a panel on her work at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Atlanta in 2007. Also, last year the summer issue of Chicago Review featured eleven essays on specific poems of Guest’s, mostly by fellow poets, along with five uncollected poems and three short plays dating from the 1950s and ’60s.