Words as Amulets

Ange Mlinko

  • BuyThe Collected Poems of Barbara Guest edited by Hadley Haden Guest
    Wesleyan, 525 pp, £33.95, July 2008, ISBN 978 0 8195 6860 1
  • Women, the New York School and Other True Abstractions by Maggie Nelson
    Iowa, 288 pp, £38.50, December 2007, ISBN 978 1 58729 615 4

If modernism is our antiquity, as T.J. Clark has claimed, then Barbara Guest was a devout classicist. No American poet – with the exception of John Ashbery – so reverently extended early modernist aesthetics into the second half of the 20th century. As Guest put it in her essay ‘Radical Poetics and Conservative Poetry’, ‘everything we loved, emulated, was attached to the lyric modernism of Baudelaire and Mallarmé’s later writing.’ She meant a lyric modernism in which life and art exist as a closed circuit, as in this dream of entering a painting:

       It is why one develops
an attitude toward roses picked
in the morning air, even roses
without sun shining on them.
The roses of Juan Gris from which
we learn the selflessness of roses
existing perpetually without air,
the lid being down, so to speak,
a 1912 fragrance sifting
to the left corner where we read
‘La Merveille’ and escape.

(‘Roses’)

Guest died in 2006, and this Collected Poems amasses work from more than 20 books. She also wrote art and poetry criticism, a novel and a biography of the Imagist poet H.D. She became known as a poet in the 1950s under the auspices of the New York School, but was a Platonist at heart: ‘One must live in sovereign freedom like a king,’ she declared, quoting Pasternak. Here she distinguished herself from her contemporaries: poets like Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer and Paul Blackburn often harked back to fraternal tropes of the knight, troubadour, jongleur. Never king.

Guest’s origins were anything but kingly: born in North Carolina in 1920, she was shuffled around from town to town in Florida, where her father was an itinerant probation officer. She was sent to California to live now with an aunt and uncle, now with grandparents. She attended ‘“backwoods” one-room schoolhouses’, though she learned to read at the age of three. When she matriculated at the University of California at Berkeley she was Barbara Pinson – her mother’s maiden name – and she married a succession of men who made her something else: one introduced her to bohemia and Henry Miller, another was an English peer who introduced her to H.D., another a military historian. She seems to have lived very comfortably, in Washington DC and New York City. She had two children. She travelled widely. All this is vaguely sketched because she was herself immune to confessional impulses. Her friend the poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge remembers: ‘When she suffered a concussion in a mugging on the stairs of her studio in the late 1980s, I remember she went right back to work there and was bored talking about this subject. When her husband Trumbull died, she sold her apartment and moved everything to Berkeley in a few months, and immediately began her late great work.’ ‘When my daughter was about three,’ Berssenbrugge adds, ‘she sent me some brochures of a good boarding school in Pennsylvania. She once told me in exasperation: “Husbands are not important!”’ Guest’s self-effacing pursuit of capital-I Imagination, after the models of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Wallace Stevens and H.D., would cause her to be left behind as the age moved towards a model of political and feminist poetries. But her 500-page Collected Poems belongs among the achievements of 20th-century modernism, a sphere overlapping almost nowhere with the mimetic, anecdotal, psychologically motivated poetry that predominated in the US for much of her career.

It wasn’t until the publication of Fair Realism in 1989, 29 years after her first book, that Guest’s aesthetic really came into focus. But it was poetry readers who caught up with Guest, not vice versa: her work had followed a remarkably consistent course, and it was only in the late 1980s that a readership appeared which was acutely aware of language’s doublings, mirrorings, self-cancellings and recursions, thanks to the embrace of post-structuralist theory and its offshoot L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. There’s no evidence that Guest gave a fig about post-structuralist theory. She never mentioned Derrida or Barthes or Baudrillard. But Fair Realism is full of poems addressing that moment when it became widely acknowledged that words are objects, that language has a life of its own, and that what we call ‘reality’ easily morphs into simulacrum.

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