Books covered in this dual review:
• The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest, edited by Hadley Haden Guest. Wesleyan University Press. 600pp, $39.95.
• Kenneth Koch: Selected Poems, edited by Ron Padgett. American Poets Project. 784pp, $20.00.
(continued from page 1)
From the old we turn now to the new, although still another of the so-called first generation New York School poets—Barbara Guest—the only female poet to be included in that first generation.
Born in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1920, Guest obtained a BA in General Curriculum-Humanities in 1943 at the University of California, Berkeley. She published her first book, The Location of Things, in 1960, and it was favourably received. Of her writing style, the New York Times in its obituary stated that her “poetry is intended for both the eye and the ear, straddling the border between the painterly and the musical. Her work defies easy interpretation or, in some cases, any interpretation. It is meant to. Like Gertrude Stein, Ms. Guest wielded English as Picasso wielded a brush, and the result can be hard-edged and fractured, almost Cubist.” In an essay, “Wounded Joy,” published in Forces of Imagination, a book on poetics, Guest described the poetic process as delimiting “the work of art, so that it appears to have no beginning and no end, so that it overruns the boundaries of the poem on the page.”
Peter Gizzi, in his “Introduction: Fair Realist,” writes:
Strictly speaking, her poems are not abstract; rather, they locate us always exactly where we already are, at the edge of meaning in an already impacted, developing world. Her poems begin in the midst of action but their angle of perception is oblique. In this way, the poem, like the world, exists phenomenally; it is grasped as it is coming into being, and she records the outer edges of the context of this movement, placing the poem at the horizon of our understanding.
As if listening to her critics as they discuss her work, Guest opens with the first poem from the first book, both titled “The Location of Things,” where we wander into her mind while she wonders about life and art:
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?
Although the time of year appears to be established and seems to indicate the reason for her reverie, the collage of images, more akin to surrealism than to cubism, which proliferates in the second half of the stanza, seems to bear no relationship to the images of the first. And yet, if we focus on the “leaves,” we can understand the presence of the lake, the mountain, and the water lilies as being part of that same reverie taking her to another place. Still, there remains incongruence with the “family of mountaineers,” which doesn’t seem to belong and yet rhythmically completes the passage to perfection. The ordinariness of the language used should also be noted, how no poetic device intrudes—no metaphor, no simile, just the casual everyday of language—nothing remarkable, nothing hidden but still capable of capturing us in its sway.
In The Blue Stairs, published in 1968, Guest focuses on the color blue and the various connotations of that word. For example, in “Turkey Villas” we read:
to let in the grey
of the ultra refined center
I shall be able to paint
those wooden villas
Guest having been an art critic, the reader cannot help but recall Picasso’s blue period. Evidently, Guest has entered hers. Why blue? Why not blue?
“The Interruptions,” from the 1973 Moscow Mansions, opens beautifully:
It is a landscape by Baudelaire
his îles, his fantõmes, his sang
the faithful birds with their quick orgasm
the agility of the wave that attacks and plunders
bruised bones, pallor and sleeplessness,
the fresh sand the treading skies and Spring
a murderess in her photographer’s gown
Here “Spring” has become a nymph who turns our assumptions around. She is not the giver of life and renewal but “a murderess.” We find out why in the last three lines: “after the toast and the kiss lifting what was lust / to the instant’s light before its retreat / into dusk where the evil papers glow.” Here Guest engages in indirection, never outright stating, always implying, so that the reader must magnify the lines, read into the white space. Moscow Mansions is a very experimental book. There are some amazing poems contained within its pages. The influence of Gertrude Stein is pronounced in places. In addition to “Roses” which begins with a quote from Stein, there is “Gravel,” which is Guest’s extension of Tender Buttons:
is grim although. A rasp. A burr.
not even a cough like veined jasper
or careless cornmeal or the dandy
surface of porphyry, or an ivory forehead
with lace curls; somewhat like
The Türler Losses shows why Guest is a seriously underrated poet. Her apogee may have been eclipsed by Levertov and Rich due to her apolitical poetry at a time when politics—the Vietnam War protests, feminism, etc.—were all the rage. Instead, Guest offers us here a montage of images worthy of a Louis Malle or a Luis Buñuel, all precipitated by a trip to Zurich to purchase a Türler watch, then a second one and its subsequent loss. The writing at times may be incomprehensible, as the example following shows, but that is its elegance and power:
The crossed panes keep the shadow
peent is heard
in scraps against dawn
field tree profile
take oath upon’t
Guest, here as in other poems, shows her debt to Marianne Moore but rips quotations from their sources to stand isolated, alone, left to be interpreted without context as if giving the finger to Saussure.
While The Türler Losses closes off the 1970s, Musicality approaches the end of the ’80s. The same direction is followed, but in a more kinetic fashion, where fragments like stained glass come together in a kaleidoscope:
orchards in most of their
depth the stubbed mountain
a chain of miniature birds
you understand the euphemisms of nature
how the figure appears in still life
and you understand the creation of orchards
Stripped Tales from 1995, a collaboration between Guest and visual artist Anne Dunn, is absolutely stunning—if that word can be applied to a non-visual art (if poetry is considered non-visual?). But then, this work has a definite pictographic quality:
in hollows dim-witted rabbits running out of the barn the storm might have killed them “don’t think much of the girl guess she left the country.”
. . . handbag with parasol . . .
Symbiosis (2000) makes the collaboration between Guest and Laurie Reid explicit:
A writer and an artist working together establish a Symbiosis, as in Nature,
where dissimilar organisms productively live together.
close and away.
Hiss in turning wool,
and envied the circle
working in layers.
It seems fitting that Guest, who started her career writing for a visual arts magazine, should end it by collaborating with the artists whom she admired.
This takes us to the end of the examination of these two poets. Both very different, and yet there is something tangible about their mutual connection to each other as part of the New York School. Each owes a debt to the visual arts. Each for the most part uses simple language applied in an indirect manner. Each will call upon cubism and surrealism at times to achieve this indirection, although, Guest’s cubism veers more towards the montage. And perhaps it is Guest’s origins in California that at times make her poetry reminiscent of the Beats. Although, mind you, it is Koch’s lines that sometimes remind one of Ron Silliman. Thanks to the Library of American and to Wesleyan University, we can experience their poetries once again.
John Herbert Cunningham’s criticism has appeared in many places, including Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Arc, Antigonish Review, and the Rain Taxi Review of Books.
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