The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest (Wesleyan Poetry)
by Barbara Guest
Reviewed by Tyrone Williams
The relativity of the term "obscure" is always implicit in the regular journalistic and academic jeremiads against contemporary American poetry. Billy Collins's insistence that poetry should be "transparent" echoes an entire history of critical celebrations of serenity, simplicity, and clarity -- for language. Not that controversies revolving around the relationship of "serious" music (classical and jazz) and the plastic arts to the public don't exist; it's just that they rarely make it beyond, for example, the Arts section of The New York Times. Poetry's irrelevance -- however celebrated (Auden's "Poetry makes nothing happen"), regretted (Spicer's "Nobody listens to poetry"), or condemned (Williams's "Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom . . .") -- is causally linked to either its academic inaccessibility or facile popularization. For poets like Collins, working in traditional narrative and lyric modes, the perceived excesses of neo-modernist Language Poetry and spoken word/performance/slam poetry are more or less equally abhorrent.
So what to make of a poet like Barbara Guest, equally at home in experimental and lyric modes of writing? Unlike Michael Palmer or Ed Roberson -- other difficult-to-pigeon-hole poets -- whose lineages appear definitive, if misleading (French Symbolism and the Black Arts Movement, respectively), Guest, for all her resemblances to John Ashbery (both worked as art critics during the postwar heyday of abstract expressionism and both poetics are indebted to Dada, Surrealism, and the plastic arts in general), was much more chameleon than her generational peers. Moreover, unlike the dazzling, teasing surfaces of Ashbery's mature poetry, Guest's poetry moves inexorably toward revelation, the unveiling of the hidden. As such, it has some kinship with Deep Image poetics, though her work's insistence on immanence is suffused with a spirituality that suffices without religion (in that sense, a contemporary poet like Elizabeth Robinson is closer to Guest's sensibility than, say, Fanny Howe). Guest was a poet of transgression, an unmaker of the made, but the impulse behind her breaking frame after frame was her respect for the contingencies of existence -- not triumphant rebelliousness or aesthetic agonism. Over and over Guest's poetry immerses itself in the fluidity, and traces the limitations, of social, cultural, political, and aesthetic forms -- even as it acknowledges that when all is said and done, form, however unreliable and uncertain, is all that remains.
Though Guest never withdrew into programmatic formalism, she was cognizant of its temptations. In an early poem, "The Blue Stairs," she understands, perhaps even sympathizes with, those artists who "having reached the summit / would like to stay there / even if the stairs are withdrawn." Though too invested in the process of writing to remain cloistered in any aesthetic moment, Guest can, nonetheless, "show off" with the best of them. Still, as she writes in "Turkey Villas," "Enough of this dizziness / let us apply the oars." The journey she embarked on took her through most of the modes and tropes of modern and postmodern poetry. She could "do" Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton ("Barrels"), Ashbery ("Knights of the Swan"), Carolyn Kizer ("Bicycling") and more. Her self-deprecating humor insulated her from most of the stuffy seriousness of modernism. In a poem from The Countess from Minneapolis, Guest flips Gertrude Stein's adage that "there is no air in painting" on its head: "It was only within the picture she could breathe," she writes. Guest pays homage to Stein (here and elsewhere) even as she insists on numinous values largely absent from Stein's ethos. The unsuspecting browser thumbing through a mid-career work like The Confetti Trees might be hard-pressed to see in this book's forms and wry take on cinema the same sensibility that informs an early book like The Location of Things.
Guest's later work is not, strictly speaking, abstract, despite its increased insistence on the spiritual dimension of art. Its "difficulty" derives from Guest's attention to detail. This attentiveness does not subordinate a subject to an object; instead, Guest attempted to replicate the forms of modern and contemporary art and music in language (here she comes closest to the programmatic tenets of some Language Writing). But Guest never moved "beyond" "expressive" forms and modes; instead, she incorporated their features into otherwise dense, philosophical ruminations on aesthetics, spirituality, friendship, and love. In short, Guest never felt compelled to take only the road less traveled, as later poets -- from flarf enfants terrible to New Formalist revisionists -- would; hers is an ecumenical poetry that embraces almost all modern and postmodern poetics.
Exhibit A might be one of her most influential books, Fair Realism, where Guest's constructivist and expressive tendencies dovetail into one of her most "accessible" and philosophically trenchant books. These poems celebrate the phenomenological dance of meaning and meaninglessness that contemporary art forms, including those of poetry, perform as they try to get at what will not be gotten, however backed into the corner of a frame. "Wild Gardens Overlooked By Night Lights" is exemplary in its enactment of Zeno's paradox at the heart of all hermeneutics: "The light of fiction and light of surface / sink into vision whose illumination / exacts its shades." We always and only "see" what she elsewhere names "The Blurred Edge," that moment or site when we teeter on the verge of incoherence. Though Guest's insights can be folded into deconstructive, psychoanalytic, or phenomenological categories, the sliding of meaning, of certainty, is, for her, always at hand, in the quotidian. Or something in between, say, in "The Screen of Distance," the ever-regressing, ever-deferring definition of the mineral beryl in, taken directly from a dictionary: "A light greenish blue that is bluer / and deeper than average aqua / greener than robin's eggs blue, / bluer and paler than turquoise / blue and greener and deeper than beryl / blue -- a light greenish blue that is bluer / and paler than beryl or average turquoise blue -- / bluer and slightly paler than aqua." Guest's gloss is picturesque imperfect: "The speculative use of mineral prevents an / attachment to words from overflowing, inserts / a vein of jazz, emblems of color and overcomes / the persecuting stretch of racetrack where words / race their mounts...."
For all the prizes and awards, mostly late in her career, Guest is not well enough known, even among aficionados of contemporary innovative poetry. Certainly her lack of interest in polemics, especially in the new waves of mid-century feminism, could not have helped. She also focused on raising a family during the turbulent cultural wars of the Sixties and Seventies. Finally, Guest's age may have been a factor in her low profile. Though part of the New York School, famously celebrated in Donald Allen's The New American Poetry, Guest never had the kind of public career some others did. The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest will go a long way toward enhancing the visibility and pertinence of this work. Read in toto, these poems demonstrate Guest's unwavering commitment to ceaseless re-invention and a refusal of all forms of parochialism.