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Matthew Cooperman

Envy and Architecture:

On Barbara Guest’s Realisms

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“Cloud fields change into furniture / furniture metamorphizes into fields / an emphasis falls on reality,” says our Proteus, Barbara Guest opening her poem An Emphasis Falls on Reality (Fair Realism, Sun & Moon, 1989). Through elegant fields of replacement Guest’s poems seed linguistic furrow, dislocating reference and finding us, looking up at the sky, looking down at the page, a substitute character refracted (falsely, truly) into Various Quest, always “the darkened copies of all trees.” For the poem in her hands is never of the world but a transaction with it—a next to reaction that bears, metonymically, phonemic offspring, “each vowel [replacing] a wall.” Whether we see this as metaphysical possibility, or the syntagmatic seekingness of language, the “invisible architecture” underlying the poem makes something surprising happen. As she says, “Losing the arrogance of dominion over the poem to an invisible hand, the poet campaigns for a passage over which the poet has no control” (Invisible Architecture). This “invisible architecture” is an implied tension the passage, the poem attacks. Losing control we gain a surface. Guest’s material tactics give her poems strength, something to push against; the combination of generic citation, painterly gesture and philosophical speculation produce structural evidence of a mind thinking, real because undominioned. Her (largely) pictorial means generate both the scene and the process of scening. Our self-consciousness is also part of the poem; we can never quite fall into her worlds as the words get in the way:


A column chosen from distance
mounts into the sky while the font
is classical,

they will destroy the disturbed font
as it enters modernity and is rare…


This recognition of modernity is the acknowledgement of surface—the sheen of paper, the mirror of canvas, the historical crack of human voice as it hears itself transcribed into writing. In Guest’s hands it’s a lyric poetry exposed of its lyre, and the lyre’s interesting, a piece of beautiful furniture. See the alluring swale of the font, hear it burble. The column is just such a word chosen for strength; its classical antiquity bridges the distance, a from and a towards. We are distracted by its surfacing character even as we use it to search for depth. But is it available as structure, something to hang that nebulous word ‘experience’ upon? Guest’s poems notate the anxiety of lyric agency while simultaneously letting it linger in the pleasure of morning light. It is, as Charles Bernstein has observed, “alyric verse in which saying cedes seeing, composition contantenates context (Composing Herself). Guest’s senses sense as aleatory intelligence. Oh for a simple world, we might say, or “I was envious of fair realism.” Envy then, and the writing it produces.


As Emphasis proceeds, we get a variety of realisms. I see five distinct shifts in the poem, and the directional gyration each shift produces sends the poem spiraling in a new direction. From the opening’s declaration we move into speech : “’It snowed toward morning,’ a barcarole / the words stretched severely // silhouettes they arrived in trenchant cut / the face of the lilies.” The line itself is a barcarole, a Venetian boat song of alternating rhythm, and it enacts as it says, by stress and duration, an emphasis, a “fair realism.” But words are separate things, and they remain “silhouettes,” behind the scene, ghosting as imagining, which is a thing also. Thus the realism of the poem is experienced at the level of choice: representation, always one thing chosen from a variety of things, the face of the lily. That we are made immediately aware of this choosing is the interruptive gesture so characteristic of Guest’s poems. There is a lucent world above and below this world (note the atmosphere of the Romance) but we are always secondarily entering it.


Thus, the outside and the inside debate, next shift: “I desired sunrise to revise itself / as apparition, majestic in evocativeness, / two fountains traced nearby on a lawn… ” Desire is the key term, as it enacts revision as the forwarding action of writing. The poem is a report—past tense—on being-in-the world. It is the desire to marshal the energies of said realities, prospects, picturesques. The poet tries, tires, addresses materials as a way to escape them. Or rather the parts under her control exact a movement beyond the limits of the page. The poem outstrips the poet, but paradoxically, only as material effort yearning for the immaterial. Who wouldn’t be envious of realism? Guest’s poems are never fixed, and their desire makes present an imagining that seems more restlessly alive than any stable figuration.


Such is a way of being in time. Guest’s abundant interruptions detail a porous subjectivity fully alive as looking, listening, remembering, reading, painting. These things are modes, ways of knowing and being evocative in their telos. Their range and reference continue to be a necessary demonstration of making art in a post-mimetic world. As she tells us in the third shift,


you recall treatments
of ‘being’ and ‘nothingness’
illuminations apt
to appear from variable directions—
they are orderly as motors
floating on the waterway

so silence is pictorial
when silence is real


Sartre, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, the realist tradition of painting. From “variable directions” do we take our cues, and the poem, like consciousness, is free of simple causality. The simultaneity of the inside and the outside are “orderly” insofar as their motors are inevitable. In the attempt to write we invent, a believable paradox sufficient to travel to the next line, which turns out, after all, to be the gestural possibility of making in its fullest measure. That there is a waterway, and that the ephemera of consciousness can be rendered as ‘nothing’ against it is a fair “treatment” (now seen, now recalled) of the picturing activity of mind. Indeed, this quality colors the entirety of Fair Realism, the collection from which “Emphasis” is pulled. From Kandinsky to Eduard Mörike, Flaubert to Türler watches, the challenge of “fixing” reality to a surface occurs repeatedly. “Emphasis” functions, thereby, as an ars poetic and a bridge; its restless attempts at linkage are precisely the envy which creates the presence of the poem: “so silence is pictorial / when silence is real.”


The allusion to Wittgenstein is both a fine example of Guest’s wide frame of reference and an apt demonstration of her poetry’s analytic force. Often called painterly, her work can be, I think, more accurately described as pictorial, how we “picture facts to ourselves” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 2.1). We see in “An Emphasis Falls on Reality” just how the silence of the poem reaches out to the world. Her metonymic impulse serves to educe the relationship of things to other things, or, more accurately, of things in the world to things in the poem. In this way the poem is “laid against reality like a measure,” (Wittgenstein 2.1512). A surrogate, no doubt, this measure is yet more real, more autonomous, because of its display of surface. As she says,


The wall is more real than shadow
or that letter composed of calligraphy
each vowel replaces a wall

a costume taken from space
donated by walls… .


The chiasmal loop of the passage details just how replacement works. Starting from the poem’s opening “Furniture metamorphizes into fields” to “words silhouett[ing] lilies” we arrive at a “wall more real than shadow,” which in turn is replaced by a “calligraphic letter,” itself a sign for a sound. In due course the “vowel replaces a wall,” itself “a costume taken from space / donated by walls” Thus realism’s materiality affords a limit—a line, a wall—that can be “costumed” against in a way we can see. Worldly affairs donate implements by which we make musical measures, poems. We circulate in Guest’s in a shifting field of apprehension that, architecturally speaking, reaches out longingly as ellipses; the veer of replacement, representation, never stops.


Marjorie Welish has described this process in Guest as the “decomposition of reference,” (The Lyric Lately) and I think that’s helpful in evoking her use of the world. It is never a fixed starting point for meditation; indeed, whatever contemplative raptures we discover in Guest’s work they are generally of surprise, how lyric utterance finds a new subject by recognizing its vowels. We see this in the subsequent stanzas of “Emphasis,” as “metaphors of apprehension” continually displace each other; the “dogs and cats” of imagination are occluded by willows, which are in themselves less real (shift four, too “loose”) for discovery. Objects in the world are more or less real in their “entanglements”; they provide, by choice, various agencies in the negotiation of meaning. Thus the costume is taken from space, a column is chosen from distance; a font is seen against a page or as a fountain. We are continually met with decisions.


The concluding three stanzas of “Emphasis” make this clear (if anything is ever clear in a Barbara Guest poem) in a delightfully strange manner. The more or less stable ‘I’ in the poems has been detailing her attempts to represent reality. Whatever self-consciousnesses she has exhibited, they are more linguistic than psychological. Then, suddenly:


The necessary idealizing of you reality
Is part of the search, the journey
Where two figures embrace


Are we to take this as apostrophe, reality being directly addressed? There is no comma to clarify reference, and so an equally plausible explanation is the compound “you reality.”
We all have you reality; our investiture in looking is always already a you reality. That it is displaced into the second person details the strange ways we address ourselves in and through our writing and reading. Or perhaps it is a trick of chance, a balky r on the “you/r” keyboard. In this way we—and the very writing process—are made plural, possessed of both an idealizing nature and a skeptical nature, a linguistic attention and a psychological presence, a you-in-the-poem and a you at your desk. Guest manages the multiplicity such that we become the “two figures” in embrace.


Or, just as suddenly, we are plunged into a scene in which two archetypal figures are on a journey. Quest is a prevailing trope in Guest’s work, whether ghosting medievalism or semantic endeavor, and these figures seems characteristically “on the road.” There’s something eerie about the poem, something elegiac and yet the tone is curiously detached or perhaps more accurately uncoordinated. We see this in the way the scene collapses in the next stanza: “This house was drawn for them / it looks like a real house / perhaps they will move in today.” The painterly depth of the scene gives way to the writer’s Escher-like hand. How strangely possible it seems, this inhabitation, where the poet both draws and enters the drawing. We do seek this depth in literature and Guest poignantly locates this possibility in the “perhaps.” And yet these figures are already changing, moving “into ephemeral dusk,” into “selective night with trees,” into the “darkened copies of all trees.” Whatever stability we seek in poems it is unavailable for both Guest and her readers. The page reveals the trompe l’oeil of the painting; always the saying is selective of being. The beauty of the ending is the manner in which it displays both linguistic artifice and longing for the world. From cloud fields to selective night, our “you reality” is alive in the morphic texture of her poem.


I heard Barbara Guest read once, Jack Kerouac School, Naropa University, June, mid-90s, very embodied. Patrician and inscrutable, she had an aura about her that made the Beat proceedings appear a little yearning, adenoidal. She didn’t seem particularly interested in being there, and that mood lustered the spot-glow of the stage with a kind of generational halo, her consciousness too distracted, too shot through with artistic ‘experience’ to be anything more than a visitor in the identity-war theme park of Boulder. Or maybe she was just tired. She was, after all, in her mid 70s, and she looked frail. Drinks were had after the event and, sandwiched between Guest and Bobby Louise Hawkins, I couldn’t help but feel rueful—NYC 50s, cold water flats, cold cocktails, James Schuyler stories, Franz Kline anecdotes. It produced an “invisible architecture” for a period I had only mythologized. To envy another art, to envy as other art, a propulsive making that manifests and shows; to do so beautifully, hauntingly. As she says in the short essay “Wounded Joy,” “Imagination is the absent flower of Mallarmé, a turbulent presence to be evoked.” All this and more, fair realism.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Charles. Composing Herself: Barbara Guest, Bernstein-guest.html, April 2006.

Guest, Barbara. Fair Realism. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1989.

———. Invisible Architecture,

———. Wounded Joy,

Welish, Marjorie. The Lyric Lately. October 1999.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. trans. D.F. Pears & B.F. McGuinness, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961.

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