Words as Amulets

Ange Mlinko

  • The 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.

The simple contact with a wooden spoon and
               the word
recovered itself, began to spread as grass,
              forced
as it lay sprawling to consider the monument
                where
patience looked at grief, where warfare
             ceased
eyes curled outside themes to search the
              paper
now gleaming and potent, wise and resilient,
                word
entered its continent eager to find another as
capable as a thorn. The nearest possession
               would
house them both, they being then two might
                glide
into this house and presently create a rather
               larger
mansion filled with spoons and condiments,
               gracious
as a newly laid table where related objects
            might gather
to enjoy the interplay of gravity upon
         facetious hints,
the chocolate dish presuming an
     endowment, the ladle
of galactic rhythm primed as a relish dish,
              curved
knives, finger bowls, morsel carriages words
                might
choose and savour before swallowing so
           much was the
sumptuousness and substance of a rented
         house where words
placed dressing gowns as rosemary entered
             their scent
percipient as elder branches in the night
           where words
gathered, warped, then straightened,
       marking new wands.

(‘Words’)

This allegory of word and objecthood, representation and nutriment, utensil and epicurism, is rendered with an indeterminate ratio of deliberateness to delirium. Its basic premise is this: as soon as the poet alights on an object, eliciting its name (‘wooden spoon’), the word becomes divorced from its object and begins an associative pandemonium, which results in a table sprawling with (metaphorical) utensils, dishes, foods and condiments, all laid out for a mental feast. Language is the ‘rented house’ with magic ‘wands’ in its silverware drawers, as in a fairy tale.

Another poem from the same book became one of her most anthologised pieces. ‘I was envious of fair realism,’ she admits in ‘An Emphasis Falls on Reality’:

The necessary idealising of your reality
is part of the search, the journey
where two figures embrace

This house was drawn for them
it looks like a real house
perhaps they will move in today

into ephemeral dusk and
move out of that into night
selective night with trees,

The darkened copies of all trees.

Here we have, as in ‘Roses’ (from the 1973 Moscow Mansions), a dream of entering a painting or drawing. The draughtsman’s sleight-of-hand involved in making the house look ‘real’ invites speculation that an analogous poetic sleight-of-hand could actually enable the happy couple to enter it. Night falls, sealing them in an alternate world – the idealised, ‘selective’ copy of reality, Platonised and perfected. This is what Guest admires about realism: not its faithfulness to reality, but its unfaithfulness to it.

The haunted space between reality and realism, between things as they are and things as they ought to be, is recast over and over again. In ‘The View from Kandinsky’s Window’, another poem from Fair Realism, one apartment resembles another:

His apartment looking down on a Square
the last peek of Russia
an intimate one knowing equipment
           vanishes.

At Union Square the curtains are drawn
diagonals greet us, those curves and sharp
                city
verticals he taught us their residual
        movements …
We have similar balconies, scale
degrees of ingress, door knobs, daffodils …

In her essay ‘The Shadow of Surrealism’, Guest explains:

One day looking down on Union Square from the apartment, the sudden realisation arrived that Union Square looked remarkably like the Moscow park seen from Kandinsky’s apartment.

  Several years passed and I moved near the south side of Union Square. I walked over to Union Square one day and looked up at my former apartment. The building now seemed to resemble the old photograph of Kandinsky’s apartment. That evening I began to write a poem about the last evening Kandinsky had spent in Moscow before going into exile. I called the poem ‘The View from Kandinsky’s Window’.

The doubling here – between New York and Moscow, Guest and Kandinsky – is grounded in detail: a balcony, a pot of geraniums, a certain perspective. It is, somehow, realistic, though it also involves a kind of magical thinking. One thing suggests another, but in each case – whether it is the multiplying dishes or the embracing couple or the hope of poetic inspiration – the fancy serves a deeper purpose: fecundity. The point of idealising reality is to make more of it.

This modernist fascination with the represented world has its philosophical critics. Borges abominated mirrors and copulation because both multiplied mankind; it sounds like a good joke, but he was deadly earnest. Auden’s Caliban in ‘The Sea and the Mirror’ says that he begins ‘to feel something of the serio-comic embarrassment of the dedicated dramatist, who, in representing to you your condition of estrangement from the truth, is doomed to fail the more he succeeds, for the more truthfully he paints the condition, the less clearly can he indicate the truth from which it is estranged’. Auden thought that art’s being a copy of a copy was proof of an essential frivolity (‘serio-comic’) in art-making, and so the solution was not to take it too seriously. Borges thought it was terrifying. Guest thought it neither frivolous nor terrifying, but necessary, and something about the solemnity of her approach to art and its mirrorings has given her work a cultlike aura.

Guest’s follow-up to Fair Realism was Defensive Rapture (1993), her least accessible and most controversial book. In it her trademark lushness of colour and imagery was severely fragmented: if modernism is our antiquity, here we see it as marble ruins.

Width of a cube spans defensive rapture
cube from blocks of liquid theme
phantom of lily stark
in running rooms.

adoration of hut performs a clear function
illusive column extending dust
protective screen the red
objects pavilion.

Defensive Rapture demands to be read in a different way: more instinctive than analytical, more prosodic than semantic. The lines above, from the volume’s title poem, seem to be trying to describe or get the measure of an unnamed experience, but slowly, if one sticks with the poem, the movement of reading it itself becomes the experience. Despite its abstraction, Guest’s language is vivid with words that appeal to the senses. The experience of moving through Defensive Rapture is like that of re-creating a dream in which nothing happens, but which leaves behind a succession of impressions and feelings that hint maddeningly at a lost paradise.

It’s not to everyone’s taste. Many readers have been alienated by this rapture and its defensiveness – its mystical seriousness, its private language. Her version of modernism is, for some, too unhistorical – or rather, too safely art historical. ‘The Türler Losses’, a long poem from 1979, is a recursive narrative about the actual loss of two watches, her first Türler watch purchased in Zurich and its replacement. Here, luxury watches that were guaranteed by their Swiss makers not to ‘lose time’ were themselves lost by their unreliable keeper. Guest’s exploration of this recursion, and the meaning of time and its loss, takes place in its own private Switzerland of lofty mental Alps and political neutrality. She keeps company with Nabokov and Balthus there, and meanwhile, in the real Türler shop on Paradeplatz in Zurich, one can view the famous Cosmos Clock, which houses a mechanism that rotates the firmament once every 25,794 years, the period known as one ‘Platonic year’.

Guest has had the distinction of being the odd woman out in a number of studies of the poets of the New York School. The group may have been a chimera (in John Ashbery’s words, ‘we happened to be friends’), but the label – borrowed from the abstract expressionist painters in their circle, and marketed through Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry – has somehow endured. In that anthology, Guest was the only woman in the New York School group, and one of only five other women in total (there were 60 men). She has seldom been included since. In 1970, David Shapiro and Ron Padgett’s anthology An Anthology of New York Poets left her out, but by then the so-called ‘second generation’ looked very different, and little of their style or substance can be traced to Guest’s influence. In Women, the New York School and Other True Abstractions, Maggie Nelson tries to rectify this omission, but the differences between Guest and the later poets she profiles – Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley and Eileen Myles – so far outweigh any similarities that it again threatens the whole fragile concept of the New York School. Nelson knows this (‘The poetry associated with the New York School – like any art grouped under a label – is incredibly diverse’), but she argues that they are connected in one thing, the ‘liberating effect’ of their poetics. ‘For whatever the New York School may be, one of its effects has been to allow male writers to explore a different relationship to materiality and immanence, and, conversely, female writers a claim on abstraction and idealism.’

To this end, Nelson contrasts the different ways in which Guest and Frank O’Hara compare words to rocks. O’Hara’s poem ‘Today’ giddily lists:

Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!
You really are beautiful! Pearls,
harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! all
the stuff they’ve always talked about

still makes a poem a surprise!
These things are with us every day
even on beachheads and biers. They
do have meaning. They’re strong as rocks.

In this short, speedy ars, O’Hara exalts ephemera and performs with adolescent glee. (You’d think the rocks were there for throwing through windows.) Nelson suggests that O’Hara is liberated from ‘masculinist discourse’ by privileging matter over form; conversely, Guest’s long poem Rocks on a Platter constructs ‘an imaginative language game’ whose motive is transcendent, thereby liberating the poet from feminine clichés about woman as matter, not form. From Rocks on a Platter:

Without shyness or formality:

  ‘a gesture of allowing oneself time

Remember how starry it arrives the hope of
         another idiom, beheld
  that blush of inexactitude, and the furor,
                 it
    will return to you, flotsam blocked
                out.

compose, like Schoenberg, poem music

     ‘robustly’

‘flotsam of the world of appearances’

O’Hara’s rocks are solid and impregnable; Guest’s ‘rocks’ are split open like geodes, strung into ritual necklaces and arranged like menhirs to hint at supernatural uses, all buttressed by references to the mystical Heinrich Hölderlin. Invisible forces like magnetism hold the world together, and all poets believe that words have charges and valences. Guest merely pushed this faith in the invisible as far as she could:

Words in magnetic order

Words in natural order.

I wish Nelson had examined further the story of Guest and O’Hara’s friendship, because not much is known about it. They hung out at the Cedar Bar together; they shared a deep love of French Surrealism and modern painting in general; they both had their first books published by Tibor de Nagy Editions, her The Location of Things (1960) and his A City Winter and Other Poems (1951). Brad Gooch, in his biography of O’Hara, describes Guest, O’Hara and the painter Grace Hartigan and her husband meeting up in Paris in 1958.

After lunch Guest suggested that the group cross the street to explore the ‘bateau lavoir’ where, she explained, Picasso and Max Jacob had first lived and where they had thrown studio parties for Apollinaire and Marie Laurencin. O’Hara, surprisingly, balked at the suggestion … ‘Barbara,’ he remonstrated, flushed with wine, ‘that was their history and it doesn’t interest me. What does interest me is ours, and we’re making it now.’ The incident, and attitude, show up in O’Hara’s Paris poem of September 12, ‘With Barbara Guest in Paris’:

Oh Barbara! Do you think we’ll ever
have anything named after us like
rue Henri-Barbusse or
canard a l’Ouragan?

It’s too easy to say, as Nelson does, that ‘Guest’s unironic investment in aesthetic theory and philosophy couldn’t stand further apart’ from O’Hara’s stance. Despite his anti-metaphysical gestures, O’Hara wrote incomparable odes promising transfiguration, frequently using the figure of a Balanchine ballerina. Balanchine’s ‘plotless’ ballets seem to me also to be an influence on Guest’s poetic quasi-novels, The Countess of Minneapolis and The Confetti Trees, and the two poets might well have gone to the ballet together. It would be worth finding out, but Nelson is more interested in the liberatory effects of New York School poetry than in its discipline, and more interested in how women distinguished themselves from men than how they were like them.

In any case, all these distinctions – New York School, female, male – are trivial in Guest’s world. The real line she drew is the one between real poetry and mere sport. The conservative poet moralises too much, she concedes, but anyone who thinks poetry is ‘play’ is succumbing to an impoverished form of Coleridgean ‘fancy’. Either words are amulets, with a being of their own, or they are nothing. ‘Beings – do they overstep each other?’ she asks in Rocks on a Platter. In overstepping – Nelson calls it, in psychoanalytic parlance, ‘overdetermining’ – language becomes numinous. In her essay ‘Poetry, the True Fiction’, Guest writes:

I would like you to understand that I am using the words ‘spirit’, ‘vision’, ‘halo’ … because I wish to emphasise that the poem needs to have a spiritual or metaphysical life if it is going to engage itself with reality … We are particularly nervous about our own era because we are at the turn of a century which is most usually designated a time of decadence. We see this everywhere … but mostly there is a demise of the spirit and that is what should concern us because poetry will reflect this spiritual absence.

Every master Guest draws on, from Stevens to Mallarmé to Coleridge, would agree with her that real poetry involves an objective spirit.

Ezra Pound was a bit more down to earth: his great criterion was ‘irrepressible freshness’. Others, human like us, are perfectly OK with the serio-comic heteroglossia of ‘It’s different when you have the hiccups’ (Ashbery) or ‘Sir Thomas Urquhart’s first word was something like “Habonghadingdonghagong”’ (Muldoon) or ‘The “necessary fiction” that, if I live inside you, and you’re part of me, we’re spread safely thin’ (Armantrout). Much poetry is justly sceptical of priestly enchantments: a secular poetry for a secular era. But for Guest, modernism c.1912 was her antiquity and her medieval fortress, inside which she could sit ‘in watchful docility, like the unicorn’.