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The records here show that I first made contact with Barbara Guest ten years ago. I’d long been an admirer of her poetry, and indeed also of her oblique and dazzling approach to narrative in Seeking Air. Ashbery aside, and maybe even including him, I’d thought of her as the most advanced of the original so-called New York School.
I had to remind myself that it was Fanny Howe who was the intermediary. I published her book O’Clock in 1995, poems written during a sojourn in Ireland and Britain. She it was who must have told me that Barbara would look favourably on an approach to publish her, and so I wrote to her with trepidation from across the Atlantic in November 1997. “I was pleased to receive your letter in which you wrote about my publishing a book with you,” she replied from Berkeley within days. “I am such an admirer of Reality Street Editions I have often wished I might be published by you, that my work might find a familial home. Bless Fanny for mentioning me.”
The following spring she noted that, following my approach, “Forthwith I have been busy hatching new poems of one kind or other… . My aim is to send you poems mostly of one page, which by accounting may perhaps mount.”
I was surprised and gratified by Barbara’s enthusiasm, and more than overjoyed to receive the results of the hatching. At the time I wrote to her, she was already a grand old lady of 77, about a year younger than my mother. But the collection, which I published in 1999 under the title If So, Tell Me (with a cover drawing by Anne Dunn) – her first, and so far as I know only original collection to be published in the UK, although Carcanet had reprinted her Sun & Moon Selected Poems – was no late flickering but a solid joy: two dozen poems, as promised, of one, two, three or in one case four pages, spare on those pages but bursting with intellectual and emotional energy.
The poems at times, though by no means verbose, rather the opposite, seem as if they might at any stage be unable to contain themselves within the bounds of the page, and yet always negotiate their placements with aplomb. They arrived in London in early 1999 as individual Word documents using the Courier font, mostly with multiple spacebar spacings rather than tabs for the various indentations. I am always worried at the typesetting stage about managing the transition from monospaced typewriter style font to variable spaced font, and the potential harm this can do to the shape of a poem (recent books by Allen Fisher and Maggie O’Sullivan, republishing pre-computer texts, have presented me with challenges of this order), but Barbara turned out to approve my spacing decisions with very few, minor proof amendments.
“Unusual Figures” precedes the title poem in the collection. It is, like most of its siblings, mysterious and intriguing. I have chosen it because it seems to contain its own meta-text. It is a poem and a comment on what it means to be a poem; a narrative and a disquisition on narrative. It is undeniably a piece of writing, and yet it alludes to itself in other terms.
“A person stands in the doorway. Someone / else goes to greet him.” it begins with narrative confidence. But then the calendar of meetings they establish is given the colour apricot, as though in a dream. “Once,” the poem continues, “they arrived together” – but is this a flash forward to one of the series of meetings established by this apricot calendar, or a flashback to a time before the poem? The venue is a “cab / of electricity”, whatever that may be, the cab appears to arrive in the desert and the heat surrounding is cool.
Each move in the narrative raises new questions, questions the author herself, who enters at this point, is asking. She enters because she has to, she wills her attachment. Who are those peculiar figures? Peculiar in the sense of belonging to the author’s act of asking, not to be found elsewhere. They may not exist outside this poem. Whoever they may be, or may have originally been, they are necessary to the “pageant of creativity” that is the poem. Is this the activeness? But why is it unusually high, and where do the dots come in? Is it the height of the letters? The dots of their i’s and attendant full stops? “Is it from the basket shrub?”
We are now into a series of urgent, italicised questions. The lightness of feet (of the unusual figures’ own feet? or the metrical units of the poem, which are indeed quite light?). And the “circle of grey, of green overlap” to my mind balances the apricot colour of that calendar in the fourth line, and makes the whole thing rather painterly after all, as if the movement had been condensed.
And then the final question: “What language / do they speak?” Not just the figures, eternally standing, greeting, arriving in cabs, what language do they communicate with each other in, but what language do all the elements of the poem speak?
It feels right that the poem ends in an asking by the author, a necessary asking. Barbara Guest’s poetry, her pageant of creativity, jumps off the page, stimulates such questions.
We had numerous email exchanges and transatlantic phone conversations during the making of If So, Tell Me. Barbara’s humour and kindness were palpable. My great regret is that I never got to meet her after all. She had once, years before, been programmed to appear at the Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry, but was too unwell to travel by air. I’d missed her in Berkeley in 1996, just before I made contact by post.
If So, Tell Me is now officially out of print in its Reality Street
edition, though for a limited time copies may be available via Barbara’s
family. I hope the sequence will be reprinted elsewhere eventually.