Ceaselessly Opportuning: On Barbara Guest | The Nation


Ceaselessly Opportuning: On Barbara Guest

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In Guest's early poetry, however, she's still often enough trying to impose a design on reality. Style interposes itself. In common with the poetry of Ashbery's first book, Some Trees, and with some of O'Hara's early work, there is often a sense of artifice verging on artiness in The Location of Things that would later disappear; Levertov's phrase "chic flipness" doesn't quite hit the mark, but one sees what she was getting at. And then there's the problem of syntax--which must always tend to codify (to go back to Laforgue's terminology) those "flashes of identity between subject and object" that embody heightened attention. In the stanza I've quoted, the flashes come a bit more slowly and heavily than they should. The architecture of the sentence becomes a drag on the kinetics of the line. In the next poem in the collection, "Piazzas," something different happens. Here are its first three stanzas:

About the Author

Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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 In the golden air, the risky autumn,
leaves on the piazza, shadows by the door
on your chair the red berry
after the dragonfly summer

we walk this mirroring air our feet chill
and silver and golden a portrait
by Pinturicchio we permanently taste the dark
grapes and the seed pearls glisten

 as the flight of those fresh brown birds
an instant of vision that the coupling mind
and heart see in their youth
with thin wings attacking a real substance
 as Pinturicchio fixed his air.

Here, syntax and line interact much differently from the opening of "The Location of Things." Syntax is stretched nearly, but not quite, to the breaking point. Language rushes forward ahead of itself--not gushing but fleet. The first stanza is structured by an understated parallelism, the fact that each line (and the second line twice) is constructed around a prepositional phrase. Only then, once this cloud of vectors and relations has been established, do subjects and actions appear: "we walk" and "our feet chill." When the sixth line opens with "and" we anticipate that a third subject/verb pairing will follow--and "silver," being a noun as well as an adjective, does not immediately disabuse us of the expectation, but then "and golden" gives the line (and therefore the stanza) an energetic twist: it forces a parallelism between two verb constructions and a noun phrase ("we walk," "our feet chill," "a portrait by Pinturicchio"). One could easily rearrange lines 6-8, adding just one more little preposition to form a conventionally reasonable sentence or clause that would function as an expanded parallelism with the two constructions that make up line 5--"and in a silver and golden portrait by Pinturicchio we permanently taste the dark grapes and the seed pearls glisten"--but how much would be lost thereby: the energy of movement that constructs "an instant of vision" out of many such instants. And notice what Guest gains by playing this coiled syntax off against her line breaks: telling enjambments like "taste the dark/grapes" and "coupling mind/and heart"--reminding us that when mind and heart are joined, they join dissimilar things in poetic vision.

Synthesized with the self-questioning perceptiveness of "The Location of Things," the self-revising syntax of "Piazzas" would set the course of Guest's subsequent development. And it's not only syntax that she treats as plastic; words themselves can be molded and re-formed. "A poem stretches when Pressure on a word causes the poem to stretch," Guest once wrote. One finds coinages like "opportuning," "diehardness," "noblessly" and "manufacturess"--all from the 1973 collection Moscow Mansions, in which the poem "Passage," dedicated to the saxophonist John Coltrane, seems to offer a rationale for her treatments of language as material comparable to a musician's use of sounds or a painter's of color:

 after all
are syllables just
and you put them
 in their place
a painter using his stroke
 so the spot
where the article
 an umbrella
 a knife
we could find
 in its most intricate
slashed as it was with color
 called "being"
 or even "it"

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