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Geoff Ward reviews

Barbara Guest, If So, Tell Me

Published by Reality Street Editions, UK, 1999, paper, 56pp. £6.50

You can visit Reality Street's website at freespace.virgin.net/reality.street/
or send email to reality.street@virgin.net

Visit Jacket's bookstore page to order Barbara Guest's books

This piece is 2346 words or about 8 pages long

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.

 
 

BORN IN 1920 in North Carolina, Barbara Guest spent her childhood in Florida and California, graduating from Berkeley before moving to New York. It was in the 1960s in New York City that she made a name as a poet, connecting not only with the New York School writers Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery and James Schuyler, but also the painters of the Abstract Expressionist movement, whose replacement of representation by gesture would (along with other painterly attributes) influence her poetry.

Some startling and experimental collections over the next decade - most famously Moscow Mansions (1973) and The Countess from Minneapolis (1976) - set her work at a critical distance from both the autobiography and overt emotionalism of O'Hara and Schuyler and the protracted vocalisation and syntax of meditation that characterise Ashbery. Guest's work seemed to run on a parallel track to the innovations of the Language group, while speaking through traditions of aestheticism and of female-authored modernism, yet simultaneously showing no group affiliations at all.

If So, Tell Me is Guest's first original collection to be published in the UK, and her first publication there since the British edition of her Selected Poems. Reality Street is however an appropriate press in that it too operates at a critical distance, not only from the mainstream poetry scene (currently graced by the worst Poet Laureate since Masefield and the macabre spectacle of his predecessor grabbing all available prizes from beyond the grave) but from the 'alternative' consensus. Younger English poets such as Andrew Duncan and Miles Champion, the Irish poet Maurice Scully and from Canada Lisa Robertson (whose Debbie: An Epic had some of the liveliest writing of the last decade) are among those on Reality Street's strategically off-centre list. This conjunction of poet and press prompts not only another look at Guest - who, with new books also out from Wesleyan and Sun & Moon is clearly in an important or at least a productive phase - but another look at the consensus about groupings and Schools that while attempting helpfully to map what's going on can actually freeze it in rigid configurations.

 
 

photo of Barbara Guest circa 1960


Barbara Guest, circa 1960



OF COURSE it could be argued that  the very designation 'New York School of Poets' was at least as much a self-aware spoof as a movement, one originating in a joke that was partly, but that as time went on not merely, an index of diffidence on the part of the poets when faced by the success of painters such as Pollock and De Kooning. A provisional exercise in cognitive mapping rather than a fixed, historical or regional reality, the 'New York School' should therefore be recognised as conceptual; to be reformulated, expanded or exploded by reading different texts, or by viewing the attraction and repulsion of circumstance in a different light.

It would for example be entirely feasible to construct an account by which the New York School of Poets belongs definitively to the history of gay male writing. Equally it could be argued that the School only came into being with the arrival of Ted Berrigan, a sign that the characteristic approaches and styles had been received, not just generated, and so were there for general use.

It is possible to reconfigure the New York School showing Barbara Guest to be of marginal, or equally, of major importance. There are obvious links. She connected with the world of the visual arts, and indeed her work may be more genuinely influenced by abstract painting than is the male poets'. An early poem, 'History', is dedicated to Frank O'Hara, while Guest is named in the titles of, or has a walk-on part in several of his poems. Indeed 'With Barbara Guest in Paris', (1958) was triggered by one of those conversations about America, Europe, time and art (documented in Berkson/ LeSueur's Homage to Frank O'Hara and Gooch's A City Poet) which suggest that the improvising balayeur des artistes could give dictation straight into the tape-recorder of history when he knew he was with someone who mattered.

Moreover, some later pieces by Guest such as 'An Emphasis Falls on Reality' (from one of her finest collections, Fair Realism [1989]) seem deliberately to, if not echo then parallel, some of John Ashbery's rhetorical moves.

However it is in part this quality of the parallel that finally sets her apart from the male poets with whom she conversed; and for much of the time her work does not resemble theirs at all. Rather it takes off from some of the shared influences - Wallace Stevens, for example, or the more oneiric sides to modernist French poetry - but makes of them something very different than O'Hara or Ashbery made. As James Schuyler noted, Guest has conjured 'her own lyricism' from an experiential knowledge of Dada and Surrealism.

The two wider traditions in which it might be even more useful to situate her work would be those of modernist women's poetry, (particularly given her biography of HD), and ultimately, aestheticism. The lyricism is offset or indeed, to draw on a phrase from Marjorie Welish, resisted through tactics of difficulty, and it is a speculative but serenely self-confident use of the latter that makes work done by Guest thirty or more years ago so prescient of Language writing.

 
 

THE BALANCE of forces that characterise her work are well displayed in this poem from Fair Realism, 'Heavy Violets':

Heavy violets there is no way
if the door clicks the cushion
makes murmur noise and the woman
on the sofa turns half in half out
a tooth slipping from velvet.

The world makes this division
copied by words each with a leaf
attached to images it makes of this
half in air and half out
like haloes or wrists

That separate while they spin
airs or shadows if you wish,
once or twice half in half out
a real twirl jostles there
lips creased with violets you wish.
The delayed echo and half-rhyme are typical of Guest's poetry, and can be heard working here not just at the level of the syllable or word, but in rhyming kinds of linguistic usage, as in the equally doubled-edged-by-desire 'no way' and 'you wish'. Allied to this is the mysterious composure, working simultaneously to cement connection while insisting at times alarmingly on the separateness of things. Does the form of the woman turning on the sofa resemble a white tooth glimpsed in the 'velvet' of a mouth; or is the 'tooth slipping' literally that, and if so, in what sense, and are we or she to be alarmed or aroused or amused? 'Half in half out' of hovering possibilities, the poem restates the aesthetic as the only medium in which these competing possibilities can hold. The grace, the composure, the sureness of touch are Guest's particular skills - but of course, by their very unmuddied qualities (and 'Heavy Violets' is about as heavy as it gets) they make a very different poem from those of O'Hara or Schuyler.

There is nothing as teasing as 'Heavy Violets' in If So, Tell Me and therefore in a sense, nothing so substantial. But then with Barbara Guest lightness of touch can be peculiarly central. This seems to be acknowledged in the elegant production with its (no small point, this) super-white page. Words are flicked and feathered calligraphically, prompting the eye and ear to negotiate with care the white silences, which do perhaps tease, around the words:
                          A starry adultness
took other means

  to lengthen the text,
  by emotion,

  and arguably noise

wooed in this chapter and

each page of,
        O real life.

                    ('In Slow Motion')
Elsewhere white space bears down on but ultimately heightens the effect of rhyme and delayed alliteration:
A battalion
  of festival  largely in place by the region's devotion,
  a flannel embrace, as if over, the green flavor.

                    ('Outside of This, That Is')
It has to be asked whether 'real life' is made or marred to Guest by 'emotion' and 'noise', and whether all that is what is 'Outside of This', to be alluded to but withdrawn from with relief, into the chiming of rhyme against blest silence. And if so, is that an evasion, as it's held to be when any aestheticism comes under attack, or could it be a defence - even the beginnings of a politics - as can be proposed for a tradition stretching from Swinburne to Veronica Forrest-Thomson?

While Guest's poem make sense only rarely, they cohere quite insistently. Words are made to behave in each other's company as if melodic or other sound-relations were the basis of their function, a basis from which narrative or allusion to a conjectural elsewhere outside the poem can be mounted, if you insist, but only by going against those words' happiest condition and best use. The posture is not so much evasive as deliberately perverse, and I'm reminded of a remark by Leo Bersani to the effect that whereas the musical qualities of Symbolist poetry resemble the songs and rhymes of childhood, hence a natural use of language, it takes a prolonged and questionable feat of linguistic deformation to produce something like Middlemarch.

And of course there is more than one tradition of aestheticism, mediated inter alia by cultural geography and the passing of time. The bloodshot lyricism of the broken dandy was a part of Byron's repertoire, buffed up to a peak of professional tiredness by the Rhymers' Club take on Baudelaire and Verlaine, passed on to American poets from George Sterling to TS Eliot (and hence to Ashbery, when he feels like it) but always as a male, and not intrinsically as an American disposition. Guest's aesthetic lyricism is more profoundly American in its aspiration, contested by an equally rooted skepticism but never lost, to view and offer the world as if seen for the first time. This puts the spring in the step of new poems such as 'The Luminous', with its repeated 'yes' affirming 'the surprise of white stars', and the 'bright rewards for preparing to strut forth', in boots that 'move amazingly on the dried rich clay':
He swings his racket after it the luminous
the ball nearly swerves into it

those ancient people learning to count
surrounded by it, every day,

and navigators noting it there on the waves

the animus containing bits there on its subject
perched like sails,

bright rewards for preparing to strut forth
like the diver there on the board forced
by his greed into it.

Many loves changes to many times falling into
the day's lucid marshes

a tap on the shoulder or a first grasping that
object full of sparks,

the wilderness untangled by it.
This emphasis on an Edenic 'first grasping', available could they but see it (and this is the poem's use and function) to ancients condemned to, or is it blessed once more with a need to learn the world, knows that it is questionable, knows that it is 'perched' but prone to 'falling', and precisely in part because of all that still risks an aspiration to innocence. There are analogies not only in American painting but in music from Ives to Crumb, and in Ornette Coleman's music of primary colours, the plastic alto preferred, like Don Cherry's pocket trumpet, for its ability to blow light bubbles of sound.

That said, while nothing in If So, Tell Me opts for a dark opposite to this reaching for the luminous, part of the dialectic of knowledge for a poetry of aestheticism has to be self-awareness, and this latest poetry of Barbara Guest's works best when a consciousness of these issues and the ratios of perversity is built into, rather than tacitly assumed by, the arrangement of words in their sense-making as well as musical capacity. The first piece in the book, 'Valorous Vine', offers as its first section a lyric poem on which the second section then reflects in prose. This second section runs as follows:
It can be seen she encouraged separation of flower from the page, that she wished an absence to be encouraged. She drew from herself a technique that offered life to the flower, but demanded the flower remain absent. The flower, as a subject, is not permitted to shadow the page. Its perfume is strong and that perfume may overwhelm the sensibility that strengthens the page and desires to initiate the absence of the flower. It may be that absence is the plot of the poem. A scent remains of the poem. It is the flower's apparition that desires to remain on the page, even to haunt the room in which the poem was created.
The emphasis on flowers, the representation of perfume as a threat that might 'overwhelm the sensibility' and the meditation on the phenomenology of presence and absence all invoke, unashamedly, a tradition of aestheticism and the critiques it generates. Yet the poem and its enactment of reflection are true to, and do not evade, what the real life of perception feels like.

As I was typing out the prose quotation above, the phone rang on another floor of the house. Running downstairs in order to get there in time, I had a sudden sense of the phone missing one ring before carrying on, as an internal ratio in my own mind/ body accelerated and briefly overtook the electronic pulse. A space opened up which could be termed unreal, unheard, not-there, but which now exists with all the reality of a flower or a chair in my memory, and which I can retrieve in prose, though recall selects, shifts and re-writes the experience. Is this, or a dream I had last night, somehow less real or less likely to shape my decisions than eating or looking out of the window? Guest's poetry does something less modest and less purely musical than it would seem at first to be doing by depicting and drawing the mind to reflect on these orders of experience. It isn't all abstract, by any means. A 'fair realism' is still at work.

 
 


Photo of Geoff Ward

Geoff Ward was born in 1954, in Manchester, attended Cambridge University and since 1995 has been Professor of English, University of Dundee. Lives in crumbling 400 year old house on storm-lashed Scottish coast. Principal academic publications: Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets, revised/ second/ paperback edition, St Martins/Macmillan, 2000. Also Language Poetry & the American Avant-garde (Keele UP, 1993). Editor of The Bloomsbury Guide to Romantic Literature (1993) and co-editor of Re:Joyce (St Martins, 1998). Currently awarded two year Leverhulme Trust Fellowship to write critical biography of John Ashbery. Also forthcoming, Gates of Eden: A Cultural History of American Literature (Polity Press, UK) Poetry. Seven books or chapbooks, beginning with Tales From the Snowline (1977) and more recently Rilke's Duino Elegies (barbarously recast) and Mondegreen (both Equipage, 1998, 2000). You can read two poems by Geoff Ward in this issue of Jacket.

 


 
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