Tuesday, August 05, 2003


There is a poem in Barbara Guest's slender new book Miniatures and Other Poems — at 45 pages, it's almost more of a chapbook in spite of the perfect binding — that, if it isn't her finest poem ever (a distinct possibility), at least for me illuminates her writing as nothing heretofore has done. "Pathos" shines.


Like much of Guest's poetry, "Pathos" both does & does not "tell a story." It begins with a distinct narrative image, that of an ice skater:


Arms flutter close to the body, skating on pure ice, harmonious

composition, —


Quickly enough, the skater is gendered — "Lithe her romp!" — as the central action of the early narrative occurs: "She is falling!" But from this moment forward, the poem moves outward, both in terms of imagery & action — but in terms of idea & theme as well. The skater's precarious process around the rink is equated with word & alphabet, one's way in the world altogether:


Something she must know about hazard, what spills out —


disturbance, — pathos.


Equilibrium never fixed —


That last line is the closest approximation I've ever seen to Guest's own writing process. She is very careful as to when & how the poem might share any sort of pause or rest, the inherent balance enabling all tumbling thoughts finally to complete themselves, and she doles such moments out very sparingly. Reading her work, as here, is perpetually a process of trying to get one's bearings.


Guest is certainly not the first poet to utilize the reader's sense of balance to good effect — Charles Olson & Larry Eigner both come immediately to mind. Yet both of these men offer far more opportunities in the midst of their texts for the reader literally to orient themselves than does Guest. In "Pathos," these moments occur early, as part of the set up of the piece, not as any offering — even temporarily — of closure. 


Indeed, this is why, I think, Guest often combines punctuation here, the comma with the dash, where any style guide would tell the normative writer that only the latter is needed. Guest wants the reader to feel both pulls away from the word.


Guest continues this process, as close as she may ever get to manifesto or exegesis in her poetry directly, in "Blurred Edge," the second long poem in this otherwise short book, even as she declares


    no exegesis

no barnyard door.


"Blurred Edge," with its unstated thesis that in an interactive world there can be no hard demarcations, would be interesting to read alongside Nick Piombino's The Boundary of Blur. In it, Guest counters — I don't want to say "balances" — the lurching gyroscope of "Pathos," and forces me to confront her equation of imbalance with an emotion, literally (but not at all in the commonplace sense of the term) pathetic.

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