The gendered marvelous: Barbara Guest, surrealism, and feminist reception
by Rachel Blau DuPlessis
The production of artists, and then their production of artworks, the tremors of dissemination, and both short and long-term reception can be productively analysed for their gender narratives. Among these critical possibilities, it is important to maintain feminist reception--a reading strategy that puts no limit on the nature of the work, is agnostic as to whether it conforms to rubrics of this or that version of womanhood, nor even cares whether the writer can be assimilated to (available, contemporaneous, consistent, or currently approved) feminist positions. Forms of feminist reception would call for, notice, notate, and comment upon the productive presence of women artists and writers wherever they are at work, would look at what motivates them, would analyze carefully their implict definitions of gender materials, and would investigate how these definitions are conducted with relation to gender ideologies and contradictions in the surrounding, historically mobile milieu.
In her writing, Barbara Guest commemorates an artist's longing for that "tinge on her left retina something like tequila, a rough peppery hotness she called it the 'flavor of eyes.'" (Guest SP, 76) These aspects of her range of pleasures and intelligence, her "painterly witness" (in Kathleen Fraser's words) combined with "her skeptical wariness of language's confinement and oversimplification" ( Fraser 1993, 56) are certainly characteristic of the general ferment known as The New York School in which painters mixed with poets in a coterie atmosphere of play, performativeness, and pleasure. Indeed, as Fraser points out, Guest "was the only woman poet in the first generation of the New York School." (Fraser 1993, 56) However, Fraser continues, thereupon comes a notable glitch in the construction of literary history.
Reception and dissemination are never neutral phenomena, and it is often at this point that the familiar bumbling occurs ("honey, I lost women's writing"). Guest was scandalously excluded from a defining anthology of that New York School in which she had been a key participant, An Anthology of New York Poets (edited by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro, 1970). No matter how it is parsed, this is a shocking erasure. It would be interesting to examine the gestures of neglect, with their personal ties, mistakes, rejections, many-sided stories, and later apologies or sorrows. We don't know whether the exclusion changed Guest, for example, nor what debates, quarrels, or ennuis, if any, it marked. Perhaps the editors didn't have a sense of a long term "occasion" in literary history, but were rather working on certain whims of a 1968-69 moment, now frozen for us, who are free in our own "open-soon-to-be-frozen" moment to comment. So we don't really know how such an exclusion functioned in the minds and the careers of those who initiated it. There would be many dimensions to this issue, some quite superficial, but curiously (especially given the light-hearted, gestural poetics of these writers) now engraved in stone. Here, one can simply propose this as yet another "case" for feminist studies of reception, observing, with Fraser, that the exclusion of females from the consolidation of literary groups is a "common historic practice." (Fraser 1993, 57)
In contrast, though not in compensation, Barbara Guest was accorded a full place in a slightly earlier anthology edited by one of the art dealers and curators central to that conjunction of painters and writers, John Bernard Myers. The Poets of the New York School was published in 1969, but not by a widely circulated trade house, as the other was. However, his title offered the defining phrase that announced the cross-fertilization of the textual by the artistic milieu. In Myers' anthology, Guest is accorded a strong accolade
--she is of the "lineage" of André Breton: "no other poet in this collection has seemed so directly concerned with this sense of 'le merveilleux' as Miss Guest," and "the marvelous" is a key term from the aesthetic of Breton. (Myers 1969, 13 and 25) Myers devotes a certain amount of time to an eulogy of Breton and an exposition of "the marvelous"--with "the magical and the whole rich drama of the unconscious, everything in nature that revealed her [nature's] strangeness." (Myers 1969, 12) In his introduction, Myers positions surrealism as historical, philosophical, and aesthetic precursor of the New York School of both painters and poets; this argument is taken up, for example, in a recent art historical study by Martica Sawin called Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School (Sawin 1995).
Putting Guest in the lineage of Breton does not simplify the question of Guest's place or status, nor their gender narratives, once Myers expounds the centerpiece of Breton's thought: a sublime dependence on Woman and heterosexuality.
A general sense of pleasure, permission, and free-floating, even flaunted desire does seem to have been at play in the poets and painters of the New York School (which was, contra Breton, populated with gay men). This citation confirms that the female figure (or capital W, "Woman")--plummy, sexual and idealized, desirable, suggestive, the provocatrice of male energies--had a special status in surrealist and neo-surrealist work, not to speak of "Her" general status in the cultural milieu of the 1940's through the early 1960's.
Starting with the origins of abstraction itself, one sees that fictive female figures are certainly material over which modernism had long struggled. In 1916 Kazimir Malevich remarked: "Only with the disappearance of a habit of mind which sees in pictures little corners of nature, madonnas and shameless Venuses, shall we witness a work of pure, living art." (Malevich 19) This uncompromising statement towards a then-new abstraction is notable in that two of the three items detailing inadequate subject matter and banal topics involve the representation of female figures. In short, the placement of the female figure has a long history astir with rich gender attitudes as a significant issue in modernist art.
These questions reemerge in surrealism which, nonetheless, represented "shameless Venuses" of all kinds. One would need a large scale study to disaggregate the issues of fetish, the question of female autonomy and desire, the issue of a woman embodying both "de merveilleux et de trouble" (in Breton's words in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism) in their impacts on any individual woman artist. (cited from Gauthier, 35) The evidence presented in Whitney Chadwick's articulate study of the women artists associated with the first wave of surrealism is complex and double--the "abyss" opening between Breton's "ideal of sexual and spiritual liberation" for all and his appropriative "Romantic vision of perfect union with the loved one" for example (Chadwick 8), or the contradiction between the effervescent presence of the historical women artists and "surrealism's idealized vision of woman...like an albatross around the neck of the woman artist." (Chadwick 66) One might well apply Michael Davidson's tart remarks (made about a perhaps more homosocial set of artists) that "Vision ... purchased at the expense of women" is a characteristic stance "even when her gender...is invoked as a positive value." (Davidson 198, 199 )
Adorno has argued, counterintuitively, that far from proposing the "invarient, ahistorical images of the unconscious subject" as surrealism claims about itself, its interest as a movement is the creation of "images of a dialectic of subjective freedom in a situation of objective unfreedom." (Adorno 89, 88) While Adorno clearly did not intend this application, it sums up my sense of the possible position of a woman, such as Barbara Guest, inspired genuinely and fully by the long reverberations of surrealism within the New York School. For according to Guest, surrealism was absolutely liberating. "It meant freedom, especially for a woman," she said in a phone conversation (6 May 1997). One is faced with a potential contradiction between the poetics involving female figures (Woman), the heavy archetypalist thinking characteristic of surrealism, the responsibilities of being the recipient of "mad love," on one hand, and, on the other, the creative effervesence of "poetic mobility," "breaking rules," and intellectual liberation it offered, in Guest's own testimony. ("I grew up under the shadow of Surrealism...," ts 1) One must ask what implication surrealist thinking, with its gendered concept of the marvelous, had for Guest as a poet when the long aftermath of surrealism was an inspiration to her.
In her typescript "I grew up under the shadow of Surrealism..." (4 1/2 pp.) given at the Kouros Gallery in New York (1986?), Guest makes several observations about surrealism. The first is its annihilation of "separation between the arts"; this led to its close analogue, "an escape from literature, or from the 'literary'" so that "one could never again look at poetry as a locked kingdom." (Guest 1986, ts. 1) In Guest's oeuvre, this led to a particular kind of technique, a kind of entrance in words, or translation of modes of representation in painting to language.This technique liberated Guest from any allegiance to the expository, somewhat labored, well-made poetry of the 1950's, and gave her permission to fuse images by association, not to have them "lie motionless within a linear structure." (Guest 1986, ts. 1) This was a methodological heritage of surrealism, but could be extended in her relationship with the work of a number of painters.
I would propose that "fair realism" is Guest's female translation of "surrealism," a way of acknowledging the powers of the female-gendered marvelous while holding its less comfortable effects, including the possibility of historical erasure, at bay.
Take such a poem as "The Farewell Stairway," where the "fair" go down a deep "well." (SP 117-122) The poem concerns saying a long goodbye after a visit. This remarkable work of mythopoesis rests on a "telling" of a painting by the Italian modernist Balla, who proposed the deep looping stairwells of European bourgeois apartment houses as a descent, down a "vortex" (that Poundian word with its modernist evocations) to an unknown, unseen space. Three fashionably-dressed women are making the journey. Guest names them Ceres, and Hecate; a third, unnamed, is clearly Koré or Persephone (and thus the three together make the triple goddess). As Sara Lundquist incisively argues, Guest is using the version of the myth that speaks of a female initation ritual, or a female mystery, a version disinterested in Hades, "patriarchal violence," or the abductor.
The poem proposes a multiple subjectivity that is quite characteristic of Guest's poetic production. First, the speaker of the poem is in the position of viewer--the person within the narrrative at the top of the stairs, watching the women descend; second, she is one of the women descending, unwillingly, frightened, while "Hecate managed me." (SP 120) This is joined by a third subjectivity--of omniscient viewer, like a novelist who sees the charming women on "a roman scala / in the neighborhood of the stazione." (SP 120), and even by a fourth, implied in the third and the first alike--a viewer called forth by the metaphysics of the scene, that is, by the making of a poem, one who feels its "mythic potency." (SP 122) The gender of these subjectivities is more female than male; and the plural she (by virtue of the shifting subjectivity of the poem) both posesses the gaze and is scrutinized by it. The image of the vortex and the descent into a dark point is the spot, postulated "futurally," at which the triple group of women at three stages of the lifecycle disappear into a vanishing point beyond that gaze. Guest offers observations on this interplay among subject positions in her statement on poetics in Ironwood: "The poem stretches, looking outwardly and inwardly, thus obtaining a plasticity that the flat, the basic words, what we call the language of a poem, demand and further, depend upon." (Guest, Ironwood 1984, 154) "Plasticity" is her term for the multiple subject positions, the multiple speaking positions and viewing positions that are central to her work. An older title--the title of Guest's first collection of poems--might indicate something of this: "the location of things."
The women and their descent are regarded over and over from these multiple places, for the poem's eleven sections are built on folds. The work is organized by "pleated moments" saying almost the same thing over and over, as the figures are imagined continuing to walk downwards. (SP 117) Guest creates a slow motion metamorphosis of her characters poised in the descent, whose telos is both realistic (their serapes, their phrases in Italian) and mythic or antique (the "mythic potency" that the poem postulates). The myth has the final word, but the sense of realism and of the myth alternate throughout the poem. As Guest comments generally in her essay "A Reason for Poetics," "Poetic Codes" seem to occur as "A pull in both directions between the physical reality of place and the metaphysics of space." (Ironwood 1984, 153) This "pull in both directions between" is a distinctive quality of Guest, as here between the novelistic and the mythic, or between place (the stairway) and space (the vortex). (Ironwood 1984, 153) The shifts and crossings between "mystery" and reality create a quality of sprezzatura in Guest's work; her name for the fusion of the two, in any event, is "audacity." (Ironwood 1984, 153)
The speaker/ viewer who is both inside and outside the narrative looks at the scene variously: descriptively, dramatically, naturalistically, formally (speaking about folds and volumes), and, in a recurrent word: "futurally." "I saw it futurally," says the woman left on top of the stairs, and later the departing women are said to be "futurally extended" (SP 119 and 121). It is certainly plausible to say that this word represents that seeing like a Futurist which, as Lundquist wittily notes, Balla was, in the future, to become. But seeing "futurally" is what will happen, something always to come, not something always already constructed, not the icon.
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 a 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." In contrast, the travelling women of "The Farewell Stairway" may "be there" (by virtue of their mythic names), but they are also only "getting there," slowly yet intrepidly in the descent. One of them is very reluctant even to go "there." This tension between being and becoming is uncharacteristic of the use of the iconic female in poetic tradition. Guest's projection of an (arguably) multiple female gaze looking at female figures splits the figures differently, not between self and other, for those terms no longer apply, but in interior vectors: "a pull in both directions between." She keeps the figures in motion, breaking the iconic or static by strategies of multiple subjectivity and by folded, semi-Steinean "beginnings again and again."
By virtue of these investments, Guest is one representative of those investigative poetries in which a writer works a number of plural attitudes from a range of imbedded subject positions. The multiple positionality of a wayward creature sometimes named "I" is articulated quite directly by Guest in her essay "Shifting Persona": "The person inside a literary creation can be both viewer and insider." (Guest, Poetics Journal 85) This is certainly the situation of the "persons" of "The Farewell Stairway." The business of a speaker being in at least two or three places at once, speaking from the vectors of a site, and not from one voice or any one identity is typical of her poetry. Being at all points entails a creative splurge, an investment in multiplicities. Her work has spoken from positions of man, woman, teenager, depressive, pursuer and pursued, painting and paint, viewer and viewed, insider and outsider. It is as if she were host and guest at once. Thus when she articulates issues of femaleness, maleness, gender, and sexuality, she stages a different kind of gender encounter than one might see in contemporaneous poetries from other women's communities. Though a poetry of multiple subjectivity does not need explicitly to take up issues of gender, in my view it always can be torqued analytically to generate such positions--poetry is not a space of free play away from social dispensations and their historically mediated demands.
Guest's work thus multiplies "the gaze" so that she, as a female poet, can claim some power over the many dimensions of sight and seeing. In a sense, this power over sight and seeing could be what Guest's interest in painting is all about, not only ekphrastic (though it is indeed that, as Sara Lundquist has eloquently argued), not only formal or allusive of a variety of painterly styles (discussed in parts of the paper not printed here), but about vision--as in visionary--and sight--as in the powers and plenitudes, the vectors, and managements of the gaze. It is this vision-inducing quality that Breton ascribed to the female figure. One might say that Guest ascribes vision-inducing qualities both to painting and to the female, but there is a special intensity when Guest chooses to write from a painting concerning female figures (as we have seen with the Balla and the Miró). Perhaps, one could postulate, concentration upon an individual painting contains, filters, buffers or refines some of the more lurid claims about the Surrealist Woman, and refocuses attention on the core issue: the "marvelous." In any event, in Guest's work, painting is a privileged space for issues about vision and gender to emerge. Guest approaches these materials in the spirit of shifting personae, with multiple identifications at work: sited as model and painter, as Picasso and Maar, and as the third term viewing them, identifying with both, and with their painful, generative symbiosis. **** The female poet--Guest herself--takes the responsibility examining the gender materials of culture in their mystery and ethical ambiguity.
But more, art is, for Guest, a sublime and transcendent place, and the feminine/ female figures (from silk to models) offer the privilege of access to the visionary and the contemplative. In her most recent work, Guest seems to have written a Mallarmean poem remaking Mallarmé, a poem eulogizing the clairvoyant presence of the beautiful female figure within culture as a whole. Unlike Un Coup de Dés, Guest's Quill, Solitary APPARITION is not a poem about absense, struggle, the void, shipwreck and the intangible, but about presence, pleasure, adequacy, bouyancy--and the intangible. In this suggestive work, in short, Guest seems to be engaged on a meta-study of poetic pleasure. What would female pleasure in poetic production be, analogous to the physical, tactile "pleasure of production ... one of the most fundamental elements of most painters' work--[where] nothing quite beats the satisfaction of mushing pigment around on a surface in thick, loose impasto or veiling washes." (Drucker 1992, 7) This citation from Joanna Drucker's startling call for a theorizing of pleasure by feminists seems, at first, tonally provocative, not connected to the textual delicacy and limpidity of Quill, Solitary APPARITION. Yet one may recall Guest's witty expostulations about "the extravagance of a painter" and the provocations to allow poetic imagination "to go on a rampage" (Guest 1986, ts. 2, and 1), or her appreciation of how Matisse, "this great sensualist of color" is also, at the same time, "a highly intellectual manipulator of space and color." (Guest 1986, ts. 3) The merging of terrific pleasure and terrific intellectual force is of decided interest to Guest, fused under the rubric "imagination."
So one arrives, finally, at pleasure. Drucker calls for a "theory of female pleasure ..." that can emerge "from production." (9) Similarly, Mira Schor calls for a "regendered version of visual pleasure" and a "feminist erotics of visuality." (Schor 168) This call has resonance in poetry. What would a poetry of imagistic, tonal, linguistic, and textual pleasure look like from a female subject claiming the marvelous, absolutely entering the space of meaning, of the symbolic, and the right to vision, clairvoyance and agency? It might well engage a transformation of surrealism to fair realism.
(This article will eventually appear in full in an anthology on The New York School, edited by Terrence Diggory and Stephen Paul Miller to be published by National Poetry Foundation, Orono, Maine)
Adorno, Theodor W. "Looking Back on Surrealism." Notes to Literature, vol. I. Trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
Chadwick, Whitney. Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985.
Fraser, Kathleen. "The Tradition of Marginality." Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition. Ed. Sharon Bryan. New York, W. W. Norton, 1993: 52-66.
Davidson, Michael, "Compulsory Homosociality: Charles Olson, Jack Spicer, and the Gender of Poetics." Cruising the Performative: Interventions into the Representation of Ethnicity, Nationality, and Sexuality. Sue-Ellen Case, Philip Brett, and Susan Leigh Foster, eds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995: 197-216.
Drucker, Joanna. "Visual Pleasure: A Feminist Perspective." M/E/A/N/I/N/G/, no. 14 (May 1992): 3-11.
Gauthier, Xavire. Surréalisme et Sexualité. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1971.
Guest, Barbara. Fair Realism. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1989. In text as FR.
-----.Selected Poems. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995. In text as SP.
-----. Quill, Solitary APPARITION. Sausalito, CA.: The Post-Apollo Press, 1996.
-----. "A Reason for Poetics." Ironwood 24 [Vol. 12, 2] (Fall 1984): 153-155.
-----. ["I grew up under the shadow of Surrealism"]. Talk Given at Kouros Gallery, New York City, 1986 (?), ts.
-----. "Shifting Persona." Poetics Journal 9 (June 1991): 85-88.
Lundquist, Sara. "Reverence and Resistance: Barbara Guest, Ekphrasis, and the Female Gaze." Contemporary Literature 38, 2 (Summer 1997): [XX pp. unavailable at this time].
Malevich, Kazimir. "From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting" (1916). K.S. Malevich, Essays on Art, 1915-1928, vol 1. Ed. Troels Andersen. Copenhagen: Borgen, 1971.
Myers, John Bernard, ed. The Poets of the New York School. Philadelphia: Graduate School of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania, and New York: Gotham Book Mart and Gallery, 1969.
Padgett, Ron and David Shapiro, eds. An Anthology of New York Poets. New York: Random House, .
Sawin, Martica. Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995.
Schor, Mira. Wet: On Painting, Feminism, and Art Culture. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.
Bio: Rachel Blau DuPlessis's recent chapbook, Renga: Draft 32 , (Beautiful Swimmer Press) is recently published, soon in company with The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation , edited by DuPlessis and Ann Snitow, Crown; The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics , edited by DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain, University of Alabama Press, 1999. Entitled New: Modern Subjectivities, Modern American Poetries , her newest critical book, is forthoming from Cambridge University Press in 1999 or 2000.
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