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Sara Lundquist

The Midwestern New York Poet: Barbara Guest's The Countess From Minneapolis» (Burning Deck Press, 1976)

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.

"Surely Ann Arbor is the only place in the western hemisphere where cafeterias frankly put out a neon sign saying simply and clearly: FOOD." Such was the tenor of O'Hara's first reports from the Midwest, a mixture of humor and surprise, but not the solitary pain he had anticipated. "This is not at all a bad place," he wrote . . . a few days after his arrival . . . . It seemed almost as if the openness and cleanness of the tree-lined streets and regular lawns of Ann Arbor, its fresh air and wide open spaces, were giving his poems a new clarity of language and concreteness of detail, their self-conscious preciosity being tempered by American pragmatism and imagism.

- Brad Gooch, from City Poet, 166, 171.

There ought to be room for more things, for a spreading out, like. Being immersed in the details of rock and field and slope - letting them come to you for once, and then meeting them halfway would be so much easier - if they took an ingenuous pride in being in one's blood . . . . Meanwhile the whole history or possibilities is coming to life, starting in the upper left-hand corner, like a sail.

- John Ashbery, from "For John Clare"

 
 

HOW AND WHY does a poet, associated throughout her career with New York City take on the subject of Minneapolis and its environs? How does she navigate the strong, long-standing cultural prejudice that conceives of New York City and the Midwest as polar opposites, places so divergent in their mores and values that they can cause visitors from one to the other to suffer intra-national culture shock? Mutual attraction and hostility mark this divide: inhabitants of both places tend to hope or fear that "real life" might truly be found not here but there.

Conversely, both assert, often aggressively that "here" is the center of the world, that things of value flourish here and are undermined, or actively destroyed "there." New York, the magnet city of the attractive, the talented, the keenly intelligent, those who are forward-thinking and forward-moving, the authentic manifestation of our country, is also the city of decadence, corruption, cynicism, exhausting complexity, the city of fakery and empty fashion. The middling Midwest of provincial values, spiritual poverty, featureless or cramped lives is also the Midwest of lack of pretense, straightforwardness, solidity, warmth, and attractive plainness, the authentic manifestation of our country.

Barbara Guest began writing in New York City during the 1950s, as part of a closely knit group of writers including John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, informally known as the New York School of poets (a half-joking homage to the New York School of painters, the abstract expressionists they so admired).

Cover of The Countess from Minneapolis

Her work, like theirs, is buoyant and energetic, linked aesthetically to painting and music, and to the traditions of Surrealism. Like them, she extends the formal experiments of world modernism into the second half of the century. Her early work appeared in both Donald Allen's important anthology of 1960, The New American Poetry, and in John Bernard Myers' 1969 The Poets of the New York School. She worked in New York as poetry editor for The Partisan Review, and as an art critic for ArtNews, covering important museum and gallery openings. She was part of a group of people who, during the 1950s and 60s found ways to mix fervent social interaction with ardent artistic endeavor, a group of people whose admiration of each other's often as-yet-unrecognized work coincided with delight in each other's conversation and company, and with delight in the city of New York, the capitol city of the world.

 
 


"They knew what they had," writes Joan Aocella. "In those days, most young artists adored New York - painted it, wrote about it, didn't like to leave it. Even its discomforts were dear to them." The "young artists" to which she refers were Guest's acquaintances and intimates, they became artists whose names we now recognize: besides the poets, the painters: Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell. "I came to New York when I was twenty-three," says Guest. "It seemed like civilization coming from the West [Coast] . . . . it's where I found my first acceptance. I read at the Artist's Club on Eighth Street and artists took it up saying it was interesting poetry."

In this "interesting poetry" Guest exploits, for her own ends, many of the poetic experiments that characterized difficult poetry of the early part of our century, and have become markers of The New York School since World War II: the juxtapositional ambiguity of Imagism, the allusive freedom of verbal collage, the metonymic strangeness of Surrealism, the broken "cubist" writing reminiscent of Gertrude Stein, the "all-over" techniques borrowed from the Abstract Expressionists. She practices a unique brand of "disjunctive" poetics, which has sometimes manifested itself in severe paratactical fragmentation.

This is a poetics that suits New York and New Yorkers - a poetics of sensory bombardment, richly layered experience, multiple and eclectic influences, knowing allusiveness, extreme tonal variety, lively and playful surfaces. It is "experimental"; it is "arty"; it is, even, "postmodern." It would not seem to be the imaginative mode best suited for transplantation to the nation's heartland, which has put inculcated aesthetic assumptions under stress almost continuously since the era of the early explorers.

"The harshness of the land," writes Robert Thacker, " tested whatever idealized expectations its pioneers brought along with them. Just as overlanders jettisoned some of their possessions on the trail, so too did they cast off some of their cultural baggage as they adapted imaginatively to the land." Adapting imaginatively to different cultural values and modes of social interaction is also bound to have an effect on both the style and substance of the work of displaced easterners, causing them to veer in the direction of realism and fictional coherence and away from playful and disruptive investigations into the provisional nature of language.

And yet, I believe that Guest instead retained and adapted her impressive array of experimental methods in such a way as to aptly represent a pervasive American experience - that of displacement - an experience she knew both intimately and critically. Since displacement is an experience marked by discontinuity, it is perhaps best represented in works of fragmentation, works in which the text is no longer authoritative, but instead vulnerable, ambivalent, indeterminate.

The Countess from Minneapolis, published in 1976, Guest's fourth book of poetry, like her previous three, must be described using these very adjectives. It is an odd little book which eludes generic classification. It alternates lineated poems with prose poems, and reads something like a fragmented novella. Some of the poems are titled, most are merely numbered; she mixes lyrics with brief dialogues, fragments of letters with "lists of activities," tiny narratives with internal monologues, dream stories with weather reports. They have in common their subject, "Minneapolis and its posture on the Mississippi" and the uneasy attempts of an unnamed narrative "I" to understand the place and its meaning.

 
 


The "story" evades both linear narrative and definitive setting in time - it variously suggests frontier times with its logging camps, sod huts, and immigrants, the early twentieth century still Victorian in its speech rhythms and manners, and a present moment marked by visits to contemporary sites in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the prairie landscape beyond. There is a constant overwhelming awareness of nature: the storms, the wind, the prairie, the dust, the mud, the "low glaucous clouds," the "long unsettling, barren Minnesota winter," the "windings and divigations" of the Mississippi river.

The book grew out of a number of visits Guest made in the early 1970s to her painter friend Mary Abbott who had left New York to accept a job teaching in the art department at the University of Minnesota. So impressed was Abbott with the Minnesota winters that she referred to herself in letters to Guest as "Professor Nanook of the North." She prevailed upon Guest to come to Minneapolis to teach her how to live there, calling on Guest's apparently well-recognized skills as one capable of divining the spirit of place wherever she might find herself. "I did so love your Countess's vignettes of Minneapolis," she wrote to Guest in the midst of a long hot summer, "some had to do with what I want to paint if I can stand the heat in my lousy studio."

 
 

photo of Barbara Guest 1960

Barbara Guest, 1960

 
 


Indeed, The Countess book alerts one to Guest's sometimes overlooked, but surprisingly numerous poems about parts of the country outside of New York City - she has written of Florida, of California, of Nebraska, of the Santa Fe trail. Although Guest admits in her poetry of being possessed of a "vast / journeying sensibility," of constituting in her self "a compleat travel agency," she also admitted in 1992, rather poignantly: "It's very hard on me not having a definite place. It has created a great deal of anxiety . . . I never really had a 'home'.... so I am grateful for this house [in Eastern Long Island] as long as I am permitted to live here. When I say the word 'home' I almost whisper it."

And she speaks of a childhood typically all-American in its frequent dislocations: "I was born in North Carolina, but this is because my parents were there for a few days, my family were from the South. And then I lived with my Grandmother in Virginia, in West Virginia, and then with my parents in Florida, and then later with my aunt and uncle in California."

        ¶

It is clear, then, that Guest cannot be called a regional writer, so various are her geographical origins and wanderings. David Jordan writes: "Regionalism does not originate out there in an external world of local artifacts, but within the artist, in a deep personal affinity with a particular place, which he or she calls home." It is marked, says Michael Kowalewski, by "metaphors of depth, layering, resonance, root systems, habitats, and interconnectedness." Ronald Weber: "the writer's roots are identifiably somewhere, the materials of the writer's art arise from a deep sense of a specific history, a specific locality."

The very disconnectedness and fragmentary quality of The Countess from Minneapolis marks it as a book which instead partakes of opposing genres: travel writing and the literatures of exile, immigration, and pilgrimage, genres which seek to turn tropes of disconnection into those of connection, tropes of displacement into figures of dwelling and homemaking. The drama, the poignancy, and perhaps even the ultimate meaning of these other genres arise from their inability to ever quite effect these transformations. Unlike the regional writer, whose first mandate must be "write what you know" (with its corollary "write where you know"), Guest as outsider can only write in order to know, and in order to grasp the self as if shifts in relation to unfamiliar place. Poem #13 acknowledges what one can "understand" and how, and what one cannot (ever?) understand as the proverbial stranger in a strange land:

          When shall I understand Minneapolis?

If not grain by grain, at least loaf by loaf.
If not the river flow, at least its turn and tributary.

Still there are permissions to approach through that
immigrant air.
The surprising thing about these lines is their lack of Eastern or cosmopolitan condescension. Minneapolis is put forward as significant matter, worthy of attention, capable of rewarding study. The New Yorker is an immigrant seeking "permissions to approach," with more of the air of a pilgrim pursuing understanding than a tourist upon whom distinctions and qualifications are lost. This is a speaker who poignantly glimpses aspects of things she feels she may never see as thoroughly or as deeply as a native of Minneapolis (a Minneapolitan?). She has passed into environs she cannot satisfactorily comprehend.

 
 


The fact of Minneapolis does render Guest's poetry sparer and more laconic than her previous volumes; white space is here a palpable presence. But a sense of a coherent whole would be as false to her sense of Minneapolis, as it would be to the complexity of New York City.

Analogous to the narrator's sense of discontinuity and distance are the poems' multiple disconnections from each other, in time, space, and perspective. The reader also becomes a stranger, constantly taking in "data," trying to comprehend connections, to attach and unify. As richly disconcerting and diverting as the leaps in time - the most apparent being between the Countess's turn of the century, and the narrator's 1970s - are the leaps in diction, poetic phrasing, and rhetoric. The work as a whole represents a remarkable confluence of styles, freely borrowed, stolen, and invented. Yet all of these linguistic and poetic styles take up the issues of space and place; together they constitute a veritable catalog of attempts at learning how to live in Minneapolis.

Poem #39, titled "June," encodes depression, boredom, and alienation into the very rhythms of its weather report à la Gertrude Stein, with a deft allusion in its characterization of the rain as "small" to "Western Wind," an anonymous 16th century lyric, also about depression, separation and loneliness:

dust dust dust dust dust dust
only small rain small rain small
thin thin rain starved rain rin
Another poem salutes the epistolary language of the 19th century, recalling the letters of divided pioneer families and their struggles to ameliorate distance and loneliness:
"Amaryllis, favorite daughter.
I miss those long ago hours we shared, our mutual whisperings and field and town delights. I pray soon you will answer my letter so that this separation may find its fixity in the space dividing us, or rather, may enrich the space that separates us."
Another seems to compress a whole romance novel into seven paragraphs, parodying that genre's melodramatic tone, but again taking up the subject of the ways one accustoms oneself, via intimate and sexual human relationships, to alien landscapes:
      His was the only icey hand with any warmth concealed in it. It was he who had called her "my light in winter". Who had led her in a northern country to the first wild strawberry.
      She hid under the quilt refusing to hear his impassioned, "I'll immigrate! I'll immigrate!" savaging the room.
      Don't Eofirth, she cried, abandon me to these nerveless plains. This forgetful river . . . . Never forget the loneliness of Strindberg in Paris.
Poem #19 finds Guest comically aligning herself with an ancient traveler-poet, one Widsith, the fictional narrator of an old English poem, probably from the 7th century. She imagines herself to be in the tradition of this "scop" or minstrel, aptly borrowing a lively alliterative and boasting style to describe her own mock-heroics in taking on the wilds of the Midwest, the river and the prairie:
Scoping along the Mississippi. I a Scop. Coasting the Myth-West, musing the margins, earth yearned river wracked, grieving and groping, I a Scop making my weird. I saw many fellows, lithesome liquor hoarders, drawers of the dream, also riven by the river, daughter of the Rood. All have heard of the musicians ravishing . . . the lake Scops inland . . . his ribbon of runes. Gusts from the Guthrie's stage spoken ear oaths, alas of an afternoon the wind sprung word tokens, host hoardings, sharers of sheaths . . . joust surmounting the silence where prairie plumes cuddle and clash.
Guest finds the New York School tendency to eclectic appropriation of poetic styles abruptly juxtaposed to be indispensable to her attempt to know Minneapolis; it provides a means of demonstrating that Minneapolis also tells its story in many voices.

Reviewers have focused on the poems about the Countess and have mistaken her as the collection's central consciousness. Anthony Manousos writes that the book "describes the encounter of an ultra-refined cosmopolitan woman with the hinterlands of America," without seeming to notice how the narrator (it might be practical just to call her Barbara Guest), slips in and out of sympathy with the Countess, how she is at pains often to gently mock the Countess's ultra-refinements, as well as the point of view that would dismiss Minnesota as "the hinterlands."

The Countess is perhaps conjured up from the painting reproduced on the cover, Robert Koehler's "Rainy Evening on Hennepin Avenue, " which depicts upper-class Minneapolis pedestrians in 1910. Perhaps she owes some of her literary lineage to Carl Van Vechten's The Tattooed Countess, a short comic novel of 1924 that follows the fortunes of a worldly, rich, pampered European Countess among the inhabitants of Maple Valley, Iowa.

 
 


Encoded in the very title of Countess (she has no name) is her alien sensibility, ill-sorting with Minneapolis. She is an aristocrat residing in a democracy, an immigrant with an unspecified past - perhaps she is Russian, perhaps German or Scandinavian? Guest watches her, as she makes her uncertain and reluctant forays into the Minneapolis of grain elevators, lumber-milling and flour-milling, hindered by her residual orientation toward quite another place, an older, more established and refined place, which she cannot forget and cannot help but prefer:

Seated at the mirror rolling up her hair, feeling the thin papers curling around her fingers, the air in contrast thick from the low glaucous clouds, the color of flour, her fingers twisting the papers into shapes like grain bins - cylindrical . . . exactly the shape . . . remembering those one passed driving out over the rutted roads. The same routes she often dreamed of as passages to better things. Such as a lime laden or elm heavy driveway poised within a privacy, a refinement, a collection of tested images with their fragrances not here in the grain struck air, the summits of flour rising like pillows over the landscape. And her imagination hastened to where all was still, aged, and quartered.

The curl papers were shredded, dropped onto the floor, parquet as she had wished, yet so disturbed by its removal here to Minneapolis, broken in spots and mended that the surface reflected a suffering which she shared and thus its beauty . . . did little to comfort her.
To portray so clearly the Countess's unhappy distraction in dislocation is surely in some measure to share it, but also in some measure to critique it. The countess remains an isolate partly because she wishes it, and is too weak and muddled (however charmingly so) to risk genuine connections with the world outside her window. She suffers from a certain agoraphobia, unmixed, as it is in Barbara Guest, with a counterbalancing agoraphilia.

        ¶

Unlike the Countess, Guest is curious about Minneapolis, she avidly seeks it out, she packs the book with allusions to Minnesota's history and geography. She wonders about the Persians who have settled there; she writes about the Native Americans, about the "Crystal Court" of Pillsbury Flour, about the Ice Palaces of St. Paul's winter carnival, about her friend's River Road studio, about the Guthrie Theatre, about Crocus Hill, Summit Hill, the towers of St Paul. She writes about eating Lake Superior Cisco Smoked Fish and about the taste of Mississippi rock water. She writes a strange and funny anecdote about the statue of Hiawatha which was placed in Minnehaha Park in gratitude to Longfellow (whose "sickening passages," she writes, "stink[] up the night.") She thinks about how prairie houses "correspond to hemispheric requests / of flatness." She satirizes a visiting scholar of Roman history who finds himself in love with the local descendants of Vikings; she describes the color of the "Minnesota twilight that edged in through each window." She delights in the sound of Scandinavian place and family names. She muses on the Walker Art Center with its eclectic collection bringing the world to Minneapolis, from the "once sacred and exotic collection" of ancient Chinese Jades, to the huge metal double-polyhedra sculpture that "spreads its tendrils aloof over the museum's roof" and which was made in 1965 by Tony Smith, a New York artist who was Guest's teacher, mentor, and friend.

This curiosity, this attentiveness, this openness is rewarded in those poems in which Guest seems sure that the locale (both because of, and in spite of its essential strangeness) can be congenial to the self that expresses itself through language. She catches a poem acting as if it were at once the Minnesota sun and the Minnesota moon, traversing the Mississippi river in a boxcar over a bridge. The poem, #32, feels like a brightly lit moment of achievement, a moment when the beauty and meaning of a local landmark reveals itself to the receptive outsider:
                  There was a poem with
A moon in it travelling across the bridge in one
Of those fragile trains carrying very small loads
Like moons that one could never locate anywhere else.
The Mississippi was bright under the bridge like a
Sun, because the poem called itself the Sun also;
Two boxcars on the bridge crossing the river.
Always aligned with the flashier aspects of the New York School aesthetic, as Marjorie Perloff recognized early on, is the key notion of "attention", a word these poets used consistently in their poems and in their literary and art criticism. "I am needed by things" declared O'Hara (197), who spent a lifetime trying to satisfy the need of things (events, people, paintings, poems, places) to be seen, written about, attended to. The immense inattention accorded the Midwest by New Yorkers in general, is partially, subtly, surprisingly redressed by Barbara Guest in The Countess from Minneapolis.




Works cited:

  • Acocella, Joan. "Perfectly Frank." review of City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara by Brad Gooch. New Yorker 19 July 1993. p. 71-78.
  • Abbott, Mary. Letter to Barbara Guest. 16 June (year unreadable) , ms. Barbara Guest Papers. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Yale University, New Haven.
  • Guest, Barbara. The Countess from Minneapolis. Providence: Burning Deck, 1976.
  • -----. Interview. With Mark Hillringhouse. American Poetry Review July/August 1992: 23-30.
  • Jordan, David, ed. Regionalism Reconsidered: New Approaches to the Field. New York: Garland, 1994.
  • Kowalewski, Michael, ed. Temperamental Journeys: Essays on The Modern Literature of Travel. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1992. "Introduction: the Modern Literature of Travel." p. 1-16.
  • Manousos, Anthony. "Barbara Guest." Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Poets Since World War II. Ed. Donald J. Greiner. Vol. V. New York: Gale, 1980.
  • Thacker, Robert. The Great Prairie Fact and Literary Imagination. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1989.
  • O'Hara, Frank. The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, ed. Donald Allen. Introduction by John Ashbery. New York: Knopf, 1971. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.
  • Weber, Ronald. The Midwestern Ascendancy in American Writing. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992.

 
 

photo of Sara Lundquist

Sara Lundquist is an associate professor of English at the University of Toledo in Ohio, where she teaches modern and contemporary poetry. She has published on Barbara Guest, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and William Carlos Williams.

 


 
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