Exit Interview
Paul Guest
New Michigan Press, $8 (paper)

“This is about failure,” the speaker of Exit Interview announces in this chapbook’s opening line, begging the questions, “Exit from where?” and “Failure of what?” Guest addresses both questions by the poem’s end: “To your throat / I would press / my lips like a voided stamp. / You could never return to me.” What follows, however, is less a retrospective of the failed, abandoned relationship than an observation of new surroundings and a new self. In the third poem, “Such As Myself,” Guest asks, “How does one go on?” The post-relationship landscape in which he attempts to “go on” is unsurprisingly post-apocalyptic, the waters “filthy,” “brackish,” and “slimy,” the sky left with a “wounded throb,” the moon its “scar tissue.” While the first half of the book offers this grotesque emotional terrain, in the second Guest has the speaker turn his despairing gaze on himself. At one point, his “heart sits bleeding out like last week’s roadkill.” With their visceral landscapes and suggestions of hunger and thirst, this work projects a dramatically violent world. Yet Guest’s poems are most successful when he tempers their violence with his own bitter version of Whitmanesque generosity. In the anaphoric “Ode,” the speaker repeats the phrase “In praise,” paying tribute—with equal parts sincerity and sarcasm—to an array of bleak ideas, among them “the hermetic sky,” “the never coming morning,” and “raw need.” From this blending of gratitude and despair emerges an eerie tonal dissonance, as in the poem “Praise,” in which the speaker thanks his lungs simply for doing their job. When he says, “thank you, living world, / that you do not cease, that you go on and on and on,” it is difficult to tell whether the speaker is indeed praising the world or cursing it.