Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest

Guest, Barbara. The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

Guest’s Collected Poems includes all of her published work, beginning with 1962’s The Location of Things and concluding with 2005’s The Red Glaze. Much of her early work explores imaginative landscapes through narrative and associative imagery. For example, in the poem “Piazzas,” one finds “Imagination/ thunder in the Alps yet we flew above it/ then met a confusion of weather and felt/ the alphabet turning over when we landed in Pekin” (5). While she sometimes elides punctuation and provides tangential images such as the “alphabet,” most her lines during this period are comprehensible. Later in her career, specifically with the publication of Defensive Rapture, Guest’s most prominent and enduring aesthetic shifts manifest themselves. Within this collection, the poet experiments with the page as a field of composition, making liberal use of white space, both vertically and horizontally. But far from leaving the reader aimless within this radical aesthetic alteration, Guest continually provides meta-poetic clues as to the purpose, or at least the possibilities, of this new form; she writes: “more liquid/ than eyes adulterous surface—//…// a fluid haze divides/ the rhythm vault//…// gradual broken ascent/ —means intensify” (266). But if, visually, the form of the poems corresponds to a “fluid haze” that is “liquid” for the “eyes,” there is also an auditory framework inherent to the form as well: “the spatial breath—/ delicate mouthing//…// brevity emphasized—an unnatural heartbeat” (267). The “spatial” arrangements foster a particular “breath” within the reader, dictating a “delicate mouthing” that emphasizes the “brevity” of each line; as such, “these intervals control//…// the motion” (267) of the readers’ sight and voice. But more than just an alteration of form, the content of Guest’s poetry is abstract and disjunctive. Take for example, the following passage: “in window—field—to establish multiple erasures—/ a plain mobility—diatonic—released cloud cuttings—/ a simplex—within the marginal// —giant origins” (273). The linguistic connection between each word cluster has been elided in favor of em-dashes, leaving the correspondence between individual clusters ambiguous. But this, perhaps, is the point. For, as Guest mentions, “multiple erasures” and “cloud cutting” produce “original” thought through “elemental softening” (273). If such indeterminacy fosters a “strew of doubt” (278), it also generates a “massive intimacy” (278) wherein the reader produces their own meanings for/from a text. Ultimately, it is not Guest’s poetic project to represent images in a mimetic manner, but to create an “apparition that desires to remain on the page, even haunt the room in which the poem was created,” that is, not to write about a flower, but “encourage the separation of the flower from the page” (369).

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