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Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Jane Sprague reviews

Barbara Guest, Miniatures and Other Poems

Wesleyan University Press, 2002
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT 06459
ISBN: 0-8195-6596-2; 64 pages, $12.95 paperback

This piece is 3,000 words or about six printed pages long

Barbara Guest’s latest collection, Miniatures and Other Poems (Wesleyan, 2002), attests to her lexical virtuosity, prolific pen and insistence on fusing the worlds of poetry and literature in relation to other works of culture: the visual, musical, theatrical and dance arts. The title itself is telling, the miniature artwork, as a poem on the page, requires close inspection by the viewer. Barbara Guest’s poetry does not yield itself up easily. It requires return, it requires an active ear in the reader and a well-fed (and well read) imagination. The book is divided into three sections: ‘Miniatures,’ ‘Pathos,’ and ‘Blurred Edged.’
      The first section, ‘Miniatures,’ contains variations of ‘stripped tales’ reminiscent of Greek myth, the Renaissance, Romanticism, Surrealism, American history, Chaucer, Chekhov, ballet, Finnish architecture, Virgil, Ovid, Keats, Coleridge, Schönberg, Liszt, Wagner and the milieu of young artists living in New York during the coalescence of visual artists frequently associated with Guest’s work, namely the Abstract Expressionists. Some of these poems are short and spare, while others are composed of longer prose lines.
      One of many remarkable things about Guest’s poetry, and this collection in particular, is that within the sparseness, the words chosen as darts, exacting arrows, there is music as precise language and the idea of the poems’ existence on a continually expanding plane. The brilliance is in accepting, as Guest would have it, a poem as the art event itself. The poem as permeable and inviting as an actual visual field: a canvas. A ‘miniature’ as capable of eliciting both ardor and awe. Perhaps more than ever before, Guest has revealed herself as a poet engaged in the act of creating the miniature world that we, as readers, are simultaneously in the act of encountering. There is something very immediate, alive and mysterious about these poems. Her deft hand is apparent throughout this book as the overt composer of these syntactical minuets.

      Barbara Guest has had a long and prolific career. At the beginning of the 21st Century and at what could be conceived of as the twilight of both her life and poetic endeavors, Guest continues to publish regularly. A collection of essays, Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing (Kelsey St. Press, 2002) and Miniatures and Other Poems were both published last year. Each collection reveals Guest to be more adroit than ever, in both her poetics and her poems. From her earliest book, The Location of Things (Tibor de Nagy, 1960) to these latest publications, Guest has amassed a large body of work including poetry (to name a few: Fair Realism, Sun and Moon, 1989; The Countess from Minneapolis, Burning Deck, 1976; Moscow Mansions, Viking, 1973), works of fiction (Seeking Air, Black Sparrow, 1977), biography (Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World, Doubleday, 1984), and books such as Rocks on a Platter (Wesleyan, 1999) which blur the edges of genres such as poetry and essay. Many of her books are collaborations with visual artists. The range and number of these books poses the question of when a Collected Barbara Guest might be published. It would be remarkable, to say the least, for Guest herself to have a voice in the arrangement of this imagined collection, as ideas of composition, blurred edges and authorial intent are pervasive themes in her latest book, Miniatures and Other Poems.

‘Invisible Architecture’

There is an invisible architecture often supporting
the surface of the poem, interrupting the progress of the poem. It reaches
into the poem
in search for an identity with the poem,

its object is to possess the poem for a brief time, even as an apparition appears. An invisible architecture upholds the poem while allowing a moment of relaxation for the unconscious.. A period of emotional suggestion,       of lapse,
of reliance on the conscious substitute words pushed toward the bridge of the architecture.    An architecture in the period before the poem finds an exact form and vocabulary —,

before the visible, appearance of the poem on the page and the invisible approach to its composition. Reaching out to develop the poem there are interruptions, some apparently for no reason — something else is happening   the poet has no control — the poem begins to quiver, to hesitate, to become insubstantial       the desire of poetry       to elevate itself, to become stronger.. The poem is fragile.. It needs to reach through the armed vehicle of the poem,

                                                to loosen the armed hand.

Losing the arrogance of dominion over the poem to an invisible hand, the poet campaigns for a passage over which the poet has control. Yet the unstableness of the poem is important.
                    Also the frequent lapses of control of the poem.
The writer only slowly retains power over the poem, physical power, when the poem breaks away from the authority of the invisible architecture.

(Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing, Kelsey Street Press, 2002.)

As in her previous work, Miniatures delves into mellifluous syntactical arrangements, deliberate compositions of lyrical mystery. While some critics have attempted to frame Guest’s work as representative of the so-called ‘abstract lyric,’ this is a term Guest rejects. Beyond abstract, decorated surfaces, Guest’s poetry enacts a decomposition of the page and the poem itself as it artfully and intellectually composes whole worlds. In Miniatures, tiny artworks require careful observation and unfurl correlations between the page as a canvas and literature itself as a layered thing. Throughout this book, Guest weaves in connections to Berlioz, ballet, choreography, the origins of poetry itself and multi-faceted aspects of imagined celestial spheres. It is the idea of imagination that propels Miniatures and creates the uncanny experience of reading her work; references and allusions to literature, art, music, theatre, photography and dance create what has become a signature of Barbara Guest’s work- the poem as the event itself. The poem as the field of composition. The poem as the miniature work under the spell of our gaze and under the spell of the poet as she composes these tiny minuets for our deliberation. The poem as the artwork delivered both from and for our imagination.
      Miniatures also extends the tone and style of her 1995 work, Stripped Tales (Kelsey St. Press, 1995). This collection is an extension of imagined, and perhaps real, tales stripped to their bare essence. The epigraph by Chekov is telling:

‘I, too, am an ardent defender of Miniature Pieces.’        (iix)

Miniatures illuminates the page through a concise use of the visual field and the creation of miniature works which unfold like tiny plays, or minuets. The individual poems function very individually and minutely in a visual sense, in a musical sense, in a theatrical sense, and a choreographic sense. A signature aspect of Guest’s work is interrelating the disciplines of visual art and poetry, in this latest collection, she expands the possibilities of what the miniature artwork might contain. What could potentially be diminished or dismissed as too precious or wrought with sentimentality is expanded into a piece of art capable of containing aspects of all the artistic disciplines, literary and human history as well as glimpses of autobiography. Again and again, the reader is returned to an examination of the poem as art object. Miniatures begins with the poem ‘Shabby Boot.’ It effectively anchors the text in the beginnings of poetry itself, the reference to Virgil’s Aeneid and the final line are significant:

On the manuscript are Dido’s tears,             from Dido.       (3)

Miniatures   is filled with apparitions of Dido’s tears. Apparitions of tales, left to unfold in the imagination of the reader, is the work that Guest’s  ‘invisible architecture’ achieves.
      The second section, ‘Pathos,’ tracks the  path of a dancer on ice, or, is it tracing Guest’s own path as poet? The terrain overlaps. ‘Arms flutter close to the body, skating on pure ice, harmonious composition, — / body in mellifluous line —’ (29) The  poem is a harmonious composition, a mellifluous line, the skater tracks ‘her’ dangerous path over a surface implicit with the harrowing possibility of breaking — the woman’s body, the surface itself, the ice of the poem, the white surface of the page. These poems intentionally occupy the white space of the page and continually cite that bare space as part of the action of the invisible architecture. There are no instances of easy surfaces, the poems spin out multiple possibilities and draw fine lines toward the collusion of poet to poem to page to larger bodies, celestial bodies, alchemy, the ephemeral order of nature which is the genesis of ‘poesie’ in Guest’s ‘Shiver of the fallen, / of the tulle skirt. / Disarrangement of composition, / Snow falling from tree.’ (29)
      As the poem continues its scribbled path over such uncertain ice, ideas of the drawn subject expand. Who is dancing over ice? The fictive skater? Guest herself?

               Making difficulties for herself     in the wrong direction.

Fear of the word, haunting of fear-

               the word passed through that haunting.

               Weight of the useless word,

                        mirror moving backward,

impromptu surface of the alphabet when she fell sideways.             (31)

‘Pathos’ moves back and forth between the fictive of a dancer on ice and the parallel course of poet on paper, it carefully explores the held tension of artist to art form, the pull of the possible and the visual field of experience. Writing poetry is  pulling something out of thin air — impossibility rendered real through tenacity, persistence and perhaps some unknown alchemy. Feminist critic and poet Rachel Blau DuPlessis has remarked: ‘‘Plasticity’ is her term for the multiple subject positions, the multiple speaking positions and viewing positions that are central to her work. An older title — the title of Guest’s first collection of poems — might indicate something of this: “the location of things.”‘ DuPlessis goes on to say:

Yet one may recall Guest’s witty expostulations about ‘the extravagance of a painter’ and the provocations to allow poetic imagination ‘to go on a rampage’, or her appreciation of how Matisse, ‘this great sensualist of color’ is also, at the same time, ‘a highly intellectual manipulator of space and color.’ The merging of terrific pleasure and terrific intellectual force is of decided interest to Guest, fused under the rubric ‘imagination.’

(‘The gendered marvelous: Barbara Guest, surrealism and feminist reception’ HOW(ever), 1999.)

      What is evident throughout the poem ‘Pathos’ is the distinct subjectivity of the female dancer. ‘She’ falls and pulls herself up. Imagine the strength and grace required to dance on ice. Might the work of the poet be in a similar vein? As Guest writes: ‘To scribble across ice.’ (34) The slippery slope of literature, of ‘poesie’, and one’s placement in it, one’s omission or relegation to certain schools or genres: notably, the New York School — Guest is often included in this school of poetry even though she was omitted from an important anthology published by Random House in 1970, An Anthology of New York Poets, edited by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro — or the classification of her work as a manifestation of the so-called ‘abstract lyric.’ As we, as readers, witness the dizzying spin of the girl on ice, the path she carves is a path of persistence, self awareness, and resolute beauty — all of which could be equally said about the work of Barbara Guest. Both Rachel Blau DuPlessis and scholar / poet Marjorie Welish (Jacket #10, 2000) have argued (in different ways) for a consideration of Guest’s work as that which occupies a certain ‘between’ space: between aspects of gendered texts; between manipulations of typical definitions of lyricism. Gendered femininity. A plasticity of subjectivities, of lyrical modes and a plasticity of interpolations between and among the discourses on visual, theatrical, musical, choreographic / dance and literary arts. In ‘Pathos,’ the subject itself is complicated- and by this intentional complication, the viewer / reader is implicated as well. What is delightful in reading Barbara Guest’s poetry is the simultaneity of experiencing the poem as an unfolding miniature work — at play in the compositional field of imagination and contingent upon the imagination and literary experience of the reader.
      ‘Blurred Edge,’ the third section and final poem in the book, extends this idea. ‘Craft and above all / the object within.’ (39) While the first two sections of Miniatures invite us into ideas of poetry’s origins and process, ‘Blurred Edge’ creates a poem as a still life. As a composed thing it cites itself as an art object and draws the poet into our experience. It is a stilled world of the painter — the poet — with her tools. It invites us in to her poetic choices. Like the dancer in ‘Pathos,’ Guest herself becomes the ‘she’ under study.

Part of the tension,

is illusory.        


      A hint of what was going to be.

      Covering and uncovering necessary.

      Self pouring out of cloudedness.       (43-4)

‘Blurred Edge’ alludes to Guest’s poetry as concise syntactical and  syllabic arrangements capable of evoking other imagined compositions in the mind of the reader.
      Miniatures is replete with ideas, images and words of making — of ordering and disrupting order, of the complex relationships between artist, the art object itself, viewers, as well as the placement of each within overlapping realms of history, literary and cultural traditions. From a ‘Miniature’ in the first section titled ‘Musicianship,’ she writes: ‘How far are you going in the culture program? Lizt draws nearer. Wagner / overwhelmed us in that last demonic song. / Where the snowline fell on its supple track, people lost their maps in / advanced culture.’ (26)
      Hints at what seem to  be aspects of her actual life surface throughout the collection,  as in the ‘miniature’ ‘Autobiography’:

Underfoot is secure,

      part of made up plan.

      In middle ground,

Coconut tree.                       (19)

This short poem could be an actual reference to Guest’s own lived life. However, nothing in her work is ever this tacit or easy. Throughout the book, Guest works with a multiplicity and ‘plasticity’ of subjectivities. Perhaps more than ever before, she draws the reader into an associative dance — she elicits ideas of the actual poet, the poem as the ‘miniature’ artwork under study, as a made thing, and the evocative nature of poetry’s ‘invisible architecture’. What might be a poetic sketch of Guest’s lived life reverberates with ideas of a life as another field of composition: a life as an artwork. A poet’s life compressed into this book unfolds ideas both minute and complex.
      From this point in her prolific career, at what could be a time of quiet retirement or withdrawal from certain worlds, Guest appears to be tapping aspects of complex distillation: Dido’s imagined tears on the page. Connecting ideas of art, as she has always done in her poems, she connects ideas of the human experience of making culture and the inseparable worlds of thought, image, literature, music, and our human stumbling and tenacity to keep making. In her early eighties, Barbara Guest shows no signs of slowing down or retreating into some gentle beach house. She is at her fine-tuned best throughout this collection. And, more than ever, she invites the reader into her process of making. Her single purpose of returning the reader to the poem again and again, to the poem as the event itself, the material under study, the strange distilled miniature world inviting us in. Inviting us into its riddles, its silences, its madeness and the poets’ usually unseen hand engaged in making.
      The ‘Miniatures’ are uncanny apertures. The sense of elusive textual play is part of the experience of wonder. The power of this collection is that it urges the reader to re-read it. To move through the poems, again and again, to uncover something new. The allure of miniature pieces is that they demand careful study and through this, one might experience sudden new aspects of what was contained in the artwork all along. In spite of their smallness, they contain whole worlds. The book itself is the convergence of ‘poesie,’ reader, poet, and art in the compressed and silence-edged space of these poems. The more time spent with Miniatures, puzzling, unpuzzling, questioning, solving, the more one abandons notions of understanding and agrees to let the poems do their own work.
      Perhaps this is what Guest urges us toward insistently throughout this new collection, as well as her entire body of work: it is imperative that the reader meet the poem on its own terms. Miniatures and Other Poems challenges the reader to observe closely, and in that sense Guest is asking the reader to read the book actively, create meaning out of it — like the viewer of an abstract piece of art. Or perhaps be a ‘soundtrack’ for the associations that may leap into the mind of the reader while reading, as in listening to abstract music. There is no cogent explanation not readily available in the poem itself. There is the poem. There is the artwork. There is the miniature, multitudinous world. The compact and specific world we move through as humans, as ones who interact with these voluminous and particular aspects of culture: art, in its many manifestations. And they and we are inextricably linked.

Jane Sprague’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Can We Have Our Ball Back?, Shampoo, VeRT, Tinfish, Columbia Poetry Review, Xcp: Cross Cultural Poetics and others. She recently published Ammiel Alcalay’s chapbook: Poetry, Politics and Translation: American Isolation and The Middle East (Palm Press, 2003.) She lives in Ithaca, NY where she curates the West End Reading Series.

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.

Works Cited

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. ‘The gendered marvelous: Barbara Guest, surrealism and feminist reception’ HOW(ever) 1.1 1999.

Guest, Barbara. Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing. Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 2002.

———-. Miniatures and Other Poems. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

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