alerts will be an on-going section of this publication set aside for informal commentary and information on new or neglected books by relevant women poets, in brief letter, journal or notation form. We intentionally think of these comments as not complete in the scholarly sense, with the hope of removing prohibitions linked with thinking/writing critically. Your response is invited.


And there are nervous
people who cannot manufacture
enough air and must seek
for it when they don't have plants,
in pictures. There is the mysterious
traveling that one does outside
the cube and this takes place
in air.
-from "Roses"

"Roses," one of the poems in Barbara Guest's Moscow Mansions, (Viking, 1973), is an argument against Gertrude Stein's saying "painting has no air." Guest began appearing in the early '60s as a primary member of the first generation of poets who became known as the New York School and has always sought, in painting and sculpture, techniques of abstraction and methods of composition that might be applied to words and their re-invented relations inside the poem. Guest seeks to obtain multiple textures in language and uses syntax and the space of the page as a ground for re-imagining what has thus been represented to us in more traditional and recognizable modes of poetry. "Roses" plays with the meaning of air, as it is found in painting. It suggests air as: an atmosphere one has not felt before, "a unique perfume," "escape," "pleasure," "openings."

"Roses" is not simply a paraphraseable poem about air, but a set of suggestions constantly shifting, held together by tone. Its meaning keeps opening. The roses Guest elects are those of Juan Gris, the Cubist --dark roses bent into a harsh composition where they exist selflessly. Guest writes in the company of Stein, in her non-linear shifting from line to line, but she is less interested in pinning down a single situation or person. Whereas much of Stein's work is pushed forward by syntax and has a compulsive drive which gives it power and rhythm, Guest argues for a kind of poem that opens out into vistas or perceptual and lyric spaces. Gris' painting is a thing, a signpost which becomes a secret directive for Guest, both liberating and revealing her own structures of thought to herself and the reader. Throughout Moscow Mansions, the nature of visual signification is explored, on one level becoming a manual of unique modes of painterly composition. In the long poem "Knight of the Swan," lines and passages are placed and displaced, building a rich accretion of approaches to her subject, as in Cubism, where one is shown the same subject on different planes. There, she writes:

like a building surfaced in stucco,
or a white machine crossing a bridge
or air with a cloud woven into that space where
a motor threads it a short black lace thickening
the atmosphere the way a weaver does

so a chivalric mood occupied the knight

like a hand.

In Seeking Air (Black Sparrow Press, 1978), Barbara Guest's poetic novel, the air of lyric qualities, a painterly air, occurs again. Like Japanese prints, like Mary Cassat's domestic paintings, like Bonnard's interiors, Seeking Air is filled with wild fragrance and unexpected alleys; close to a Japanese diary or "pillow book" and yet much more abstract, it incorporates both intimate prose and startling lyric innovation. Her characters paint each other, they describe their perceptions of each other to each other, as if saying "look how I look at you" were the most important phrase in the world. They put themselves in a surround where even the simplest domestic detail has lyrical meaning:
You do leave behind you an extraordinary disorder. That was what I thought when I first knew you. Now I recognize your assortments. There is a lucidity in your placing of personal objects. On one table hair pins. On another the powder. Here is a half eaten pear. . . And yet there is order, clarity, lucidity. And there is a purity in your design, like a Matisse painting of "Studio." (p. 14)

Seeking Air is strung together like a series of prose poems. Each section--most are short--is a lyric unit. The writing inside the unit varies from the paragraph above, to:

Smudge pots.Aqueducts.
Deep Shadow.Ardent light.

Somewhere beneath this radiance there ran still
a turbulent current which erupted in my dreams.
Fresh landscapes would appear and on them
posed portraits of my friends, often in threaten-
ing attitudes. (p. 148)

The two main characters in Seeking Air are well developed, although along non-traditional lines. They seek both each other and the world, realizing that all is invention. The book ends with the narrator, Morgan, trying to come to grips with "Dark," a presence or principle that has dogged him. "Dark" is Illyrian dark, Shakespearian mummenschanz dark, depression, death, isolation and, at the same time, familiar, even homey.

The equation of travel with self-travel, the love of domestic interiors and the ease with which Morgan describes himself (as if he were always talking to an intimate) are all important micro-structures. Morgan says, at the beginning of the novel:
    "How often I have been enchanted with the work of a painter when it was shown at the studio, brushes in hand, the cup of cold coffee on the table and here and there evidence of a struggle in the crumpled sketchpaper or the postcard tacked on the wall or the notebook opened to the three scrawled lines, written no doubt in the morning." (p. 11)

Guest's consideration of domesticity and obliquely considered detail shows us how little about a person is unknown if one watches. To witness how one sees and how others see us can be more telling than deliberately constructing ideas--as such--into poems.

--Honor Johnson

Honor Johnson is a poet and printmaker originally from Louisiana, currently residing in California. Her most recent book of poems: Small As A Resurrection, Lost Roads, 1983.

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When someone is doing something new it is often only discernible through the initial confusion, after which we perceive that she is not doing what we automatically expect. When I first read Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's poetry, I was initially confused but excited by the novel way in which she used scientific terms and ideas, for her manner subverts the authoritarian pretensions of the language it employs. She incorporates scientific language while remaining completely free of its traditionally loaded implications--i.e., that nature is the brute observed and human consciousness is alienated.

This "oceanic feeling" has no practical value
so we set up the experiment, the current
and send the solution back onto the ocean
like worshippers
It floats for awhile with lighted candles

. . . We strain to imagine flickerings
long after the candles have extinguished
It's not oceans requiring hypotheses
The ecstasy of the conclusion sustains
the relationship

--from "The Scientific Method," Random Possession,
I. Reed Books, 1983

Here, inquiry is a relationship between what is observed and the observer, rather than an opposition, or hierarchical relation. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, among others, has suggested that "both/and" vision is a characteristic of a so-called female aesthetic. Mei-mei Berssenbrugge has the freedom such a vision would imply: she explores herself in parallel with the natural world rather than in opposition to it. She says in the poem "Pack Rat Sieve": "Her senses were shifting ridge-lines, their faces or wings / of varying saturation as this light was moved by clouds." It is usual in western culture to objectify the natural world; in contrast, she is making of herself a natural object. She subverts the subject/object dichotomy, while incorporating the scientific terms which have been used to give it authority. Her poetry functions as a sort of membrane through which experience and observation pass, and are transformed:

Walter calls it a dream screen
What appears at a certain distance on one side
evokes a reciprocal rose on your side of the screen
which is porous, allowing free flow
I am told, though like a television screen
the image seems gray dots today, flattened
against the glass, which has no depth itself
This is intimacy.
-from Random Possession, p.42

The "objective" stance of scientific language does not dominate her and thus she is free to use its descriptive power without being used by it. Indeed, the work is a precise mapping of a permeable and occasionally random consciousness. Old patterns break into new associations, and the "action" of a poem is often the shifts in her perspective.

. . . Even at twilight up there
you might see a white dog out of the corner of
your eye
trying to hide as you drive past, then see it trotting
down the road, growing smaller in your mirror
in blue air
the same color as the shadow of water dripping
from a faucet in your tub. The tub is the white dog
The shadow is a thinking line for half an inch
breaking up, like a blade of grass across a spout
at the waterhole, where all their saris are the
same color
at dusk.
--from "Ricochet Off Water," The Heat Bird,
Burning Deck, 1983

These descriptions aren't possessive; she doesn't milk the landscape for metaphors, but remains an open observer.

. . . As with
land, one gets a sense of the variations
though infinite, and learns to make references

--from Random Possessions, p.26

There is a sense of infinite variation in this work, of multiple meanings which shade into one another. There is no singular meaning at which the poem finally arrives, or which is revealed through a climax. Rather, meanings emerge in a non-linear assemblage as the flux of experience unfolds throughout the poem:
I mix outside time and passing time, across
which suspends a net of our distance, or map
in veering scale, that oils sinuous ligaments
or dissolves them into a clear liquid of disparates
that cannot be cleaned. Its water glows like wing
and remains red and flat in its pools.

--from The Heat Bird, p.61
--Megan Adams

Megan Adams is a poet living in San Francisco.

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