Ceaselessly Opportuning: On Barbara Guest

Ceaselessly Opportuning: On Barbara Guest

Ceaselessly Opportuning: On Barbara Guest

Barbara Guest’s Collected Poems showcase her knack for catching sight of time in its act of escaping one’s grasp.


JUDY DATERBarbara 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.

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:

 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”

From the mid-1970s on, Guest deployed her linguistic freedom with ever increasing elasticity, “opportuning” ceaselessly, so that nearly every book would have a distinctive character: the campy, quasi-narrative prose poetry of The Countess From Minneapolis (1976); the ruminative “circumambulation” of The Türler Losses, always turning back on itself to find itself missing like our experience of time; the rarefaction of Defensive Rapture (1993), which is taken to an even greater extreme in the Mallarmé-esque Quill, Solitary APPARITION (1996) but is not the same as the abrupt condensations of Miniatures and Other Poems (2002), which take on a more vatic, at times almost archaic, tone in The Red Gaze. My favorite among Guest’s books, at least this week, might be Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature (1999), which, though it begins and ends with quotations from Hölderlin and incorporates passages from Hegel, Adorno and Dr. Johnson, is far from the work of critical exegesis its subtitle implies, though it is always explicating itself and then transforming through that explication. Each line, as Brenda Hillman says in a sensitive discussion of the book in Chicago Review, seems “to present a new beginning”: “Shattered rocks//hid in the rock?/Deft, vehement. Amulet cast from the pocket.//And wind over red-tiled roof and we grow closer//to the moss of subjectivity guarding an iron basin//limed, old stars.”

Having learned from “Piazzas” to pay attention to prepositions, we should pay attention to the parallelism between title and subtitle: as much as about rocks or literature, though both are mentioned, the poem is about the relationship, as much tactile as semantic, conveyed by “on.” And the “notes,” for that matter, are musical tones as much as remarks:

And the words linger, deciding which direction to take.

Will they remain with the middle chord. The atonal section is

fearful, running along beside the pale brook, clouding and unclouding.

If the title, “Rocks on a Platter,” is taken as another way of saying “words on a page,” as I think it can be, then the upshot is that language can be experienced as if it were an assemblage of solid objects, tangible stuff with weight and volume and a capacity to make noise as words clatter against each other. But for Guest, this moment in which language appears in its concreteness, desirable as it may be, is not yet the great desideratum of poetry. “Eventually as the poem progresses,” Guest once explained, “the poem will find words are lifted from its page…and the poem will be known as ‘winged.'” That words can be like notes, like strokes of paint, means that they are comparable to things of more evident material substance or sensual impact; yet at the same time it is to see them in abstraction from their own specific material substrate. There is also a dematerialization of the word–“not the thing, but its effect,” in the words of Mallarmé that Guest quotes in a 1986 essay. For her, this is experienced as a sort of trembling, a vibration whereby language becomes unstable, and “this trembling is a good idea, because it means you are not exactly in charge.” “A poem should tremble a little,” she repeated sixteen years later; it should contain a “mysterious element of change, as when the poem lies quivering on its page.”

This trembling or quivering is something that occurred in Guest’s writing with greater and greater frequency as she grew older. Here is “Freed Color,” from her last book, The Red Gaze:

The branches are placed in a wet cloth,
clover reaches out.

They cannot locate a blue vine.
Purple fills the agenda. Red is on the plant,
the setting of a hibiscus tree.
They are warned not to linger in the purple shade.

Are these bitter colors? Are they accompanied
by rhyme to cheer them when they cross
into that land where color is rare?

They hasten to make use of freed color
who bends to no one,
who dwells in a tent like rhythm
continuously rolled.

To stop the riot of color, to hasten the quiet paucity of rhythm,
to sleep when it is time.

And doors open into narrow surprise.
The jingle of crystal follows you everywhere,
even into the whistling corridor.

Nothing flip or chic there, but true enough, “Freed Color” is what Levertov had long ago accused Guest’s poems of being, a sequence of poem-seeds–not unrelated but with a tacit relation, “like rhythm/continuously rolled.” Like much of The Red Gaze, this poem derives from memories of Hans Hofmann’s famous painting class in Provincetown, where so many of the Abstract Expressionist painters Guest had admired had learned so much–memories that must go back half a century, since Hofmann closed his school in 1958. These memories, poignantly concrete and sensuous, register with magnificent serenity. Though “doors open into narrow surprise,” one is not surprised. Behind the poem lurks a mysterious drama, but it is one that has already been performed. “The structure of the poem should create an embrasure,” Guest once wrote, “inside of which language is seated in watchful docility.” In poems such as this, language watches coolly but with thoughtful alertness, ready for the losses it must inevitably register.

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