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Susan Gevirtz

Belief's Afterimage

Barbara Guest’s author notes page here on the Jacket site offers a biographical note, and also links to a dozen or so Jacket pages that feature her work or reviews of her books, or where she is interviewed.

 
 

Rocks On A Platter, Notes On Literature, Barbara Guest, Wesleyan University Press, Hanover and London, 1999.

If So, Tell Me, Barbara Guest, Reality Street Editions, London, 1999.

The Confetti Trees, Barbara Guest, Sun & Moon Press, Los Angeles, 1999.

 
 


A body by itself doesn't mean anything.
You have to surround it with a story.

- Vladimir Dzuro, Czech Police detective, forensic team.
Nov. 1, 1999, New York Times

Body in the field - beyond uneven brick,
      meaning in advance of itself.

- If So, Tell Me, Barbara Guest, 13

 
 

BEGINNING AGAIN and again surrounding a body with story "another STORY BEGINS." (Rocks, 3) Was there ever a body to begin with? Or can a body by itself exist? In Barbara Guest's three recent books there is only the surrounding that is poetry. Something imagined lying across the field of the page beyond the uneven brick of type.

To read Barbara Guest's three new books, almost simultaneously, is to visit a land of elaboration. Due to the accident of their publication, all appearing in 1999 within a few months of each other, the books converse more directly than they might if they had appeared further apart in time. Instead, I (as many readers may have) read each all the way through then saw that by their own momentum they began to shuffle - three extraordinary decks of cards - doors to worlds so rich and complex that comment is paltry, leaving only the possibility of response. Although The Confetti Trees was written long before the other two it fully participates in the orbit of this trialogue. Formally and otherwise the books are vastly different from each other and cannot be conflated.

 
 


Barbara Guest, photo by Donna Dennis, 1970s

Barbara Guest


photo by Donna Dennis, 1970s

 

 
 


But in the land which surfaces from the orbit of the three, Guest elaborates a relation to language and writing that is more than "poetry" or a "poetics." It is an interrogation of the structures of making, of meaning, and of the conduct of the writer in writing, toward language. A realm emerges in which the book is a three dimensional proposition and the conduct of one's approach as reading writer is a phenomenology regarding the act of entering.

In this land there are only the trappings of story. Story is a decoy that never does its purported work of identifying the unmarked: "She submitted a few stories she called 'The Minus Ones' . . . ." ("The Minus Ones," Confetti Trees, 52). Like the solitary body story is always hungry. Sparagmos - ritual dismemberment - the body by itself is ecstatic, flying to pieces, marvelous in its occupation of the place no story can fully enter. Here in this crevice, death palace, where the decay of story's function is clearly seen, the writing takes place:

Now the pain has left the body. Only an outline remains. Down by the bathhouse where the soundless waves tumble the Montage ends in an unfinished tree. Nothing is alive. A writer sits at Windows, a woman on his Screen. He puts her on a reef with the shipwrecked sailor. The feeble sun he paws will not burn.

"Nostalgia," Confetti Trees, 14

The problem of making the body mean, burn, is always before us - And the conditions of making differ depending on who proposes them, and by what means. This time a he sits at a computer screen looking out its window into the computer Screen at a program called Windows, at the reflection of himself as her in the window Screen. The "mouse" of the computer, the "feeble sun" - "will not burn." Where there is no burning there is the necessity of further investigation into the conditions, the various means of burning of producing illumination - by reflection, a trick of mirrors, or by candle, computer, lamp, film projector - each from a different era and producing different effects in the hands of different operators - poets, philosophers, composers, among others - rifling through her effects - retelling is required here where an outline will not burn.

 
 


Will not burn remains, replacing the idea of happened with the proposition of told. An investigation into the conditions of telling is also necessary where there is "Only an outline" the "remains": Story as memory of that which may never have occured: where "Nothing is alive." We arrive at the unsurrounded body, imagination itself:

They told her they liked real fires and not those of the imagination. Imagination was harmful and always messed up the set.

"The Minus Ones," The Confetti Trees, 52

Putting burning where the props and plot were on the set. Subtracting one from one from one from one matching zero with the place of "real fires." Striking the set, replacing, stripping what appears to be intact. Writing as an act of removal - exhuming the body to tell the story to keep the furniture, the food cooking on the stove, while removing the walls of the house. Use the utensils, the elements, the structures of myth, poetry, fairytale, screenplay, narrative, to expose the beams and bolts. To require that we listen inside-out and doubly. Surround the body with subtraction since the body is always already cloaked in story as before it is born it is clothed in a history. That which is made up and can never fully reveal the origins of its making:

That which shows itself and at the same time withdraws is the essential trait of what we call the mystery. I call the comportment which enables us to keep open to the meaning hidden in technology, openness to the mystery. (Heidegger, 55)
In all three books "openness to the mystery" is the comportment - writing as finger on the disappearing present body of writing writer, of writing writing
                                  White
perpendicular lights       attached to the shoulder
I touched the wrist with my writing finger     and from the center
the orb of the eye was enough fire     to light the writing lamp and
afterwards     the blade     withdrew from the writing shoulder     and that writ
blew away     flame lit with nothing     and nothingness stayed.

            Skin of the lost paper
                Knuckle smooth         (touched the writing).


                       Nietzschean       thumb on
                                     the trout
                                and they disappear.

Rocks, II, 20

Technology's techne the machinations, writing finger's methods of making, chosen, as it were live on camera, while pawing a "feeble sun," or at gunpoint, that is, in the face of the urgency of "poetry of the moment" a "flame lit with nothing     and nothingness stayed." ("Overboard," Confetti Trees, 9) Each moment approaching nothing because: "In whatever guise reality becomes visible, the poet withdraws from it into invisibility." (Guest, "Mysteriously Defining the Mysterious," a talk given in 1986.)

Calling the apparition of nothing as a method of entering:

practices of deception existing: to encounter   arm, and sun,
  cloak       did not have its own ambition until they vanish and
return
        Meaning, also.

"Deception," If So, 27

Calling practices of deception which exist in order to create encounter which can only be "vanish and return" - what appears to be the light of day is "sun, cloak . . . " Revealing and concealing meaning Guest requires that we listen doubly to mystery, day's ambition, the light of night, illuminating "This elaborate structure around the text . . . " ("Doubleness," If So, 13)

Thus the three books confound distinctions, particularly that between poetry and poetics, making comportment more useful than poetics.. A comportment toward language, the mystery. A practice of approach, that is, of writing, " . . . which expresses 'yes' and at the same time 'no,' [named] by an old word, releasement toward things." (Heidegger, 54) The release of meaning to its own life beyond what is meant "Moves outside the text into the dark under text . . . " ("In Slow Motion,"If So, 11) Meaning that disregards genre or answer except where useful as toy takes instead "repercussions, soundings . . . " - music of thinking or conversations across time, replace explanation or telling, though the vehicles, demonstrations and sounds of it differ. "We once took a ship" - listen "royal traveler" - is your name "dissonance"? Is it Schoenberg? Nietzsche? Walser? Richardson? Spenser? Husserl, H.D., Hegel, Chaucer, Heidegger, Adorno, Coleridge, Holderlin? To whom and with whom else is address? This is decay's deportment: place of story without story begging for and repelling story

            Skin of the lost paper
                Knuckle smooth         (touched the writing).
Conjuring an astonishing ethnographically "real" Hollywood of World War II in The Confetti Trees Guest uses the film camera to demonstrate exactly the ways in which "practices of deception" work to illuminate more than practices of "realistic" documentation or plot ever can:
Rather than imitating reality, artworks demonstrate this displacement to reality. Ultimately, the doctrine of imitation should be reversed; in a sublimated sense, reality should imitate the artworks. (Adorno, 132)
As they do in the desire to enter an ideal world of the made, displaced by the entrance into the motion of motion picture,
The action began in heavy mechanical studio rain. An actor in a brown overcoat lit a cigarette and detaching himself from the group entered the house. Other actors in brown overcoats with lit or unlit cigarettes entered the house. One by one as the director watched, the actors reappeared. Each carried a barrel he then pushed down the rickety steps of the house.

One more detail decided the Director. Over his loud speaker he called to the actors to put out their cigarettes. "No smokes! Not in this rain! Keep the unlit cigarettes in your mouths. Keep pushing the barrels! In and out of the house more and more barrels! Four more times. Before the real storm hits."

 . . . . He lived in the real world too much these days. He hated reality. His raincoat had already dampened the seat of his expensive car and there were puddles on the floor. Puddles! In his beautiful car! That was what was wrong. You had no control over reality. He sat back in his seat, prepared to reconsider the film in terms of an apparition with absolutely no intrusion of the physical world and its weather.

"Details," Confetti Trees," 42-43

The action begins in doubleness that is likeness. The sublimated "physical" of the physical world. " . . . heavy mechanical studio rain," and "Puddles!" - "lit" and "unlit cigarettes" requiring further investigation into the nature of semblance:

She shall disclose herself (herself still pointing)
          essential to the hidden

possessiveness in back of a throat, the double S of the word.

"Deception," If So, Tell Me, 26



herself       herself

the double d

of hidden

and the lower and uppercase

d of Director


As in

          "A likeness     to what is believed


is the poem. The camera takes us, momentarily."

("annunziare! Dora Films 1913 Elvira Notari
in Naples" If So, 15)

Just like what you believe, is a world of proposed beliefs, but the poem is not itself what you believe. And likeness not where you would expect: Rocks On a Platter the "poetics" book is poetry about poetry, philosophy, reading, etc, no more or less than the other two are "Notes on Literature." In this land there can be no ideal platonic form of poetics or the poem "outside" the poem that occupies the realm of true belief. It is poesis - the act of this particular comportment that one can believe and the poem is belief's afterimage. "Yet this demise . . . " of belief? of the poem? " . . . shows itself in fragments, just as the poet slowly dies in his or her poem making sure there are fragments remaining of the empire which created the poem, the empire of the poet's soul." (Guest, "Mysteriously Defining the Mysterious".)

 
 


      ¶

Chapter: Etymology's Nemesis

Soaring and diving with the aquarium sharks and casting another shadow half imitation half prebirth. Drinking of this aquarium water tincture and thereby knowing something happened. Thus reaching for the dictionary. Inadequacy's tablet, one nervous twitch before story's wish to subtract by including too many particulars. Such soft wax of impression. A highly sophisticated selection of pattern for which, in the past, they had only the word "memory." In Intelexa there is a saying, "Obfuscate so that the windshield's film will clearly wash over you." This is not religious maxim but the slay of time's desire to organize you into a bonsai beyond recall.

                            from THRALL Chapter Book, by Susan Gevirtz

 
 


With great gratitude to Barbara Guest.

 
 

Notes:

Sparagmos - The Dionysian rite of dismemberment performed outside the walls of the polis, usually by women (not citizens) as a holy act. That is, outside of the civil order of the Appollonian governance of the Greek pantheon. (Dictionary definition: "the tearing to pieces of a live victim, as a bull or a calf, by a band of bacchantes in a Dionysian orgy.")

Adorno, Theodor W, Aesthetic Theory, Robert Hullot-Kentor, Translator and Editor, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1997.

Guest, Barbara, "Mysteriously Defining the Mysterious: Byzantine Proposals of Poetry," excerpts from a talk given by Barbara Guest at St. Mark's Poetry Project, New York City, June, 1986. Published in HOW(ever), Vol III, No. 3, October 1986.

Heidegger, Martin, Discourse On Thinking, trans. John Anderson and E. Hans Freund, Harper and Row, New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, London, 1966.

 
 

Susan Gevirtz lives in San Francisco. She was an Assistant Professor for ten years at Sonoma State University and now teaches at The University of San Francisco. Her books include Black Box Cutaway Kelsey Street Press, 1999; Narrative's Journey: The Fiction and Film Writing of Dorothy Richardson, Peter Lang, 1996; PROSTHESIS : : CAESAREA, Potes and Poets, 1994; Taken Place, Reality Street, 1993; Linen minus, Avenue B, 1992; and Domino : point of entry, Leave Books, 1992. The Hourglass Transcripts is forthcoming from Burning Deck.


 


 
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