1920 - 2006
She said “It was that wonderful unfamiliarity that changes everything.” She was speaking of her early encounter with T.S. Eliot’s poetry, as a young poet who had not yet been introduced to modernism.
Some sixty-five years later, in her early 80s, she said of her on-going writing process: “And the leaving out has helped me. Now I believe it’s always more powerful when something’s left out.”
She continued: “I think I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve had a real easeful time in construction, and I don’t have it now. I just have a lot of difficulty. And I have to regain something that I’ve deposited somewhere else…. I do think you have to get away. I think it’s the real solution. The way a painter goes into the studio to work… (there) you cease being a good mother. Automatically…. At first, I did try to write at home. I remember there was an extra room and I tried to write at home. But the work was just awful…. I didn’t want anything around me, and I still don’t. I didn’t want anything that brought congestion…. I have that room now. It’s small, but I’ve written a lot of books in it. I like it small.
…and then she said: “Each poem is composed completely differently. It’s what I call ‘shuffling mind.’ I go a good deal by sound, and I mean I can write on sounds. I guess you can say I write by ear. That’s really what I do.”
— (from a conversation, Jacket, 25)
She wrote: Berg changes to Shostakovitch. The Cyrillic alphabet just out, crosses in front of, enters the space the bus vacated. The poem laughs back and forth and comes the caw-like repetition. Strength comes to blows with Joy. The violins fly from steppe to steppe and in the Caucasus valleys stones skim and fall. A stocky tremolo with light flashing on the flung scabbards. Numbers work for you. Desire trudging beyond the golden mean. (Seeking Air, 119. Black Sparrow, 1978)
…and she said: “A wrist for every watch.”
Her writing has opened an entirely unique chapter in our perception of how far poetic language can take us. Her poems are magnetic poles to the imagined life.
— Kathleen Fraser
The Barbara Guest Memory Bank has been edited by Kathleen Fraser with the help of Lauren Shufran, editor of postcard/H2, and John Sparrow, H2 webmaster. It will continue to be open to contributions until May 14--final closing date--with the most recent comments received appearing at the top. [Please send all contributions via a formatted .doc attachment, including a single memory paragraph and a favorite Barbara Guest poem text, with its book title and date of publication. Send all material to: email@example.com. (Choosing to save your document by .doc will facilitate correct lineation of poem texts issuing from both Mac and PC programs.)
For other sites looking at Barbara Guest’s work and life, see:
every other day: http://www.kickingwind.com/21706.html
Thank you to Kate Greenstreet, from whose blog the photographs at the top of this page have been supplied. The photograph of Barbara Guest on the train was taken by Fred W. McDarrah, 1959, and the portrait photograph was taken by Judy Dater, 2004, from Jacket.
sent by Ann Vickery
I Don't Think This is a World for Women
from Beinecke Library [MS 271, Box 15]
Thought you might like this one from box 15 (of BG’s papers at the Beinecke), which is kind of surreal, loopy, and moving all at the same time.
I Don't Think This is a World for Women
I don't think this is a world for women.
I don't know. If I have a granddaughter
she may have an exceptional life.
There will be snow on the lockets, and petals
on the slim shoes. There will be other acres.
A different foliage on the islands and music
coming from places she says resemble rooms. High
arches, perhaps, not Gothic. That was in my
time. The edges were in my time and the squint
of the elevators ascending, we knew not where.
There were gifts in my time. Gulls, sheaves, roofs
hair falling in place there by the chimney.
Falling down by the wall in the wind.
So much was held back. The uneven stones.
Brown rain with pebbles catching its breath.
Inside each breast the inscription placed
like a clock. With the memory of a clock
and its torture.
The hands were yours, never mine.
The continent repeated its little whistle and spun
around. The continent was told it was made of sugar
and ice. The continent was an idea of yours.
So was the weather and the months.
The years belonged to you because you discovered them.
You taught us to tell time.
If I have a granddaughter
may she stand outside a telephone booth,
may she have her private telephone,
may she never wish to use the telephone,
may she own the telephone company,
may she be the long distance or the receiver,
may she sleep with a telephone,
may she say goodbye on the telephone.
may she be lucky and be a telephone.
[See Ann Vickery’s earlier entry, 4.8.06]
to list of contributors
chosen by Jeanne Heuving
The Türler Losses (excerpt)
from SELECTED POEMS (Sun & Moon, 1995)
I was surprised in meeting Barbara Guest at the airport for a reading in Seattle that she seemed to have some prior knowledge of me and was eager to meet me. Giving her my book on Marianne Moore, Omissions Are Not Accidents, I was taken aback further when before her evening reading she had already dipped into it, enough to give me her assent: it was a book to be read about Moore and about poetry. The shadows shifted later that evening when I prodded her about her biography on H.D., Her(self) Defined, and she told me about a recognition between H.D. and herself. When I asked her to sign her book Defensive Rapture, she signed it, "from Barbara with constant recognition." I thought several times about contacting her again, although I never did, things taking shape and things disappearing.
from THE TüRLER LOSSES
Wrist watches surround themselves with danger.
Signs. Worn clasps. Their time flies, stops.
Gallops. On a street. Dropped like an egg from a tree.
Expensive signals flashed in moonlight. Semi serious
stones wearing themselves on wrists reaching
Loss gropes toward its vase. Etching the way.
Driving horses around the Etruscan rim.
Seemingly realistic codes have pointed to other
levels of images beyond their limits, ice
permitting time to decorate a block.
to list of contributors
chosen by Andrew Joron
from unpublished final poems
The Shadow of Surrealism
In the last few years of her life, Barbara began to identify herself, both at public readings and in private conversation, as a surrealist. At the “Audacious Imagination” tribute to her life and work held at UC Berkeley in 2003, Barbara announced that she was “now writing surrealist poems,” adding “Though I came to surrealism late, it’s better late than never.” She then proceeded to give a reading of one of her greatest last poems, “Nostalgia of the Infinite” (a reference to De Chirico’s painting of the same title).
Barbara subsequently shortened this title to one word: “Nostalgia.” Indeed, there was something of nostalgia in Barbara’s late engagement with surrealism. If it’s true that in old age we return to our roots, Barbara seems to have retraced her own roots here, going deeper than the aesthetics of the New York School and Abstract Expressionism to arrive at their surrealist sources. This lineage had already been made explicit, of course, in her essay “The Shadow of Surrealism.”
Barbara’s “return” to surrealism may have been facilitated and encouraged by the milieu in which she found herself in later life, namely that circle of admiring young men with surrealist tendencies whom she fondly referred to as “the boys”: Garret Caples, Jeff Clark, and Brian Lucas. Despite being middle-aged, I also counted as one of Barbara’s boys. As Barbara’s neighbor in Berkeley (living only a few blocks away), I enjoyed regular afternoon visits with her for many years. Our conversations frequently revolved around Barbara’s interest in surrealist poetry and painting, and “what was happening now” in surrealism.
However, the complexity of Barbara’s character and creative process ensured that her composition of “surrealist poems” never followed Breton’s (early) formula of “pure psychic automatism.” I was witness to the often agonizing, spiritually perilous process of revision, self-doubt, and self-rescue that the making of each new poem (even, and especially, a “surrealist” poem) entailed for Barbara. The terror of the blank page combined with an unshakeable imperative to always “make it new” meant that Barbara often needed to trick herself into writing (something, anything). The notion that she was writing surrealist poems was perhaps the last trick that Barbara played on herself.
Or was it the last? Barbara, in another turn of this complex game, finally felt it necessary to efface some of the evidence of her surrealist self-trickery. The working title of her last book, The Red Gaze, had been, in the initial drafts, Surrealism and Other Poems. This subtitle was eventually dropped. A poem at first entitled “She Honors De Chirico” was retitled, significantly enough, “Loneliness,” indicating perhaps the withdrawal of an enabling presence. Surrealism had become once more a shadow. Nonetheless, both in its process of composition and in its structure, The Red Gaze recapitulates the history of surrealism’s development into Abstract Expressionism, as its evocations move from De Chirico to Hans Hoffmann––and so recaptures the New York art scene of the fifties in which Barbara experienced her emergence as a poet.
Thus, this book, which was published and brought to her bedside as she lay dying, was really about her own birth. Yet even after the completion of The Red Gaze, Barbara continued to be haunted by her surrealist sources. Her final poem, “Hotel Comfort,” left unfinished at the time of her stroke, makes repeated and explicit reference to surrealism (as a source of comfort?) and testifies to the convulsive beauty that inhabited her to the end.
Minutes each hour took ostrich leaps on the roof of the Hotel Comfort in Strasbourg.
These Surrealist moments cherished each roof a long time.
In the thickened weather of Surrealism the cathedral is across the street.
Wise lettuces exaggerate their claim near the window of the Hotel Comfort.
And you have sent your letter of explanation for the pleasure obtained
in the wooden jar. Speech-maker, you have sent notes of pleasure
in the glass jars. Tasting of weather and cinnamon.
to list of contributors
chosen by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
Shelley in the Navy-Colored Chair
from unpublished mss. (included with permission of Hadley Guest)
A Memory of Barbara Guest
Barbara Guest left me a presence of poetry that stays around me, a light outside the visible spectrum, like a fairy, and with great agency. I say she left it to “me,” because I experience it that way. Meanwhile, the courage and beauty of her poems grow and grow in my apprehension. The force is like a surprise.
A while ago, I thought of reading Holderlin, because I was suffering and I wanted to connect in my writing with a larger world of spirit. I found a book of Holderlin’s I’d forgotten, which Barbara had sent me almost twenty years ago. There was a short note about the translator, a friend of a friend, and this closing: “May the poems bring their own focus of life to you – and their strength from abysses all his own.”
I keep the book close to me, even though her wafting presence of poetry is so palpable. I didn’t expect a spirit clearing a path in addition to her work making the path. I chose SHELLEY IN THE NAVY-COLORED CHAIR, a late poem, with gratitude to Hadley Guest for giving me a copy and for so much more.
SHELLEY IN THE NAVY-COLORED CHAIR
I sit so close to him, our minds entwine
I assume his stewardship through the cold and mist.
There is no other beauty with which he is equipped.
The pain, the exclamation!
Early morning when the tide lowers
and we manipulate our choices.
To see, to feel, to engender memory
of this place where Shelley walked.
He is near.
He breathes into the alphabet I found upon my chair.
A dissertation they brought me, exclaiming why
he failed to ride the unswept sea, and like
a nautilus drowned in heavy seas, windswept
like the alphabet he enriched.
Each day a chambered nautilus near my chair.
To add more stanzas to this alphabet
is the view Shelley takes.
More haste and less worry in the words gathered around him.
A light gleaming over their shoulder,
before the ecclesiastic wonder breaks out
into praise for words he gathered,
pearls surround the armchair.
to list of contributors
chosen by Elizabeth Robinson
A Reverie on the Making of a Poem, June 1998
fromCivil Disobedience, an anthology of writings
from the Naropa Summer Writing Program
I met Barbara when I was a graduate student at Brown. She came for a reading and I was mostly too abashed to say anything, but had a nice conversation with her when I drove her, I think, to the train station. So I was surprised and deeply moved when, about six months later a letter–which I still possess–arrived from her telling me that my Burning Deck chapbook, My Name Happens Also has struck her as evidence that I was a real poet. I think I was too tongue-tied even to write back. When she moved to California, she gave everevidence of remembering who I was and plenty of times, more than I understood, extended her friendship to me. I am extremely grateful for her openness to my theological preoccupations, for her supportiveness of my work. On my last day in California before moving to Colorado, I went to visit Barbara. I was exhausted and dirty and constantly on the verge of tears, but she kept saying emphatically and enthusiastically that I was doing a great thing by moving, by taking on a new job and a new community. She reminded me how welcoming Naropa would be and that I was lucky Dorn was long gone from CU. I left encouraged and resolute. The last flowers I had from my California garden I left with Barbara.
The night before I heard of her death, my kids were sleeping and I was otherwise alone. I thought of Barbara with enormous warmth and so went and got all of her books and laid them out beside me on the bed, looking through them. I fell asleep with Forces of the Imagination beside me, opened to "The Beautiful Voyage."
A Reverie on the Making of a Poem, June 1998
Arrived at the terrain of her sensibility
–a stasis and
pull in the composition physical–
remember, a contradictory tug phantom-like–
upon the environs of the poem–;
think of poem going through these stages
balance and non-movement
always an inert force in poem to try to bring it back and force this on the
surface of poem
darkening of the page and then withdrawal
of darkening:gradually the page lightens,
the invisible heavinesslifted itself.
With no warning (from inside the text,
mind attached to the text)
method to elevate poem from surface
and attacked by dizziness of atmosphere!
In the attack of suspense; a masterful
development of plot and erasure.
The echo the words grant us on page and off!
sound of the last few words–;
they will be abolished and this new movement
embracing an echo,
only discovered here the poem
the timing of this substitution one ideafor another
Countdown!knuckle on the hand
the sentence covering it
with a fist, held loftily–
muscular control . . . fastidiousness
continual restiveness, also
timing supplant strong attack
struggle necessary–but not to let go
a blissful discontinuity
orders this estrangement of each
available word and the disinclination to advance (at
that point in time) or desiretohurry toward an abrupt
rushing or spectacular jumps over the hurdles–
as in conversation
do not hurry the poem
but take chances
motion, movement in poem
an advanced punctuation bursting from vases
into an arena of sound
the aroma continues as a cloud of invisibility shelters
there from center right:solid objects merciless.
what else can poem perform in its arena
the phantom of possible ideas
(maneuvering inside a volume)
a force majeure to shred the atmosphere
this fist its imprint almost
poet in charge
and all the whilemovement coalescing
with the strict idea–
Startling these maneuvers!
of idea and erasure.
not to lose sight of the ideas, and movement they must meet
not to tell all possible choices in poem
to list of contributors
chosen by Brenda Hillman
from“Intimacy of tone…”
fromRocks on a Platter (Wesleyan University Press, 1999)
I chose a piece of Barbara's writing from the early-nineties. Barbara presented what was to become Section III of Rocks on a Platter at a reading with Mei-mei Berssenbrugge in 1994 in San Francisco. I asked if I could have a copy because I was about to teach a course on new poetry by women, and she handed me the print-out, with a few markings. It was entitled ''Others.'' To introduce her work to the class I first studied the piece line by line, as a poem that stood on its own (I'm not sure at what point she decided to make it a part of the book). When it appeared in Rocks on a Platter, I was struck by how well it worked in context of the melodic stepping stones and verbal ''chimes'' of that book, which is one of her most elusive and magnetic. She seems to be in conversation with space and place, with Adorno's philosophy, with ideas of construction, with making the modernist lyric step out into the page.
I was able to visit with Barbara often when she was in Rounceville. A few months before her death, she seemed agitated when I entered and asked, ''Brenda, tell me, how do you write a poem?'' I said almost automatically, ''Well, I think I just put one word next to the other and see what happens.'' She said, ''Well, that's exactly what I do and it isn't working any more!'' I told her it had worked for her many times and that she had many readers who love her poems. This will continue to be true as her work goes into the world. Like many other people, I miss her tremendously.
March 14, 2006
Intimacy of tone
beyond the tangible itinerary
at 30 degrees
I have the impression of a long body
of loaves and fishes,
of ''belles letters.''
Wisdom in travel several palaces
latitude without margin
silver-toned blow up--;
arm in a sling and hawk chin
you are also a hawk--
you walk in hawk shadow a guise --,
Sad rose, Rilke charm
lodged in a castle--
bone button sewed to a coat--;
snow footprints adieu
cold tears splashed acre is intimacy,
and many chimed things,
to list of contributors
chosen by Patricia Dienstfrey
fromMiniatures (Wesleyan University Press, 2002)
Attuned to sounds of loss
I met Barbara Guest in the early nineties. And, like many Bay Area poets after she moved to Berkeley, I spent afternoons in her living room enjoying her conversational phantasmagorias of tale, reminiscence, history, insight, gossip and critique. In Rounceville, the facility where she lived during the last months of her life, her observations on her day-to-day existence there were added to the mix. That her part of the room had no windows and that the corridors offered no views out onto the world hardly made an impression. Barbara believed in the power of imagination and of the unconscious to transcend the limits that consciousness imposes on experience. These beliefs continued to shape her reality and responses, which were so immediate, her “yes” and “no” to ideas, expressions, forms like no other’s. During these conversations, I became attuned to sounds of loss in Barbara’s work, to tones and images that address not just her own losses but a generation’s. WOUNDED JOY was her first choice of title for the book of her writings on writing, which was published by Kelsey Street Press as FORCES OF IMAGINATION in 2003. As an editor for Kelsey Street, I read the manuscript in preparation for production, and I think the final title we all agreed to is appropriate for this collection. But her first choice struck me as an inspired title for a book on art and poetry in the twentieth century. Barbara understood the dark side of the time she lived in and of modernism. And she confronted it in her penultimate book of poems, MINIATURES, published in 2002. She said a number of times that she nearly came to the end of her energies writing it, that she didn't know if she would have anything left for more poems. But she did. And she enjoyed bringing out every poem in the next book, THE RED GAZE, which she dictated, as the poems came, to her daughter, Hadley. Published in 2005, it is the last book of poetry by Barbara that we have.
Go sit, listen. Two feed earlobes, with wildermass. Slowly partake
of uncrippling. Part of transcription. Sleep of transcribing after long day
In honey cave, sans emotiveness.
There is lip descendant placed on wood for viol outside
witherglass. Here is plentiful lambswood fife for thine, we pass
upward in front of mere clumsy, Knight of Andorra and pony.
O sleep will be shiny apres plentiful unrehearsedtheir sheaves, yon
Magnetic fleece nestlingwhile it chew
fertile green stone. Coxcomb be schon.
Alliance with bickering be wrestled and
fielded on gold champs.
to list of contributors
chosen by Susan Gevirtz
A Brief Picture Book for Barbara Guest
When Barbara Guest first moved to Berkeley about twelve years ago she had a second floor studio in Albany in what had once been a Chinese orphanage and later a girl’s school. That is when our tradition of picnics began. Besides Dorothy Richardson, we both had great fascination with Los Angeles, dolmas, kasseri cheese, black cured olives, hotels, Robert Walser, Close Up, movies, H.D. of course… I would knock on the half open door of the studio. Once when I came in she pointed to the blackboard. On it were words written long ago in chalk that became a poem from that time. Quill, Solitary Apparition was published in 1996; perhaps the poem from the chalkboard is in that book. Maybe:
perhaps a mere tale (the hair combing) placed
on a smooth surface
contrasts with her
‘throughout time and its dungeon’…
--from the poem “Quill, Solitary Apparition,” in Quill, Solitary Apparition, p.73
We had our picnics in the big scrubby field in front of the school. By noon, as the fog burned off, it smelled of wild anise heating up. From the table we ate on we could see a bit of the bay — our “view.” When she gave up the studio the picnics moved inside. Along with food, I sometimes brought flowers to stand in for the field. After one picnic Barbara sent me some photos (below) of the house after I left and a note that said,
I breakfasted on food of the gods this morning, having supped their nectar, thanks to you. You should have witnessed our photographing the flowers, they were magnificent this morning, and cheered me into daily living.
You’re tossing your head as you go out the door.
The message is dated 29 March 2002. It is now 30 March 2006. The loss of Barbara is really too big for me to address yet, but she had anticipated this and so much else. So I rely on her for the words, again from that early picnic era:
as subject — moonlight arranges
and branch, within the courtyard
a bronze capitalization
dares to remember—
gift of oneself to this order;
for the sake of virtuosity, its primrose
need of defining.
(the last image is a picture of "me" that was in the same pile of photos)
Click photo above to enlarge
to list of contributors
chosen by Stephen Ratcliffe
The Red Gaze
fromThe Red Gaze (Wesleyan University Press, 2005)
“I Miss Our Mythical Jaunts”
I remember the time Barbara came out to my house in Bolinas...a small ‘party’ of friends at which she became of course the guest of honor. That meeting led to what became an ongoing correspondence mostly via email (many letters back and forth between November 18, 2003 and December 20, 2004), an occasional letter or postcard in the US mail. The first of the emails, written after her visit to Bolinas, reads simply “Steve, Thank you for inviting me to your piece of paradise, I was enchanted – the freshness of the earth and the beauty of the landscape and your close friends. Thank you for introducing me to Juliana. Barbara” And a week later, the draft of a poem she called “SNOW COVERS THE RED GAZE,” whose last line reads “Blue enters from the left.” Three days later she wrote “The last line of ‘Red Gaze’ is now ‘Blue enters later.’” And when I asked her what thoughts had led to that change, she wrote back “You said you wished you knew the thinking that changed ‘Blue enters from the left’ to ‘Blue enters later. ‘It’s all in the sound of the ‘Ls.’” Months later, as the war continued, she returned to that thought about that line, noting “I feel a nostalgia towards the early days of our correspondence and I'm certain this will not leave me. There was the little robin in ‘The Brown Vest’ and ‘blue enters later’ in ‘The Red Gaze.’ I remember your asking, ‘what does that mean?’ and my saying, ‘blue is always late.’ How did I ever think of that? Around the edge of that poem was always the terrible war in Iraq, and even the hotel in Iraq, the Ishtar Sheraton. Other hotels were hit by rocket fire, but the Ishtar Sheraton has escaped so far, protected we hope, by Goddess Ishtar.” Previously, after a lapse of six weeks in our correspondence, the message from BARBGUEST@aol.com ended “I miss our mythical jaunts.” As now indeed do I.
The Red Gaze
Red, purple, brown Guardian leaf.
Complications of red enter the leaf
and it is more accomplished,
turning brown then gray in varying attitudes
after the snow begins. Colorful complications
disturb serenity, causing our eye
to wander over the shaking tree.
Morning began with a concert of white.
Blue enters later.
to list of contributors
chosen by Ann Vickery
from Beinecke Library [MS 271, Box 25]
Laura Riding Jackson would call the way Guest spoke to her as talking “in an at-home-with-me way” and others too remarked on the sense of ease that Guest created. Certainly that is the feeling she created when I spent a magical (despite the cliché) afternoon with her and Hadley in Berkeley—there was that sense of the kindred, the inclusion into the domestic life, as well as the lively debating of poetry, colour (even the shade of some flowers), and art.
I want to leave with a sense of that connection by including a small bit of the correspondence between Barbara and Frank O’Hara, a few letters from him and poem from her. [Further comments and a review of The Red Gaze will feature in the forthcoming issue of How2, v2. n4].
Excerpt from a letter from Frank O’Hara to Barbara Guest dated April 20, 1959:
[MS 271, Box 16]
That was a lovely reading. I could have listened to you forever. I particularly adored each one as it came along, it didn’t seem to have ups and downs at all so far as your selection went, and your own voice, air and manner was as precisely itself as the poems were, which I believe I’ve been told adds up to originality or more.
Excerpt from a letter from Frank O’Hara to Barbara Guest dated Oct 19, 1959:
[MS 271, Box 16]
How is the most beautiful poet of the English (and probably any other) speaking world today? I’ve been thinking of how lovely you looked, like a mirage, the other day and what an unexpected joy it was to see you, as in Ez’s famous haiku:
The apparition of that face in such a motley crew
a petal in a brassy brasserie…
I am so glad I got to sit next to you and Kenneth….And I still don’t see why we couldn’t have been sitting upstairs at the bar underneath the Lippold, all jangling and quivering like a field of mushrooms at the approach of John Cage, or wading in one of the front fountains as is, often often, our wont. From the preceding sentence you can see that over the weekend I peeked into Ronald Firbank for about two seconds and have been ruined ever since. You really have to watch out for him. That is if you’re me, you do. My silliness is not so much incipient as insurrectionary! Now if I can only keep a firm hold of Piazzas in my memory I may get through all right.
Excerpt from a letter from Frank O’Hara to Barbara Guest dated Dec 4, 1959:
I have been reading the two poems you sent me over this morning with my coffee and how beautiful and perfect they are! they have that melancholy that only perfect feeling has, they are not whistling in the dark like so many poems are now (and so many paintings), they exist purely for the sake of their experience and then they are one’s own experiences…
for Frank O’Hara
We have escaped
from that pale refrigerator
you wrote about
amid the wild woodbine landscapes
wearing a paper hat
in those frozen tubs
secluded by buttresses
when the Church of
Our Lady cried Enough
and we were banished
the last even breath
Yet the funicular
was tied by a rope
It could only cry
that midnight hill
My lights are
the walk is
are carved on the sill.
has a knife
in its side
to list of contributors
chosen by Eléna Rivera
fromFair Realism (Sun and Moon Press, 1995)
I had the good fortune to attend the festschrift for Barbara Guest at Brown University in 1994. I met her very briefly then, and again later at other readings and book parties. My impressions on meeting her for the first time remained with me. Barbara Guest as luminous, all friendliness and graciousness, composed, quiet. I had read Seeking Air, the H.D. book and some poems. At the festschrift I met her daughter, Hadley, and H.D.'s daughter, Perdita, and floated. I met new friends, heard the distinguished panelists, and soaked in the light and oscillations that reverberated from Barbara Guest’s presence. She made so much possible because of her integrity, that combination of rigor and playfulness—her poems no longer about the words, but stretching into shimmering mysterious presences.
“Tessera” is a bittersweet poem, full of “sadness and felicity.” I was initially drawn to it by the lines in the second part having to do with “Inertia.” I’ve struggled so much with inertia in the writing process that I immediately seized on this connection, the inertia not just of resistance but of the fear that one will “lack the skill” (another of “inertia’s” Latin meanings), that one will be distracted by sleep and other things, “explanations” for example. On one side Philomène, the nightingale, bringing its song and heat, on the other Inertia, so lovely sounding, pulling the poet away from all those “Hot turns.” Once one arrives in “the land of sunbeams and/silk oaks” it seems “easy,” but first one has to gently call away inertia and let oneself be drawn into the mosaic of ghosts and thistles (the mysterious stripped clad “sadness and felicity”) that suggest the hidden. “The poem is the unburdening of ghosts of the past who have come to haunt the writer exposed to the labyrinth. These are ghosts not of words; they are the ephemera that surround and decorate the mind of the poet, a halo rescued from life.” (from “Mysteriously Defining the Mysterious,” Forces of the Imagination, p. 85).
Sadness and felicity
you’re coming back
ghosts in your striped Greek dress.
Tears go into the urn
Philomène brings up the brazier
things heat up
water, wine, thistles in the jug.
I said to her, “Go away Inertia,
beautiful, fragrant, violet as you are
She kept talking about letters, diaries,
words linking me to sleep.
I said, “Go away Inertia,
even if you bear a Latin name.”
Then it was dark on the quarries.
I had to hire a truck to load up.
My boxes. My images. My material medica.
The driver arrived.
The truck was loaded.
I’m here in the land of sunbeams and
Very easy. But heavy
on the initials.
Ghosts in stripes.
“I wish I were quieter,” she said
What echoes from legends,
Or armadillos or bees.
to list of contributors
chosen by Ann Lauterbach
The Surface as Object
FromDefensive Rapture (Sun & Moon Classics, 1993)
A Shape that Floats
Barbara Guest: a certain pace, or measure, or stance, in her voice and in her gait. There was a stoic grace to her posture; the demeanor of someone who had learned to protect something important---defensive rapture, maybe. I am not sure when we first met; it may have been when I invited her to read at PS1 in the late 1970s or early 1980s. That was the first time I heard her read, from, I think, The Countess from Minneapolis. She gave me some personal objects when she left for California. Among them, a gray coat she had bought in Paris; she said it was "good." It doesn't fit me, but I love to have it in my closet; it reminds me of her; it has a shape that floats. She had kindness and severity, the latter I associated with her ambition for poetry; her own, of course, but mostly for the ongoing fact of it. She made me feel less lonely as a poet. She told me she thought mystery was the most important poetic value.
The Surface as Object
as in the past
subsisting in layered zone
refuses to dangle
oaths on marsh field
whitened or planned
rather than vine
that which proliferates
the bittersweet grapple
a mysterious mesh
forbids the instant discloser
delays a humid course
or creates a patina
or she moving forward into
the line of sticks
circled by sticks
her hand flies up
in the direct line of sticks
odor of lines.
knowing the difficulty
annexation of Egypt
oaths on marsh fields etc.
a possible intimacy with
the tomblike fragrance of stone
as the artful
tree grown guava
oaths on marsh field
the hungry minstrel and the forager
gold on the guava lick of rosin
and the chill latched thicket
grunt marsh weed
the untamed ibis.
[go to postcard for Ann Lauterbach’s Tribute to Barbara Guest, written for The Poetry Project Newsletter, in part as a poet’s record of Barbara’s life.]
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chosen by Marjorie Welish
Rocks on a Platter, IV [excerpt]
fromRocks on a Platter (Wesleyan University Press, 2004)
Something that Cannot be Reconstructed
To appreciate Guest's late lyric is to encounter her radical spacing and through the radical spacing, her poetic logic. The page-by-page constellations found in Rocks on a Platter [the force of which spatiality is mostly lost in translation here] demonstrate that if Mallarme is presupposed, a decidedly extreme textual sampling recreates his poetics. Her spacing is primarily of literature and of literariness, as is indicated in the remarkably located "thee GLOSS GLOSS" --this being text, intertext and metatext all at once. And well met are these words in proximate space which does away with the possibility of resemblance and of reference, for each of these words are indexical of something that cannot be reconstructed. The constellations in Rocks on a Platter are not verbal ruins, nostalgic for a past; excavated extremity, they are constituted of themselves. This is a poem made of spacing, of paratactic sense at the expense of meaning, or of meaning contented indeterminate and indifferent to illustrating sense.
Rocks on a Platter
The Moment a limit is posited
It is overstepped, and that
Against which the limit was
Established is absorbed
ADORNO, Aesthetic Theory
Without shyness or formality
“a gesture if allowing oneself time”
Remember how starry it arrives the hope of another idiom, beheld
That blush of inexactitude, and the furor, it
Will return to you, flotsam blocked out.
compose, like Schoenberg, poem music
“flotsam of the world of appearances”
drifting by and out of the picture.
Where the throne disappears.
now in robust position,
naming the throne “flotsam of appearances”
Is evanescence the wool beggar?
strike that simpleton
point to the Mix, and
there! It slides into view
before the moment oversteps,
the hum pour his ivory.
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chosen by Rosmarie Waldrop
River Road Studio
fromThe Countess From Minneapolis (Burning Deck, 1991)
I don't remember when I met Barbara. But I discovered her work with the book Moscow Mansions and fell immediately under her spell. I soon after wrote a sequence that uses phrases from her “Byron’s Signatories.” (“Kind Regards,” a chapbook in 1975 and reprinted in Streets Enough to Welcome Snow.) And have gone back to her poems again and again.
I’ve always admired her combination of lightness and passion, her sudden veerings in unsuspected directions. In talking with her too, the sudden whimsy that in no way diminished her passionate commitment to poetry and art. But in the poems, the infallible rhythm, the purity of her line... It is a great sadness that we won’t get any more of it.
RIVER ROAD STUDIO
Separations begin with placement
that black organizes the ochre
both earth colors,
Quietly the blanket assumes its shapes
as the grey day loops along leaving
an edge (turned like leaves into something else),
Absolutes simmer as primary colors
and everyone gropes toward black
where it is believed the strength lingers.
I make a sketch from your window
the rain so prominent
earlier now hesitates and retreats,
We find bicycles natural
under this sky composed of notes,
Then ribbons, they make noises
rushing up and down the depots
at the blur exchanging
its web for a highway.
Quartets the quartets
are really bricks and we are
careful to replace them
until they are truly quartets.
[go to postcard for Rosmarie Waldrop’s Tribute to Barbara Guest]
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from Cynthia Hogue
Remembering Barbara Guest
I had only met Barbara once before the interview included in Innovative Women Poets: Works and Interviews, U of IA P, 2006 (out next fall), as it happens, her last interview, set up by Kathleen Fraser and proposed by the editors as a conversation between them. The day of the appointed conversation in Berkeley was one of those crisp fall days, and as soon as we gathered to talk, it felt good to be there. While asking Barbara about whether surrealism had influenced her, I read her a passage from Forces of Imagination, to which she responded, "Did I write that?" Beth Frost stepped in at that point to help, and said, "I guess we're asking you about how you write poems!" Barbara laughed wryly. Her answer: "I guess you are asking me that!" In all, the four of us spoke for four intensive hours, and then relaxed together over a leisurely lunch at Barbara's favorite restaurant. It was a halcyon day for reasons that were subtle and unspoken; we savored the moment's fellowship. In those few short hours, I felt that I understood something essential about Barbara, who was both meticulous and regal in her keen intelligence, undimmed in her work up to all but the very end.
Among my favorite passages is this one from "The Turler Losses," a stanza that I thought was the end, but was a moment too intensively sentimental to end a Guest poem:
"my image against your shoulder, 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."
I still love it. And mourn the sun having come down on her twosomenesses and the fabric of life that time has displac
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chosen by Catherine Wagner
Bird of Art
fromMiniatures (Wesleyan, 2003)
I knew Barbara Guest only a little—I met her in 1996 when I interviewed her at the little house where she lived in Berkeley. She was very kind to me, though at first a little regal; we understood one another much better after the interview was over and the pressure was off. Looking at a picture I took of her that day I notice her well-cut blond hair—it must have been dyed, as she was in her mid-70s, but it looked great. Her eyebrows just slightly darker. Stylish, stylish, in person and in poetry. Guest’s work then and now seems to me to be a gorgeous mystery, gems constellated in a black sky. Not mysterious because meaning is not available in her writing—it is available—but because the relationships between wordgroups are so tensely and intuitively constructed; lines are balanced like the objects hanging from a mobile. I value her faith in poetic mystery and her belief that poetic form does and should evolve. I don’t understand what happens in my mind as I move from one line to the next: I’m just electrified, quietly and beyond reason.
Bird of Art
THERE CAME A CLOUD IT SETTLED ON YOUR
The cloud seeks high culture, after Ovid.
To soar through domes, bird of Art,
Halfway to icy heaven.
Halfway to heaven search in high space, in deep
Poesie be engendered after OVID.
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chosen by Rena Rosenwasser
fromThe Confetti Trees (Sun & Moon, 1999)
Memories rich in the lore of Lubitsch, Lang and Stravinsky
Barbara was invited to read at the Santa Fe Institute of Indian Art. During the airplane ride she kept gazing at a monitor where you could track the position of the plane at every point. She took childish delight in gazing at the flight pattern. One would have thought she was maneuvering the plane. Later when we began to drive to our destination, pinion, arroyos, and numerous mesas surrounded us. I found myself snared by these sites and smells. Barbara, on the other hand, felt disconsolate. New Mexico upset her. She was uneasy and agitated by vast desert space; definitely a creature more disposed to oceans, the theme that played a part in the California of her adolescence. She was also inclined to palms, plane trees & memories rich in the lore of Lubitsch, Lang and Stravinsky. These were the émigrés that had inhabited the Los Angeles she came to reside in as a child. They represented a compelling world of the imagination and Barbara embroidered their narratives into her own.
The actress was washing her face the camera picking up her motions slowly with great emphasis on the wrists, she had a way of flexing them that was unique and the director wanted the camera to catch this movement. The cameraman was from Sweden and he understood the delicacy of piecing together snow floes. He understood the scenario, how snow rinses her wrists slowly, without being told he slowed his camera, so that the audience might grasp the meaning of snow on the wrists of the actress, and the snow that the wrists moved through. He was filming "slow whiteness." Lightning was important and the lighting assistant, Swedish also was selected because he understood the business of snow as it enters the atmosphere. The dialogue that takes place between it and day as it begins and as it ends gathering a momentum of whiteness. The film becomes more than a contemplative movement of wrists. In the beginning water that fell from her face to her wrist served as an introduction. At that point the story line needed to be photographed from far above. Only later in close-up details were sharpened to pick up the signature of a woman's face. There seemed to be no misunderstanding as to who indeed was the star and what role the camera played, each subsisting on snow. Within the screenplay originally fixed solely on the ability of the actress to flex her wrists (camera shot of wrists) (camera preys on face above her wrists) a secondary plot was now beginning to develop as snow and light crossed the face of the actress. The actual fact of her washing, the Director now realizes, has become a subsidiary plot in need of more complex artistry.
The Director is a difficult man. His sudden changes of mood often cause alarm. In exasperation he picks up a book lying on a table nearby and throws this book hitting the sink where the actress washes, narrowly missing her wrists. It is silent film so we do not hear a plaintive voice, or the sound of the book striking.
We see the trembling of the actress as the book narrowly misses her wrists. Without any prompting she picks up (no sound to delude us) and guides the book up to her face where we see written on its cover The Sayings of Confucius. “She is reading Confucius!" we repeat over and over, as we savor the Director's silent applause.
[For a description of the collaborative process involved in designing the book MUSICALITY, go to Rosenwasser's postcard]
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a note from Etel Adnan
Heard that Barbara Guest died. Felt a shock, although knew she was in her last days.
Death is so definitive, irreversible. It made her image immediately vivid. It’s there, in the middle of my space. I’m not sorry in the usual sense, I’m thinking. Her poetry already starts to take another significance. I can’t tell which one. It breathes differently. She will not add to it. She won’t interfere in anything. She was high-strung, almost haggard. Burning the air around her with tension—I think of 16th century Spanish nuns, Catalans, maybe. Very clear pale blue eyes, on the alert. Passion for poetry, for excellence about all. For the gift of Language. The English language. In fact, an ancient person. Perhaps a reincarnation, if that proves to be true. An alerted thin animal. A silent friend. (2.18.2005)
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chosen by Frances Presley
fromIf so, tell me (Reality Street, 1999)
Inventions and Constructions
I didn’t know Barbara Guest’s work as well as I should, but I always admired what I did read of hers. She was also one of the people who brought me closer to HD, and I remember her speaking with enthusiasm at the Royal Festival Hall in London, though I forget the year (early 90s?). I know that Perdita was also there, and it was very exciting for me to be able to share my appreciation of HD with them. They seemed to complement each other, and make sense of HD the woman, as well as HD the writer. The poetry collection of Guest’s that I’m most familiar with is the book published in the UK by Reality Street in 1999, If so, tell me. I read and made notes on it while I was in Edinburgh, attending the Edinburgh festival, and visiting some of the local sites, especially those associated with Mary Queen of Scots. A poem I wrote then, ‘the diamond speaks’, about Mary’s dangerous political subterfuge, is clearly influenced by Guest, both in its allusiveness and use of visual design, as well as the pleasure of exploring Mary’s (Barbara’s) inventions and constructions. I feel as though I was with Barbara Guest then and am again now, in writing this. (London, March 2006)
What is fraught and undenied travel in rare
dayishness supplication in ermine an approach
Newish place, ferns, gracefulness.
And excavation on
the edge of attendance.
Weed dangle in hair.
Do not reverse shapes
Ripe in default
old root tree.
(details starts to blur)
and human outline
landscape behind landscape.
Spill of ink not enough
passage in the red strum
Dream of effervescence
pine and mountain gear.
a different appearance, new
here and beyond.
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chosen by June Felter (painter, BG book collaboration)
fromMusicality (Kelsey St. Press, 1988)
Great Care was Given
Of course "Musicality" is my favorite poem of all time! [And I felt that way even before the pages of Barbara's poem and selections from my water color sketchbook were brought together as a book.] I didn't see the poem or any plans for the book ahead of time. Robert Rosenwasser and I visited the special printer, Peter Rutledge Koch, and great care was given to getting the right set up for this book, "Musicality". I heard later that it won an award for best small book of the year. The amazing thing to me was that every one involved just did their thing without checking with each other.
Barbara and I had met at a reading that she did at The New School, in San Francisco—in1986, I think. She was very impressive, and luckily we "clicked". Because of her interest in painting, we had a real connection. She'd done reviews for Art News and Art in America. It was a treat later to read her wonderful "Durer in the Window Reflections on Art". When she suggested our collaborating on a book, it was in New York City, at her place on 16th St. She served a scotch and soda and we celebrated the occasion. I felt that I had suddenly become sophisticated! It was a happy time. Barbara was so easy to work with. She loved doing books with artists and I think this was partly because she really was an artist herself. Her collages, made in New York, were great to see on the covers of several of her books.
The wave of building murmur
fetidslough from outside
a brown mousea tree mouse.
two trees leaning forward
the thick new-made emptiness
Hanging appleshalf notes
in the rhythmicceilingred flagged
a barrel cloud fallen from the cyclone truck
they hid under a table the cloud
with menacing disc
Leaves ripple in the dry cyclonic
for four handsof chambered
breeze & clouddesign
her imposing composition of cloud weight
upon the sketched-in roofsmall jumps over
edges in like sand grains under the orchard trees
pitching marbled stripes
of dusk like casino awnings near a vast pool
or contrasting mountain elevation
light retires in gradations
flick and flutter
"a favorite view"
Gieseking's troll marks
follow gauze undeterred by erroneous
dew the piano reminds us
the wayside is littered altering
"try" into fog cast
the suite of "remembering"
in forest guise the "theme"
shy of Niebelung thunder requests the artist
who is shy driving her motor
watching big mountain thunder fall on shy trees
the composition is shy
the example of cyclonic creativity equally devastates.
to sketch "A Favorite View" ethnically positions
two strangers who join hands in a movie
one leaps on the other's lap
or Purcell muslin intimidating in
anxious-less moments when thoughts provoke
lightning held to a border of trees
patient exercise of drawing a visible number
chromatically the structure unfolds
a formal delicacy
when she hitches up her notebook and sits under
the Steinway the blue trees vanish.
a pearl snatched from its shell
in that moment
as the sky slowly
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
your hesitation is not forgetfulness
something else hides the view
the bather in the pool
(Note: This version of Musicality has been correctly reproduced in its linearity, but the original open and airy page space of the book's pages, with its water color drawings by June Felter, has not been accommodated here.)
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chosen by Bill Berkson
On the Way to Dumbarton Oaks
fromThe Location of Things (Tibor de Nagy, 1961)
On the Way to Dumbarton Oaks
The air! The colonial air! The walls, the brick,
this November thunder! The clouds Atlanticking,
Canadadianning, Alaska snowclouds,
tunnel and sleigh, urban and mountain routes!
your black branches and your three yellow leaves
with you I traffick. My three
A Fortnightly Review of
The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest (Wesleyan Poetry Series)
Edited by Hadley Haden Guest
Wesleyan University Press 2008. 558pp hardback $39.95 £35.50
Collected Poems (Wesleyan Poetry Series)
Edited by Rosemary Ceravolo and Parker Smathers
Wesleyan University Press 2013. 592pp hardback $35.00. £31.50
Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems
Edited by James Meetze and Simon Pettet
Farrar Straus and Giroux 2011. 238pp $28.00 £18.38
By Peter Riley.
AS SOON AS Barbara Guest’s authority in poetical writing is established, which is in her first two books, there is an evident urge to tell the story, to push a discourse forward; there is an unfolding, a characteristic pressure towards completion. The poems are tellings and she wants them to tell in full. She wants the poem to reach its conclusion, beyond which there is only silence.
I think this condition holds through her entire career in spite of her development of an increasingly experimental writing which eliminates all possible subject-matter as well as any possibility of a connected narrative or location, or any form of address – the poems become collections of disconnected mentionings separated by empty space. But I maintain a faith (and faith is sometimes necessary) in her determined drive to completion in the working of the poem, and that as the silence after the end of the poem is incorporated into its structure the floating fragments remain meaningful as they interact with their surround, and that the primary vehicle of this is an intense condensation of figurative language so that from one point to the next an extended and often unknowable process has taken place whether of event or of thought.
Not that the early work is conventional. There is a range of commitment to unorthodox procedures, some original but many of them related to the New York poets she is mainly associated with (Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery and James Schuyler) and their attachment to earlier French poetry, especially in her case Surrealism. She was in fact the eldest of these (born 1920) but didn’t publish her first book until 1960. But always, even in the most New-York-ludic pieces, there is a sense of pressing forwards quite earnestly, both in the progress of the poem towards a true ending, and in metaphors that reach further and further out into the unknown. Even the most unproblematic writing, such as this very early example–
I just said I didn’t know
And now you are holding me
In your arms,
Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher.
Yet around the net I am floating
Pink and pale blue fish are caught in it,
They are beautiful,
But they are not good for eating.
even here, there is a reticence, an unwillingness to present a given situation, a disregard for circumstance, a delicate disconnection at times, and somewhat strange moves such as the ambiguous syntax of the sixth line, which may or not be figurative, and of course there is the bathetic caution about the inedibility of the fish. These mild disjunctions and distractions are held in a steady verse movement, and one feels that a series of poetical moves is given priority over any full account, or emotional declaration, while the tone remaining authentic, and this is confirmed in the paradoxical ending to the poem: “I am closer to you / Than land and I am in a stranger ocean / Than I wished.” The comfortable surface is rippled throughout by signs of uncertainty and apprehension but the poem is more than the depiction of an emotionally ambiguous condition because of curtailments (such as the first line) and excrescences.1
The first two decades of her writing produced a collection of attractive poems varying among themselves in the degree to which they transgress rational discourse, some of them outwardly straightforward, some decidedly dark, and all of them rewarding in the detailed skill of the writing, the just word-placement, the intuited metrics. They mostly mimic the speaking voice, giving an account which claims and then abandons its own intent and transcends its own singularity in search of a truly poetical and artistic summation. Increasingly punctuation is abandoned and the lines crowd the saying into a continuity which defines its syntax by words alone. What is happening is that perception is being brought to serve an abstractive formative process like an abstract painting; the necessary details of experience are so combined and transgressed as to create an elsewhere which is the poem itself as a finished artefact, an addition to the world rather than an event in it, no longer beholden to it.
The book Moscow Mansions (1973) in particular is full of solid, outwardly and deceptively discursive poems. The opening of the poem ‘Red Lilies’, from this book, shows admirably how her pursuit of such a course is, as it often is, carried into something like a comedy which loses control of its own imagery–
Someone has remembered to dry the dishes;
They have taken the accident out of the stove.
Afterwards lilies for supper; there
the lines in front of the window
are rubbed on the table of stone
The paper flies up
then down as the wind
repeats, repeats its birdsong.
Those arms under the pillow
the burrowing arms they cleave
at night as the tug kneads water
calling themselves branches
The tree is you
the blanket is what warms it
snow erupts from thistle;
the snow pours out of you.
The metaphorical extensions of a domestic scene are pursued until we don’t know what exactly is happening, but the pursuit remains warm and serious. Is “the snow pours out of you” a notation of joy or dismay? We can’t know, because what is happening is that the scene of some kind of failed dinner à deux, whatever it was in reality, if it ever was, is being made into an independent poetical and linguistic construct in order to liberate the verbal possibilities. This can only really be shown by quoting the whole poem, where the metaphors (if such they still are) constantly gravitate back to the mundane and rebound into high flight. The poem ends
The pilot light
went out on the stove
The paper folded like a napkin
other wings flew into the stone.
This both consummates the details of the scene and extends into an independent image transaction. The last line is still an account of what happened, but blended into what happened in the writing of the poem, and thus the reality is enhanced beyond the occasion. You cannot say it is an interiorized representation of what it felt like, and it is not symbolical in any explicable way. It is more like a theatrical projection: the pilot light explains the accident in the stove, the errant paper becomes a dutiful accessory, all is reconciliation and then “other wings flew into the stone”. What was obdurate becomes permeable. This is the kind of process Barbara Guest went on to develop for another 400 pages. It never becomes possible, or desirable, to say what the newly hatched images, here wings, “are”. They are the word at its fullest reach – they are the winged word showing how it can subdue the hardness of stone.
THE ALMOST CONSTANT levity, or twinkle, in her diction doesn’t alter the fact that in her sense of mission Barbara Guest was the most serious and the most difficult of the New York poets of her generation. Not for her the jaunty “I-do-this-I-do-that” mode cultivated at times by O’Hara and Schuyler and later seized on by Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett. She doesn’t refer to Broadway operettas or night-club jazz, but there are several mentions of Schoenberg. The impression is of someone involved in leading a civilised existence focused on the arts, with quite a lot of globe-trotting (but did she actually go to all the places she mentions?) ever suave and discerning, with none of the Bohemian raucousness so common on the other side of American writing at that time. Within this ambiance there is a rich investigation of experience through scenes and people, fictions, paintings, and sometimes narratives, dedicated not to revealing their meanings but to uncovering the verbal possibilities of their existence, which is a meditational process seeking to hold them against the world itself through language.
The book Defensive Rapture (1993) most clearly marks her arrival at a technique of spatially separated disjuncts which dominates the rest of her career. But I think that before that there were at least two instances of remarkably strong works which could be said to represent a step back or a pause in the development of her manner. One is the long poem The Türler Losses (1979). This actually is about the loss of two Türler2 watches on two occasions – though it tries not to be. It shoots off in her usual unannounced way into image zones both near and remote, credible and impossible, but the losses keep insinuating themselves into the texts again and again, sometimes merely as words associable with time and clocks, as if defying her wish to forget them. So the text, rich as it is in material, constructs evasive tactics which fail. Loss as such is enjoined, including death, but in the same easily distracted mode, and a whole emotional life is drawn in as a source of the images which circulate around these losses. There isn’t a singular summation to these processes; they occur all the time. One of them is–
A child entered the room
wearing a clock costume
A child of pygmy size
unmodified by time’s blisters
And time’s throat burrs and time’s screens
across which time’s numerals
The depth of these lines is surely obvious, achieved in some measure, I think, by the classical feel to the lines which augments as the end approaches, but also in the noun/verb ambiguity of some of the words. The whole poem is a moving compilation of such moments focused on instances of memory and loss and it is striking how disparate images are held in the poem’s memory – it will not perhaps surprise anyone that it begins with the cry of a night hawk which seems to die in flight, and this is probably answered at the end in “A wrist for every watch/releasing doves”. But in miniature too, the reach of the verse can be extraordinary. The entire process of this long poem could be contained in the phrase “Loss gropes towards its vase.” which occurs very early on. The word “vase” is unprepared and thus all the more free to suggest Keats’ urn or any other signification we find useful, whatever receptacle we wish to store our losses in.
The first poem of the book Fair Realism (1989) begins–
Wild gardens overlooked by night lights. Parking
lot trucks overlooked by night lights. Buildings
with their escapes overlooked by lights
They urge me to seek here on the heights
amid the electrical lighting that self who exists,
who witnesses light and fears its expunging
and goes on from this evocation of isolation and distance, into a comparatively straightforward account, without excursions elsewhere, of removing an abstract painting from a wall and replacing it with a scene from The Tale of the Genji, a moving encounter between Genji and his son at which “each turns his face away from so much emotion”. The poem is manifestly a different proposition from her usual: poised, deliberate, connected, laden with content… and stands out as such even though the whole book tends in that direction. It is also unmistakeably hers, and has become probably her best-known poem. There is a hint at a personal involvement in the story of filial encounter which perhaps motivated the piece but more importantly the whole poem is a meditation on conditions of light and darkness. It is an unusually orthodox treatment of the kind of material she usually handles, but it does extend out of the field of recognised discourse when it reaches for its ending–
The light of fiction and the light of surface
sink into vision whose illumination
exacts its shades,
The Genji when they arose
strolled outside reality
their screen dismantled,
upon that modern wondering space
flash lights from the wild gardens.
You could write reams on any of Barbara Guest’s successful poems, which is most of them. It is not only image, vocabulary, and figuration; it is also syntax, rhythm, form, lineation, sound values… and, as here, a kind of emblematic construction is formed which remains gently shrouded in the evident reality. There is something approaching a theme: singular light falling on wild or alien places, then an open, abstract landscape of widespread sea and sunset colours is replaced with a depiction of a human relationship… and then the ending. The message is that it is we, the humans, who create the darkness as we play our light of vision onto these static frames, and finally in our minds liberate the figures from the realism of the picture, and the world at large (wild garden) flickers both light and dark… The descent from the totalisation of the abstract to the human particular (a chiaroscuro which permits the figures to avert their faces) opens the way to an extended sense of home, of what we inhabit… Well, something along those lines, but how much more engaging it is at it stands, showing lights on the wild garden (etc.) worked through to lights from the wild garden, a turn from direct to indirect perceptive process.
IN THE LATER work, from the mid 1990s, the floating, spaced-out settings donate a certain serenity, but the linguistic displacement can become extreme to the extent that outlandish word choices make it impossible to follow her. To choose one of the most puzzling passages I can find–
than eyes adulterous surface –
the bruised arch – a sting
severely clothed – rich in dynamite –
xxxxxxxxcord to shallows –-;
xxxxxxa fluid haze divides –
the rhythm vault –
– single movement – topped with purple hills –
xxxxxxxxxxcontralto shift –-.
Obviously the relinquishing of subject matter, depiction, story, discourse, speech, and more, has reached an extreme. And when you do eliminate all those things what are you left with? Words. The words do occur in small groups but even there the mechanisms of connection which govern meaning can’t be trusted. No apostrophe on “eyes” so we have to break that line in two. “rhythm” not “rhythmic” so that that noun and “vault” merely stand in apposition. And we start to mistrust even the connections we are given: consider “the bruised” as standing for a plural noun and “arch” as a verb. But the worst stumbling blocks, of course, are completely unprepared context-destroying words such as “dynamite” and “cord”.
One thing that puzzles me about a passage like this is why I’m not annoyed by it, as I usually am by such things. One reason is that there is no hint of alienation or protest as the motivation: she is manifestly not tearing the language apart because it is the weapon of the commercial or political enemy. She is doing it out of a belief in the value of art as the creation of a self-sufficient world which has to be separated from the traits of normal (or “empirical” – see below) discourse. Another reason is that I have come to trust her poetical procedures even when they defeat me. I do believe that each of those impossible transitions is likely to be arrived at as a result of careful thought as well as associative flare, and that she is seriously concerned to enact these terms within a context which doesn’t distinguish between the immediate (experience) and the acquired (reading etc.). These scenarios are basically episodes of her life.
There are also contextual conditions which on the one hand offer to bring some coherence but can also feel as if she is deliberately laying a false trail. The above is the first section of the poem “Expectation” subtitled “Erwartung: Schoenberg”. I have followed the whole poem against both the music and Pappenheim’s libretto without locating any structural connection whatsoever. There is no chance that the poem follows a parallel course, of image, mood, or anything. All there is is occasional words or short phrases which seem to refer to music or possibly to moments of the libretto, “arch” and “vault” because in the monodrama a woman is groping though a dark wood at night looking for her lover, and “adulterous” could be relevant. For music: “the rhythm vault”, “movement”, “contralto” (but Erwartung is for soprano), and later “Chromatic rise” and “littered octave”. That’s about all really, which is almost nothing. The first section of the poem is followed by four more, headed “variations”; but Erwartung is not in variation form. So it seems we are offered the connection only to be denied it, and this is inevitable: we must not read her poem as a version of some other artifact or as saying anything at all about any other work or experience but its own. Erwartung is the source which is erased in the writing, the “absent subject” which leaves only its scent behind. And yet there are clusters of metaphor, especially at endings, which might well be the conclusion of the quest, not as summaries of the source but as the poem’s own discovery in relation to the source. In this case “littered octave – disrupted – […] spells the translucent.” But my ellipses conceal two further terms (“knee-bound” and “mutinied”) which seem entirely to deaden thought.
The message is that it is we, the humans, who create the darkness as we play our light of vision onto these static frames, and finally in our minds liberate the figures from the realism of the picture, and the world at large (wild garden) flickers both light and dark…
THERE ARE OTHER apparently false trails laid – a group of poems entitled Dürer at the Window, Reflexions on Art and a much longer work, Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature. In neither case of course do the reflexions or notes conform to normal expectation, but the latter in particular is a finely wrought accumulation of quotations, epithets, references and Guest-type poetry hovering over the possibility of notes on literature, reaching a kind of plea for depth in the recovery of mythical vision–
Where are they, wood nymphs and the glittering
Beings – do they overstep each other…?
The Dolphin God – does he swim on the page?
The sections of this work are headed by quotes from, among others, Hegel and Adorno, which might give some indication, if we need it, of the rationale behind the poetry in an attachment of European idealism, a rejection of what Hegel called empiricism. But I am unconvinced that the poetry was conceived according to these precepts and rather suspect that they were attached at a very late stage. More telling is a short prose piece from If So, Tell Me (1999) concerning the necessary absence of the subject–-
It can be seen she encouraged the separation of flower from the page, that she wished an absence to be encouraged. She drew from herself a technique which offered life to the flower, but demanded the flower remain absent. The flower, as a subject, is not permitted to shadow the page. Its perfume is strong and that perfume may overwhelm the sensibility that strengthens the page and desires to initiate the absence of the flower. It may be that absence is the plot of the poem. A scent remains of the poem. It is the flower’s apparition that desires to remain on the page, even to haunt the room in which the poem was created.
This seems a thorough and honest account of her poetical method. But we should notice that it is not a cold manipulation of the text but a part-regretted perseverance motivated by the need to cope with absence. Perhaps we could even suggest that it represents a hope rather than a secure platform, and recognises that the problems created by subtraction as a creative method could be interminable.
There is an essay on the late poetry by Majorie Welish3 which describes very precisely Guest’s poetical practice, defined quite correctly, I think, as “lyric” (e.g. “syllabic acoustic relations at the expense of given subject matter”) and as a form of literalness. For me the most disturbing sentence in it is this one: “She leave traces of lyricism so imaginatively acute that a moral rectitude is the precipitate”. Insofar as I trust the late phase of Guest’s poetry I would agree at least to hope that such is the result and justification. It would be a welcome resolution if this emergence of moral rectitude could be demonstrated by close analysis but I doubt very much if that would be possible.
Barbara Guest’s Collected Poems should on no account be missed.
I FIND IT hard to think of a chronologically ordered collected poems which begins so impressively as Joseph Ceravolo’s does. Wallace Stevens’ occurs to me as one such. This consists of the small book Transmigration Solo dated 1960-1965 but not published until 1979, some thirty poems written in his late twenties. They take on the full possibilities of “New York” outlandish figuration and non-sequitur but held in a strongly vocal rhetoric, emphases and repetitions which signal a human presence bearing a tense emotional charge–
xxCold and the cranes.
Cranes in the
like cellophane tape
on a school book.
The wind bangs
the car, but I sing out loud,
as sky gets white
xxand whiter and whiter and whiter.
Where are you
xin the reincarnate
xxxxxxblossoms of the cold?
Whatever awkward questions arise – What kind of cranes? How can either kind resemble cellophane on a school book?… their awkwardness is held in the urgency of the voice, its distress and its confrontation with contradiction.4 A drama is in progress, there is not time for the suitable metaphor and this speed delivers us into a more challenging place. A stanza from ‘Pain Songs’–
The path, the path is where?
It’s the cow’s, o but
to be near the cow.
Let’s be near some old
realization that just died.
Near some depowdered
head that comes round
the horseshoe curves of sense.
The sense of desperation is typical, typically crossed with the rhythmic and imagistic confidence of the writing, the strong syntactical engagement of the self with scene and object and the imaginative leaps from figure to figure. So too is the dramatic repetition and re-starting, many poems having governing words repeated through the text as impulsions to continue. How a dead cow comes round to being an archaic head moving in ellipses to create sense is not for me to say, but it does.
Ceravolo is generally mentioned as a “second generation” New York poet (born 1934) and obviously he found his initial impetus in the procedures established by the older poets, indeed he attended a writing class run by Kenneth Koch. But he also kept himself to some extent separate, not least by living outside the city and being employed all his life as a civic engineer. The question of how he would develop the mode of Transmigration Solo thereafter raises itself acutely, but unfortunately he didn’t. He shot off into something completely different, in the long text Fits of Dawn, which was actually written in 1961, therefore concurrently with “Transmigration Solo”. It’s all like this:
mumbbler of gash-
Rice! hold you
festive running Choose!
Leap confide ballad
ashame, oh stump!
moons of drimp confuse.
Tiens corner tien
I generally find it best not to comment on this kind of writing, which many still value highly, except in this case to note that the emotional charge now has to be supplied by exclamation marks. It is anyway clearly a move to push the volatile figuration of New York poetry as far as it will go in the wrong direction, where no thought process can possibly take place in either poet or reader and no autonomous artistic “place” can be created except one which is uninhabitable. Such is obviously the intention (rather than simply the failure) and it is astonishing that he located from somewhere (Dadaism?) this extreme textuality at such an early date, before even Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets (1964), the “classic” second generation work of wildly disordered language which is actually far less obstructive.
CERAVOLO’S PROGRESS AFTER this shows a slow and faltering return to modes of address, in increasingly open poems intermittently hindered by experimentalism, bringing him to Spring in the World of Poor Mutts, actually his first published book in 1968, which was awarded the Frank O’Hara prize and at once established a reputation for him which was more than local. There are many vagaries of manner in this book but it does recapture the skill shown in Transmigration Solo, generally in a calmer tone, though there is normally a sense of emotional struggle. The life hinted at behind the verbally led texture becomes familial, a child is involved and the child’s voice is repeated in the text. There are even some family scenes, but always within the tense uncertainties of a poetical voice which holds the language unto itself, denying the reader full entry into the experience. There is, for instance, this startlingly candid sexual poem uniting male and female involvement in birth, but in which we have to go through an enigmatic episode towards an ending which is loudly glad and suddenly inconclusive. But these are, in principle, precisely the moves which make the poem an enactment of the particular rather than a question of any-man and any-woman.
Pregnant, I Come
I come to you
with the semen
and the babies:
ropes of the born.
I rise up as you go up
in your consciousness.
Are you unhappy
in the source?
The clouds sputter
across the ring.
Do the birds sing?
Is the baby singing in you? yet.
I’m also struck by short poems of perceived nature marked by the decision not to extend, not to devolve perception any further, but to trust it as it appears to be, in sharp contrast to the distrust of unmediated perception in much of Barbara Guest’s work.
Before the dusk grows deeper
Now comes a little moth dressed in
rose pink, wings bordered with yellow. Now
a tiger moth, now another and another another
I think this book will remain Ceravolo’s principal achievement, but there is a lot to follow it which is by no mean negligible. There is first a poem called Hellgate filling 28 pages, which starts very well but later takes some banal routes and is plagued by the bardic tone of a “spiritual journey”. It is a plea for authenticity, of great scope and an impressive performance, but something has happened. With Hellgate Ceravolo’s relationship to the reader changes, and this concerns all the many (over 300) poems which fill up the rest of the book. Up to this point even the plainest writing (such as ‘Dusk’) is rendered as a verbal proposition, and so relates primarily to the reader’s experience of language, constantly tested against recognition of the actual. In this way, you could say, reader and poet connive in the realisation of the poem. Subsequently the poet undertakes to declare himself to the reader directly, most noticeably in the involvement of his religious beliefs, and this spreads into a deliberately artless offering of bald statements about a world he finds misconceived (“this vampire, America”), as well as reflections on his reading, which seems to be within the “general knowledge” area, and the voicing of an evidently disturbed private life from within a personality which seems to have been hard work. But the change is not absolute. He vagarises constantly between wilfully artless writing and all the poetical expertise he has gained, switching between them from poem to poem or in the middle of a poem or innocently blending the two.
If the retreat from New York poetry can produce distressing commonplaces it can also release disarming simplicities, as well as moments of complete candour. The art he renounced is in fact never very far away…
So the book ends with this large collection of poems which I find intriguing as we constantly witness this veering to and from poetically conceived writing, and if the retreat from New York poetry can produce distressing commonplaces it can also release disarming simplicities, as well as moments of complete candour. The art he renounced is in fact never very far away and can be servant to startling episodes of plain speaking.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is a preludial assembly of about 90 very short poems entitled INRI published in 1979 (described in the introduction as 20-syllable poems, but some of them are twenty-word poems and some of them are neither. There is nothing in the book to relate to its title.) Ceravolo here comes to a perfect compromise; the poems are entirely evident in their purpose and address, even epigrammatical sometimes, but the brevity brings out all the skill he had developed in controlled wit and the handling of image and sound, and produces an uninterpreted but carefully placed detailing, low on active verbs, which begins to feel quite Chinese. Two examples:
Clean cutting breeze:
a little brutal too much.
My child asleep
in my arms
Runs Me Over
Sometimes when I sit here
eating in the hot sun,
a great sadness
runs me over
Ceravolo’s Collected Poems is in some degree a surprising event – I would not have thought his reputation had reached this stage yet, though I am glad it has. It was thus a bold venture on the part of editors and publisher. It is also a revelation of a body of work of which the most meticulous devotee can hardly have suspected the bulk or the range.
JAMES SCHUYLER’S Collected Poems was published in 1993 as a volume of 430 pages, and Other Flowers is a book of additional poems which escaped the collection. The first thing to be said is that there has been no barrel-scraping. These are all finished poems from right through his career preserved by Schuyler but never published, and discovered in his archive. They stand as equal to most of his previously known poems; perhaps only the very long The Morning of the Poem (published 1980) represents an order of achievement not represented here.
People generally turn to James Schuyler with a sense of relief and admiration; it is felt that his poetry is highly achieved but does not present problems. He wrote a lot of conversational poems which read like diary entries (some of them were originally diary entries), or missives to poets and lovers. The admiration is for his impeccable craft in forming these poems, which however casual they may be are never facile, but by sonic and rhythmic detail, by bathetic wit or its opposite, and by the art of pressing on regardless, always become seriously engaging. The throw-away ending which returns us to actuality was a speciality, but he could also begin a poem, “A nothing day full of/wild beauty and the/timer pings.” This is not actually bathetic at all; it places two notations, large and small, on the same plane, as continuities. There is a poem, “The Smallest”, which is a disquisition on this question of scale: the smallest “contains alphabets” and “is infinite”. There are many disquisitions on given topics working quite logically through to a conclusion, or just as likely to throw in an ending which turns the whole thing upside down, both moves governed by a sense of the quality of perception amidst the clutter of living or the hurts which pierce the fabric of enjoyment. Everyday living is woven inextricably into his poetical textures but it is not the whole story; he is basically a serious poet exploring his own distress. The new book is full of the sense of personal address which is his principal vehicle, so it is perhaps salutary to remind ourselves what else he was capable of–
Crystal flesh, starry lice,
gilden silver scows, ivory
death-mask fall feathered,
wrists’ anemones, eyes’ dials,
a viol slashes currant-red
damask love-seats and lapis
spittoons. Riots. Axes drip
drip, a basket of heads. Of
embassies, of retaliant tune,
hawkers, harpers, chronicle.
Dusty oxen scamper in hills,
green, spiked, wheel cut.
Time, bite your tail, hoop
snake the steak-sliced neck.
Surely this poem also offers no problems unless we demand them of it. It is a list of the attributes of an elsewhere, somewhere in the bejewelled past, ordered so as to pass into tokens of harm (mainly in images of cutting), ending in a plea for protection from the ellipticality of time.5 Many of Schuyler’s surreal or cryptic scenarios, meditations on paintings etc. are similarly harmless if you don’t ask the wrong questions. But happy endings are not common, and even what is manifestly a joke poem will refuse one–
The sky in here is very blue
and made of wood.
You are very great,
Ruth is great.
Have a brandy.
Nobody lives for ever
and it’s a fucking shame.6
There is felt to be something elusive about the quality of Schuyler’s poetry; more than once I have seen the question put “How does he do it?”, especially regarding the unfailing vitality of so many poems. I can’t answer this question but I can suggest two possibilities. One might lie simply in the qualities of “good writing” as such, in prose or poetry, which he could have mastered early in his career and never abandoned – his first published book, in 1958, was a novel. This would be a matter of clarity and completion in large or small, helpfulness towards the reader, the dramatic organisation of a sentence or passage to project its point, and so forth.
Secondly, Other Flowers, by presenting more of his work from the 1950s than we are used to, shows that among the various modernistic or New-York-ish forms he practised there were also intermittent exercises of a different kind, such as the poem “Beautiful Outlook” (1953), which begins–
Passersby see it as prison, grave or den
into which their fear of what they fear lurks there
could drive them. Within, the walls are hung with light
like any room, meals are punctual and time
speeds, goes slow, does not exist, to suit the need
of each victim of the other side of love.
This is a direct address on a given subject, concerning one of the hospitals which Schuyler periodically had to enter because of his mental ill-health, a subject from which it does not deviate and behaves in just the writerly way I have spoken of. It shows, of course, how outright in his discourse and thoughtfully serious he could be, in this tone as in others. But if the lines have the feel of a classical measure, that is because it is the first stanza of a formally perfect sestina. There are two other sestinas in the book, a “sonnet” in couplets and other incursions into traditional form, some fragmentary. You do not, I would think, write a poem like “Beautiful Outlook” without studying formal metrics and it is arguable that this reveals another source of his notable confidence in moving around within a poem. The poem ends in the obligatory triolet–
A hospital is not a den. The men in there,
the sick, saw light shatter, heard the tick of time.
Each man had his ugly need, each deserved love.
THE ARTISTIC AND poetical boom in New York from the 1950s onwards for, at the most, three decades, is a strange and in some ways artificial phenomenon. The poets built their success on the backs of the painters, of course, and they in turn built theirs on the backs of the Parisian art scene earlier in the century. Almost all of the poets were heavily involved in the art world and devoting energy to constructing a parallel or consanguineous relationship of the two activities. Poems were conceived as being structured as an abstract painting was, or sometimes a tension was created between a real subject and the painted one (“an evening real as paint on canvas” as Schuyler put it). This relationship is often offered as the key to understanding the more difficult poetry, though I don’t think it is. The poem will always in the end have to stand alone. The poets also mixed with the painters, indeed lived with them – Schuyler lived in Fairfield Porter’s family for eight years, O’Hara was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, Guest was herself a painter, and so on and so on. They all (except Koch) wrote art journalism and the take-up of French poetry was entirely in line with what the painters had done (and incidentally produced a rather unhelpful anti-British polemic).
It is said with authority that government funding, including C.I.A. money, went into supporting this drive with publicity, including the funding of European exhibitions. This does not devalue the New York paintings nor the poetical association, but it was not a spontaneous flowering.
New York’s largely successful bid to become the modern art centre of the world was specifically designed by dealers and officials, rather than the artists, to replace Paris when the latter was disabled during the occupation and many European artists were fleeing to the States from Europe, and it is said with authority that government funding, including C.I.A. money, went into supporting this drive with publicity, including the funding of European exhibitions. This does not devalue the New York paintings nor the poetical association, but it was not a spontaneous flowering. Kinds of abstract painting one moment considered beyond the pale, a small minority avant-garde interest, were suddenly worth a fortune, and I note, without understanding it, the apparent strain placed on the artists in terms of breakdown, suicide, drugs, and alcoholism. A lesser pain seems to have spread to the poets, where drugs and alcohol were commonplace, and I wonder sincerely what mechanism dictated that male homosexuality should have such dominance among them.
These things may be seen as a product of a particularly fervid local scene, and yet very much the same description would apply to the smaller poetry scene in San Francisco at the same time (Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan et al.) so perhaps some larger and more mysterious force was at work in a national spasm of late Romanticism.7
The New York poets saw the support and promotion of painting as part of their function, in poetry as much as in prose, and took pride in dropping the artists’ names in their social poems. There was obviously a pressure to innovate in the art/poetry context which for the poets meant a careful violation of what was considered the proper (weighty) substance of poetry, by intense, “abstract” configurations as much as by anti-poetical everyday banter. I find it impossible to know what the balance will finally be between recognition of the remarkable, original, moving and sometimes profound poetry made possible in this unusual context, and a verdict which considers it as all little more than a set of aestheticist gestures, 1890s style, thrown up by a manipulated market. But there is no doubt that all three of the poets under review used the situation they were in to extend the conceptual bounds of poetry on the basis of quite traditional lyrical skills which always show through the dazzling web in one way or another. For me, Schuyler’s work might in the end prove the most valuable as, having grasped the opportunities of New York poetry in a virtuosic but entirely genial way, he then cultivated the art of staying where he was, while the other two were pushed further and further into a linguistic avant-gardism turned to an intellectual purpose (Guest) or tangled with the need to escape from it (Ceravolo). The opportunity offered by these books to obtain a comprehensive view of what was done is invaluable.
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
A revision to correct an editing error was made on 18 June 2013.