Sara Lundquist'Hers and Mine / Hers and Mine':
H.D. and Barbara Guest

by Sara Lundquist



Idiosyncrasies set out on the terraces–hers and mine. A need to escape so we breathed separately, the air spun into a pact, as wistfully the figures disappeared into–Geneva–as the chairs reassembled themselves, hers and mine.

–Guest, from Biography


Of many colors       porcelain

with faerie glove

you betray            (biography).

–Guest, from Rocks on a Platter

Barbara Guest doesn’t want to be called a postmodernist. She thinks of contemporary poets instead as an extending into the latter half of the twentieth century many of the experiments of international modernism. In an 1992 interview she claimed, with some asperity: "Poets are taking the modern tradition further. I don’t like that term ‘postmodern.’ I think it’s a cheap idea. There’s no such thing as postmodernism; you’re either modern or you’re not. ‘Postmodern’! that sounds like some sort of advertising cliché" (Hillringhouse interview 26). Guest’s work conveys a "sense of Modernism," as Robert Kaufman has phrased it: "not as style or canonized authority but as continued experiment, as critical-exploratory approach to the given (12). She herself recently confirmed her sense of the ongoingness of modernism, musing that although in the beginning she experienced a certain "difficulty entering modernity," she "also had, instinctively, a need to do this...[it was] where I wished to be. From there I reached out on my own and came to my own conclusions, which changed drastically from year to year, and I find that this is exactly what the poem does itself. It goes from place to place trying to find an identity. It goes anywhere it wants to go" (Remarks 124). To Guest, modernism still offers a rich and active range of options to the contemporary poem in search of identity. "I grew up in the febrility of modernism," she said in an interview. "I love constructivism and cubism, all those isms...the white on white painting and the emptiness of a canvas. The ideas of space in modernism" (qtd in Rabinowitz 3). One might add imagism and surrealism to these, and also as Anna Rabinowitz does, "abstract expressionism and minimalism" (3).

Also, Guest’s engagement with the individual artists who made modernism is stunningly deep, wide, various and personal. So many artists in an array of media enter her work as live allusive presences, as stylistic and thematic resources, as "others" to whom her imagination strongly responds: from Schoenberg (she is avid for what she calls his "stringency") to Stein, from Strindberg to Picasso and Dora Maar, and including Matisse (loving his deep understanding of the color black), and Miró (with grateful recognition of his wartime celebration of a "poetess" figure). Her poetry is in dialogue with Kandinsky, Joyce, Stevens, Hans Arp, Pierre Reverdy, Theodor Adorno. Brenda Hillman notes how gleefully in "Handbook of Surfing" Guest teases Pound and Eliot, and pays "genuine homage to Stein’s poker-faced playfulness" (208). She mourned the death of her friend Robert Motherwell, partly for his loss to modernism. "He was the holdout for modernism in painting," she claimed. "He really explained it, loved it, and was its knight"(Hillringhouse interview 26).

Perhaps, however, with no modern artist did Guest so entangle her mind and heart, her imagination, her consciousness, her waking working hours and her dream time, than with the modernist poet H. D. In 1984, after five years of travel and research, Guest published her biography of the poet, becoming (somewhat to her surprise) one of the initiators of a spectacular re-investigation and reclamation of H.D.’s life and work. She worked, she wrote afterward "during the antediluvian stage of H.D. scholarship;" she was the very first to delve into the Beinecke archive of letters, which were "before my time, unheard from, unseen, slumbering unread," and then "given into my sole safekeeping" ("Intimacy" 60). She didn’t particularly want to produce, she wrote in her initial proposal to the publisher, a formal or particularly scholarly biography: "I am a poet and a novelist and I can write only from such a vantage and perspective. I'd want to evoke an atmosphere; I do want to bring this life into focus; I do want to hint, to disturb, to caution, to define. I wish to create a portrait of this distinguished, albeit difficult women, in the draperies of her era" (Guest papers). Since that time, as we know, there has been a veritable explosion of critical scholarship, written from an entire spectrum of theoretical perspectives, most of them bolstered by feminist theory, on this woman who was Ezra Pound’s paradigmatic imagiste, Sigmund Freud’s analysand, the woman who translated or transposed or "refabricated" (in the case of the Sapphic fragments) much ancient Greek poetry, who wrote experimental prose fiction, essays, and memoirs which have been described as "vibrant cultural readings of her various selves interwoven with her times" (Friedman, DuPlessis xi), who wrote poetic chronicles of the violence and waste of two world wars, who labored to restore to classical western mythology its lost matriarchal substance.

I’d like to ask some simple questions related to the fact that the woman writing the biography of a poet is a poet herself, especially since musings about the relationship between "bio"–the life, and "graphy"–the writing, appear motif-like everywhere in Guest’s own body of poetry. Since these are questions of intimacy and influence, they don’t stay simple very long; they grow enormous and begin to seem questions central to so many areas of critical and theoretical investigation: the question of female "anxiety of influence," the links and breaks between modern and contemporary poetry, the interaction of biographer and subject, the extent and the character of H.D.’s poetic legacy, and, my particular area of interest: a viable and detailed description of Guest’s achievement in poetry. Did Guest, by writing her life, gain H.D. as a poetic "foremother"? What did Guest steal or borrow from H.D. stylistically and thematically? What were their vital connections and similarities, their vital divergences and distinctions? Did Guest like H.D.? Did she admire her work; did she want her influence, did she find a way to render it usable, to engage H.D. in a dialogue or a dispute? Did she take heart from her example, her struggles and triumphs? Did H.D. help her to know herself as a "woman poet" as well as a New York poet, identified with that otherwise all male group of innovators including John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler?

Pertinent to this matter are three central documents, besides the biography itself, which is titled Herself Defined: the Poet H.D. and Her World. One is a chapbook poem in nine sections, Biography, published in 1980, four years before the book, therefore written during the period when Guest was deeply immersed in her research and writing (sunk in it, imprisoned by it, harried and oppressed, and "hag-ridden" by it, her letters sometimes complain). The others are prose essays, written after the publication of Herself Defined: "The Intimacy of Biography" in 1984, and "H.D. and the Conflict of Imagism" in 1996. The first of these essays reflects very candidly on the experience of positing oneself as a biographer. Guest describes her recurrent reluctance to mythologize her subject, to make of her a feminist hero, and her constant recognition, at once reassuring and dismaying, that H.D., like all of us, was "not exactly a goddess, or even always a heroine, but...a human being who was rooted also deeply in what is known as ‘the little life,’ that of clothes, money, meals, family, love affairs" ("Intimacy" 59). (One is reminded of Virginia Woolf’s defense of the "little" lives of feminine domestic artistry).

Guest remembers a feeling of the presence at her back in those days, of women readers and writers hungry for foremothers of stature, as this series of edgy questions makes clear: Is the task of the biographer "to be the selector of elements significant and fabulous upon which ancestor-worship is based[?]...Is the biographer one who leads these people to the sacred shrine? Does the biography provide a role-model for aspiring modern women who believe that a dead but immortal author holds the key to the mystery of life, and is this biographer expected to allow them a closer view of the sources of creativity?...was I expected to lead the the pantheon?" Guest herself partly wants these things–"I desired, I say this now somewhat sadly," she writes, "everything," the "flames of the sources of creativity," and the "pattern and texture of lives simply as lives" ("Intimacy" 59). But she seems throughout more in search, not of an "ancestress to worship," but for the humble and therefore inimitable spectacle of a real, recoverable, historical woman true to her desk, adamant about her working hours, determined to produce, with sweat and determination, her own poetry.

Whenever Guest speaks or writes about H.D., she is usually very circumspect, purposely inarticulate about how or even if the form and content of her work owes H.D. a poetic debt. (This is in sharp contrast to very detailed and appreciative statements made about H.D. by Guest’s contemporaries, Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan). When asked about a possible debt, she has several times instead confessed her sense of H.D.’s stylistic inimitability, a critical assessment which is at once a generous tribute to H.D.’s achievement and (I suspect) an elegantly phrased skepticism about its immediate or ultimate effect on her own verse. In the introduction to Herself Defined, she writes, in the very first sentence, of being "converted to Imagism," by H.D., "tempt[ed] to feeble, complimentary imitations," at which "I was never successful. No one ever has been" (ix).

In an 1978 radio interview with Susan Howe, she said: [H.D. is] "one of the few women that one can select, that one can learn something from, although no one has really written the way she has. Too difficult to do. I remember I tried it once a long time ago and I couldn’t possibly do it. It’s so condensed and so polished and the vocabulary’s so notice her vocabulary, she keeps extremely sparse, that’s why she’s so good, and why she’s difficult to imitate. There are very few words. And...for her space is made up of a stone a flower a shell, that’s about it... a wave, maybe. " In the 1992 interview for American Poetry Review, she is more direct and very careful to distinguish H.D.’s influence on the poetry from the effect on her working procedures and on her senses of dedication and professionalism. Mark Hillringhouse asked if H.D. was a strong influence on her poetry. Guest answers: "I was immediately attracted to that poetry. But I absolutely was unable to imitate her. She is inimitable, although the form appears so simple." And asked if H.D. were not a mentor at all, she claims:

She wasn’t when I first began writing. I didn’t think of her poetry at all. But I think that working on that biography so long, I learned a lot from her, not from her poetry. I learned from her life and I learned from the people she associated with and from their work..... I learned how to work hard and how to be selfish. She was one of the most selfish people you could encounter–a poet. I learned to keep writing. It made me very strict. (Hillringhouse interview 29-30)

Again, Guest reveals her need at once to praise H.D. and to deny that she was able to access in any significant way H.D.’s particular poetic skills. And again, this reads to me something like a protective closing of her own work to interpretation based on H.D.’s example, and a preemptive warning off of readers (like myself and Hillringhouse) who might want to make something more linguistically substantive that she would of her long involvement with the older poet. One thinks of the automatic critical pairing made of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, based partly on their close friendship, but probably also on their both being women poets, despite considerable differences in their work. Guest may, for her own reasons, have preferred not to have her influences explained primarily in terms of gender. And she may not have been quite happy or comfortable with the implied mother/daughter relational configuration, so seemingly apt given their respective birth dates (1886, 1920; Perdita Schaffner, H.D.’s actual daughter, was born in 1919, making her Guest’s almost exact contemporary, indeed Schaffner and Guest shared an apartment in New York City for a time).

She likes instead to posit herself, and even her earliest poetry bears her out in this, as a fully realized, fully adult practitioner of her craft, and as a poet in charge of her own themes and subjects. Brenda Hillman’s observation that Guest "remind[s] us in the variety of styles and patterns that, for her, modernism and postmodernism are siblings, not parent and child" (209) is pertinent here. Also, in claiming repeatedly that H.D. is inimitable, I think that she is claiming that she hasn’t imitated her, that she hasn’t needed or wanted to, that her poetic concerns were other, stranger, her own and of her own place and time. Guest wrote of James Schuyler in terms that are also self-descriptive: "It is unnecessary for him to borrow or appropriate, and he never does. He merely owns" ("Vuillard" 15). Just as Guest is not Miró’s or Balla’s or Schoenberg’s or Stein’s daughter or apprentice, she would not like to be seen, wrongly in her opinion, as H.D.’s, solely on the basis of her interest and long immersion in H.D.’s life.

To have learned to be selfish, nonetheless, no woman writer would deny is an invaluable inheritance; H.D. was for Guest an unapologetic model of a woman claiming and making for her work the time and space it required, pushing away, when it required lovers, husband, child, friends. Barbara Guest: ". . . a person quite close to H.D. told me that she was the most selfish person he had ever known. I decided to practice my own brand of selfishness....A hearty selfishness is needed to complete as much work as H.D. had undertaken....Distance can denote concentration, not necessarily always a self-centered retreat into the ephemeral" ("Intimacy" 61).

Surely Guest also, as a lifelong innovative writer, constantly reinventing her style, implacably going her own way, eluding definition and appropriation, must have taken to heart H.D.’s stern self-directed commands to write, to say things heretofore unnamed in one’s own voice, even if writing felt like reinventing the wheel, and even if it only resulted in being misunderstood and having to wait years for one’s audience. Guest wrote of H. D. that she "could never have become a member of an ‘establishment,’ literary or otherwise. And she preferred it that way. She wanted to be left alone to weave her private web" ("Intimacy 69). She might have written the same thing, I suspect, about herself.

And how could Guest not feel kinship with the woman who wrote, in "Tribute to the Angels":


I do not know what it gives,

a vibration that we cannot name

for there is no name for it;

my patron said, "name it";

I said, I can not name it,

there is no name;

he said,

"invent it." (Collected Poems 554-5)

Kathleen Fraser, in quoting this same passage from H.D. in which the difficulty of bringing into poetry something as yet as subtle and elusive as a vibration, writes of "an interior prompt of difference," "a page of departure from the known," and "the imperative to find provocative word orders, to invent a visual shape...distinguish[ed] from all the others who have spoken for it, before it" (202-3). From the "inimitable" H.D., Guest, among many other women poets of her and subsequent generations, has had, paradoxically, a model for inimitability–blessing on the exploring of their own "vibrations": elements of experience which might be lost if their names are not invented. Guest, like H.D., is given to writing poems of encouragement to her writing self, reminding, warning, commanding, and sympathizing with the difficulty necessity of the task. From Rocks on a Platter:


            "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. (37)

Guest has intently chronicled other aspects of her biographic entanglement with H.D. She wrote, for instance, that she was at times in a "state of grace," while doing biography. The work had a kind of forward propulsion of its own that was gratifying to tap into daily and which made it, in retrospect, seem "easier" than writing poetry. She experienced a feeling of greediness for "the vast mystery that was the life of H.D.," and developed a taste for detective work. She writes thankfully of having made invaluable friends on both sides of the Atlantic. She was euphoric during the first year but later exhausted and haunted: "I woke up one night and saw H.D. standing at the foot of my bed....Another night in a dream I heard Bryher say, "Beware the Jester." This, like "an obedient Freudian," Guest interpreted to mean that Bryher was warning her that she would probably not find or portray any objective, "real" H.D., but only manage to "Guest-her" a liability of the biographer’s art that Guest took humorously and seriously to heart ("Intimacy" 62).

She also spoke and wrote about the energy and time the biography required and indicated that with immersion in H.D.’s "mental weather" and wildly fluctuating "private barometer" she risked drowning her sense of self, her private aesthetic, perhaps even her mental equilibrium and sense of humor. "I have to write some of my own poetry," she confessed to a sympathetic Susan Howe, "in order to keep my head up above the water." In "Shifting Persona" Guest wrote knowingly and sympathetically about Picasso’s relationship to his predecessor, how it became more personal and psychological than artistic: "Picasso went into the Velàsquez painting very far. Yet his enormous struggle, which involved his wife and friends, took place far less within the realm of Art than in the psychological struggle of an artist to survive the atmosphere of an originating persona. We are also aware of Picasso's need to endow Velàsquez with the Picasso persona" (86).

In poetry Guest could always entertain her modernist colleagues on her own terms under her own powerful and capacious aesthetic umbrella; she could engage them deeply and irreverently in dialogues in which she is clearly a conversational equal. So many of her poems are examples of this wonderful hospitality: Miró in "The Poetess," the futurist Giacomo Balla in "The Farewell Stairway," Gertrude Stein and Juan Gris in "Roses," the sculptor Tony Smith in "Egypt" and in The Countess from Minneapolis, Picasso in "Dora Maar," Schoenberg who is the hovering dissonant inspiration of much of Defensive Rapture, Robert Motherwell in "All Elegies are Black and White.") But the biography was fundamentally different, somehow overwhelming her loner’s instinct and preference for engaging others on and about artistic terms, with the very different exigencies of a huge, detailed, bygone, messy life which was, in any case, ultimately irrecoverable in a satisfying way: "I have learned," she wrote, "through a process of grievous enterprise that although the biography is published, the poet’s private chamber remains securely fastened" ("Intimacy" 70). Indeed, the poet Marjorie Welish described Guest’s prolonged extra-poetry task as her "long and arduous bout with biography," (215) as if biography were a lingering disease or a wrestling match. So she poured her exhilaration and her despair, her admiration and her loathing, her uncertainties and her occasional bursts of triumph into the self-saving poem Biography, which was saving to no small degree because it was poetry.

Biography is a very complex poem, an astute, if elusive, poetic rendering of the mental, emotional, psychological, even moral and aesthetic state of the poet who finds herself treading the "dubious route" of biography, caught in the dilemma of living someone else’s life while living her own. It reflects on the meaning and the dangers, attractions, and sheer weirdness of otherness, of giving one’s life and consciousness over to a dead woman. In the prose poetry quotation at the head of this essay, from section four, the repeated phrase "hers and mine," is crucial in its plastic and telling ambiguity. Indeed the whole quotation, the whole of section four, the whole poem could be discussed as expansions on the immensely fraught meaning of the word "and" as it sits between "hers" and "mine." "Idiosyncrasies" and "chairs,"–these things, which can stand, synecdochically for all things, solid physical object, and traits of personality and behavior (concrete and abstract nouns), are "hers and mine" (my emphasis). They are things the two of them hold in common, things they own mutually, equally. On the other hand, the phrase allows an alternate reading: these idiosyncrasies are mine and those are hers; these chairs are mine and those are hers, divided as clearly as in a divorce settlement.

What kind of couple are we? the poet seems to ask over and over. How can I find you? How can I escape you? How can I avoid being wrong about you? What is yours and what is mine? How can I assert about you what I intuitively understand but cannot footnote? How can I reassemble a whole vanished world? How did I, who so love suggestion and metaphor get stuck in the stodgy literalness of this? Why should I trade my vital, warm-blooded existence for your insubstantial and shadowy world? How strange you are and alien; how intimate and familiar. How do I, so resolutely reticent about my own life, justify and satisfy this "itch," this "urge / really to ‘know’" about the smallest details of yours? How can I assert my original self in this pervasive "atmosphere of an originating persona"?

This is a crude paraphrase, much removed from Guest’s distinctive flavor and disjunctive style, of the suggestive imagism of Biography, which is so deft and rich in its use of objects, weather, atmospheres, intricate and endless verbal nuance and implication, always such a feast for explication, always enticing the reader into her idiosyncratic vision. Here is the rest of part 4, the beginning:


The reason for caterwauling

on the stair was simple

it went up and I went on

of course the chamber was empty.

But the view

made up for the journeying

although I don’t enjoy real lakes,

There’s something there on the bottom

like Galuppi with his music

a kind of dead stick,

it frightens me

here on the fringe

just beginning to discover the swans. (n.p.)

The passage opens itself somewhat to a reader’s assumption that it is about (in the peculiar way Guest’s poems are "about" anything) the experience of writing a biography about H.D. Here is a tentative explication: the biographer–the "I" of the poem, has been searching for a reason or explanation for an emotional scene of some sort in the life of H.D.–"caterwauling / on the stair" -- now lost to time, but perhaps partially alluded to in one of her research sources. She has found the reason and yet not found it useful or complicated enough: the "stair" led to a "chamber [that] was empty." Was the reason too "simple" for biographical interest, a scholarly cul-de-sac? Was it too intangible, made up of too-many-parts intuition and too-few-parts documentable proof? And yet, the biographer’s route is laid out, inexorably: "it went up, and I went on," a "view" became visible, which "made up for the [difficult, uncertain] journeying" to attain it.

However, she retains a certain poet’s grumpiness concerning the stubborn "reality" of the biographer’s materials: "I don’t enjoy real lakes"–perhaps, to paraphrase Marianne Moore, she would prefer lakes of her own imagination with real fish in them to the various European lakes that H.D. knew, and resided near, and that now Guest must acquaint herself with in all their undeniable geographical and physical reality.1 Also there’s always something lurking in the depths, something always only partly describable, something creepy or frightening at the corner of the consciousness, just as one is beginning to investigate some beautiful graceful creature gliding above the surface–"the swans." And then, is it incumbent on the scrupulous biographer, having come across a reference to Galuppi (1706 - 1784, the Italian composer whose comic operas won him the title "father of the opera buffa") to investigate, to listen, to learn? How might Galuppi turn out to have resonance in the life of H.D.? The name vibrates comically and absurdly in the poem, as it might at the back of a harried biographer’s mind. "All those real people!" Guest exclaimed, chagrined and amused at her own chagrin. "Life. Not made-up invented life. Real life" ("Intimacy" 64).

It is typical of Guest to use journey metaphors to describe experience, and she invents some of her oddest, most opaque and dream-like to render the mysterious strangeness of her years of fellow-travelling with H.D. Herself Defined added much at the time it was written to the then burgeoning knowledge base of information about H.D, and is therefore an important and useful book. It assumes the historian’s mantle of authority: "finally, after several years," Guest writes, "I permitted myself to acknowledge that I had become a biographer. I knew too many secrets of the court not to be given that title" ("Intimacy" 59). But Biography stimulates differently and endlessly, avowing its own bewitching awkwardness, doubt, and vulnerability, and yet resplendently asserting its author’s right to her poetic, rather than historic, knowledge and vision. It preserves, in shimmeringly condensed language, vast auras of elusive truth, extraneous to the biography-proper, which might otherwise have evaporated. In a phrase that could admirably describe so many of Guest’s poetic investigations into literature, aesthetic theory, and the work of individual artists, Kaufman writes that Part III of Rocks on a Platter (1999) makes "braided suggestions of an irreducible mixture between lived and literary history" (16). Biography attests to the high cost of that "braided" irreducibility as it was achieved in this particular mixture of life and literary history, this poet’s bout with the past and with the "other."

Rocks on a Platter (a goldmine of Guestian self-reference) contains an airy page in which the word "biography" appears in parentheses:


Of many colors       porcelain

with faerie glove

you betray            (biography).

In all the ways parentheses are meaningful in general, they are meaningful in surrounding the word biography here. That biography is endemic and crucial to all art is both a digression from the main point about that art, and a qualification and an amplification of the main point about that art. This amounts in fact to a performance of one of Guest’s central paradoxes: that she could insist that "all poetry is confessional," and yet be resolutely evasive about her own life. No matter how intricately wrought, no matter how delicate or colorful, even if touched as lightly as with a "faerie glove," a poem will betray its writer’s biography. Does writing explicit biography further "betray" the art devised to conceal or minimize it? The parentheses placed around "biography," shows both Guest’s own desire for secrecy, and her awareness that it is futile. (Things in parentheses pretend to be digressive or beside the point; often they seem instead framed and highlighted). The fact that biography in Guest’s work operates always under this kind of erasure and/or emphasis adds curious dimension to her decision to write another poet’s biography.

But to return to the question of poetic, as opposed to biographic entanglement, it is true that their divergences (stylistically, tonally, even thematically) are quite considerable. Guest wants a wider vocabulary than H.D.’s though she marveled at what H.D. achieved within that self-imposed restriction; she is more than content with verbal irony where H.D. reaches for social and cosmic irony; she can be blithe or elliptical or comical where H.D. is solemn, strident, fervent; H.D.’s poem will have identifiable subjects or themes, while Guest plays toward her subject and is more likely to trust aleatoric twists and discoveries. Yet, I do think more can be made of coincidences between the poetic modes and strategies of the two women than Guest has wanted to make herself. I would like to call these "coincidences" rather than matters of influence, as it is very hard to disentangle what has been learned, from what is innately held in common, temperamentally and aesthetically. Three areas of convergence readily suggest themselves: imagism, belief in beauty and mystery, and an interest in things Greek. Guest’s work, as Welish points out, "exemplifies the poetic adage that beauty is difficult. Here it is painstaking" (215). Barbara Einzig’s description of Guest’s ways with Greek art and culture show her affinity for their fragmentation, as opposed to H.D.’s reclamation and restoration: "Charon, Hecate, Jove, Odysseus, Cyclops, Leander cross over into the text, but they usually swim back, shy of a classical story, spearing instead as shards of their original narratives, clues, fragments of the mythologies of another time" (7). I will conclude this paper by discussing how imagism connects these two poets’ sometimes widely different aesthetics.

Guest, like almost every poet of the twentieth century, has deep roots in imagism; it is a legacy and an allegiance she has never thought to deny. When she declared to Charles Bernstein that she was not a pragmatist, he replied that he wouldn’t ask her what she was, since she didn’t "have to be anything," granting her an artist’s dearly-held right not to declare a label or affiliation. Yet, her immediate rejoinder was: "No, I’m an old-fashioned, I guess you could say an imagist, how’s that?" and went on to define imagism thus: "It used to mean using an image to replace the idea. But I think now, I would like a few ideas to enter in also, sideways, next to the imagination." To add conditions to the "few don’t’s" of imagism has been, of course, the prerogative of the truest Imagists beginning with Pound himself.

Assisting H.D. to break out of the imprisoning role, as it came to seem to her, of reigning and then forgotten imagiste par excellence, has been the necessary agenda of H.D. readers and critics for twenty-five years. But for Barbara Guest, it is exactly the perfected and fearless wielding of imagism’s ultra-condensed sensory vividness that intermittently shines out as a characteristic of her own unique brand of experimental poetry. "Guest went unerringly to the one quality in H.D. which set her apart, the quality of the surface," writes Dale Going. "For most poets, the work of H.D. has spelled exclusivity, the influence has been toward what should not happen; for Guest, it pointed the way to a new richness: it had not to do with specific form, but with conviction finally stripped of restraint"(13).

Rarely has a writer trusted so recklessly in the communicative power of things seen; she manages to outdo H.D. at imagistic presence void of stated rhetorical "meaning." Indeed, she can be so stringent in her imagist’s refusal to explain or provide connectives that her poetry can appear at first glance incomprehensible, willful, solipsistic perhaps in its writerly refusals. "The "foreignness of the image...exerts a fascination to which the poem is willing to submit," she writes," "but not always the reader. The reader is apt to say, ‘oh, another image,’ or ‘oh another picture’" ("Conflict" 17)

To say that ideas enter her poems "sideways, next to the imagination," describes rather accurately their disorienting, ravishing, ambiguous presence there, sorting strangely and on equal terms with images, never superceding them. Along with surrealism and linguistic fragmentation, imagism is one of the deep wells of modernist experimentation that Guest finds far from exhausted, and which she herself renews constantly in surprising ways. Rarely does she write an entirely imagist poem or limit herself to its strictures, but imagism, with its reliance on the thing intensely seen, is an irreducible element of all her poetry. Here is an example from "Nebraska" (1973), of how imagism, in one of its late twentieth century permutations, lends itself to the humming, multifaceted texture of a Guest poem:

And the swift nodding becomes delicate

smoke is also a flow the pastoral calm where

each leaf has a shadow fortuitous as word

with its pine and cone its seedling a curl

like smoke when the ashy retrograding slopes

at the station up or down and musically

a notation as when smoke enters sky

The swift nodding becomes delicate

'lifelike' is pastoral an ambrosia where calm

produces a leaf with a shadow fortuitous as word

with its pine and cone its seedling we saw

yesterday with the natural flow in our hand

thought of as sunlight and wisely found rocks

sand that were orisons there a city in

our minds we called silence and bird droppings

where the staircase ended that was only roof

(Selected Poems 58)

Here, in her characteristic disjunctive poetics with its surrealist influences, its tonal variety, its lively and playful surfaces, bright and sumptuous images, nouns, natural creatures and objects, Guest packs her four dense stanzas to their very edges, without a trace of ordering punctuation, as if Nebraska offered to the eye a seamless array of things and happenings to be seen, a view constantly changing, growing: "a leaf arches through its yellow / syllable, "delicate / smoke"; "each leaf has a shadow.../ with its pine and cone its seedling," "the ashy retrograding slopes," "the swift nodding," "sunlight and wisely found rocks," "bird droppings / where the staircase ended that was only roof. " This mysterious landscape that others have found plain or empty or monotonous is portrayed instead as anything but empty. The space the poem creates in admiration of Nebraska’s space is richly dense, yet open, resonant, sonorous, brimful, and charged. In H.D.’s handsel modernist work, Sea Garden, published 57 years earlier, Guest had access to a commanding and impressive use of this skill in imparting almost hallucinatory vividness by way of language to landscape. She must have recognized a sister virtuoso; one whose excitement at the meaningfulness of the natural world provoked a similar linguistic agitation and discipline, a similar inventiveness in imagism, a similar expansion of imagism and out of it. "For her kind," wrote Robert Duncan, "H.D.’s tone presented a key in which to live." For all her protective resistance to H.D.’s outsized biographical presence in her life, Guest’s work attests to the fact that she was "her kind," and that she has written, often and splendidly in H.D.’s stimulating emotional and poetic "key."


1 It should be noted that Guest is a great lacustrine poet: the first poem of her first collection, both titled "The Location of Things," contains a surreal "theatrical lake;" she appeals in her much-anthologized "Sante Fe Trail" to the goddess-like "mother of lakes and glaciers," one of the protagonists of "Twilight Polka Dots" is itself a murmurous lake with its own agenda: "the lake dwelt on boning and deboning, / skin and sharpened eyes, a ritual search through / dependable deposits for slimier luxuries. The surface / presented an appeal to meditation and surcease." The long poem, "Knight of the Swan," is lake-strewn, in The Countess from Minneapolis, Lake Superior is a vividly imagined presence.


Works Cited

H. D. Collected Poems: 1912-1944. Ed. Louis L. Martz. New York: New Directions, 1983.

Einzig, Barbara. "The Surface as Object: Barbara Guest's Selected Poems." American Poetry Review 25 (January/February 1996): 7-10.

Fraser, Kathleen. In Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2000.

Friedman, Susan Stanford and Rachel Blau Duplessis. Introduction to Signets: Reading H.D. Ed. Susan Stanford Friedman and Rachel Blau Duplessis. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1990.

Going, Dale. "A Palimpsest for Barbara Guest." HOW(ever). Summer 1991, p. 13-14.

Guest, Barbara. Biography. Providence: Burning Deck, 1980.

-----. "H.D. and the Conflict of Imagism." Sagetrieb 15 (1-2) Spring-Fall, 1996, p. 13-16.

-----. Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World. New York: Doubleday, 1984.

-----. Interview. With Mark Hillringhouse. American Poetry Review July/August 1992: 23-30.

-----. Interview. With Susan Howe. WBAI Radio, New York City, April 13, 1978.

-----. "The Intimacy of Biography." The Iowa Review 16(3) Fall 1986. p. 58-71.

-----. Papers. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

-----. "Remarks" at the Barnard College Conference: "Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry By Women." Fence 3 (Spring/Summer 2000): 122-4.

-----. Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1999.

-----. Selected Poems. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995.

-----. "Shifting Persona." Poetics Journal 9 (June 1991): 85-8.

-----. "The Vuillard of Us." The Denver Quarterly. #24, Spring 1990, p. 13-16.

Hillman, Brenda. "The Artful Dare: Barbara Guest’s Selected Poems." Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics 16 (Fall 1996): 207-220.

Kaufman, Robert. "The Future of Modernism: Barbara Guest’s Recent Poetry." American Poetry Review. 29 (July/August 2000): 11-16.

Rabinowitz, Anna. "Barbara Guest: Notes Toward Painterly Osmosis." Paper delivered at Barnard College Conference: "Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry," April 1999. Typescript.

Welish, Marjorie. Review of Fair Realism. Sulfur 26 (Spring 1990): 213-215.

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.

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