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Elizabeth Robinson


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In her essay on Jean Arp, Barbara Guest tellingly quotes Arp as saying that in the “inner language,” the “vertical and horizontal are the extreme signs available to men for touching the beyond and his inwardness."[1] Thus, the inner language is a place of motion, subtle movement, to a site that is simultaneously enclosed by its “inwardness” and vast in its reach into the "beyond.” For Guest, the act of writing is constituted as a form of mystery and revelation that are peculiarly spatialized and yet transient. Hers is an architecture whose integrity is built upon the reliability with which it folds, collapses, inverts, moves.


Hierarchies in the form of steps or other elevations abound in Guest’s work, and these steps do signal movement, but not progression. They are the “secret platforms” on steps which employ “this counterfeit/of height."[2] Think of the children’s toy called the Jacob’s ladder: at the flick of the wrist, wooden tiles clack softly downward, unfolding, and then the wrist turns again to replicate the same endless unfolding.


Barbara Guest’s early book, The Blue Stairs, includes a poem, “Direction,” which foresees concerns that would suffuse her work in the years to follow. In it, she captures the tension between movement and stasis, between boundary and the illimitable, between the internal and the external. What is at stake also becomes clear: revelation beguiles, but leads only to an enhanced knowledge of how partial insight is. Discovery can be wounding; it inevitably results in vulnerability. The poet “trembles with excitement,"[3] but also with various kinds of apprehension.


From the first line, Guest instructs us to relinquish journeys, yet suggests mobility occurs in the"trips” “we” do take. The stanza resounds with foreignness, silence, with meaning that cannot be translated and into which we are captured, as fairy tale protagonists held in a "tower.” Then, in a surprising turn, Guest tells us that the constraints “as well here sail our barges,"[4] that is, the ostensible constraints also serve to mobilize. Her odd syntax troubles the motion of the stanza and contributes to the ambivalent oscillation between action and frustration: one who appears initially to pace to and fro does so only “as easily/ the foreignness of these leaves, the echoes/of a tower."[5]


The stanza is variously marked: by the opening imperative, by the plural pronoun into which the reader is pulled willy-nilly, and by the repetition of “here” two times. "Here” is the insistent specification of a place that has not truly been specified. For space remains “untranslatable” in Guest’s work. The poet writes in like manner in “The Blue Stairs” that poets climbing the strata of the poem live in “eternal banishment."[6] As in that poem, the travelers in “Direction” “would like to stay there/even if the stairs are withdrawn."[7]


"Here,” the reader realizes in the following couplet is the “static hour” and not simply a material place. The foreign leaves, the echoes within the tower, all evanesce, as do the difficult winds that propel the barge. This agile transposition of space into time is characteristic of Guest. The rather distant “we” of the first stanza is movingly transposed as well. into the intimacy of dialogue. Guest takes the reader’s hand, and the old constraints vanish as together they cross the borders.


The borders of what? Caught between moment and site, the poem builds an air of lament. The passage traveled by reader and poet is into a barren landscape, one that is lonely and cruel. For all the “skill” of the sojourners, what they encounter is loss. The narrator cries out. Her heart, in a curious twist of syntax could be read as buried in the sand, or perhaps as the burial container of sand itself. The speaker who has, ostensibly, carried the reader, her “friend” over into this desolate environment, reverts to the singular pronoun while suddenly her buried heart appears to have duplicated itself: “I have only/two hearts."[8]


Contradictions abound, for next the speaker says of her heart(s), “I need this orphaned/one here at home.” The affectively softer moment of movement “across the borders" has only left the participants in the poem as castaways in an inhospitable clime. Guest’s choice of phrasing, “I need” has something of a plea to it, a cry for agency in an atmosphere of desolation and aimlessness. The insistent “here" of the first stanza is blurred by the juxtaposition of “now thereis a posture lying there/ you can recognize it” a against “I need this orphaned/one hereat home” (italics mine).[9] Twice in an extended enjambed phrase, she uses the distancing “there” which contrasts sharply with her assertion of need “here.” The discrepancy between the two locations results in a painful gap.


The crucial pivot around which these lacunae move is the mysterious “posture lying there” inert, yet, by Guest’s claim, recognizable. The posture implies a body that has taken shape gesturally, expressively, while Guest is remarking a presence that is mostly manifest through absence, even lifelessness. Preoccupied with the conjunction of the inward and the outward, Guest wants her poems to access both simultaneously, and by alighting on the surface of the invisible, she finds a means to do so.


This anticipates Guest’s 2002 essay, “Invisible Architecture” in which she writes, “Losing the arrogance of domination over the poem to an invisible hand, the poet campaigns for a passage over which the poet has control. Yet the unstableness of the poem is important. Also the lapses of control of the poem."[10] The question then becomes how recognition of this balance, the right posture, if you will, is possible. Recognition is the manner by which the speaker and reader gain some agency or control in the poem, but the risk is always that exerting mastery will destroy its animating mystery.


One must read forward to the end of the poem to know that the site of recognition is “the place whose name/ we must never pronounce,"[11] similar to the Old Testament injunctions against uttering the name of the holy or divine. But before proceeding on, one must also read backward to the couplet to gain further insight into the process of this poem and of Guest’s poetics. "Friend,” we are told, “I will take your hand across the borders."[12] In a word, what Guest and her poem require are trust. Throughout her poetics, Guest returns again and again to the necessity of finding a balance between control and volitionlessness. Intrinsic to this is a sensuous vulnerability, a willingness to risk bafflement and psychic peril in order–not even to move forward–but simply to have the ability to move freely in indeterminate space.


Liberty to move, to change, to make subtle calibrations within the seeming emptiness of space is the necessity dictated by “Direction." Elsewhere, Guest wrote that while “the poem is in the making it changes as thoughts change. There are certain rhythmical tides and swells on this voyage."[13] We see this process in play as the poem ventures through a series of thoughts and enlists various participants. In this stanza, the site of movement reverts back to a mundane interior, the steps from one room to another: not such an extraordinary scape. Nonetheless, this space enables what we can call “voyages/if we like” though another description would apparently serve as well.[14]


Again, the voyages are made up of changes of light, temporal as much as spatial. Or they are climatic, a “thoughtful weather” that both meets and represents us. The speaker (once again pluralized as “we") is represented both by the weather and the reaching into weather: we are plural when we can breach the border of the interior and exterior. Guest places us right at that boundary, the transparency of the window, and the sill by which interior and exterior meet. What’s important though is that some action has been taken to abet the meeting: “we open the window.” There’s a lush susceptibility to the vagaries of weather that one wants to move toward and touch. And there’s a similar passivity at being simply available at the window where the voyaging light can reach us, where that most embodied of boundaries, the skin, is its receptor. What touches us we cannot identify. We are merely placed to perceive it.


The penultimate stanza of “Direction” is harsh in tone, and demanding. The porousness of boundary seems to have collapsed into mere surface. The eyes register “monuments,” grandiose tributes frozen in time. This “angry sculpture" seems to flatten into façade, and then Guest works another of her quick transformations: flatness becomes journey and the purpose of the poem is to test us. Over the single dimension of the façade, we are to find our way to a center, a place where the unsculpted rock is pure dimension and heft.


Ironically, the movement here is not a plumbing movement, but "climbing.” Climbing surmounts the center rather than approaches it, and this is the “test” that the poem proposes. Direction is indirection. Finding a way to negotiate this terrain bruises and causes bloodshed; it wounds us, but that is what legitimates our sovereignty in this (no) place: “the blood we shed/is ours, so I say we can belong/nowhere else."[15] The notion of bloodshed is redemptive here because it enacts the rupture of boundaries, the commingling of the interior and exterior.


The interior of the rock becomes irrelevant. The bruises on our body are the new geography. As Guest says in her essay “Green Shoots,” our “passionate beliefs” will “be pummeled on the surface of someone else’s thought."[16] And thus strivings and convictions are tested in this passage. The blood which pumps through us finally finds a way from its containment within the body. The body becomes a portal that introduces the inside to the outside, and hence the two hearts from earlier in the poem.


This penultimate stanza ends by proclaiming “here is the counter/of our wounds and our delicacies."[17] There are several notable word choices. Firstly, “here” would seem to make an ultimate placement, though the poem has remained careful not to specify, ever, where “here” is. One begins to perceive that “here” is, at least in part, the body on its journey. Secondly, “counter” sets up a slant rhyme with the earlier use of “center” ("a journey/to the center where the rock is uncut.")[18]. The word choice may signal an enumeration of wounds, or, more likely, a counterforce. Guest is then expressing resistance to the idea of the center as a locus of surest meaning, the hub of a compass that might provide conventional direction.


If we find ourselves licking our wounds, so to speak, then that catalogue of suffering puts us instead back at the surface which marks interior from exterior. And there we proceed with another form of excavation. The process of reading, or writing, is interminable. We must not utter what we have found, for even these minute recognitions act as forms of mastery and control when what is wanted is a fulfilling plasticity that permits the poem to continue shapeshifting, even, perhaps, turning inside out. The poet’s task (as the readers’) is not to tame the mystery, but to track it through the subtlest vibrations and excavations."Direction” depicts no absolute origin or terminus, but gives form to the inward and outward conjunction.



Let us give up our trips
to pace to and fro here as easily
the foreignness of these leaves
the untranslatable silences, the echoes
of a tower, difficult winds,
as well here sail our barges.
Friend of the static hour
I take your hand across the borders.
Haven’t we with our skills
lost important elements
of our luggage performing in lonely
hotels? The seacoasts are cruel
in winter the sand is a waste
cry to my tongue the sand it is like
my heart which I have buried in it
now there is a posture lying there
you can recognize it. I have only
two hearts, I need this orphaned
one here at home which is
the Scandinavia of all Russias.
The light is not idle, it is full of rapid
changes we can call voyages
if we like, moving from room to room.
How representative of us this thoughtful
weather that has traveled the water
to reach us, the touch of a certain side
of the skin when we open the window.
Our eyes are viewing monuments
constantly, the angry sculpture
of the façade it is also a journey
to the center where the rock is uncut.
Climbing it tests our strength, our bruises
are so many cities, the blood we shed
is ours, so I say we can belong
nowhere else, here is the counter
of our wounds and our delicacies.
On our own soil that is an excavation
desolate as the place whose name
we must never pronounce.


Guest, Barbara. The Blue Stairs. New York: Corinth, 1968.

---. Forces of Imagination. Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 2003.

---. Durer in the Window, Reflexions on Art. New York: Roof Books, 2003.


[1] Barbara Guest, “Jean Arp," Durer in the Window, Reflexions on Art, (New York, Roof Books, 2003), p. 3.

[2] Barbara Guest, “The Blue Stairs,” The Blue Stairs, ((New York, Corinth, 1968), pp. 4‒5.

[3] Barbara Guest, “The Beautiful Voyage,” Forces of Imagination, (Berkeley, Kelsey St. Press, 2003), p. 80.

[4] Barbara Guest, "Direction,” The Blue Stairs, (New York, Corinth, 1968), p. 22.

[5] ibid.

[6] Barbara Guest, “The Blue Stairs,” The Blue Stairs, (New York, Corinth, 1968), p. 6.

[7] ibid.

[8] Barbara Guest, "Direction,” The Blue Stairs, (New York, Corinth, 1968), p. 22.

[9] ibid.

[10] Barbara Guest, "Invisible Architectre,” Forces of Imagination, (Berkeley, Kelsey St. Press, 2003), p. 19.

[11] Barbara Guest, “Direction,” The Blue Stairs, (New York, Corinth, 1968), p. 23.

[12] ibid, p. 22.

[13] Barbara Guest, “The Beautiful Voyage,” Forces of Imagination, (Berkeley, Kelsey St. Press, 2003), p. 81.

[14] Barbara Guest, “Direction,” The Blue Stairs, (New York, Corinth, 1968), p. 22.

[15] ibid, p. 23.

[16] Barbara Guest, “Green Shoots,” Forces of Imagination, (Berkeley, Kelsey St. Press, 2003), p. 90.

[17] Barbara Guest, "Direction,” The Blue Stairs, (New York, Corinth, 1968), p. 23.

[18] ibid.

[19] ibid, pp. 22‒23.

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