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Erica Kaufman

On “The Location of Things”


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“One of the problems for the woman as writer, as I have repeatedly argued is to face whole traditions of depiction of female figures and to get some tread on what to do with them. A characteristic of that cultural figure is her stasis as icon and her quality as receiver of the gaze—a semi-frozen, singular figure whose spiritual responsibility is often already to “be there” so that, with great sweetness and intensity, she can induce the male follower to ‘get there.’” (Rachel Blau DuPlessis,“The Gendered Marvelous,” )

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As Rachel Blau BuPlessis indicates in her essay, “The Gendered Marvelous,” one of the hardest tasks “woman as writer” has to face is what to do with the past and the boundaries it has [physically] placed on women. We are still haunted by “The Cult of Domesticity” and still plagued by the “madwoman in the attic,” but what is history if not an echo or ghost? Barbara Guest looks these traditions in “the eye,” cuts them up, and creates a resplendent collage. In Guest’s work, she consistently takes on the valiant task of rebuilding the vocabulary and linguistic tropes commonly thought of as female. She introduces the notion of the sovereignty of female space, an expanse built by word placement and syntactical revolt.

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Guest’s remarkable early book, Poems: The Location of Things, Archaics, The Open Skies (1962), establishes that it is indeed possible to reclaim gendered space, and this possibility is manifest in language itself. (The Location of Things originally published as a separate collection—Guest’s first—in 1960.) As Julia Kristeva writes, “Writing is an act of differentiation and of participation with respect to reality; it is a language without a beyond without transcendence”[1]. The very act of writing is human, and in being human it is gendered. Judith Butler writes, in regard to feminine and masculine identification, “to become that object through the construction of the ego ideal, then gender identity appears primarily to be the internalization of a prohibition that proves to be formative of identity”[2]. In other words, in presenting or writing a female text, the writer must somehow internalize and recycle the desire for the dominance of masculinity, meaning the historically accepted male language.

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The first part of the title of this book, The Location of Things, hints at a of the writer over the inanimate. If this title was “A Location of Things,” this control would not be present, but the use of “the” leaves the impression that this “location of things” is an absolute, a constant. Beginning with the title poem, “The Location of Things,” Guest immediately launches into a fantastical and relentless deconstruction and reconstruction of the domestic.

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Why from this window am I watching leaves?
Why do halls and steps seem narrower?
Why at this desk am I listening for the sound of the fall
of color, the pitch of the wooden floor
and feet going faster?
Am I to understand change, whether remarkable
or hidden, am I to find a lake under the table
or a mountain beside my chair
and will I know the minute water produces lilies
or a family of mountaineers scales the peak?”[3] (11)

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The poem (and book) begin(s) with the repetition of “why” (an interrogative adverb). Instead of describing a situation, Guest questions it. Rather than literally placing the speaker inside a house (traditionally/stereotypically the woman’s place), she makes reference to “this window” and “halls and steps.” The tone is not negative and the speaker is not partaking in tasks associated with housework, or the functions of a housewife. This female speaker is “watching leaves,” an activity that is synonymous with a certain appreciation of nature and a level of wonder and creativity, an activity that is not gendered. The “narrowing” of “halls and steps” is not presented in such a way that is disturbing. The line, “Why do halls and steps seem narrower?” feels like the natural extension of the first inquiry. The narrowing is a mystery, like the changing of seasons. It is also important to note that this speaker is at a “desk,” a piece of furniture that indicates work of a completely different (and more creative) genre than housework. “Why at this desk am I listening for the sound of fall,” also confirms the speaker’s placement indoors, while simultaneously further developing an image of “fall” and introducing a new syntactical query.

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The vocabulary put to use in these very first lines employs familiar words so that they hold meanings that are worlds apart from their other/normative usage. Guest’s speaker is also asking questions, not confessing emotions and feelings. Charles Bernstein refers to this space created in much of Guest’s work as, “not an extension of herself—herself expressed—that is, not a direct expression of her feelings of subjectivity, but is rather defined by the textual composition of an aesthetic space—herself (itself) defined.”[4]

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The line break following the word “fall” allows the word to take on multiple meanings. One can read it as the wait for a decline, the decline associated with a woman trapped in a house. It can be read as the season “fall.” Additionally, “fall” can be read as a physical fall, a collapse, the sort of collapse Guest creates through words themselves. It is this sort of juxtaposition of authority and uncertainty that puts into question any preconceived notions a reader holds upon coming to this text. Because, to quote Honor Johnson, “Its meaning keeps opening.”

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Following the line break, the “fall” becomes a “fall of color,” once again referring both to leaves and season, but also to bruising and injury. The poem then picks up pace; the floor is given a voice or “pitch” and the appearance of “feet.” The house is far from void or abstract; it morphs into a vessel of potential action.

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The voice of this poem speaks from within a house, but has total control of the speaker’s surroundings, whether or not it is her choice to be inside of them. Later on in this poem, another pronoun is introduced: “That head against the window/ How many times has one seen it… the perilous make-up on her face and his” (11). The “head against the window” is not specified, it can be either the speaker’s or the “his.” In these lines, Guest places the male pronoun inside the house as well. She is showing that there is room within the house for both sexes, while still giving the female voice the upper hand in the poem.

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The poem concludes with the lines, “wandering as I am into clouds and air/rushing into darkness as corridors/who do not fear the melancholy of the stair” (12). Again, and this time more palpably, Guest places her speaker in a landscape that is not limited by walls. She chooses to end the poem with a statement of fearlessness. Grammatically, it is the “corridors” that are unafraid of the “melancholy of the stairs,” creating a space willing to move and change. This line can also be read as if it is the “I” who is unafraid of “stairs,” dictating a persona who is not tied down and not resistant to that which is unexpected. The word stair is also easily read as “stare,” which introduces the Lacanian idea of “the gaze,” and concludes the poem with a reassertion of the speaker’s dominance over the unknown, whether it be destination or selfhood.

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In her essay, ‘The Bondage,” Laura (Riding) Jackson writes, “The lack in what women offer with their presences is traceable to a lack in their very conception of their selves”[5].

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By creating a female self and female tract in poetry that bears omnipotent masculine spatial occupation, Guest revolutionizes and therefore changes the conception of the submissive and static female self sadly omnipresent and clichéd. We need more writers like Barbara Guest.



[1] Kristeva, Julia. Language: The Unknown. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989, page 24.

[2] Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990, page 81.

[3] Guest, Barbara. Poems: The Location of Things, Archaics, The Open Skies. Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1962, page 11.

[4] Bernstein, Charles. “Introducing Barbara Guest.” Jacket Magazine, Issue 10. January 2000.

[5] Jackson, Laura (Riding). The Word Woman and Other Related Writings. New York: Persea Books, 1993, page 194.

 
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