The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest
Edited by Hadley Hayden Guest
Wesleyan University Press, $39.95 (cloth)
Readers of Barbara Guest (1920–2006) should receive the publication of her Collected Poems with joy and relief. Until now, her forty-year oeuvre has been widely scattered among eighteen trade, independent, and university press editions, not to mention several all-but-inaccessible collaborative artists’ books. To characterize her body of work has been like trying to describe a famed mountain seen only in snapshots and postcards, glimpses that first suggest monumentality and stature, then evanescent, otherworldly shimmer. But there has been no way to assess for ourselves the astonishing breadth of the base, the suddenness of the tree line, or the exact angle of the peak.
It is true that in 2003 Guest’s essential prose volumes Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing and Dürer in the Window, Reflections on Art supplied us with a topographic map of her aesthetic landscape and a general orientation within it. We learned of her allegiance to modernisms both European and Anglophone and began to think of her work through the prism of her deep conversation with Surrealism, H.D.’s imagist and visionary poems, Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés, Walter Benjamin’s essays, and the paintings of Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, and Kandinsky. We learned just how inextricable her education as a poet was from the process-oriented painting of abstract expressionism and the New York art scene of the 1950s and ’60s, how indebted her poetic evolution was to artist friends as various as Mary Abbott, Helen Frankenthaler, Richard Tuttle, and June Felter. And yet there remained the central mystery of how Barbara Guest, the underappreciated New York School poet and art critic, became Barbara Guest, feminist aesthete, grand dame of lyric postmodernism.
Without The Collected Poems, we could not have known for sure that the tremendous change animating her work emerged amid bedrock constancy. All along, her poems have been most faithful to the moment mimetic and linear logics give way to association; her poems have courted the moment when writing through process gains true access to imagination. In “The Hero Leaves His Ship,” a poem from 1960’s The Location of Things, there is an implicit analogy between the hero departing for his adventure and the poet embarking upon her poem. To leave the known for the unknown is cast as a test, a gesture of faith on an epic scale. “I wonder if this new reality is going to destroy me,” the poem anxiously begins. “I am about to use my voice,” it continues later. “Why am I afraid that salty wing / flying over a real hearth will stop me?” After voicing the speaker’s concerns—poignant ones, for a poet’s first book—the poem ends here, in full possession of its powers:
I cross the elemental stations
from windy field to still close. Good night I go to my bed.
This roof will hold me. Outside the gods survive.
From the beginning, there is in Guest’s poems a peculiar, pleasurable crush of mimesis against figuration, a playful defiance that throws object or image up against metaphor, both of them chimed, changed. But all of her poems embody “a pull in both directions,” as she wrote in the 2003 essay “A Reason for Poetics,” “between the physical reality of place and the metaphysics of space.” And if her earlier work is more narrative and driven by voice, more concerned with love and more dependent on tone, it is nonetheless still ecstatic and nervous, engaged in the pull between the metaphysical and the matter at hand. In fact, a sexual, distinctly gendered ambivalence infuses many poems of the early volumes, such as 1968’s The Blue Stairs. Take “Four Moroccan Studies,” a poem after Eugéne Delacroix:
Can this courtyard which is myself
inspire me? Indeed those vigorous pillows
have felt my heel tap. I have had several dreams
this century attired in colors
and my arms have opened each time
the window revealed a pipe stem.
I am a marauder returning with what is my own;
I will repay you in horses and pictures.
The ease with which readers can now witness Guest’s anxious, assured early work mature into the great middle period pair of Fair Realism (1989) and Defensive Rapture (1993) is reason enough to recommend The Collected Poems. But daughter Hadley Guest’s generous editing allows us more than just that. We can also appreciate, for example, the poems’ ever-deepening philosophical ambition and linguistic charm, powers that begin to build in 1979’s The Türler Losses (excised now from the end of Fair Realism and restored to its proper place in Guest’s publication history) and come to fruition in 1980’s Biography and 1981’s Quilts, both particularly welcome additions to Guest’s publications in wide circulation. Throughout this middle period, the poems’ verbal surfaces retain both gorgeous figuration and judicious discursion; however, an epistemological search begins to structure the poems, one whose diction is as metaphysical as it is aesthetic. “The light of fiction and light of surface,” she writes in Fair Realism’s “Wild Garden Overlooked by Night Lights,” “sink into vision whose illumination / exacts its shades.”
. . . the grip of realism has found
a picture chosen to cover the space
occupied by another picture
establishing a flexibility so we are not
like a car that spends its night
outside a window, but mobile like a
The Collected Poems makes clear that—as one poem’s title proposes—“An Emphasis Falls on Reality” throughout Guest’s work. But it is the poems of her middle period that investigate most deeply the act of representing the real. “Express reality beyond tenure of the brush,” she commands in “The Nude,” “shell or escapist sail, // A severe distance is established between her realism / and his anxious attempt to define it.” And if Guest’s subtle feminism arises directly from her interest in how gender inflects any apprehension of reality, it is fitting that ekphrasis most often serves as the tool with which she loosens a discussion of the real from its usual philosophical frame. As she writes in Quilts:
Reality could be their tassel
and Reality is there, that’s what I
think about a quilt
it’s Reality, and it satisfied
Rauschenberg . . .
they gave a dimension to a pattern
weaving in and out in streams
If in earlier poems, as in 1962’s “The Open Skies,” she would ask, “Pattern of drift Is eye of air / stray ephemeral visible hand from sky form?” the “Reality tassel” of Quilts sums up Guest’s mid-period approach to artifice. This poetry charms because of its certain, deft weave, its serious epistemological fabric annotated by decorative whimsy. Her craft becomes virtuosic when what could have remained effete aestheticism turns densely metaphysical, connecting artist and mythmaker, both of whom treasure the moment when “the other world” touches the real. She might well have been writing of her own work when, in “The Nude,” she engages a drawing by Warren Brandt:
As the swan entered Leda
so the actual timing of an artist’s abrupt gesture
Is supernatural despite interferences
of local ornamental mundaneity,
he supernatural contacts ecstasy hidden
in a guise of nudism.
The artist borrows mannerism and technique,
he is free to copy, the other world is ambitionless.
By this point in her career, both Guest’s “mannerism and technique” were held together by the highly original tone she had honed over thirty years of poems, a voice pitched somewhere between the high art of Wallace Stevens and Frank O’Hara’s high camp: “Sadness and felicity / you’re coming back / ghosts in your striped Greek dress.” Her interventions into the real, rather than acting as calculated political tactics (as they have for many language-oriented writers), communicate instead a curiosity about, and pleasure in, the possibilities of poetic language. The lightness with which Guest handles her resulting poetic power yields an unusual quality for a postmodern poet: “Grief is banished from her coveted roost”; “Sweetness returns to her scorched tongue.” Anticipated by such poems from Fair Realism as “The Farewell Stairway” and “The Cradle of Culture,” this tone achieves its apotheosis in 1993’s Defensive Rapture, a breakthrough book whose “Arriving speeds the chromatic,” and which is certainly the hinge that opens onto her great later work.
In a recording of her spectacular reading at the State University of New York, Buffalo, in 1992, Guest herself points to the dramatic shift between Fair Realism and Defensive Rapture by saying the latter is “a different mood, and it’s difficult to change.” On the one hand, for Guest each poem constitutes its own real, and the ideal process of creation provides the artist entrance to a further reality: “The necessary idealizing of your reality,” Guest claims, “is part of the search, the journey.” On the other, the poems in Defensive Rapture and subsequent volumes instigate this searching idealization through an increasingly forceful emphasis on poetry’s materials: the page as a measure of composition, the silence of white space, the implicit parataxis of lineation, the aural properties of compressed syntax, the paradox of how poetry accesses inner vision through the ears as well as the eyes. Musicality gains in emphasis over image in this work, “other codes— / like granite where the toy / the ground submissive— / splays,” she writes in “Dove”:
the whinnied pupil scratch anxious
from the stalk ear the eye reached up and the
sublimated eye reroutes the gaze
world of trout a neutralized shape
the portal earth threw toad gaze
In the same way that process invites the unexpected texture or gesture into a painting or drawing, so her later poems follow what critic Elisabeth Frost has called an “aural intuition,” a process of writing by “stalk ear” that allows image and language to fuse and thus point beyond the materials of writing through which “the / sublimated eye reroutes the gaze.” A poem such as “Dove” is a palimpsest of eye and ear, “a small seizure / from monumentality” revelatory not of H.D.’s kind of visionary consciousness, but of sights got to by sounds, by dint of collage and elision, as in the first section of “Dissonance Royal Traveler”:
sound opens sound
shank of globe strings floating out
something like images are here
opening up avenues to view a dome
a distant clang reaches the edifice.
Defensive Rapture concentrates on “understanding what it means / to understand music” by enacting what qualities of musical abstraction are attainable by language. It teaches us that when we listen closely, what we see is changed: “dissonance royal traveler // altered the red saddle.” This lesson must accompany readers through Guest’s prolific final decade if we are to follow the extreme interdependence of linguistic musicality and the visual silence of white space in her late books, which are as much “Dreams set by / typography” as they are “Mobility interseamed with print” (Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature, 1999). Beginning with Quill, Solitary APPARITION (1996), her trademark Mallarmean late style emerges, austere, witty, and rife with intimations of mysticism:
the door open, or
upon return attached to those difficulties, or
disabilities hinted: “mesh
and its plentitudes”
and (this disruptiveness).
As Guest asserted in a 2003 interview, “It’s always more powerful when something’s left out,” and indeed, her late work depends upon the supposition that, as she writes in If So, Tell Me (1999), “she wished an absence to be encouraged . . . . It may be that absence is the plot of the poem.” If this absence makes Guest’s later work difficult—and it can seem profoundly so—the frustrated reader can return to Forces of Imagination (2003), especially to the seminal essay, “Wounded Joy”:
The most important act of a poem is to reach further than the page, so that we are aware of another aspect of the art. This will introduce us to its spiritual essence. This essence has no limits. What we are setting out to do is to delimit 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.
This is the rich paradox and gift of Guest’s late work: by virtue of strict delimits, it remains endlessly suggestive and spiritually resonant, “willing / to pass through the center / composed of independent poetics.” Even as it attests to Guest’s passionate belief in aesthetics as personally transformative, The Collected Poems also testifies both to the inflection gender lends aesthetics and to the necessarily simultaneous self-education and self-invention of the woman poet. It is by virtue of her long, independent poetic practice and deep involvement with poetics that Guest argues with humor and sly ferocity in 2000’s Symbiosis (originally a collaboration with artist Laurie Reed), “She is not so silly / as they thought in her mantle, // coming from outside”:
studying to be someone else,
why not? And write her own script,
write it then she did
first learn about pretense the make-up and lounge dress,
authority and the syllabus.
Seemingly effortless in its formal invention, syntactical precision and range of allusion, Guest’s late poetry reinvents the syllabus for the New American poetry by drawing on philosophy, literature, music, and art from across centuries and nationalities: Schoenberg, Hölderlin, Ovid, Ariosto, Adorno, H.D., Apuleius, Hegel, Samuel Johnson, Byron, Nietzsche, Rilke, Chekhov, Liszt, Wagner, Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Shelley, and Surrealism all make repeat appearances in her work from 1999 on. By compressing this astonishing heterogeneity of influence into very short lyrics, the work of her final years—Miniatures and Other Poems (2002) and The Red Gaze (2005)—marries rhetorical gravitas with Guest’s usual musicality and alacritous juxtaposition of tonalities and imagery. In The Red Gaze especially, an awareness of mortality inflects her collage-work, resulting in lyrics at once funny, visionary, and prayerful, as in “The Next Floor”:
Smithies, ironworks, lattices to the next floor,
we are climbing. The urge enters to see more.
Destiny peers upward into a next stanza,
resting in the nearest hayrick,
adding up, taking away.
Of what use are stanzas in the dark,
For many readers, these late poems will seem a revelatory close to a career only now fully revealed, a poetics whose “ingenuity follows the silvered / montage into a new elevation,” a lifetime of work whose implications do indeed exceed the boundaries of the book in which they are collected. It is impossible for a reader to leave The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest without appreciating the enormous spiritual gift her work has always offered in the form of an aesthetic and philosophical challenge: “To invoke the unseen, to unmask it. Reality in a glass / of water.” “Narrow and sparse, pungent as the lemon tree,” hers is an exemplary, profound grace, hard-won but worn lightly. Indeed, the resourceful wit of Guest’s “spiritual essence” makes her poetry admirable and durable, able to argue, convincingly and without sentimentality, that “Our lives are composed with magic and euphony.”