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Timothy Gray

Fictions Dressed Like Water

Aqueous Imagery in the Poetry of Barbara Guest

This piece is 15,000 words or about 30 printed pages long.

Barbara Guest, Sermoneta, Italy, 1968

Barbara Guest, Sermoneta, Italy, 1968

Not too long ago, Barbara Guest was conspicuously missing from most discussions of the New York School of Poets, one of cold war America’s most famous literary movements. Her inclusion in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960) a groundbreaking volume that counted only four women among its contributors, represented a rare exception to this trend, as did her appearance in John Bernard Myers’s Poets of the New York School (1969). Unfortunately, her exclusion from Ron Padgett’s and David Shapiro’s An Anthology of New York Poets (1970) left her “suspended,” like a faltering student, from this non-academic grouping (Diggory and Miller 3). It is bad enough that Geoff Ward, William Watkin, and David Lehman have neglected to consider Guest in their otherwise far-ranging critical studies of the New York School. But it is even more disturbing to learn that first-generation members of the New York School may have been partially responsible for this poet’s marginalization. Lehman, in his attempt to justify exclusion of Guest from The Last Avant-Garde, cites a 1959 letter that James Schuyler sent to John Ashbery secretly conveying Kenneth Koch’s belief that no one on the New York poetry scene had much to offer their new literary magazine, Locus Solus, except for O’Hara, Schuyler, Ashbery, and himself (Lehman 12; Schuyler, Just the Thing 114). Joe LeSueur, in his posthumously published memoir of O’Hara, echoes the boys club cliquishness exhibited by Koch and other “charter members” of the New York School, explaining that “no woman besides Jane [Freilicher] was part of the clique, not even Barbara Guest” (Digressions 126-27).[1]

Fortunately, Guest’s literary reputation received a significant boost with the publication of her Selected Poems in 1995, after which point she received a number of appreciative reviews and critical articles. Rachel Blau Du Plessis and Sara Lundquist, her earliest champions among a growing legion of academic admirers, not only speak to her strengths but also cogently assess the difficulties her exclusion from the New York School has provided contemporary readers. “We don’t know her,” Du Plessis laments in her 1995 review of Selected Poems (“The Flavor of Eyes” 23). Lundquist provides a visual analogue to Du Plessis’s statement, highlighting Guest’s marginal position, her face turned away from the camera and hidden by her hair, in a 1961 photograph featured in The Party’s Over Now, John Gruen’s bittersweet reminiscence of the New York art world. “She is difficult to see, mysteriously not there at the same time that she is ostensibly there,” Lundquist says of this image (“Reverence and Resistance” 260). If Guest shied away from the spotlight more than did garrulous folks such as O’Hara and Koch, it also seems true that her writing, while every bit as avant-garde as theirs, suffered from specific gender assignments deemed appropriate in the 1950s and early 1960s, societal prescriptions that Betty Friedan famously associated with a “Feminine Mystique.” Although it stands “as far from New Critical patterns of contained coherence as any other New American work, Guest’s writing shows a gentility and civility, a graciousness that I suspect has made it seem less excitingly rebellious than the work of her largely male peers,” Lynn Keller explains (215).

What makes the scholarship of Keller, Du Plessis, and Lundquist so valuable is that it acknowledges this poet’s marginal position within an avant-garde movement dominated by men, but at the same time grants her privileged placement within its ranks. Elisabeth Frost and Cynthia Hogue seem to be correct when they maintain that Guest, much like H.D., the modernist poet who became the subject of her 1984 biography, Herself Defined, was “redolently aware of being both ‘object’ and peer to her male contemporaries” (“Barbara Guest and Kathleen Fraser”). All the same, there seems to be little doubt that Guest could keep pace with the hyperactive O’Hara, drinking and talking with him late into the night (Berkson and LeSueur, Homage to Frank O’Hara 58), lunching with him often (Lehman 176-77), and walking with him through vibrant cityscapes he knew she would never spoil with naïve commentary (Fraser 126). “She was there,” Lundquist says of Guest. “She gave poetry readings; she published; she had her plays produced; she wrote gallery reviews for Art News and collaborated with painters (notably Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, and Mary Abbott); she served briefly as the poetry editor of the Partisan Review; she partied and joked and visited and traveled, corresponded, fought and made up with the other four poets; they admired her work, she admired theirs” (“The Fifth Point of a Star”15). Based the evidence she provides here, Lundquist would have to admit that a photograph of Guest rubbing elbows with O’Hara on the closing night of the Cedar Tavern, included by Bill Berkson and Joe LeSueur in Homage to Frank O’Hara (73), is just as representative as the photograph she cites in her previous essay.

In addition to academic scholars like Lundquist, the Language Poets Charles Bernstein, Charles North, and Marjorie Welish, together with Kathleen Fraser and the women poets in the HOW(ever) group, have spent the last twenty-five years or so claiming Guest as their materfamilias, the intrepid pioneer who paved the way for their own experiments in verse. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, these poets joined the aforementioned scholars in presenting conference panels and writing incisive articles devoted to Guest’s work, some of which were collected in special issues of Women’s Studies and Jacket. They also organized a festschrift for Guest at Brown University in 1994. Although she was “long eclipsed” by other experimental writers, North noted in 1988, Guest “has come into her own ... partly because the fragmented language and consciousness she has always worked with have become fashionable.” North proceeds to say that “much of the current fashion is uninspired, lacking her artistic integrity, her artistic intelligence, and, to put it simply, her gift” (No Other Way 108). After receiving such praise and winning the Poetry Society of America’s prestigious Frost Medal in 1999, Guest was no longer a fifth wheel, but rather “the fifth point of a star,” belatedly joining O’Hara, Ashbery, Koch, and Schuyler as a founding member of the New York School.[2]

Irrespective of the labels we assign her, Guest’s poetry stands on its own as something bold and beautiful, experimental and elemental. Admirers of Guest tend to focus on her penchant for taking risks, in life as well as in her writing. Scholars employing feminist discourse like to emphasize this poet’s brave maneuvering within New York’s avant-garde communities, highlighting what Keller calls her “profound social disaffection” (216) with the homosocial ideologies and gendered subject positions that reigned in those circles, while also praising what Linda Kinnahan has separately termed her “movement toward variability and ambiguity rather than revelation” (Kinnahan 237). According to this line of reasoning, Guest became a politically efficacious writer without resorting to simple realism or heavy-handed sloganeering, a decision which apparently befuddled some of the second-wave feminists of her era, who like Padgett and Shapiro excluded her from their literary anthologies (DuPlessis, “Flavor” 23; Kinnahan 231). Particularly noteworthy in this regard is the suspenseful quality of her work, its willingness to dwell in uncertainties. Illustrating this point, Keller mentions Guest’s early 1960s collaborations with Abbott and Hartigan, pictorial ventures which show teams of women engaging in “heroic” gestures of risk heretofore associated with the macho contingent of abstract expressionists led by Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Courageously taking a “voyage into the unknown,” Guest and her collaborators represent instances when “the imagination’s at its turning” (Keller 256, 247), depicting surrealistic moments when the reality on display is intensified by its inherent oppositions or, to use a favorite word of Guest’s, by its “tensions.” Then again, Guest has let oppositional principles affect nearly all of her written work, earning her the respect of Language Poets and other free thinkers for whom the suspension of syntax and meaning disrupts the linearity, subjectivity, and sentimentality found in traditional lyricism.

I am not alone, however, in locating moments of lyric beauty in the interstices of Guest’s fragmentary verse. Indeed, although Charles Bernstein sees fit to praise Guest for her “aversion to the lyric” (“Introducing Barbara Guest”), Marjorie Welish, another experimental poet, correctly insists that Guest’s contrary approach to language is “more apt to yield to verbal delirium than noise-music,” bringing it closer to the beauty associated with a “lyrical impulse” (“The Lyric Lately”). Charles North is another poet who classifies Guest’s verse as “essentially lyrical,” albeit in “a post-modern way,” insofar as she presents the self as “something of a hunter/ gatherer of poetic materials, restlessly in motion, popping up to surprise, even splitting apart” (No Other Way 153). However atonal her music may appear, Guest’s poetry is hardly averse to luscious backdrops evocative of heartfelt emotion. Guest’s “commitment to beauty,” Diggory explains, leads her not merely to suspend art, as some Language Poets are wont to do, but rather to “assign a positive function to aesthetic illusion, ‘semblance’ (Schein), the locus of beauty in contrast to the sublime.” While Guest’s “fair realism” reminds Welish and North of traditional lyricism, it puts Diggory in mind of Theodor Adorno, who in Aesthetic Theory claims that “Works become beautiful by force of their opposition to what simply exists” (“Barbara Guest and the Mother of Beauty” 75, 77, 82).

To date, though, only a few writers have acknowledged what I take to be Guest’s most artful form of risk-taking, namely her decision to incorporate the natural wonders of earth, sea, and sky into the abstract registry favored by poets of her milieu. Sara Lundquist was the first critic to make inroads on this subject, speaking cogently about the “inattention” paid to the Midwest and other far-flung rural areas by members of the urban avant-garde, while arguing that Guest has always resisted the special brand of New York provincialism famously depicted in Saul Steinberg’s 1976 New Yorker cartoon (“A View of the World from Ninth Avenue”), redressing this perceived imbalance in poems about Florida, California, New Mexico, and Minnesota (“The Midwestern New York Poet”). Ann Vickery has moved discussion in a slightly different direction, analyzing Guest’s poetry in the context of “modern pastoral.” While Vickery also seizes upon rural components of Guest’s poetry, she locates within its natural imagery the “wonders of city life,” prompting her briefly to address the concept of “urban pastoral” (“A Mobile Fiction” 248-50), a term first associated with New York School poetry by Herbert Leibowitz in his 1971 review of Frank O’Hara’s Collected Poems.[3] In my own investigations, I have found that the meaning of urban pastoral depends on whether we understand this term as referring to a synthesis or to a division, which is to say either to the mysterious conflation of rural and urban characteristics, or instead to a more common (but highly arbitrary) separation of rustic and cosmopolitan ways of being. Guest’s commentators have come down on both sides of this question. In her apt appraisal of The Countess from Minneapolis, Guest’s 1976 volume of prose poetry, Lundquist regards the New York writer in a separatist context, concentrating on the period of time Guest spent visiting Mary Abbott at the University of Minnesota while neglecting to mention that Guest wrote the entire volume on the Upper East Side (Hillringhouse 25). Vickery initially shows Guest to be a more synthesizing type of urban pastoral writer, one who “extends Virgil’s pastoral vision to the urban domain” (250), though she too eventually highlights the theme of separation, arguing that Guest increasingly “turned to the actual countryside in order to explore issues of imagination and states of being, and subsequently for elegiac meditation” (251). Both critics note that Guest’s verse features natural elements in places and situations we least expect to find them. I concur with their analyses, and yet I desire to push this discussion of Guest’s natural genius further, into the various natural realms the poet was known to explore. In particular, I want to enhance our appreciation of this unconventional nature poet by focusing on the aqueous environments lending her abstract writing its suspenseful, buoyant, reflective brilliance.

Interestingly, several critics have already explored the “airy” nature of Guest’s poetry. Lundquist, for instance, devotes several pages of “The Fifth Point of a Star” to Guest’s “aerated poetry.” Vickery, too, praises Guest’s work for offering “adventurous, often airy transpositions — enabling the subject to move across various realities and enter other states of being” (259). Brenda Hillman strikes a similar chord in her insightful review of Guest’s Selected Poems, admitting that she is “drawn to the increasing freedom provided by light and air, and also to the deepening of a personal style of language that can be inhabited by the reader, the poem and the poet” (208). Barbara Einzig, Anna Rabinowitz, Arielle Greenberg, and Charles North have weighed in with similar pronouncements, linking Guest’s “airy” poetics to an array of avant-garde freedoms.[4] Few critics, however, have closely examined Guest’s marvelous descriptions of water. Granted, Lundquist notes in a biographical essay that the typical Guest persona is a “deep-sea diver” as well as an “aerialist” (among other things), but only briefly does she engage the aqueous images flooding Guest’s collections (“Barbara Guest” 162). Einzig delves a bit deeper, explaining that, in her best poetry, “Guest arrives at a liquid balance. Like liquid inside a leveling instrument that determines our horizon line. The instrument of writing is continually matched against the gravity of ‘reality’” (“The Surface as Object” 10). According to Einzig, the liquidity Guest achieves in her work accommodates a type of buoyancy that other aspects of physical reality, particularly those governed by linearity and gravity, cannot sanction. But even she fails to investigate very thoroughly the aqueous elements lending Guest’s poems their suspenseful character. As I see it, more remains to be said about the way that water, in all its forms, courses through this city poet’s pastoral imagination.

“I believe that poetic language comes from the same place as experience,” Guest tells Mark Hillringhouse in a 1992 interview (27). Arguably, the most important word in Guest’s candid statement turns out not to be “language,” as most critics would have it, but rather “place,” understood in the context of this essay as the geographical coordinates affecting her nature writing. After all, the “locale of the mind” that Hillringhouse discerns in Guest’s work (26), like the “actual location of the mind” that Einzig analyzes (9), is based on actual places the poet has experienced, in body as well as in mind. The more I read Guest’s poetry, the more I suspect that her upbringing in coastal areas accounts for her sustained elemental focus. Although she lists herself as “Resident — New York City” in Donald Allen’s influential 1960 anthology (438), Guest subsequently reveals on the jacket copy of Poems (1962), the first collection of her verse to be issued by a major publisher, that “I spent most of my girlhood in the seacoast states — Florida and California.” Born in Wilmington, North Carolina, she moved to Florida as a young girl, initially settling in the Miami area, and later in Lakeland and other small communities, as her father looked for work. Her family lived among the poor, and young Barbara, who learned to read at age three, was educated in a series of one-room schoolhouses. At age ten, following her father’s death, the precocious girl was sent to Los Angeles to live with an aunt and uncle, in large part because California had the best public education available in the United States. Guest thrived in the classroom, maintaining a high academic standing throughout high school and college at UCLA and Berkeley.[5] All the moving around had a deleterious effect on her psyche, however. She has said that as a young person she “never really had a home,” and that this caused her “unnecessary anxiety.” Even now, she will admit that “when I say the word ‘home’ I almost whisper it” (Hillringhouse 26). Be this as it may, there is ample evidence to suggest that Guest developed during her peripatetic childhood a profound love for open spaces, especially seascapes, which with their azure shadings and flat horizons occasionally deliver delightful feelings of buoyancy and calm, but cannot veil for very long the powerful forces lurking beyond their illusory surfaces.

Guest’s first book, The Location of Things, published by John Bernard Myers for Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1960, was reissued along with two additional groups of poems, “Archaics” and “The Open Skies,” in her 1962 Doubleday collection, Poems. In addition to Guest’s coastal poems, which I shall consider shortly, the expanded volume contains several poems suggestive of an urban pastoral synthesis. Glimpsed from this viewpoint, the city becomes a haven, a locus amoenus (happy place) where the harried pace of urban life slows down and possibilities open up. Though most outsiders would be reluctant to associate the hustle and bustle of Manhattan with the kind of otium (leisure) depicted in pastoral texts by Virgil or Spenser, many city dwellers are attuned to those serendipitous moments when time and space are miraculously suspended, altering interpersonal relations and lending an air of intimacy and beauty to all the steel and concrete. For centuries, Herbert Gold reports, artistic-minded émigrés from the hinterlands have located in vibrant metropolitan centers a brand of communitas that pastoral landscapes back home were supposed to provide, but rarely did (Bohemia 21-22). Guest certainly seems to have felt this way when she moved to Manhattan from California in the late 1940s. “New York had an openness that only major cities have,” she recalled in a recent interview (Frost and Hogue).

Guest says as much in a letter she sent to relatives in 1952: “New York is so small, so intimate, you keep crossing and recrossing the same circles and everyone knows everyone else, so that once you crash the fringes you are to a degree in” (quoted in Lundquist, “The Fifth Point of a Star” 20). Guest is probably referring to the Eighth Street Artists Club and the Cedar Tavern, downtown locations where poets and painters were known to convene and discuss their work, and perhaps also to apartment parties, where several members of the New York School initially came into contact with one another. But her statement is applicable as well to a wider urban topography, one that is not only avant-garde and bohemian, but surprisingly bucolic in its sensibility. The “location of things” piquing Guest’s poetic imagination involves natural phenomena as well as people, New York’s open spaces as well as its “open” social world.

For a relevant example of nature’s influence on urban society, consider an element like rain. Though impersonal, rain nonetheless has the ability to alter human relationships, especially in the city, where masses of people subsist in close proximity. When rain falls in the metropolis, satirists come out to play, splashing around in all that is uncomfortable. Jonathan Swift, in early eighteenth century London, and Colson Whitehead, in early twenty-first century New York, have each delighted in describing how certain bodily aches are exacerbated by rain. They also seem happy listing varieties of detritus floating in swelling gutters and overflowing sewers. But even these cranks are forced to admit that rain brings together diverse groups of people seeking shelter. “Here various kinds, by various fortunes led, / Commence acquaintance underneath a shed / Triumphant Tories and desponding Whigs / Forget their feuds, and join to save their wigs,” Swift writes in “A Description of a City Shower” (570). Whitehead, no sentimentalist himself, notices the same social dynamic while caught in a storm nearly three hundred years later: “Underneath the scaffolding the conversations among strangers range from grunts to bona fide connections. Quite serendipitous” (Colossus 68). “In New York City, rain provides something of a social function,” second-generation New York School poet Jim Carroll has argued. “People gather in small places, in hallways and storefronts, and begin to talk. They speak in civilized tones which some of them had all but forgotten. They tell strangers things they would never think of revealing to friends or lovers. During a storm in New York, people actually agree with things you say” (Forced Entries 139-40).

Although urban rainfall gives rise to collective complaints, it is also quite beautiful, in a melancholy sort of way, its physical aspects supplying unlikely aesthetic treats. On pavement and on window glass, its watery sheen reflects city lights and poetic thoughts with equal facility, lending an ethereal quality to noirish landscapes. Rain makes the city light up, even in its darkest moments, resulting in private revelations that, curiously enough, are also fit for sharing. In several early poems, the rain that Guest glimpses from city windows and doors corresponds to an inner climatology known to her and to a range of urban pastoral lyricists, from poets like Schuyler to singers like Keren Ann Zeidel.[6] Precipitation becomes a natural elixir of lyrical emotion.

In “Les Realites” (Poems 22), a rainy day prompts Guest to read about Parisian pharmacies. Baffled by a love affair and “overwhelmed by trees” on the previous day’s “autumn walk, known in May / as lover’s walk,” she seeks solace in an imagined storefront, one that is usually grubby, but is now glistening with water. “It is as if perpetual rain / fell on those drugstores making the mosaic brighter, / as if entering those doors one’s tears / were cleaner.” Here, precipitation provides an ablution more pure than tears. The wistful protagonist cannot help but want to dwell in it, baptize herself in it, until such spell is ended, at which point, she says, “this pharmacy / turns our desire into medicines and revokes the rain.” Like the “new shade of powder / orchidee, ambre, rose” displayed on its shelves, Guest implies by means of a Janus-faced simile that the Parisian drugstore in the rain “triumphs as a natural thing.” Like the catalogue of pastoral images that Keats includes in his famous ode, a city building awash in rain has become a perfect place for anyone beset by a melancholy fit to glut her sorrow. Guest’s use of a plural pronoun near the end of the poem indicates that other city dwellers have equal access to this emotional medicine, provided they share her resourcefulness.

Urban architecture plays a significant role in Guest’s poetry, but I find the form and frame of her edifices to be highly mutable, susceptible as they are to the city’s natural climate. Robert Bennett argues that Guest’s architectural spaces are “deliberately constructed both to unsettle conventional expectations about the attire of spatiality itself and to suggest instead intimations of a more complex world in which both ‘proofs’ and ‘illusions’ of ‘stability’ are subverted by a profound awareness of the chaotic contingencies of modern life” (49). But nothing says “chaotic contingency” more than climatic conditions. Accordingly, Terence Diggory shifts discussion of Guest’s architectural genius into the realm of pastoral discourse, noting that a distinguishing feature of her work is her ability to eliminate the barriers separating claustrophobic buildings from the great outdoors, which even in the metropolis offers plenty of open space and natural imagery (“‘Picturesque’ Urban Pastoral” 309). Brenda Hillman makes a similar point: “Among writers whose central task is to valorize the artist’s imagination — Keats, Stevens, Ashbery — cityscapes and landscapes often cross over themselves in the poems, making themselves Everyscapes. Likewise Guest. Her cross-overs are helped by adjective-noun conjunctions, sometimes the hardworking but peculiar adjective with the extraordinarily free-spirited noun, like a ranchhand assigned to a landowner he never meets” (“The Artful Dare” 213).

Linguistically and physically, Guest’s Everyscapes rely on boundaries permeable enough to admit oppositional juxtapositions and playful ironies. Thus does an apartment interior portrayed in “West Sixty-Fourth Street” mesh neatly with nearby Central Park, as “candelabra melt into forests / gathering their heartache / into bouquets of grass” (Poems 45). Guest’s use of “melt” indicates the liquidity of thought flowing through her imaginative repertoire. Her penchant for fluidly negotiating urban borders is also on display in “The Location of Things,” a poem in which a rainy Madison Avenue not only provides a setting for artistic rumination, but also mysteriously extends its reach into a bar where the poet enjoys a drink:

           The street, the street bears light
and shade on its shoulders, walks without crying,
turns itself into another and continues, even
cantilevers this barroom atmosphere into a forest
and sheds its leaves on my table
carelessly as if it wanted to travel somewhere else
and would like to get rid of its luggage
which has become in this exquisite pointed rain
a bunch of umbrellas. An exchange! (Poems 11)

Later in this poem, after pressing her head against the windows of the bar, looking out at the rain, and trying to make sense of “Afternoons / of smoke and wet nostrils,” Guest sees that “The water’s lace creates funerals / it makes us see someone we love in an acre of grass” (12). Her delectable feelings of sadness, common enough among urban bohemians melodramatically measuring their fate on leisurely afternoons, are enhanced by abundant bucolic images, which no longer seem out of place on a wet city avenue become a “theatrical lake” (12). Choosing her words carefully, Guest wants to show us that the manner in which rain comes into contact with constructed surfaces (windows, streets) has the ability to alter “the location of things,” and with that our perceptions of reality.

A similar dynamic holds sway in “Fan Poems,” a sequence Guest included in her second major volume, The Blue Stairs (1968). On this occasion, the poet offers a tutorial to a woman named Melissa, highlighting the altered reflections glimpsed in a rain-streaked window so as to nurture a fuller acceptance of natural changes:

Windows, Melissa, they contain want is best
of us, the glass your arm has arranged
into crystal by spinning eye, by alarms
taken when the rain has chosen a form
unlike the universe, similar to ups and downs
which vary or change as cowslips
in the meadow we cross have a natural tint,
the panes reflect our hesitations and delight. (Selected Poems 31)

The window glass, the human body, the rain, the cowslips: each of these objects owes its place in the universe, at least in part, to the reflections bringing it to light. That these reflections continuously alternate between that of a physical or a mental nature is incontrovertible, as far as Guest is concerned. According to her poem, it takes a leap of imagination, as well as a trick of light, to see that the rain changes as flowers in the meadow change, which is rather like the way an arm is rearranged by the reflection in a window glistening with rainwater. During such moments, the location of objects refuses to obey ordinary calls to reason. In these types of urban pastoral scenarios, Guest implies in “Landing,” a poem from her previous collection, “The window outscaped / Brings the climate indoors. The eye is free, adorned / By that which is becoming” (Poems 40), the final word here referring not only to that which is beautiful and free, but also, it would appear, to that which is constantly undergoing transformation.

In “The Brown Studio” (Poems 77), Guest tests her urban pastoral formula in what looks at first to be a less promising architectural space. On this occasion, the duskiness of an artist’s studio surprises a persona who has just “spent a night in the grove / by the river,” where all forms were somber and “even the music was distinctly shady.” Because a self-conscious sadness colors the proceedings, the title of the poem could very well be a play on “brown study,” an outmoded colloquialism signifying deep thought. Regardless, the colors that Guest associates in this poem with location and emotion are notable for their variability. Initially, she claims to be “surprised” by the duskiness of the empty studio, with its black stove, black chair, black coat, and inky easel, just as she is “alarmed” by the brownness of the riverside grove, with its starlings and muddy water. Filling in for the absent painter, the poet eventually realizes that she has the opportunity to decorate dark spaces in brighter hues, so long as her voice lasts: “I believed if I spoke, / if a word came from my throat / and entered this room whose wall had been turned, / / it would be the color of the cape / we saw in Aix in the studio of Cezanne.”[7] Only when her own voice trails off will this ambitious visitor, keenly aware of “the arc from real to phantom” in various artistic representations, come to appreciate the “dying brown” that confronts her. Like O’Hara and other poets in her milieu, Guest admired the space and light that New York painters took pains to preserve in their studios. “I don’t think writers put enough demands on their surroundings,” she tells Hillringhouse in her 1992 interview. “It’s almost as if they’re afraid to do it, as if it were indulgent and detracts from the mysteriousness of their occupation.... Whereas painters demand it” (24). With its emphasis on the way working space demanded by artists and writers affects pictorial and linguistic processes, “The Brown Studio” nicely complements O’Hara’s “Why I am Not a Painter,” for like that poem it features a poet’s triangulated relationship with the contoured reality that she and New York’s visual artists endeavor to represent.[8]

Ann Vickery, in her essay on Guest’s pastoral sensibility, repeatedly refers to this poet’s “retreat into the imaginary,” arguing that “pastoral, for Guest, is where the imaginary is not only prioritized over the real but informs the real” (251, 254). I am not certain that the relationship Vickery describes is so easily calibrated. To complicate her claim, one need only turn to “The Location of Things,” “The Brown Studio,” or “The Screen of Distance” (Selected Poems 132-38), to realize that physical spaces are just as apt to “inform” Guest’s imagination. In “The Screen of Distance,” a poem originally published in Fair Realism (1989), Guest’s representation of New York architecture relies upon the same porosity evident in earlier works. “On a wall shadowed by lights from the distance,” the titular screen, “suspended like / the frame of a girder,” accommodates the exchange of narratives in an enclosed room.[9] To facilitate the breakdown of artificial barriers, the “worker” constructing this frame, presumably the poet herself, fills it with “a plot or a quarter inch of poetry to encourage / nature into his building and the tree leaning / against it, the tree casting language upon the screen” (Selected Poems 132). In a later section of the poem, the aesthete builder surmises that, “To introduce color to form / I must darken the window where shrubs / grazed the delicate words / the room would behave / like everything else in nature.” Having created her ideal dwelling, she delights in the fact that “Experience and emotion performed / as they did within the zone of distance / the words in fluid passages / created a phenomenal blush / dispersing illusion” (135).

Vickery claims that “the pastoral mood of the poem accentuates the ‘distance’ between subject and object, the use of language as a frame or psychological screen,” citing David Halperin’s assertion that “the ideal world of pastoral finds the real world wanting” (258, 259). To my way of thinking, though, “The Screen of Distance” shrinks the distance separating the ideal from the real, conflating the trappings of urban civilization (buildings, narrative discourse) with their natural counterparts (shrubs, raw emotion), thereby bringing the city poet into a far more intimate relationship with her immediate surroundings. Without becoming too literal, Guest implies that actual metropolitan sites are responsible for piquing her abstract imagination, accommodating the daily mysteries of city living, and allowing poetic wonders to take place.[10] In the poems cited above, city spaces inhabited by New York’s open-minded artists and writers are altered by natural surroundings. Perusing other poems in her first two volumes, I am led to wonder whether the coastal landscapes Guest knew as a child in Florida and California were responsible for these spatial transformations. By taking an imaginative journey back to childhood scenes of reverie, Guest ends up suspending her sense of time as well as her sense of space, tracing a trajectory similar to the one mapped out by her friend John Ashbery, whose rural upbringing in upstate New York sometimes seeps into his verse. Poetry of the New York School is often acclaimed for its daily qualities, its faithful adherence to the here and now. For instance, in poems such as “The Day Lady Died” and “A Step Away From Them,” Frank O’Hara not only lists the sequence of his lunchtime activities, but also cites the precise time, down to the minute, that certain events occur. Ted Berrigan, a member of the New York School’s second generation, follows O’Hara’s lead, timing his escapades in the East Village even more obsessively. James Schuyler, a far more wistful poet, also punctuates moments of reflection with the unavoidable interruptions of city living. The abstract dimensionality that Guest and Ashbery achieve in their work, by contrast, adheres to a paradigm of “suspension” dating back to the days of Virgilian pastoral.[11] Instead of fixating on a specific site or moment, as O’Hara and Berrigan were wont to do, these poets hold in abeyance life’s basic assumptions, decisions, and judgments, particularly where location and temporality are concerned, mentally revisiting the landscapes of their youth in order to escape the unrelenting demands of New York’s cutting-edge dailiness.

We need look no further than “Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher,” Guest’s most famous poem, to appreciate the suspenseful nature of her surrealistic work, which although it consciously resists the excesses of confessional verse, retains something of an autobiographical flavor. Kathleen Fraser, who recalls hearing Guest read “Parachutes” at the New School in the early 1960s, attributes its magical allure to “the precariousness of emotional suspension and the suggestion of imminent shattering ... the condition of the tenuous, spoken out of a peculiarly interior experience, yet as far afield as one could imagine from the battering ‘confessional’ model much favored in certain East Coast poetry circles at that time” (Translating 127). Awash in aqueous imagery, Guest’s poem explores an environmental indeterminacy felt most acutely by those in love:

I just said I didn’t know
And now you are holding me
In your arms,
How kind.
Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher.
Yet around the net I am floating
Pink and pale blue fish are caught in it,
They are beautiful,
But they are not good for eating.
Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher
Than this mid-air in which we tremble,
Having exercised our arms in swimming,
Now the suspension, you say,
Is exquisite. I do not know.
There is coral below the surface,
There is sand, and berries
Like pomegranates grow.
This wide net, I am treading water
Near it, bubbles are rising and salt
Drying on my lashes, yet I am no nearer
Air than water. I am closer to you
Than land and I am in a stranger ocean
Than I wished. (Selected Poems 16)

Because the second word of the poem, “just,” can mean either “simply” or “recently,” depending on context, the tone and temporal position of the speaker are immediately thrown into question. Then again, what makes “Parachutes” a great poem is its refusal to resolve the inconsistencies and ambiguities lending love affairs their double nature, their wild mood swings, their careening traversals between the poles of allure and torture, passion and ennui. Linguistically, Guest relies upon clipped rhythms and catch-phrases, which together help her to reproduce the language of love popular in 1950s America without actually buying into mainstream ideology. The phrase “My love” joins “my darling” (see “Jaffa Juice,” Poems 35) and “my dear” (see “Nocturne,” Poems 72) as an assiduously ironic term of endearment, just as “beautiful” and “exquisite,” like the words “gorgeous” and “marvelous” appearing elsewhere in Guest’s oeuvre, sometimes resist being taken at face value.[12] Similarly, when Guest offers a disappointed lover’s by-the-book rejoinder, “How kind,” in the poem’s shortest line, one can almost hear her mutter the words under her breath.

But it is the natural imagery that makes this conflicted love poem so memorable. If the drops of rain falling from the city sky in “Les Realites” and “The Location of Things” present a noirish scenario of bohemian melancholy, the indeterminate horizon in “Parachutes,” hazily situated somewhere between the oceanic and the atmospheric, mirrors forth a more mature but rather troubling relationship. It is hard to know exactly where the persona is positioned. The initial images suggest airspace. Parachutes are devised to bring those falling though the sky to a soft landing. Of course, to argue that equipment designed for descent “could carry us higher,” as Guest does here, is to provide wry commentary on a romantic relationship in free-fall. Suspended in “this mid-air in which we tremble, / Having exercised our arms in swimming,” she is also “treading water,” once again obscuring her exact location. Her head is evidently above water, since the sea salt dries on her eyelashes. For all her poise, though, she seems to be in peril, claiming that she is “no nearer / Air than water,” drowning rather than waving. Effectively rewriting the love lyrics to Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean?” she finds herself “closer to [her lover] than land,” leaving her a fair distance from the shore, in a “stranger ocean” full of risk and uncertainty.

Moving in an opposite direction, “The Open Skies” begins with coastal imagery (“mollusks in their shell”), but swiftly ascends to the realm of air. Like the ocean, the open skies appear to be indivisible, attracting earthbound creatures, writers especially, who come to share their disregard for boundaries. The title of Guest’s poem, Fraser argues, refers to a “horizon of the page where almost anything might conjecture itself into language ... and leave, as suddenly” (Translating 125). “Daylight fair / unbreakable you seem,” Guest apostrophizes in this poem’s third section, “Hitched to me as I / window thrust to you” (Poems 81). As was the case in her city poems, Guest resists the arbitrary separation of indoors from outdoors. The “cantilevered” images filling “The Location of Things” are matched in “The Open Skies” by a poetic figure leaning from a window. Suspended in this manner, she communes directly with the airy element, which has the strange effect of holding her aloft. The poem’s fourth section contains another address to the air: “Cloudless / you take / / My happiness / rising in the morning.” As the section proceeds, Guest describes a luminous atmosphere able to resolve all tension and stress: “Light descends to me / buoyantly ... / / I pass into your frailness / / Noiseless hour / span of float and flight / Sky without lever or stress.” By the end of the poem, Guest has given herself over to “Sky whose fancy / sways and swings above / / All quick airiness / and slow guide.” Amidst her “ecstatic harking to upward dome,” she faces the open air a third time to say, “Without you I cannot see” (82). Fresh air is not only necessary for daily subsistence, but also, it would appear, for insightful artistic vision.[13] We might notice, though, that the open skies drawing Guest’s imagination outward and upward are depicted as “buoyant,” suggesting the primacy of aqueous metaphors throughout her poetic register.

“Parachutes” and “The Open Skies” contain their fair share of ambiguity and abstraction, and yet their personae seem knowable and their locations, hazy though they may be, startlingly accessible. “Biographical details pertaining to the life of Barbara Guest, the person, are not revealed,” Lundquist says of the typical Guest poem, “but emotional experience is fully and candidly exposed, without self-pity or narcissism” (“The Fifth Point of a Star” 24). In “Parachutes,” Fraser explains, “Guest’s location of self is disclosed as structural. It is in this uneasy moment that her reader is allowed entry. A recognition takes place. The perception that certainty is contextual, that uncertainty exists as an authentic condition, hovers in relief” (Translating 128). Marked by this authentic uncertainty, the suspenseful predicaments faced by Guest’s personae, though admittedly fantastical, remain basically shareable, a quality that Paul Alpers, in his analysis of classical singing contests among shepherds, identifies as an important component of pastoral literature.

“As opposed to epic and tragedy,” Alpers explains, pastoral “takes human life to be inherently a matter of common plights and common pleasures. Pastoral poetry represents these plights and these pleasures as shared and accepted, but it avoids naïvete and sentimentality because its usages retain an awareness of their conditions — the limitations that are seen to define, in the literal sense, any life, and their intensification in situations of separations and loss that can and must be dealt with, but are not to be denied or overcome” (Alpers 93). Confronted with a series of structural ambiguities, a reader of Guest’s poetry has the choice to concentrate on linguistic components, as Fraser and the Language Poets do, or instead on the equally shareable context that Fraser mentions but fails to name, namely the seascapes in which Guest’s early poems are frequently situated. The air and water filling Guest’s seascapes are commonly held quantities necessary for human survival, although as the poet often implies, it is possible to suffer from a surfeit as well as from a deprivation of these elements. In such instances, her personae are suspended as they seek proper attachments. While they do not always seem very comfortable, they nonetheless join pastoral shepherds in retaining “an awareness of their conditions,” adopting an ironic attitude through various crises and remaining conscious of the oppositional tensions preventing reconciliation and grounding.

In Guest’s universe, irony emerges as a natural occurrence. In Barbara Einzig’s view, Guest attempts “to do justice the tensions of the world, not to fall captive to its beauty, lyricism, music” (“The Surface as Object” 10). Such a statement, however, relies upon misleading oppositions. In a poem like “Parachutes,” I would have us note, the “tensions of the world” do not exclude the beauty, lyricism, and music of the natural surroundings so much as they indirectly bring them to light. The pink and blue fish are more beautiful because inedible, the coral reef more exquisite because fraught with danger. An imperiled swimmer blends easily into the dangerous scene, riskily assuming the beauty and qualified majesty of the other coastal creatures. As Sara Lundquist notes, Guest provides us a “dense compound of words, articulating in its luxurious surface interarticulations the plenitude of life” (“Barbara Guest,” my italics). Aided by abstract imagery, quirky phrasing, and a biological sensibility, this most ironic of modern poets depicts natural environments where tensions and inequities reveal, rather than obscure, the intimate connections that exist among diverse communities of living beings.[14]

Irony, risk, and nature are in fact inextricably linked in Guest’s work. “Beware the risky imagination,” Guest chides her reader in “Piazzas” (Poems 14), playfully echoing Coleridge’s encomium to Kubla Khan, himself a connoisseur of fantastical scenery. Where her own landscapes are concerned, Guest’s calculated risks facilitate the oddly humorous “journeying sensibility” for which she is justly praised.[15] In “Piazzas,” for instance, Guest includes a delightfully ironic rewrite of Wordsworth’s trip across the Alps. Readers of The Prelude will recall that, in Book VI, England’s most renowned nature poet anticipates a daring crossing by way of the Simplon Pass, but faces a significant anticlimax when he realizes that he and his friend, who have become separated from their hiking party, have already, involuntarily and quite unwittingly, traversed the mountains. “Lost as in a cloud, / Halted without a struggle to break through,” Wordsworth compensates for his colossal disappointment by focusing on his mental creativity — “Imagination!” — an “infinite” source of internal power that proves to be far more rapturous and sublime than the mountain range initially inspiring his risky journey (Wordsworth 216). Guest, meanwhile, cheekily reduces Wordsworth’s famous predicament and resolution to the distracted journal writing of a modern-day air traveler: “Imagination / thunder in the Alps yet we flew above it / then met a confusion of weather and felt / the alphabet turning over when we landed / in Pekin” (Poems 13). Although Guest sometimes uses exclamation points in her own poems, her decision in “Piazzas” to remove Wordsworth’s breathy punctuation mark, combined with her diminishment of his arduous journey to a single line (“thunder in the Alps yet we flew above it”), reflects her wised-up attitude towards Romantic confessions and sentimental flights of fancy. At the same time, she steers clear of simple cynicism, having recognized for herself the aesthetic rewards of Wordsworth’s calculated risk-taking.

Throughout Poems, Guest’s appropriation of literary seascapes is subject to the same treatment. “In Dock,” “Seeing You Off,” and “Dido to Aeneas” contain a pleasantly dizzying amalgamation of classical and contemporary motifs suggestive of an indeterminate geography. “In Dock” is a poem in which “Atlantic soundings,” heard by New Yorkers accustomed to “living at an embarkation port,” herald a classically Mediterranean landscape filled with Virgilian harbors, Thracians, Phoenecians, and a “ghost ship from Athens / plying its shuttered bark / crying Zeus! Zeus! / as it shatters this pier” (Poems 37). “Seeing You Off,” an urban river meditation in the tradition of James Schuyler’s “Hudson Ferry” (Collected Poems 21) and Edwin Field’s “A View of Jersey” (Allen 225-26), is also shot through with juxtapositions that outstrip longstanding rules of decorum, but are truthful enough, in the surrealist fashion. Portions of “Seeing You Off” offer a send-up of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” with Guest again situated on a pier, looking out toward the Hudson and claiming to be “ignorant as those armies” of boats passing by. “Send navies out from Jersey / let there be more edens / of soap and fats,” she declares in a voice that is alternately haughty and self-deprecating, but almost always comical. Later in the poem, looking out on Jersey’s industrial shoreline, she shares a “kiss in the saloon / far above the cries / from plows and auto parts / / as ugly as those waifs of paper / on the pier,” mocking Arnold’s sentimental response to his lover near the English Channel. The Mediterranean world recorded by Homer and Saint Augustine also makes an appearance in this contemporary cityscape replete with “moving vans / olympic as dawn” (30) and trucks whose “Departures make disgust into a cartoon / of rose Nabiscos” (31). Throughout the Hudson’s bizarre display, a modern ironist in classicist’s clothing stays on the scene to “digest / the sinking afternoon in a fleet / of taxicabs dead sure of you / / and Carthage after? / we’ll float on that wine-dark sea” (31).

“Dido to Aeneas,” included in the “Archaics” section of Poems, is a dramatic monologue marked by the same temporal and geographical indeterminacy. As Guest re-enacts Dido’s fabled lament, echoes of Shakespearean sonnets and mention of an auto garage place the scene several centuries ahead of Virgilian times. The tropical flora Dido describes (palmettos, hibiscus) and the unhappy separation she suffers across “great reaches of wave and salt” fail to distinguish the classical Mediterranean from modern Florida. A “white urn at the driveway” and “plaster flamingos” on “rioting lawns” (59), meanwhile, imply that Dido is no stranger to Miami Beach kitsch.[16] As was the case in “Parachutes,” Guest’s declaration of love, voiced faithfully on one level by Dido, is undercut on another by ironic juxtapositions in ambiguous coastal environments. Yet in neither poem does Guest totally forsake the human pathos attracting the recognition and sympathy of classical or modern readers. Afflicted with yearning, Dido wisely takes instruction from her surroundings, especially from voluble water sources, which tell her that risk-taking is her only option: “the fountain at noonday cries, / ‘You are not here’ and the sea at its distance / calls to a single path flanked by hibiscus, / the sea reminds itself each day / that it is solitary and the bather gambles / in its waves as a suicide who says ‘tomorrow is / another’ an hour in the wrecker foam” (58).

If Guest’s ambiguous scenery looks different than that found in most nature poetry, and if her pathos arrives by a more indirect route than that found in most love poetry, it is because she claims to appreciate the “audacious” challenge of fusing the abstract with the concrete, the mysterious with the knowable (Guest, Forces 21). Her verbal and visual “plasticity,” Rachel Blau Du Plessis argues, gives rise to “multiple subject positions and viewing positions,” with the poet “speaking from the vectors of a site, and not from one voice or any one identity.”[17] Throughout her career, Du Plessis maintains, we find Guest daringly searching out new ways of being, “favoring the discovery and creation of landscapes in which one could live an emotionally subtle, visually lush, attentive life” (“The Gendered Marvelous” 197, 202, 203).

DuPlessis’s points are well-taken, although as my critique of Guest’s early poetry is meant to suggest, I would at several junctures be willing to substitute “liquidity” for “plasticity,” and “seascapes” for “landscapes.” Guest herself asserts that “the person in a literary creation can be both viewer and insider.” I glean from her words her willingness to immerse personae in the fluid environments she witnesses and creates. In such instances, Guest explains, “the person is given a place of habitation within the construction and endowed with a knowledge not only of the force of nature, but the aesthetic purpose behind the writer’s decision to create this scene.... It is the gathering together of varying instructions by the concealed person that presents us with what we may call a ‘reliable’ landscape” (Forces 36, 41-42). Without risk, there is not only no reward, but nothing resembling natural reality.[18] Seeking reliability in landscapes and seascapes, Guest sometimes opts for familiarity, though by no means does she abandon her penchant for risk, which seems to have been a part of her makeup from the beginning. When Guest was six, a powerful hurricane hit the Florida coast. The costs associated with risk were stunningly apparent to the young girl, as curious people wandering out to the beach were swept away by the rising tide. Several poems in Guest’s first two volumes refer to this event, or to other episodes of coastal storminess. In “Hurricane,” Guest assumes the guise of the unfortunate souls who were swept away, regarding the invitation proffered by the arriving storm, with “its white cheek and wet arm, / its eyelash curled / and its wrist angry and at last free,” to escape her house’s mundane architecture (which crumbles violently beneath its force) and other trappings of civilized existence (Poems 83). The danger is real and immediate, and yet the allure of taking chances, of putting oneself at the mercy of the swirling forces of nature, is inextinguishable.

A similar sense of foreboding and attraction imbues “Timor Mortis, Florida,” a poem in which fluid borders of blue and white shift during an “odd winter” spent on subtropical shores. During an unusual cold snap, “Risked sails” move on a “Gulf whose eye is bluest screen.” The calmness of the coastal scene serves as a prelude to disturbance, however, since the “threshing sea,” provoked by strong winds, churns up soil, changing the color of its waters as it distributes “silt light as dawn” (Poems 86-87). Here, too, a tempestuous tropical scene filled with displaced objects seems to beckon the young girl enamored of adventure:

Desire at the stake of palmetto
Desire the empty marina     tideless
              Oars in the fronds
through bulrushes
Sunset the backland washes         gates  (Poems 86-87)

That the oars are found amidst palm fronds, not in a boat, implies that they have been strewn by some powerful force. Guest surmises that “desire” is at the root of such transformations. Incited by her own desire to escape the quotidian, she peers out from “backland washes” to observe transcendental “gates” through which she too aspires to be carried.

In “Saving Tallow” and “Colonial Hours,” poems from The Blue Stairs, Guest builds upon the childhood memories outlined in previous works. The title of the first poem refers to the resourcefulness required to ride out tropical storms. In lieu of kerosene, the tallow found in candles offers the best available fuel for hurricane victims who want to find their way in the dark. Recalling the “Visible tallow of the hurricane night,” Guest seizes upon the inside-out dynamic shaping her urban pastoral meditations as a means of drawing herself closer to the elements raging outside her window. As it burns and drips, the “thin fair candle” in her room comes to resemble a number of coastal objects, including “a yacht cradling / the room’s deep water,” a “lone palm tree,” and a “lonely diver / covered with sea lice.” This candle not only provides light, but also fires the housebound girl’s imagination. Possessing a sovereignty that creative writers admire, this “most vertical” taper survives the swirling chaos that surrounds it, calmly assimilating that natural energy, not unlike the way Wallace Stevens’s conspicuous jar, placed on a hill, tames the wilderness of Tennessee, though the poem as a whole is hardly indicative of Stevens’s solipsistic tendencies.[19] Part of Guest’s avant-garde aesthetic involves relinquishing authorial control, not only to her wild imagination, but also to the wild landscapes influencing that imagination. In “Saving Tallow,” she tells the candle that “the room dedicates its curves to you,” but she is just as quick to snuff out the candle at the end of the poem, having become enchanted by “diving fish” and other varieties marine life found frolicking in the waves or near the shore. “Take me on your dolphin skin! / I shall be absent soon!” she cries, catching a ride with a creature that survives the death-haunted sea (Selected Poems 38-39).

“Colonial Hours,” too, describes the forces of nature drawing Guest’s attention as a young girl. “The year of the hurricane / (we are speaking) / bay roadway / the drenching / leaves flattened to echo / dry velvet before / hush” (13). Throughout this poem, readers are made aware of Guest’s unorthodox but basically sequential logic. The movement in these lines from drenching wetness to velvety dryness, from loudness to softness, turns a climatologic catastrophe into an aesthetic opportunity. A hibiscus plant, like the one found flanking a pathway to the sea in “Dido and Aeneas” (Poems 58), announces a subtropical setting, identified here as “Land in wake of Prospero / / with splayed tendrils washed” (The Blue Stairs 13). With the mention of Shakespeare’s central character in The Tempest, the storm alluded to in the poem’s first line takes on added resonance, as does the poem’s title.[20] In recent decades, with the advent of “postcolonial criticism,” The Tempest has been read as an allegory of Europe’s imperial mission in the Americas. In addition to its tropical storms, America’s southern coast in earlier centuries weathered wave upon wave of colonists, who came by the boatload, with each group claiming the newfound land as “ours,” a dubious designation alluded to by Guest in her title’s homophonic pun. Guest, we should note, aims for something rather different: a daybook of coastal “hours,” a modern shoreline version of the “rural hours” projects composed by Susan Fenimore Cooper and other nineteenth century naturalists. Guest veers toward abstraction more readily than Cooper ordinarily would, but she still seeks personal connection with the effulgent seacoasts she knew as a youth.

In a way, “Colonial Hours” functions as this experimental writer’s tristes (sub)tropiques. Looking back on her days in Florida and California, she remembers “Night temples of palms / the rain blows tropique / as ceiling fans / you go in orphan feet / crossing the tiles” (14). Although young Barbara was not exactly an orphan, she was shuttled among different sets of relatives whenever the financial circumstances dictated. We might recall that when Guest says the word “home” today, she tends to whisper it. Fittingly, in one section of “Colonial Hours” the uprooted persona whispers to herself in the midst of “remembering the prisons form which you sprang / the machinery of coral walls / your bamboo crest / the stockade that encircles you,” as well as the time “you are released / to the jointure of others.” A few coastal barriers loom large in her memory. These include the coral reef, positioned underwater in “Parachutes,” but transmogrified here into imprisoning walls. Overcoming these barriers becomes Guest’s mission some years later. Many city dwellers who grew up in remote locations might recall feeling imprisoned by their geographical fate. Still, there comes a time when accepting those far-flung places, belatedly taking instruction from them, seems the wisest decision. Lacking the Ivy League connections of her New York peers, Guest makes a virtue of necessity, claiming tropical bamboo as her family crest, her special talisman. Equally symbolic is “an amulet that is a beetle / to be fed by palmetto and cane / cherished by the thrice blue seas.” Emboldened by her rediscovery of coastal charms and the roar of ocean waves, she stakes out her legacy, telling herself, “you shall reconnoiter / As a shell your dynasty” (14-15).

Above all, Guest seeks a place to settle, if only in her mind. In her poetic nomenclature, “colonial” settlement takes on a bioregional rather than a political meaning. Colonizing, or moving alongside others of the same species in order to survive and prosper, was a practice adopted by wild animals and insects long before humans got into the act. Accordingly, the poet takes instruction from birds, seeking to understand “the colonial language of tern sibilancy” (15). Glancing at a map, repeating an activity she had first described in “Geography” (Poems 94), she pauses again (represented here by a “blink”), reflecting upon a “Magnified world / my education / my craft / / My fruit my oranges” (The Blue Stairs 15). If Guest’s gradual shift from larger to smaller frames of reference essentially reverses the sequential thought process adopted by Stephen Dedalus at the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, her movement from abstract to organic realms suggests that she has received her “education” in subtropical environments, quietly honing her “craft” in subsequent years by revisiting these scenes of plenty. Establishing a connection with effulgent warm weather landscapes makes her a unique presence among poets of the New York School.[21] With the inclusion of “my oranges,” Guest claims as her own a cash crop harvested in Florida while simultaneously differentiating her literary work from that of her friend O’Hara, who collaborated with painter Grace Hartigan on a “pastoral” sequence entitled Oranges famous for avoiding reference to its titular fruit.[22] Although Guest attends closely to natural facts, her poetic encounter with coastal Florida at times assumes a mythological aspect, not unlike that found in the early verse of H.D. In “Cape Canaveral,” for example, the chilly seascape Guest had described in “Timor Mortis, Florida” reveals an ocean creature enamored of her supernatural gifts:

Fixed in my wig
the green grass side
               hanging down
I impart to my silences

Climate cannot impair
               neither the grey clouds nor the black waters
the change in my hair.

Covered with straw or alabaster
I’m inured against weather.
The vixen’s glare, the tear on the flesh
covered continent where the snake
withers happily and the nude deer
antler glitters, neither shares
my rifled ocean growth
              polar and spare. (Poems 25)

Elsewhere in “Cape Canaveral,” Guest refers to “Nose ridges / where the glaciers melt / into my autumnal winter-fed cheek / hiding its shudder in this kelp,” thereby strengthening a connection already established between bodily features and offshore influences. The sea goddess appearing in “From Eyes Blue and Cold” brings forth a similar transformation, delivering “a far off coastal lithesomeness / when she awakes / with seaweed in her arms” (Poems 57). In “The Return of the Muses,” a later poem, Guest takes a step back, forsaking a first person point-of-view in order to apostrophize the sea creatures drawing her attention, named here as “you who had vanished / ... [with] salt in your mouth / where the sea was whipping itself up in a corner / and foam falling like ash” (The Blue Stairs 19). Characteristically, Guest in her mental voyages privileges liquidity over solidity, allowing herself to become drenched by a rainstorm “sluicing / about in memory, fishing up” images from her past. Shifting the scene from the rainy valley depicted earlier in the poem to a “new perspective” — the “fresh horizon line” of the sea — she rejects the “strict discipline, continuous devotion, / receptiveness” required by most writers in favor of the magical evocations supplied by ocean muses, conspiring to usher the unbridled forces of nature headlong into her writing space.

The coastal forces influencing Guest’s imagination manifest themselves even more powerfully in “Sand” and “Wave,” poems that appear side by side in her first volume. In “Sand,” Guest portrays the limitless seascapes where poets prone to meditating on mortality and the passage of time “Rejoice / in ancient nothingness” (Selected Poems 28). Echoes of Frank O’Hara’s beachside elegies for James Dean emerge in a later passage: “Poets walk across you their footprints / cannot shock your softness, on you / shells, pearls, weeds / discards as on a mountain top / is found record of horizon” (27). At Fire Island in 1955, O’Hara traced a “leaving word in sand, odor of tides: his name,” as his way of paying tribute to a departed Hollywood idol, knowing full well that his lines would soon be washed away by the surf (Collected Poems 231). Guest is just as poignant in her appraisal of artistic impermanence. At the shoreline, the pliant sand readily accepts a writer’s imprint, only to swallow it up moments later, aided by tidal erosion. Linguistically mirroring this process, Guest’s connective syntax disappears like footprints in a rising tide, and yet she is able to locate amidst ocean debris a means of amalgamating beauty and death. Meanwhile, the various gifts from the sea that she lists in “Sand” account for the true “record of horizon,” a Heideggerian euphemism for history. Writers hoping to leave their mark need to realize that the tide of history is filled with transitory images which are only belatedly translated into words. They should therefore tread lightly, with humility and wariness, across any descriptive landscape or seascape, the shifting surface (“surf face”?) of which is always subsuming them into its own text, as if it were writing their epitaphs.

Unfortunately, even the least intrusive of writers finds it difficult to minimize her harmful impact. In “Fan Poems,” a sequence from The Blue Stairs, Guest explains that she “who walks softly” in a garden nonetheless “causes mutiny among the lilies,” which in turn causes blossoms to fall. Despite this chain of events, “unique flower beds ... / ... hasten to lift themselves to a cautious heel print,” suggesting that this garden takes human activity in stride, making it a part of its own ongoing narrative (Selected Poems 31). That violence introduced unintentionally from the outside defers in the long run to renewable beauty is one of nature’s great mysteries. “Sand,” with its portrayal of a poet’s fading footprints and a storm-tossed pearl’s emerging sheen, conveys this message quite convincingly.

“Wave,” a pendant piece to “Sand,” focuses intently on the borders separating sea, sky, and land. Taking on the identity of a daredevil swimmer, Guest seems willing to risk everything in order to commune directly with the treacherous power of the sea, boldly announcing, “Wave / whose arm is green / your / half-wayness I, too, would meet you there / in foam.” A few lines later, she issues another boast: “we cry deepest and turn not daring to spy / full-face on ocean crest that carries on / on / space now azure fullest where the depth / is danger” (Poems 90).[23] One can envision brave but ill-fated onlookers uttering these words during the 1926 hurricane. Then, too, these words resemble those uttered on Mediterranean shores in “Dido to Aeneas.” As she is apt to do, Guest dots a modern seascape with mythological creatures. With an allure matching that of the open ocean, these tempestuous beings overwhelm those who dream of a gentler waters:

              Triton’s throng appears
                                           where zephyrs
cast skyward by the spume glance down
on islands of the deep mermaids
we’ll never see     or hear     yet each
wave rolling brings in brightest
phosphorescence their hair
                             a lyre
sweet voice of brine
               other secrets
in the tease and stress of wave song  (Poems 91)

With its indented and fragmentary lines, “Wave” locates beauty amidst available natural tensions, especially “the tease and stress of wave song.” Throughout the poem, the sea’s violence and anger are touted as passionate manifestations of an ecological imagination, to be sought after rather than avoided by stalwart swimmers and adventurous poets. By the end of the 1960s, however, Guest would find herself evaluating the political costs of risk-taking in ocean settings.

“A Handbook of Surfing,” a long poem from The Blue Stairs, represents the high water mark of Guest’s coastal writings. Written in Greece, this poem is nonetheless a fascinating portrait of California culture during the 1960s, as well as a secret commentary on the Vietnam War raging on the other side of the Pacific. In this latest work about risk, based in part on a real handbook, a surfer becomes an inspirational figure for the poet, much as a daredevil swimmer did in “Wave,” with Guest making her way through the blue element. The “wave wilderness wily wild” draws the poet together with “surf kindlers in the riddle splash,” who like her possess an “ocean plan for a soupy ride” (Selected Poems 43).[24] According to Brenda Hillman, “A Handbook” shows us an “unconscious mind at play in oceanic language” (208). Indeed, when Guest writes about the ocean’s “eyewash of roar speech saltness” (Selected Poems 43), her “wavering” syntax reminds me of Lorine Niedecker’s sibilant descriptions of water. The form of Guest’s poem, meanwhile, aspires to mimic the quick turnabouts and other “hot dogging” techniques perfected by advanced surfers. “I remark your courage / when you decide the form is exactly at its crest of / sequence,” the poet gushes (45). To register such transitions, Guest fills a left-hand column with various surfing activities — “Paddling out” and “Rolling through” — much as she had consigned images associated with risk to a right-hand column in “Safe Flights.” Failure is acceptable in this marine environment, she implies, since “‘All can transform the ugly wipeout / into a thing of beauty’ / can save face even in oceanic pratfall” (48). As she says in an earlier passage, “it’s only / a quaint mishap to be thrown by the imagination” (45). But even the most daring surfers need to avoid certain scenarios, a fact made clear when Guest says, “‘In closeout conditions no one surfs.’ / There is a point beyond which big storm surf is unrideable” (48). The authoritarian tone of the handbook — “Nobody rides in closeout! (49) — is matched by the poet’s own sense of urgency, which will ultimately be directed at the warmongers targeting the Pacific Rim as their eminent domain.[25] There is more to this poem, in other words, than merely the fundamentals of surfing.

I have already noted Guest’s proclivity for allegorizing her experimental writing process. By conflating the carefree escapades of California youth culture with military maneuvers taking place contemporaneously in Vietnam, she takes her double-barrel approach a step further, using “A Handbook” to recount “daily decisions both politic and poetic”(44).[26] Her task is made easier by clever word choices. “Changing directions,” “closeout,” “pullout,” “wipeout,” “wing position,” “hot dogging,” and “turning about” were phrases uttered on both sides of the Pacific in 1968. Of course, context meant everything. “Wave strength” might provide a good ride on a surfboard, but it could also mean the advance of swarming guerillas in Indochina. What is more, one rider’s pursuit of pleasure might signal another man’s peril. Thus do films like Brice Brown’s The Endless Summer (1964) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) celebrate surfing across the globe while simultaneously showing it to be an extension of Ugly Americanism, sometimes consciously, and at other times obliviously. In Brown’s campy “surfari” documentary, two young Californians in search of the perfect wave make their way to Africa, lightly mocking native customs while basking in the sunny adulation shown them by various tribal people, who naively yet charmingly make their own attempts to scale the breakers hitting their underutilized shoreline. In Apocalypse Now, fictional character Lance Johnson, a renowned surfer from San Diego, is urged by a deranged army colonel to surf an imposing break off the Vietnamese coast as Vietcong guerillas strafe the waves with machineguns and American forces drop napalm on the nearby jungle. The risks of surfing are thus concomitantly linked with the risks of warfare, with Americans claiming primacy in both categories. As Johnson’s commanding officer shouts gleefully, “Charlie don’t surf!”

Interestingly, Guest beats Coppola to the punch, emphasizing this same nefarious link between boards and bombs, subtly at times, mock-heroically at others. Quirky prophecies of violent aggression abound in “A Handbook of Surfing.” Philomela appears at one juncture, straight from Ovidian legend, the memory of her brutal rape by Tereus juxtaposed with the contemporary image of “cuckoo strength bearers as rapists” on a mission in the Pacific (43). Taking her argument in a feminist direction, Guest associates beach “bunnies” wearing wraparound beachwear, or “glossy tunics,” with “statues on the hill stanced seaward sunstruck / withered frequently headless only the bosoms / upholding strict maidens courageous also / so many storms and tribal wars so much murder / to remain unburied” (46-47). These beautiful women, whom “surf horses” (50) and soldiers with “warrior torsos” (47) try desperately to impress, witness in contemporary California what women in ancient Greece had once witnessed: fatal macho posturing on the high seas done in the name of honor.

Elsewhere, Guest depicts California surfers as “oracles” “en route to wave line-up,” awaiting word from the ocean breezes about “flat or uncommon sea surf down or up.” In 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive and the My Lai massacre, the outlook was less than rosy. By saying “we’ll know soon enough when the obituaries are out,” Guest provides a veiled reference to the body counts reported daily during the war, emphasizing the far-sighted sobriety of her literary enterprise. Looking west from American shores, this coastal soothsayer suggests that she be “called Cassandra in these summer days / when in the soft illness of heat I’m ready / to talk of battles” (49). Abstractly reporting dire geopolitical trends, she laments that the loopy fun of California’s Endless Summer has been transformed into an endless conflict whereby young men are sent beyond the blue horizon to wage war. With its “associative, lateral combinatoire of surrealism” (Du Plessis, “The Gendered Marvelous” 194), “A Handbook of Surfing” stands as one of America’s most fascinating war poems, for it is at once contemporary and classical, lyrical and fragmentary, lusciously decadent and deadly serious, lightly comical and eerily prophetic.

In the lyrical seascapes I have analyzed thus far, Guest accedes to what Nathaniel Mackey has called a “coastal way of knowing,” defined in his essay on H.D. as a “dissolute knowledge, repetitive, coastal knowledge, undulatory, repeatedly undone and reconstituted.” Availing herself of the ocean’s “insular drift” during the early twentieth century, the Imagist poet tapped into a special variety of coastal knowledge that “seeks to seal itself against antinomies of totality and dissolution, eternity and time, through recourse to a prolonged, rapaciously finite moment.” Poetry by H.D. is marked by “a tidalectical swing between annunciative ebb and annunciative flow,” Mackey explains, pointing out that in her most affecting works, there exists “no desire other than that of maintaining oneself within the limits of this zone for the longest possible time, in free orbit” (Paracritical 62-63). To my mind, Guest’s fascination with littoral zones results in the same tidalectical swing. “Ideally a poem will be both mysterious (incunabula, driftwood of the unconscious), and organic (secular) at the same time,” she writes in “A Reason for Poetics” (Forces 20). Juxtaposing aleatory poetic form (rendered here as moveable type), sea drift, and the free play of the mind, Guest remains faithful to modernist experimentalism while reaching back to environmental sources for inspiration. She realizes that the “plasticity” for which her work is admired “cannot be achieved through language alone, but arrives from tensions placed on the poem’s structures” (22).

Looming large among these tensions, though Guest does not say so specifically in her essay, is the interplay between elements like air and water and the “special language” she uses to represent them, described elsewhere as “a pull in both directions between the physical reality of the place and the metaphysics of space.” Optimally, she explains, “this pull will build up a tension within the poem giving a view of the poem from both the interior and the exterior” (20).[27] In her urban pastoral verse, we might recall, Guest’s sustained emphasis on “tension” allows her to deconstruct confining architectural spaces. In her coastal poems, it results in a temporary suspension between competing forces of imagination. One does not need to be an aerialist or a swimmer to acknowledge the suspension felt by those who travel through the air or immerse themselves in water, just as one does not need to be an avant-garde poet to realize that a suspension of disbelief leads to wildly creative moments. But one must possess a good deal of talent if she hopes to translate feelings of buoyancy into abstractly intelligible verse, which is precisely what Guest manages to do in her early volumes.

In the 1970s, Guest turned away from seacoasts to explore the attributes of water in other environments, focusing her attention on lakes, rivers, and sloughs. Aqueous imagery is not nearly as concentrated as it is in her first two volumes, though it still finds its way into her best work, including two extended prose pieces, The Countess from Minneapolis (1976) and Seeking Air (1978), both of which incorporate urban rivers into their disjointed narratives. Sara Lundquist praises The Countess from Minneapolis for its “awareness of nature” (“The Midwestern New York Poet”), and rightly so, since Guest herself alludes to “elemental understandings” “corresponding to hemispheric requests of flatness” (Countess, section 12). Guest first encountered this region while visiting painter Mary Abbott in Minnesota in the early 1970s. Guest’s protagonist, a nineteenth century European countess who like herself has been temporarily displaced to the modern Midwest, remains highly aware that “separations begin with placement” (Selected Poems 83). “Within her limited mathematics she comprehended space” (Countess, section 23), Guest tells us, though it soon becomes apparent that her task was not always easy. Before long, Guest and the countess join a select group of New Yorkers (Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, Caroline Kirkland) and Europeans (Karl Bodmer, Madame de Stael, Alexis de Tocqueville) who took tours of the Midwest during the nineteenth century, remarking on how pleasantly bewildered they are in the face of its open expanse.

True to form, Guest concentrates not merely on the flat horizon and the big sky, but also on the water that exists, or once existed, in this region. Guest had already approached this topic in “Nebraska,” included in her 1973 volume, Moscow Mansions, referring to the great inland sea purported to have covered the Great Plains in ancient days (see Everhart). Although it may seem strange to associate land-locked Nebraska with the sea, several writers (Bryant, in his poem “The Prairies,” most prominently) have equated the wave-like undulations and endless vistas of Middle America with oceanic horizons. In “Nebraska,” Guest takes the extra step of imagining the contemporary Great Plains completely under water, its “Climate succumbing continuously as water gathered / into foam or Nebraska elevated by ships” (Selected Poems 58). In a mind-bending passage that brings the poem to a close, Guest combines diverse images in order to portray Middle America as a sea of joy, altering an equation so that contemporary Nebraska now becomes the vehicle and the ancient inland ocean the tenor of a longstanding metaphor:

Hallucinated as Nebraska the swift blue
appears formerly hid when approached now it
chides with a tone the prow striking a grim
atmosphere appealing and intimate as if a verse
were to water somewhere and hues emerge
and distance erased a swan concluding bridge
the sky with her neck possibly brightening
the machinery as a leaf arches through its yellow
syllables so Nebraska’s throat  (Selected Poems 59)

A nimble leap of the imagination reveals that the inland ocean “formerly hid when approached,” but that “now it chides,” leading me to believe that the tides of history no longer recede beyond our feet so much as they flood the minds of contemporary observers, mocking all disbelievers, erasing temporal and spatial distances, and ultimately causing the shimmering surface of ocean water to reflect against the vast prairie sky a most glorious mythological image, glimpsed magically when the “swift blue” of sea and sky is transformed by the “yellow / syllables” of Guest’s language into the arching neck of a swan. John Bernard Myers has trenchantly compared Guest’s landscapes to surrealist writer Andre Breton’s “sense of the marvelous,” which for Breton “included besides the magical and the whole rich drama of the unconscious, everything in nature that revealed her strangeness: caves, volcanoes, moths with fabulous markings, fish that lived in the deepest waters, minerals, grotesque beasts and reptiles, weird birds, carnivorous flowers, insects expert in camouflage” (Myers 12-13). One can see in the closing lines of “Nebraska” just how marvelous, how strange and yet how utterly natural, are Guest’s own poetic landscapes, so many of which take their cue from the liquidity of their surroundings, “as if a verse / were to water somewhere.”[28]

In “Nebraska,” Guest regards America’s vanished inland sea as “a city in our mind we called silence” (59). In The Countess from Minneapolis, she turns toward an inland city haunted by the water that remains. Throughout the book, Guest suggests that the mighty Mississippi causes people “riven by the river” (section 19) to commit spiritual suicide and call it triumph, implicitly commenting on the fatal leap taken by poet John Berryman from a Minneapolis bridge in 1972 (section 8). Getting “high on Mississippi rock water” in a section entitled “Eating Lake Superior Cisco Smoked Fish” (section 7), Guest’s countess implies here and in other sections that “reasonable” rivers in Paris and New York simply do not inspire the same kind of “river worship” (section 8) as does the idiosyncratic waterway coursing its way through the “Myth-West” (section 19). Crossing a footbridge near Minneapolis’s Minnehaha Falls, the mercurial countess resists her own impulse to jump into the drink, claiming that “the unappetizing swell of the muddied water could appeal only to the truly desperate” (section 10). She remains highly conscious, however, of the river’s melancholy beauty, its dangerous allure. In a later section (32), she pays tribute to the legendary waterway by composing an urban nocturne:

               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. (Selected Poems 89)

Although this grimy Midwestern landscape initially puts me in mind of James Wright’s early poetry, the conflation of industrial and natural imagery more closely resembles Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra,” a great example of urban pastoral poetry emanating from the rail yards south of San Francisco. Like Ginsberg, Guest pays heed to the loneliness and despair of industrial landscapes, yet she manages to find beauty, solace, and inspiration amidst all the smoke and rust. The Mississippi River does its part as well. Just as the moon reflects the sun’s light, so too does the river reflect the moonlight, allowing the surface of the water and Guest’s language to share a complementary luminosity. Guest’s poem, which like the two boxcars carries the moon as cargo, would be just another fragile vehicle traveling through a modern wasteland were it not for the reflective capacity of natural phenomena, which physically and intellectually bring pleasing images to light.

Water views allow portions of Seeking Air, Guest’s experimental novel, written in an “apartment in the E. 90s overlooking the East River” (Seeking Air 1), to shimmer with the same kind of urban pastoral magic. The Countess from Minneapolis may contain passages of stunning urban beauty, but the aqueous imagery in Seeking Air seems even more poignant considering Guest’s experiences in New York, where its disjointed narrative takes place. In her analysis of The Countess from Minneapolis, Sara Lundquist associates Guest’s avant-garde writing style with the unfamiliar challenges she faced in the Midwest. “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 it shifts in relation to unfamiliar place” (“The Midwestern New York Poet”). Looking again at Seeking Air, I find Guest taking the same approach in her evaluation of New York. The urban pastoral subgenre, it should be noted, depends largely on the process of de-familiarization. Members of the New York School discovered their hometown metropolis to be beautiful and peaceful because they took the time to notice phenomena that other city dwellers, including themselves, have overlooked or taken for granted. In Seeking Air, as in The Countess from Minneapolis, Guest writes “in order to know,” approaching the pastoral character of the city as though sealing an intimate pact with a long-lost friend. Considered in such a manner, old haunts in New York prove just as uncanny as unexplored spots on the Minnesota prairie. The trick involves searching out the city’s interstices, which exist in time as well as space. In Seeking Air, Guest refers to these interstitial moments as “intervals.” Characteristically, Guest passes her aesthetic challenge on to readers. As we do when viewing Cubist paintings, Kathleen Fraser reports in her analysis of Seeking Air, “we must put together a ‘meaning’ via the subject’s angles, materials, functions, and planes; we must read the gaps, the overlapping clues” (Translating 172).

As his name implies, the novel’s protagonist, Morgan Flew, is a lost soul embarking on a flight from the quotidian realities of his claustrophobic Upper East Side apartment. Desperately “seeking air,” he treasures the views from his window and small terrace, which look out upon buildings, streets, and the East River. Several flights below Morgan’s perch, “life’s cinema aspect” rolls by, ceaselessly on parade (Seeking Air 62). Stereotypically neurotic, and faced with what he calls “another urban scene requiring my ‘relating’ to,” Morgan attains solace only by slowing down the pace of city life. “Out on the street pushed east and west by the unflagging noise of machinery, I felt a desperate need to observe slow moving objects,” he explains. “It was the ‘intervals’ I wished to celebrate. As anyone knows there are few intervals in New York City. They must be carefully uncovered, their rhythms caught in the moment of surrender” (112).

Throughout the book, Morgan’s troubled relationship with a woman named Miriam is countered by his intimate attachment to Dark, an allegorical figure representing Morgan’s melancholy creativity and his need for pastoral refuge. First discovered by Morgan during a tropical storm at his family’s beach house when he was fifteen (94), Dark is constantly sending this nervous New Yorker into a trance, slowing things down, changing his perspective, throwing up “barricades” and secret directives” that tempt him “to discover here in the city a variation of haven” (48), in keeping with pastoral tradition. Morgan’s mission, as he comes to understand it, is “to make a small countryside within New York City” (42). So similar are his melancholy observations to Guest’s other urban pastoral meditations that one surmises the author shares her character’s “Dark” philosophy as well as his Upper East Side address (though not his sexist attitudes).

Fittingly, the intervals that Guest and Morgan indulge in as they remove themselves from the city’s hustle and bustle are laden with moisture. In Guest’s early poems, we might recall, serendipitous moments of subtle joy are often brought on by rainfall, which introduces to the city a whole new rhythm, one that is slower and more conducive to reflection. Similarly, in Seeking Air, Morgan notices that water in all its forms makes the city glisten and slow down. “Losing sight of the freighter as it cruises under the bridge and rounds the bend,” and subsequently welcoming its reappearance, Morgan comes to appreciate the calm, steady flow of the East River (114).[29] During another interval, he marvels at “how orotund [is] the city voice in the spring rain,” noticing as though for the first time miscellaneous objects this rain glistens and sanctifies, including an “orange firescape penetrating the exposed side of the Synagogue whose stained glass windows had formed prayer wheels all the winter long” (134). The air Morgan seeks is almost always heavy with liquid. Over time, he notices that a humid climate has the pleasing effect of softening the hard lines of urban architecture and muffling the sounds of traffic and machinery. “Cloudy days and fog produce concertos of intervals, like those of John Cage. Snow, as I have pointed out, is perhaps the ne plus ultra. Simply having the noise dimmed creates a false watt as the tires crunch silently through the snow carpeted streets. One may close one’s eyes and relish the interval, knowing that sometimes nearly a minute will pass before the scene again becomes blurred with other categories of movement” (113). That the music and poetry of Cage gets linked with water droplets suspended in air suggests that avant-garde writing does indeed take its cue from natural surroundings, as Lundquist intimates in her study of The Countess from Minneapolis. I would simply add to her thesis the possibility that metropolitan New York — every bit as much as Minnesota, Florida, Nebraska, or California — offers Guest fortuitous encounters with nature, many of them associated in some way, shape, or form, with water.

In “Twilight Polka Dots,” a poem from her 1989 collection, Fair Realism (55-56), Guest provides a cautionary tale for herself, and indeed for all nature writers. Two human figures approach a “curious lake,” a body of water that tries “to set a tone of solitude edged with poetry,” since “duty suggested it provide a scenic atmosphere / of content, a solicitude for the brooding emotions” (55).[30] At first, the lake performs its secondary role quite admirably, offering the couple “a picture appealing both to young and / mature romance,” and becoming over time “the visual choice of two / figures who in their fixity of their shared glance were / admired by the lake.” Containing exotic “fish with ... lithesome bodies,” “bugling echoes and silvered laments,” this watery environment is, as John Bernard Myers might say, rather “marvelous.” “The scene supplied them with theatre,” Guest says of the couple who wander the shore, so long as they “referred to the lake without speech.” But eventually, and inevitably, we learn that “the letter fell.” Ostensibly, this “letter” is the kind that comes in an envelope. The man tears it into pieces and throws it into the lake, stippling the water with polka dots, which in turn cause a “superannuated gleam like a browned / autumnal stalk” to pursue (verbally “stalk”) the couple back into the shallows, where they huddle frighteningly, “like two eels who were caught.” At another level, it is clear, the poem’s unfortunate turn of events mimics the couple’s fall out of natural Eden into abstract language. The human figures frolic freely in the abundant beauty of the scene until the letter enters the picture, after which point their linguistic separateness becomes exposed, spoiling the landscape they had once enjoyed, but are now fated to describe. Granted, Guest compares the couple to eels, which like the other lacustrine creatures swim a “conscious” body of water without apparent self-consciousness. But her comparison is intentionally misleading, since it is accomplished with the poem’s only simile, a rhetorical device she employs to highlight the referential imprecision that she and other language bearers are forced to endure. The lake has already offered the couple its own warning, having presented the couple “an appeal ... to meditation and surcease.” Knowing how and when to refrain from meddlesome language so as to let the natural elements speak for themselves is the respectful goal Guest shares with other eco-friendly writers. Of course, as a poet she must rely on the linguistic medium, constantly tweaking her phrases to make it appear as though water is doing the talking.

I began this essay by discussing Guest’s exclusion from various anthologies and critical studies of the New York School. Unfortunately, one also looks in vain for her name in books on contemporary nature writing. Based on the evidence I have presented, I believe that there should be a space reserved for Guest in books like Writing on Water or Shorewords: A Collection of American Women’s Coastal Writings. Still, many nature writers remain as wary of avant-garde writing as avant-garde writers are of nature writing. Reading Guest is not the same experience as reading a relatively straightforward nature poet like Mary Oliver, for as Brenda Hillman notes, “we must push out into the places we don’t understand, trying to decide how much to extend ourselves into the silences.” For a writer such as Guest, she acknowledges, “the landscape is disordered and the observing makes it more so” (“The Artful Dare” 209, 214). Sara Lundquist likewise reminds us that in her “alert, casual, tender descriptions of the natural and social worlds,” Guest prefers “her own sense of the mystery of things, the way people and objects occupy space, of gorgeous surfaces, and suggestive depths” (“The Fifth Point of a Star” 20). As I see it, Guest’s mysterious accuracy, her attention to surface detail, and her sympathetic approach to the natural world are most apparent when she is “afloat with the telling” (Rocks 12), when she is composing her “fictions dressed like water” (Biography). To encounter the writing of Barbara Guest, James Schuyler disclosed in an admiring letter he sent her in 1955, is to encounter “an irregularly swelling cascade over which slides a slightly rippling sheet of water” (Just the Thing 24). In her most provocative writings, natural images and avant-garde language flow together in aqueous confluence, shaping a pastoral sensibility notable for its daring and its attention to the underappreciated beauties of the modern world.


[1] Koch looked back somewhat guiltily on his initial appraisal of the New York poetry scene during a 1998 interview with Daniel Kane, admitting that, “In my generation, I really only liked the poetry of John and Jimmy and Frank. I had a very narrow view of it back then” (Kane 101). According to James Schuyler, Koch upbraided Ron Padgett and David Shapiro for failing to include Guest in their 1970 anthology soon after it appeared (Just the Thing 341). In various letters, Schuyler expressed his own dismay at Guest’s exclusion. He tried in the 1980s to include her in a planned anthology of young poets, even though by that time, he admitted, she was “old as the hills” (190, 413, 419).

[2] Sara Lundquist takes the title of her important essay, “The Fifth Point of a Star,” from James Schuyler’s May 1971 letter to Guest, in which he lamented her exclusion (as well as his own) from ongoing discussions of New York School poetry. “They do not realize that the Founders of the NY School ... are not a trefoil, but a star, a five-pointed star at the very least” (Schuyler, quoted in Lundquist, “The Fifth Point of a Star” 11). Strangely, Schuyler’s letter, which is housed in the Guest Papers at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, is not included in William Corbett’s massive selection of Schuyler’s letters, published in 2004.

[3] Various critical reviews published in the 1970s and 1980s by Walter Clemons, Peter Schjeldahl, and Helen Vendler mention “urban pastoral” in relation to New York poets and painters, although like Leibowitz these critics often fail to explain in depth the term they invoke. Recently, a handful of scholars (Diggory, Watkin, and I) have approached the topic of urban pastoral with renewed vigor, applying concepts commonly linked with classical and Renaissance pastoral texts to contemporary writings by O’Hara, Schuyler, Allen Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, and other New York poets. I recall first having heard about urban pastoral when I sneaked into a lecture on New York and San Francisco poets given by David Perkins at Harvard in the late 1980s. Although he has to my knowledge never committed the term to print (it never appears in the chapter on New York and San Francisco poetry in A History of Modern Poetry), Perkins made urban pastoral seem central to the ethos evoked by Frank O’Hara and his peers. After finding the term embedded in Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” (1964) and seeing it highlighted in the subtitle of Wickerby (1998), Charles Siebert’s neo-Thoreauvian meditation on life in Brooklyn and rural Quebec, I was prompted to begin my own study of urban pastoral motifs in contemporary American poetry, the theoretical coordinates of which are perhaps best outlined in my 1998 essay on O’Hara and San Francisco poet Gary Snyder (“Semiotic Shepherds”).

[4] I agree with Rabinowitz when she says that “Guest’s world is full of light, of human experience, of nature, of evolution and history – and air – air as breath, air as risk and challenge, air as newness wafting, ebbing reached after, from.” This is especially true in Guest’s later, more fragmented poems, she suggests, where “space looms large” and “ideas wander in the whites” (“Barbara Guest” 105, 101). Einzig, Hillman, Lundquist, and North likewise point to the spaces between words and lines as evidence of Guest’s airy genius. “The page looks airy,” Greenberg says; “each idea is given room to breathe.” Guest is therefore to be celebrated for “the fresh air she has breathed into language” (“A Sublime Sort” 115, 120). Taking measure of the “great spaces on the page” he sees in Defensive Rapture and Fair Realism, North assumes that “the poem was in fact the sky and the fragments of language, now clustering and now breaking apart, were fleeting intrusions on the order of gulls and passing clouds” (No Other Way 154). Interestingly, Guest’s contemporaries in the New York School had made similar evaluations years earlier. In the introduction to his valuable New York School anthology, John Bernard Myers remarked upon the effect of Guest’s airy poetics on her readers, arguing that “the very rhythm of her lines implies a quicker breathing” (25). John Ashbery picked up on this theme even earlier than Myers, telling Guest in a 1960 letter that he had located in her verse “quite a few currents of air which are very refreshing to breathe. Which is so rare in poetry now – being able to breathe I mean. I love the spaces between the things in your poems.” Ashbery eventually shared his hope that Guest would visit him in France, “especially in the south of it where the air is so wonderful it makes breathing a pleasure, as in your poems, rather than a duty” (quoted in Lundquist, “The Fifth Point of a Star” 17). While I concur with many of these judgments, I find that Guest’s journey into airiness has the dual effect of making her frequent forays into aqueous realms, where breathing is impossible, even more mysterious.

[5] Hadley Guest, Barbara Guest’s daughter, graciously supplied these and other biographical details during phone calls and e-mail posts we exchanged in April 2005.

[6] In his poem “Afterward” (Collected Poems 205), Schuyler finds that the reflection of neon lights on rainy city streets summons forth a memory of the snowy Vermont valley he has recently departed, and secretly pines for. The sadness of this claustrophobic city poet is thus temporarily ameliorated by same element lending frozen New England settings (Kenward Elmslie’s country house, in this case) their picturesque qualities. Stuck in New York, Schuyler merely needs to let the rain reflect the brash beauty the city has to offer. In the photographic collage accompanying her 2005 album, Nolita, Keren Ann (Zeidel) waves languidly from behind the Café Gitane’s plate glass window, which sparkles with raindrops and reflects lights from the street. The Parisian songwriter’s gentle salutation, especially when situated alongside her pensive musical tales (several of them awash in rain), may seem reserved and melancholic, but it is also recognizable and inviting to urbanites who themselves grow reflective on rainy days.

[7] John Ashbery once praised Cezanne for twisting nature out of shape, thereby satisfying our collective urge to see nature for something other than it is (Selected Prose 213). In Seeking Air, her 1978 novel, Guest’s main character, Morgan Flew, feeling trapped in his city apartment, also takes inspiration from Cezanne, realizing that along with this artist “he must continue to seek ‘a harmony parallel to nature’” (137). Coincidentally, the sea air of Aix-en-Provence that Guest mentions in “The Brown Studio” is the same air Ashbery had invited her to breathe during her next sojourn to France.

[8] In addition to O’Hara, whose poem about visiting Mike Goldberg in his studio stands as the most famous literary example, Schuyler, Ashbery, and Guest contributed articles to Art News, which regularly featured artists at work in their studios. What is more, all of the first-generation New York School poets at one time collaborated with artists in their workspaces. In this context it is interesting to mention that Jane Freilicher’s The Painting Table (1954), a colorful composition in oil capturing the creatively messy conditions of the urban painter’s cramped studio, has for some years been one of Ashbery’s most cherished possessions.

[9] Working from Guest’s notebooks, Vickery has established that Guest composed “The Screen of Distance” during her psychotherapy sessions, the narrative arc of which failed to move her as much as did the urban scenery (sidewalks, parks) she witnessed outside her therapist’s office windows (“A Mobile Fiction” 257).

[10] “I don’t think I’m literal,” Guest says in her interview with Hillringhouse. “I think I try to be sometimes. I become too abstract in my thinking and then I try to give my poems a literal ending because I’ve gotten too abstract” (28). For a theoretical analysis of how the abstract activity of “taking place” derives from Martin Heidegger’s ideas about “presencing” and “spacing through difference,” see Derek Gregory, Geographical Imaginations, 104, 112-14.

[11] Citing Charles Segal’s assertion that an “atmosphere of suspension amid contraries, of rest amid disturbance, sets the tone for the Eclogues,” Paul Alpers would have us see that the avoidance of resolution in classical pastoral texts, far from being a sign of weakness or inefficiency, actually “reflects the protagonist’s strength relative to his world” (68). As Alpers makes clear, the dissonance between an aggrieved character’s feelings of sadness and loss are initially exacerbated by the pastoral surroundings he imagines, which “are perfect only when and because one is denied or deprived of them.” What actually emerges, then, is a consonance between the suffering of the aggrieved party and the ideal landscape he can inhabit imaginatively, though not, for the time being, physically. Elsewhere in What is Pastoral? Alpers points out that Virgil’s quest for Theocritus’s “ideal Arcady,” like the laments of various herdsmen for the departed Daphnis, is by definition a belated search, and thus, according to Friedrich Schiller’s terminology, “sentimental” rather than “naïve” (29-37). Virgil’s great gift was his ability to “suspend” post-Theocritean pastoral’s sentimental crises. By emphasizing rather than sublimating the oppositional tensions propelling his belated poetic project, Virgil kept his commitment to the present, even as he ostensibly addressed the past. At its most effective, Alpers explains, Virgilian suspension “suggests a poised, even secure contemplation of things disparate or ironically related, and yet at the same time does not imply that disparities or conflicts are fully resolved” (68). While “poised” and “ironic” are adjectives routinely applied to Ashbery and Guest, their topical connection to pastoral suspension remains relatively unexplored in extant studies of their work.

[12] Because Guest was not averse to mentioning friendship and beauty in her poetry, these emotional terms were at other times uttered quite earnestly, such as when Guest referred to O’Hara as “my dear” in “White Cloud Poem,” an update of a Chinese friendship poem that Berkson and LeSueur included in Homage to Frank O’Hara, 192.

[13] In “The Fifth Point of a Star” (26-27), Lundquist favorably compares Guest’s “aerated poetry” to “Fresh Air,” the well-known poem written by Kenneth Koch (included in Allen 229-36).

[14] Guest has said that her favorite kind of poem “stretches, looking outwardly and inwardly.” Precise equations are difficult to fathom in her work, since images are always in motion. A half century earlier, H.D. capitalized on the same literary impulse. “The whole notion of reality disturbed her,” Guest has said of H.D. “She couldn’t pinpoint it” (Hillringhouse 29). The “union of self and nature” in H.D.’s work, Louis Martz argues in the introduction to her Collected Poems, helped the Imagist poet “to live constantly at the juncture of such forces, inner and outer, to inhabit constantly the borderline.” Inhabiting this middle zone, Martz explains, “enabled her to control the surges that arose from the depths of her violently responsive nature” (xiv, xiii). The same could be said of Guest, one of H.D.’s most sympathetic biographers.

[15] For appreciations of Guest’s “journeying sensibility,” see relevant essays by Lundquist (“The Midwestern New York Poet”) and Keller. Comparing three poems on pioneering that Guest published in different decades – “Sante Fe Trail” (1962), “Nebraska” (1973), and “Borderlands” (1993) – will allow readers to see how her “journeying sensibility” was increasingly dominated by abstract language, the opaque materiality of which complicates human intention and signified meaning. See Selected Poems, 23, 58-59, 166-68.

[16] Lynn Keller connects these ornamental flamingos with “Dido’s defiance of convention through imaginative excess, figured within the mode of bourgeois consumerism,” contrasting the birds with the “stately realm of urns and fountains” (219-20), though in truth all of these decorative objects run the risk of nouveau-riche pretension.

[17] Ashbery, whose poetry is renowned for exhibiting the same qualities, also resorts to a mathematical term when describing his urban writing space, calling New York a “logarithm / Of other cities” (Selected Poems 195).

[18] In some instances, Guest imagines what would happen to her work if she were to reduce the amount of risk. Tellingly, these poems tend to be set indoors. “Safe Flights,” for example, opens with a string of parallel infinitive clauses. “To no longer like the taste of whisky” initiates a chain reaction of retreats and retractions, which show “an aerialist” accustomed to a life of risk what her life would look like “under a tent where promises perform” (Selected Poems 17). No Big Top excitement emerges in such a claustrophobic scenario. Similarly, in “A Way of Being,” Guest admonishes “excursionists” who travel in cars rather than sandals, thereby hoping to avoid “another mishap of nature” (35-36). In “The Blue Stairs,” meanwhile, Guest arranges her typography selectively, with the right hand column approximating the landings one would find after successive flights of stairs. Ever the ironist, Guest confounds our expectations, assigning to these landings, assumed by many to be a place of safety after a laborious climb or treacherous descent, her most suspenseful images and phrases: “balancing,” “floating,” “kicking the ladder away,” “republic of space,” “secret platforms,” “eternal banishment.” Conversely, she explains that “There is no fear / in taking the first step / or the second / or the third” up the flights of stairs. She seems wary of people ostentatiously celebrating their ascents, reserving particular disdain for those who are “Spatially selective / using this counterfeit / of height // To substantiate / a method of progress // Reading stairs as interpolation / in the problem of gradualness / with a heavy and pure logic” (The Blue Stairs 3-6). Guest briefly (and obscurely) revisits this argument in later poems, referring to a “stair swindle” in “Shifting the Iris” (Moscow Mansions 74-75) and enigmatically claiming that “The reason for caterwauling / on the stair was simple” in Part Four of Biography. In each of the poems cited, Guest seeks to avoid situations in which safety and prevention might interfere with her natural appetite for adventure.

[19] Regarding Stevens’s imaginative voyages in landscapes of his own making, Guest says in her interview with Hillringhouse that “tension” is “something that’s missing from Wallace Stevens” (28).

[20] In Seeking Air, Guest’s protagonist, Morgan Flew, receives a gift book entitled The Care of Books in a Tropical Climate (23). This is perhaps another sly reference on the part of Guest to Prospero’s role in The Tempest.

[21] Kenward Elmslie’s 1975 volume of verse, Tropicalism, and Patsy Southgate’s equation of summertime in Springs, New York, with the tropics (Berkson and LeSueur 119) might seem to be exceptions here, but it is clear that neither of these New York School members could have matched Guest’s knowledge of subtropical climates.

[22] O’Hara’s “Oranges: 12 Pastorals” (Collected Poems 5-9) was printed as a limited edition by Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1953. The cover featured a brilliant painting of oranges by Hartigan, but as O’Hara brags in “Why I am Not a Painter,” he lasts the whole poetic sequence without ever mentioning orange, neither the color nor the fruit. As John Tranter has taken care to remind me, the original manuscript for the “Oranges” poems is dated 1949, having been composed when O’Hara was still at Harvard. He had not yet moved to New York and met Hartigan. The 1953 volume’s status as a true “collaboration” is therefore somewhat questionable.

[23] “Special azure was once our way,” Guest says in “Even Ovid” (Moscow Mansions 14), providing one of her characteristically cryptic allusions to phrases and images used in earlier poems.

[24] In “A Reason,” another poem from The Blue Stairs, Guest uses much the same language while heading out for the “wild wild whatever / in wild more silent blue,” though whether she is speaking about the sky or the ocean is less clear on this occasion (Selected Poems 34). Regardless, Brenda Hillman appears to be correct when she says that Guest’s “wild” imagery “predicts a kind of disintegration of the speaking presence that never happens” (“The Artful Dare” 219). In the ocean or in the air, Guest’s wild personae are often on the verge of faltering, but they always manage to keep their cool, as well as their sense of ironic distance.

[25] According to scholars such as Arif Dirlik, Rob Wilson, Wimal Dissanayake, and Christopher Connery, the late 1960s witnessed the rise of “Pacific Rim discourse,” whereby the United States, reeling from military setbacks in Vietnam and facing the growing economic might and political independence of other East Asian nations, tried to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat (“save face,” in the Asian parlance) by advocating unity with Pacific “neighbors” they had until recently regarded as its adversaries or underlings. For the best introduction to this increasingly popular topic, see the volume edited by Dirlik and Wilson, as well as the one edited by Wilson and Dissanayake, each of which contains an important essay by Connery.

[26] In this context it should be noted that Ashbery, in an obituary published in Book Week in 1966, praised O’Hara for not taking an overt stance on Vietnam or other political topics in his verse (Selected Prose 81). Ashbery’s statement set off a series of heated exchanges among American poets trying to determine their place in contemporary political debates. In The Seventies Now, Stephen Paul Miller supports Ashbery’s role in this and other political imbroglios, arguing that the poet’s deconstruction of macro-level systems – though admittedly abstract, ironic, and difficult to fathom – helped him expose and unravel the ideological programs of Vietnam era politicians without resorting to sloganeering. “A Handbook of Surfing,” Guest’s best-known foray into this arena, follows a similar set of rules.

[27] Consider in this regard the Helen Frankenthaler painting gracing the cover of The Blue Stairs. On the surface, it is an abstract illustration that shows a blue oval abutting a vertical line. Given the themes of Guest’s poetry, though, one can view this picture as a ladder reaching into the heavens, or alternatively, as a high dive situated above a body of water. The line can suggest a way in, or a way out, of the physical and metaphysical realms attending our desires. In any case, the blue element in this illustration represents a beseeching wilderness, an unknown quantity piquing the viewer’s curiosity. It is not surprising to learn that, some years after The Blue Stairs was published, Guest took the opportunity to praise Frankenthaler’s “manner of flaunting space,” claiming that this particular landscape artist, so dependent on “color structure,” rightly “forces nature to copy art” (“Helen Frankenthaler” 59, 58).

[28] Du Plessis analyzes the gendered aspects of le marveilleux in Guest’s verse in her Scenes of My Selves essay. Elsewhere, James Schuyler cites the “marvelous” qualities cherished by New York poets in letters to Koch (Just the Thing 240) and Joe Brainard (249). In Homage to Frank O’Hara, J.J. Mitchell and Bill Berkson each speak of the “marvelous” aura O’Hara’s friendship cast over the New York arts scene in the 1950s and 1960s (144, 164).

[29] Elsewhere in Seeking Air, Morgan says he favors the commercial, cargo-laden East River over the more traditionally poetic Hudson (123), demonstrating the same urban pastoral resourcefulness shown by Guest’s countess in the Minneapolis boxcar nocturne. Prompted by Miriam to find a quieter corner of New York – “somewhere hidden, the noise perhaps muffled by trees, [where] there would be a nook, a variant on seclusion” – Morgan considers how strangely peaceful his Upper East Side neighborhood has been all along. “I don’t think you know, I said to myself, how attached you are to your neighborhood. Remember when the hoots and cries were the noise of the river? Remember when a freighter narrowly missed the bridge and the scrape of that? Remember the narrows? Remember the silence as the river gathers its sand to enlarge the islet that each year grows before you?” (50). Above all, Morgan realizes that he has become accustomed to the languid movement of this underappreciated river, upon which, he fondly recalls in language that mocks Edmund Spenser’s famous homage to the Thames, “the sweet rhythm of a boat filled with garbage or worse ... added a little tempo to my day” (101).

[30] Reviewing “Twilight Polka Dots,” Sara Lundquist calls Guest “a great lacustrine poet,” offering as additional evidence poems such as “The Location of Things” and “Santa Fe Trail,” as well as selected sections of The Countess from Minneapolis.

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Timothy  Gray

Timothy Gray

Timothy Gray is associate professor of English at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, where he teaches American literature and American studies. His essay on Barbara Guest is one of several articles he has published on the urban pastoral motif in the New York School, the latest of which (on Jim Carroll, Kathleen Norris, and Andy Warhol) appears in the autumn 2005 issue of Texas Studies in Literature and Language. His first book, Gary Snyder and the Pacific Rim: Creating Countercultural Community, is due in Spring 2006 from University of Iowa Press.