Sunday, November 03, 2002

There may be antecedents to the abstract lyric in English before Barbara Guest – I would point to Gertrude Stein, to David Schubert, Edwin Denby or F. T. Prince & of course to the John Ashbery of Tennis Court Oath – but it is in the poetry of Barbara Guest that the form really comes into focus.


By abstract lyric I mean a poem that functions as a lyric, bounded by modest scale and focused on the elements within. Not all short poems are lyrics – the intense social satires & commentaries of Rae Armantrout, for example, are only incidentally lyrical, if that. Lyric in her case is a feint or strategy, but is very seldom what is actually going on within the poem.


Guest’s poems by comparison are as closed as sonnets or as the sequences of short pieces, say, of Clark Coolidge. But where Coolidge’s works revel in the sometimes raucous prosody of his intensely inventive ear, Guest’s return the reader again & again to the word and its integration into a phrase, to a phrase and its integration into a line, to a line and its integration into a stanza or strophe.


At her best, as in the poem “Defensive Rapture,” Guests paints a tonal language that tends toward aural pastels, constructed around points of contrast. Each stanza is exactly one sentence, in that it is bounded by a terminal period. Consider:


stilled grain of equinox
turbulence the domicile
host robed arm white
crackled motives.


What organizes this quatrain is how that third line deploys only one-syllable words, three of which end with a consonant of closure. It is precisely the prosodic complexity of the multi-syllabic terms elsewhere that generates the stanza’s “turbulence,” felt precisely because of their contrast with this penultimate line. Guest accentuates the difference with the marvelous crackled, which does in fact characterize exactly this strophe’s “motives.”


“Defensive Rapture” consists of 12 such quatrains, each with its own internal demands and resolution. A lot of where Guest is heading and focuses can be analyzed by counting syllables. Thus


commends internal habitude
bush the roof
day stare gliding
double measures.


could be schematized as




The busy-ness of that first line, accentuated visually by its length, is offset by the stillness of the second – not one single-syllable word in the stanza ends on a hard consonant* – which expands in the third line with its two alternate “a” sounds in the first two words, aurally “gliding” into that last term, which returns us to two-syllable words, the last line almost physically demonstrating how strong Guest’s instinct for balance & closure are.


When one looks at the women writers who are just one age cohort younger than those collected by Mary Margaret Sloan in Moving Borders (Talisman House, 998), one sees quickly that Barbara Guest has become the single most powerful influence on new writing by women in the U.S. My own instincts in poetry carry me away from, rather than toward, stillness and I’m often wary of writing that strikes me as so – to borrow Louis Cabri’s term from another context – asocial, but it is impossible deny to the extraordinary skill & intelligence which Guest brings to everything she writes.



* Indeed, the use of soft & complex consonant combinations – sh, th, f – carries its own elegance here, with the first and last coming at word’s end, with the middle one up front.