Dolphin Sightings: Adventures in Reading Barbara Guest
by Sara Lundquist
"What is come upon as this, lived and lived out, need not be deciphered or uncoded but simply let be, having become, in itself, for itself." -- Charles Bernstein.
Poet and reader perform together on a highwire strung on a platform between their separated selves. Now an applause for the shared vigilance. -- Barbara Guest
When I read Barbara Guests poems -- lately these have mostly been poems in Rocks on A Platter: Notes on Literature (Wesleyan, 1999), I want first to be silent as the best way to acknowledge how these words have become something in themselves, for themselves, and do not need (noisy pushy teaching, talking) "explanations." A great pleasure available in them is to note each poems unfailing and exact extent, its just enoughness, its self-knowing form. As if modeling its own reception, a Guest poem doesnt come (defensively) trailing explanations of itself, it just comes, and becomes. Herein perhaps lies the reason that she has been so much praised and so little discussed, analyzed, interpreted; there is a sufficiency to her poems, which fills, fulfils and abashes, and which humbles even word-mongering professions: literary historians and critics, theoreticians, academics. Her poems "need not be deciphered or uncoded but simply let be." There is a kind of tribute in this critical silence; the poets of course (Hillman, Fraser, Welish, Going, Rabinowitz, DuPlessis, Bernstein) have found their own ways to be Guests readers in print. There is much to be learned from their intelligent straddling of the fatiguing, futile poetry/criticism divide.
And yet, its hard to "simply let be," as Bernstein advises, the ravishing poems of this book. The poems themselves dont dictate silence; quite the opposite: "strike that simpleton / Bafflement" the poem commands, "Thee GLOSS GLOSS // point to the Mix . . . " (That italicized "thee" is as clear an intimate aside as ever "Dear Reader" was, urging the reader not to be baffled by the poems, not to evade them as too disjunctive, too difficult, too perfect). One doesnt want to "uncode," loving the code too much to want to be the agent of its undoing. (Except for the kind of decoding described by Rachel DuPlessis as "the mysterious random process of associative and accretive decoding.") Nor does "deciphering" appeal, which also implies unlanguaging. To decipher is to "convert into ordinary writing" Guests readers must expect extraordinary writing, and feel reluctant to convert mysteries and eccentricities into orthodoxies.
In that phrase "let it be," lurks both the sense of "let it alone" and "let it be what it is." The poems have their reader so much in their sights; they do not let her alone, but subject her to a wise scrutiny and an irresistible call, therefore one cannot leave them alone but must answer back in some way. As for the second sense -- "let it be what it is" -- what power does anyone have to do otherwise? But the command "point to the Mix," encourages the reader to attention to what it is and how it does. Note well: this is not un- or de-mixing; but appreciative description of the way the words consort, their mixing-it-up on the page, their intercourse, their dance, their oxymoronic tussle, their "silvered montage," their sighs and hiccups and jokes and caresses. Is this what Bernstein means when he advises writers as they write poetry and readers as they read "to attend to the internal event that is taking place in it"? Guest forthrightly directs her reader, in capital letters, to "GLOSS GLOSS," to add words to her words. The book, much more strikingly than Guests other work, is full of such reader-directed metapoetics, full of advice for her readers and curiosity about them.
Rocks on a Platter is partly about how writing poetry requires allowing and rewarding ones own ingenuity and peculiarity: that is, it can only be accomplished, in her words, "without shyness or formality." When Guest performs the poets receptive audacity, I understand this to be a stance one might take toward poetry, modeled here as the necessary stance of poetry. Here is an example of her intimate lure and dare. It is all of page 47:
As if whispered
And so, where Guest is concerned, one is pulled, (passionately) uncertain, but unrepentant, in this odd direction, toward a "criticism of desire." This phrase comes from Bernsteins "Artifice of Absorption," quoted as ballast:
Some orienting notes: the book is divided into four untitled sections, each of which is headed by a quotation from the aesthetic theories of, respectively: Hölderlin, Samuel Johnson, Hegel, and Adorno. Each of these sections could and should be read as a long, multi-part poem in colloquy with its introductory quotation. Yet, each page, by itself, is also a unit shapely in its appointment, making a singular claim on the readers attention and consideration. The poems look spare, and are irradiated by the whiteness of the page, in the style of much of Guests recent poetry. Yet they are beguilingly multivalent: polyreferent, suggestively allusive, polytonal (I sometimes think that in tone lies Guests deepest meaning). Some suggest dilemma and struggle, others a knowing fusion of opposites. The poems try the notion of "form," which often means that their subject is themselves, and yet this tautological premise limits Guest not at all, so thoroughly does she enjoy (also mourn?) the elusiveness and mobility of form, its openness (susceptibility) to change, ambivalence and the imagination, its permutations and persistence. It is not for nothing that she quotes Adornos insight that "The Moment a limit is posited it is overstepped, and that against which the limit was established is absorbed."
[Those lovely and generous white spaces elicit contradictory responses at least as insistently as does the typographical poem proper. Should I (I do) 1. admire them and preserve the space they create in and around the poem, that silence out of which the poems speaks, the sense that these are rare objects separated from the rest of the noisy hullabaloo of the information age? Should I preserve the possibility of my coming upon them newly and freshly? or should I (I do) 2. Fill them up as hungry interstices, pauses for my input, invitations to dialogue? Will I be sorry one day to find my copy of the book filled with scribbling, the poems achieved integrity of form permeated and altered? Or will I be glad to have been a witness of my own lived experience with the poem? Who can I lend the book to if it becomes so thoroughly "my" book? What does it mean to own a book written by someone else? The quandary of book-lovers: is it a sin to write in books? Isnt it a sin to own books that bear no mark of their ever having been read?] [How curious are other peoples copies of books one owns; they seem familiar and yet dissimilar, dissimulated.]
First, page 17, under the sign of Johnson ("To invest abstract ideas with form, and animate them with activity has always been the right of poetry. . . . ):
are you more tactile in handling
"Hullabaloo" rhymes with "OLD SHOE" (last two words on the preceding page), lending comedy and tonal surprise. "Hullabaloo" means "great noise or excitement, uproar." Intellection about poetry is useful, but in the end a kind of noise, a kind of "hullabaloo" Ah! how tonic it is to know that literary history and theory can elicit this fine and free riposte. All her words give off sparks, know their own histories, do a song-and-dance among their fellows, refuse to be understood pejoratively. (Note for instance, how in the phrase "starry adultness," "starry" loses triviality and self-delusion in favor of brightness and hope, while adulthood loses burden and fatigue in favor of capable possibility).
This poem does what Johnson says poetry has the right to do: invest abstract ideas with form. A form is a body ("the body / pressed against you"), a shape ("the pear-shaped manuscript"), a texture, taste, smell ("its honied drip. / The honied drip.") Are these what poets would like to have noticed about their poems?: their unique shapes and odors, the particular way they use language in a tactile, a sexual fashion. They are not ideas first but homages to the deeply-physical physical world.
The "again," so deftly and poignantly does all the work of argument. All by itself it connotes Guests long career of rethinking and restating and reimaging and reforming the permutations and givens of form and shape and touch. In "again," one can hear Guest implying that shes been asking this kind of question all her writing life. These questions and regrets ("Alas") suggest Guests own poetics, the aesthetic theory that she ascribes to, and that she has and will write by, in spite of many false ideas and much hullabaloo about the whole question. But of course hers is a broken and evasive argument: which is to say: the best, the most convincing argument -- one that doesnt lie by means of high-flown or argumentative rhetoric, but just puts a pear-shaped readable thing there, near the grasp of the hand. ("Do I dare to eat a peach?")
What is the ideal or the implied answer to the question: "are you more tactile in handling / the body / pressed against you?" Perhaps: "No, come to think of it, Im not more tactile there (in the area of sex, of erotic pleasure); Im really about the same in my degree of tactility. I desire, I touch, I fold into?" Guest invites us with her question to be as tactile in regard to literature as we are in regard to our lovers. Is this possible? How do we "touch" poetry? How do we touch by means of poetry? Is this a kind of Tactilism (!) comparable to Imagism? Does it have to do with the textures of words, our ability to respond to them by means of our "inner skin" as well as our "inner eye"? (Guest writes elsewhere of the "flesh of a poem. Even as a painting has flesh. The vibrancy of its skin.") The OEDs entry on "tactile" quotes Bernard Berenson from 1907: "I have endeavoured to set forth that the principal . . . . sources of life-enhancement are tactile values, movement, and space composition, by which I mean ideated sensation."
Here is a digression, an irresistible permutation: Berensons "ideated sensation" is so suggestive in relation to Rocks on a Platter, which begins its first page with a possible placing of ideas in the arboreal sensible world: "Ideas. As they find themselves. In trees? / To choose a century they are prepared to inhabit," Guest writes. Is this an ideating of trees? A sensating of ideas? She wittily literalizes the preposition "in" of "No ideas but in things," and deflates "Ideas" a little with the flatness of the one-word introduction, and the show-me skepticism of "as they find themselves" (echoing familiar speech-genre phrases such as "something is as something does"). If ideas find themselves in trees, they must surely be tested by how well they can graft.
And then, Barbara Guest is a great poet of "space composition"the location of things, including ideas, in time and space. (Isnt Guests famous allusiveness a way of locating, dislocating, and relocating ideas in time and space?) Are ideas like Hölderlins ("To live is to defend a form . . .") timeless and spaceless or do they have to find a tree and a century they are prepared to inhabit, either with grace or as a vital irritant? How does an "idea" from aesthetic theory consort with a poem? These poems wink at and flirt with aesthetic theory, teasing its pomposity; sometimes they court it and qualify it and surround it with things: wind, rocks, typography, old shoe, bricks, the "animal-clad wood," trout, Mont Blanc, cats-cradle, fleur dor, porcelain, a feather, the Dolphin, a "sweet pumpkin," the "apparition shape of thy head." Why do we think philosophy and theory will "explain" art? Why is art more palatable once philosophy deigns to notice it and runs it through a systematic? Why is a poet expected to articulate her poetics in prose? When and why does a poet come to want to articulate her poetics in prose? How can a reader help herself from becoming a writing reader? "The obvious problem," writes Bernstein, "is that the poem said in any other way is not the poem." Yeah. Alas. So be it.
So to return to page 17: What is the ideal, supposed answer to the question: "Is the pear-shaped manuscript / endangered?" Perhaps: of course, the pear-shaped manuscript is grievously endangered: first because all manuscripts are endangered (by computers, mainly, but also by TV and telephone, and by our too fast modern pace). There will soon be no scripts that have been touched by hand, and a manuscript that was pear-shaped would be so far off the grid of the possible as to be not only endangered, but extinct (unless certain artists presses can hold out). (Do things that come to us by computer have a shape, a smell, a taste? Is a virtual pear still a pear?) Things pear-shaped, including pears themselves, are extremely sensual, fat-about-the-bottom, globed. It suggests that the manuscript can be eaten as well as read, and caressed as it is eaten and read.
To speak of food (and of books) in relation to their shape is to evoke their tactility, their feast for the fingers. And this fruit book "drips honey"; isnt this an ancient (Greek) image for incredible juiciness and richness? Guest laments (that wonderful, that poignant "Alas") the ignored and wasted "honied drip," so abundantly available to the senses, so spurned by those who read mercilessly for content and for ideas, for what Rob Kaufman called "objective, use-oriented thought." And "drip" implies absolute saturation, a text that is so full of honey that it oozes out, no text can contain all of its own sweetness; its there for the reader to read and drink and eat. (And of course, the ways our own and the bodies we press against ours promise and deliver fluids, ooze and spurt and drip; its not for nothing that human sexuality has so often been allied with the consumption of fruit).
Back-up to page 16 briefly, to be sure to show how the making of art involves much "aching" (the long "a" and hard and harsh "k" sound of this word are painful sounds in themselves, too sonically evocative to hear or read lightly). A poet is an aching (yearning, hurting) being, working against time and "time interrupted," against fragmentation and dissolution, against "drifting into invisibility." She is subject to the craven desire to "avoid the spectacular jump," to find an easier way, even the lazy (or suicidal?) "desire / to hasten an ending" (the enjambment of that line turns advance and desire so devastatingly to precipitous termination):
interrupted discontinuous treatment. After
the spectacular jump ;
solid objects are merciless.
Old shoe? Its true we sometimes call for a poetry as grittily "real" and unpretentious as an old shoe, but heavens! An old shoe could be merciless in its thingness, in its refusals; asked to mean too much from its solidity it might turn monstrous like Stevens' terrible X, unrelieved by metaphor: "The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X," the specter of death itself. No wonder she needs to pick up next with the energetic defusing of "Hullabaloo, Hullabaloo," and (albeit wistfully) reconnect poetry with living forms like the body, the manuscript, the drip of honey. Timothy Liu is right to say: "For Guest, the passions inherent in a physical world must be met by a metaphysical response."
Digression on the power of nonsense words: Page 8 mocks the idea of (capital T) Tradition:
Tantamount to theory
A TREMENDOUS TUNE-UP. ORTHODOXY.
"Tra-la-la" to tradition and to theory too. Alliteration is put to work at one of its ancient tasks: making us smile, defusing the seriousness of these very very serious enterprises, despite their tremendous centuries long tune-up. An artist must at times deserve to feel lighthearted in their presence. After the loud and large "TREMENDOUS TUNE-UP," there is the echo of (lower case) "tremendous tune-up," which is more thoughtful and in its slowness, less flippant, but still: "tra-la-la." Who would have thought that tra-la-la would deserve an entry in the OED, but it does, as viable (as traditional) a word as "tradition," or "orthodoxy." Arent there Shakespeare lyrics that end with nonsense words as a kind of refrain ("a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonny-no"), also Yeats ("Fol de rol, fol de rol"). Here it is not just initial-letter alliteration that delights, but a kind of running permutation on first syllables: Tra, tan, the, tre, ten, tru, tre, tri, tre, tun, tre, tun, tra, and ort, ORT! The freedom that "nonsensical" words confer; they take you most swiftly out of the constricting rules and assumptions and attitudes of the prevailing discourse, like someone laughing or making a rude noise in church or at an academic conference. Guest doesnt abjure any level of diction, any world of words, and she finds comedy and freedom in the mix. Tradition and Theory do sometimes carry their vocabulary heavily and stiflingly; they need the oxygen in "tra-la-la," with its open-mouthed sound, its flourish, its swift trump and TRIUMPH, and its own (very respectable) linguistic and literary longevity.
Along this enchanting line of inquiry, theres the hiccup: "an odd note, the hiccup." Page 32 delivers a Steinian dream-poem, prose-poem, love poem:
Here the dream began, two voices, one joking, this took place in sleep, you remember, and the other caressing, a tussle between the joking and the caress, points of view caressingly and jokingly; they often sighed between joking and caressing, the hiccup, an odd note the hiccup, between the joking and caressing; perhaps a lapse in the dream.
This is a lively language tussle, in which one voice jokes and one caresses. This is "twoness" in language, sparkling and very sexy. "Point[s] of view," which are so often defensively or aggressively delivered are here (in bed, in dream) "caressingly and jokingly" part of a give-and-take, a back-and-forth. The hiccup carries a lovely and savorable oddness. The two voices expect to "sigh between joking and caressing," (a hint of sadness? a sign of satisfaction and pleasure?). Sighing has been part of love poetry since forever. But Guest does not edit out the hiccup, this verbal anomaly, absurdity, this parody of human speech, this comic involuntary repetitive interrupter of (dream) conversations. "You remember" and "they," and "perhaps a lapse," along with the past tense subtly weave in the love poems necessary undertow of tristesse. Indeed, many of these poems are love poems (especially in part III), full of absence, remembered intimacy, and an apparitional beloved. There are also many poignant admissions of loneliness: "In the loneliest hours to share a flamboyance, / an attraction to distance and disappearance," "Cannot dream except in twos or be alone, is hollowed out."
Page 20, to my mind the pièce de resistance of the collection:
Skin of the lost paper
Knuckle smooth (touched the writing).
This describes, in a very sensual and metaphysical way, what it feels like to be in contact with the muse, to write poetry. One is visited by (or becomes?) a creature that gives off light perpendicularly from the shoulders (or suffers lights to be attached perpendicularly to the shoulders?). Since a shoulder is curved; these lights must give off a dazzling arc. To touch the wrist is a gesture of unbearable intimacy; it is to feel the living pulse, for one thing, and there the skin is very tender and translucent. It is startling and touching to find one of Guests rare "Is " in this particular poem. "Orb" is a freighted and beautiful word (Miltonic, Blakean) which conveys the sometime awe and majesty, roundness and cosmic largeness of the human eye? the muses eye? (the visionary eye that both gives off light and takes in light). The "writing lamp" also lights and is lit, and is both metaphorical and touchingly homely and literal. There is everywhere here a melding of the eternal and the moment, the light and the body. This is a moment of danger, of a painful "blade" in the shoulder, and the painful withdrawal of that blade. This event is so much and yet can just blow away like dust, leaving both nothing and a potent sense of nothingness. ("Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.")
An ineffable thing took form, became "that writ" and then "blew away," (turned ineffable again?), but with an afterimage of sorts. What does it mean to have body, finger, wrist, shoulder, eye, paper utterly transformed and then forsaken? After the word "writing" appears three times, there is that bluntly cut off word and line: that writ -- that written thing, a poem, a story? So powerfully monosyllabic and yet so briefly present in the poem: "that writ / blew away." "Writ" has sacred and legal connotations; it sounds archaic, from those ages when written things had a magic aura or power. "It is writ," implies that it has an incontrovertible legitimacy. Not just passing ordinary life but something memorable and remembered: "it is writ." She connotes all that, and yet can follow (simply, casually, profoundly) with "blew away flame lit with nothing and nothingness stayed." Writ or not, it is perishable.
(Does a trout, like a poem, subjected to philosophic speculation and discussion, simply swim away, saving its own alien life? I dont know what a Nietzschean thumb is, but it doesnt sound good.)
Back up to page 19. Read this book backward: come to know a poem and then check again to see what came before as stimulant, context, root system, companion. Where was she before she was here? She was thinking about (and devastatingly performing) the fortunes of the "frail sentence" in the world:
sentence moved by
lie in bricks
Is there a grammatical referent for "this" in the last line? One reason the poetry feels nonreferential is the standoffishness of demonstrative pronouns like this "this," floating around unwedded to a noun; but they could just as well be said to be promiscuous pronouns, briefly consorting with any noun in the vicinity, or with the (ambiguous) point the poem is making, or with the poem itself (à la William Shakespeare in his sonnets), even with some referent outside the poem. (Therefore more polyreferential than nonreferential Bernsteins most useful distinction). How hard it is to be told "this changes" and not know what "this" is even as it presumably is becoming something else (not this anymore, but that?) How can a reader hold on to the sense of what is being said when ordinary, usually dependable taken-for-granted words like "this" behave so evasively, begging the question of their own meaning and function, clamoring for attention? (See Guests poem "Outside of This, That Is" for a real pronominal and prepositional work-out). There is such risk in allowing words like "this" so much lee-way. Most readers dont expect it or like it; they have to get on with other things; and yet how much might "this" reveal to us about language, about space, about proximity and the here and now, if it were accorded at last some attention for semantic as well as grammatical worth?
to begin? Because there are two periods in the poem, and the poem seems
to be about "the sentence," one might examine the workings of
the words preceding the periods to see how they behave as sentences about
sentences. Each of the two "sentences" is itself a frail construction
moved by some kind of seismic sway out of sentencely and sensical character
into something else. Is this a sentence? Look for a subject: "sentence."
And a predicate: "is cultivated," (such a fatally passive construction!)
Can we have any cultivating influence over our own sentences, our own
sense? Arent they made what they are by the absolutely "seismic
sway of existence" against which we try to assert the frail tools
of syntax? And also, by using the word "cultivate" which departs
from "nature," is she also implying the whole cultural artifact
that language is? that our sentences are swayed by the many ways language
is understood outside of our particular intentions about and for it? Language
owned by no one. Language as "socially constructed" -- having
a seismic, quasi-natural "sway" of its own which is non- improvisatory,
operates by means of the security of the expected. History has been an
immense, long "improvement" and development of sentence-sense,
so that our sentences can say us, be "outside us," rather than
us saying them, or directing them from within. Language (sentences) have
been practiced and cherished for so many years, how can one make a sentence
ones own? Does one want to, entirely or always? Charles Bernstein : "Sentences
that follow standard grammatical patterns allow the accumulating references
to enthrall the reader by diminishing diversions from a constructed representation.
In this way, each words references work in harmony by reinforcing a spatiotemporal
order conventionalized by the bulk of writing practice that creates the
standard." So Guest makes these frail sentences with non-standard
syntax, and risks unreadability. Strangely, they seem remarkably stout
in their insistence on taking on the whole seismic sway of existence!
(But hasnt poetry, with its line-breaks and inversions always more or
less stoutly challenged the authority and conventionality and linearity
of the sentence?)
Is there a poem on Guests desk of which this is a remnant or fragment, or afterimage? Could "this changes" be paraphrased or fattened up to read "My thinking and feeling about this sentence business changes; dont take this as my last word?" Wouldnt it be a good idea to end all utterances with the phrase "this changes"? Or even to live with constant cognizance of the fact that "this (this that is before us here and now) changes." And then the word "change" appears so frequently in Guests work, amounting almost to a theme. "Am I to understand change, whether remarkable or hidden?" she plaintively asks in the very first poem of her very first book, published in 1960, almost like an announcement of an agenda.
When one writes so much about certain poems, it feels like unconscionable slighting not to discuss the rest, which are equally rich and troublesome. But I will close by briefly mentioning the pumpkin and the Dolphin (leaving the palm trees and Adorno for another essay). Page 45:
. pumpkin glazed in the sun
the farmstead to make way
The pumpkin must be kin to Williams red wheelbarrow "glazed with rain water," similarly smooth and shiny, similarly plucked from the farmstead to take its rightful place in art, similarly dear, homely and vivid, ready to have its delicate, "faun-like portrait" made by Barbara Guest. Placed next to this "pumpkin glazed in the sun," the phrase "no alphabet, no grief" reads as suggestively as the wheel barrows "So much depends upon." Does it say that the pumpkin owns neither alphabet nor grief, both being human possessions? And does Guest find the pumpkin particularly "sweet" because it is happily excused from languages nets, prisons, qualifications, and failures and from knowledge of its own or other pumpkins or the suns or summers or the farmers certain death? Does she, like Whitman, admiring the animals, envy the pumpkin its placidity and self-containment, its ability to evince plainly, its eschewing of respectability and industriousness? Does the phrase say that the pumpkin, who has no language therefore will feel no grief, or that the pumpkin having no grief, therefore has no need of language? Does it imply that human beings, creatures of grief and the alphabet, have been given the alphabet in recompense for their sorrow at bereavement and mortality, in order to create as they witness pervasive and irremediable decreation? And does Guest imply that as a "woman made out of words," (to paraphrase Stevens) much sanity and perspective depends upon the pumpkin repetitively living out its wordless days, forming and unforming, noticed or not?
The Dolphin shimmeringly appears and disappears throughout the last section of the book. I suspect that the Dolphin has been imagined by Guest as her readers incentive and recompense, for glossing, for attending, for immersion, for risking getting lost in her vast and complex experimental sea. "GLOSS GLOSS // point to the Mix, and // there! it slides into view / the Dolphin, // before the moment oversteps, / into / the hum pour his ivory." That prize Dolphin does "slide into view" (if only for a moment) from his rich and alien world: and he is excitement, meaning, intimacy, and connection (readerly rewards for hazarding this writerly ocean), all sleek and wet and new. The book ends with a question, further evidence that this is a poem intending to entangle and engage a reader in questions about itself and about the nature of poetry, about how language works or doesnt work, about dolphins and pumpkins and prepositions. "The Dolphin God does he swim on the page?" This is a poem that begs an assurance, a response, a joking and caressing point of view, a sigh of pleasure or sympathetic distress, a conversation with a reader who writes.
BIO: Sara Lundquist is an associate professor of English at the University of Toledo, in Ohio, where she teaches modern and contemporary poetry. She has published on Barbara Guest, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and William Carlos Williams. She is currently writing a book on Guest.