Ceaselessly Opportuning: On Barbara Guest
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.
Those five poems are not included in The Collected Poems, which, except for six final poems completed after the publication of the last book Guest saw to press, The Red Gaze, contains all the poetry that Guest collected in book form starting with her first full-length collection, Poems: The Location of Things, Archaics, The Open Skies (1962). This includes chapbooks, limited-edition collaborations with artists and even three poems from a 2003 collection of Guest's art writings. Poems that were published in journals but not collected by Guest are not here, nor are those (except for the five late ones I've mentioned) that remained in manuscript. All of which is to simply point out that this book is not a Complete but a Collected, in the narrowest sense. Not that I'm complaining. Guest's books and chapbooks were published by a wide range of presses, some in Canada and England; only her most assiduous admirers are likely to have them all. Yet they and others are likely to wonder what she was writing before The Location of Things was published in an edition of 300 copies. Guest was already 40. There must have been a lot of work leading up to that book. What was it like? And we know too that there was a never-published manuscript in the early 1960s, which was rejected for publication by Denise Levertov, then the poetry editor for Norton, on the grounds that it displayed "the typical chic flipness of the NY School"--some of the unpublished poems in the Chicago Review would have been part of that. One could have hoped for a selection of these early and little-known works to give a fuller picture of Guest's development.
Another of Levertov's complaints to Guest was that "often a poem of yours has seemed to me like an unrelated series of poem-seeds, none of them developed." It is an astute observation and one that Guest might not have repudiated, except of course for the tone of complaint with which it was lodged. In a lecture given in 1990 Guest appreciatively quoted the French Symbolist poet Jules Laforgue, who observed, "In the flashes of identity between subject and object lie the nature of genius. And any attempt to codify such flashes is but an academic pastime." What for Levertov were merely seeds are Laforgue's--and Guest's--"flashes," just as Levertov's all-important "development" was for them mere "codification." This points to a fundamental difference between Levertov--three years younger but already a far more prominent figure in the poetry world--and Guest: the former was essentially a classicist in aesthetics; the latter, a pure romantic. The essence of romantic poetry, as Friedrich Schlegel asserted in 1798, was that "it should forever be becoming and never perfected."
Few modern poets exemplify such forever-becoming more vividly than Guest. It was Charles Olson who in 1950 theorized a poetry in which "ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION." But it is Guest more than anyone, not excluding Olson, who found a way to practice it (and certainly without the need to shout it in capital letters). But allowing the link in these chains of perception to remain tacit, as Guest often does, can make her poems seem ungraspable, mere will-o'-the-wisps, at least until the reader gets the knack of following along with the requisite free-floating attentiveness. All the more so because, for Guest (as was the case for Bishop too), a perception is not necessarily a token of bedrock certainty or truth. Guest's was a more dialectical mind than that, and for her, the particulars of perception were always wrapped up in uncertainty and tentativeness and the occasion for questions rather than credences--as one discovers immediately in her first book in the poem "The Location of Things":
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?
Guest's "poetic mobility," as this passage shows, is inseparable from her sense of having ripened "under the shadow of Surrealism," as she noted in a lecture she gave in 1986. These lines are pervaded by something like the Surrealists' sense of the marvelous--that lake under the table--yet there is something vaguely unsettling about them. They speak less about the freedom of the mind to conjure a reality in its own image than about the probability that reality will overflow the definitions that the mind might try to impose upon it. And they are as self-mocking as they are rhapsodic. The poet appears strictly agnostic about whether the overturning of perspective whereby a mountain and a chair are placed on the same level is sublime or ridiculous.