Varying Attitudes: Barbara Guest's The Red Gaze


The Red Gaze, Barbara Guest
[Wesleyan University Press]


A little background on Barbara Guest, before going any further. She was born in 1920 in North Carolina, grew up in Florida and California, graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, and then relocated to New York. There she became acquainted with the worlds of art and poetry and in the 1950s wrote articles on the artistic scene, particularly of the Abstract Expressionists, for Art News and then Art and America. Her first book of poetry, The Location of Things, appeared in 1960 and she came to be associated with the first generation of New York poets that included the celebrated Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and James schuyler. Though still regarded as a critical formative influence on her artistic development, Guest did not remain in New York but moved back to Berkeley where, without being similarly tied to a later grouping that emerged, came to be published by small presses that had links to the progressive and establishing Language Poetry. The current availability, in retrospect, of Guest's work could also benefit from some comment. she is one of only four women poets to feature in the groundbreaking anthology The New American Poetry (1960), but is regrettably missing from the otherwise largely definitive An Anthology of New York Poets (1970), which does include most of the anticipated usual suspects. With a few exceptions Guest's more than 20 books of poetry have been issued by small presses, the most involved of which have been Burning Deck (from 1976), somewhat later sun & Moon (from 1989), who issued her selected Poems in 1995 (in Britain from Carcanet, now out of print), whom are now though evidently no longer extant, and several collaborative artist's books from Berkeley's Kelsey street Press (from 1988). since 1999 Guest has also been published in Wesleyan Poetry's fairly innovative list. Guest is also the author of several plays which, mostly, do not appear to be circulating; of a well-received, adventurously experimental novel, seeking Air (1978, reissued 1997); and of an acclaimed biography of the noted Imagist and modernist HD, Herself Defined (1984), a significant stylistic influence.

The general impression the book gives, on first perusing, is one of a slender and rarefied intelligence. Book production and design has been carefully and tastefully handled and an accommodative page format is sufficiently wide to capture Guest's sometimes flowing lines. The cover features an artful collage by Guest herself which is replete with full colour and mineral hues, no identifiable objects, that intermixes orange, blue and tan pigments besides the anticipated red. The 30 or so poems here are usually sparely constructed and concise, making ample use of white space Š the placing of line breaks, enjambments and continuities in word flow is often fascinating. The text is in two unnamed parts, the latter about half the length of the first.

Of these two parts, the latter section proceeds with more of a sense of continuity, and can be read through some variation of a perceived narrative. The first part's 20 or so pieces are not explicitly narrated in the manner of prose and don't present either continuous or singularly filled out rather than figurative personae. Instead, pronouns are variably encountered, except, rarely, for third person, 'I', 'you' and 'we' placed in a variety of situations that are remade with each succeeding poem. subjects are in evidence, it can be said, but they are not fleshed out in the way of portraiture. Figuration, arguably abstracted out of a painterly mode, appears to be the prevailing tactic, 'Figure modified by light' as Guest says in 'Instructions'.

This rather fleeting and shifting approach to personae is evident from the beginning in the opening piece, 'Nostalgia'. Whose nostalgia? one might ask. The poem's elucidation brings in a subtle interplay of characters who are interconnected by the slightest of tenuous gestures, from 'Beneath shadow of shadows of Columbus the Navigator' to 'Recognize me, I shall be here, O Nietzsche.' Places are also evoked, though it is less than transparent from whence the exposition proceeds, though we are given that 'I have lost the doves of Milan' and 'Bulletins permit us to be freer than in Rome', presumably in Milan but certainly also elsewhere. Columbus was born in Genoa and Nietzsche visited Italy in search of treatment for ill health, verifying a loose Italian connection, though the figuration is not conceived to emphasise it, we hear of the 'doves of Milan' once and then they are gone. This is almost reluctantly a first person poem, and the confidence conceded is that 'I have lost my detachment', though the narrator is not evident until the second stanza. The poem begins

     Hands are touching.
     You began in cement in small spaces.
     You began the departure. Leaves restrain. You attempted the departure.
     A smile in sunshine, nostalgia.

We must presume that the hands touching of the opening line are those of 'you' and the 'I' that appears in the second stanza, although the subtlest effect is achieved in using sparse, figurative 'Hands' rather than 'Our hands', gaining a certain refinement in understatement. similarly, someone in line 4 smiles in nostalgia, but we are not given who, and this hardly seems needed. In the closing couplet 'A part of the tower / beckons to us', the pair retaining some union for further journeys. And there are numerous surrealistic touches, such as 'Castles perched on a cliff. / Filled with pears and magic.' Though the 'detachment' motif is reiterated, there is not an excess line or word to be found here in a piece sustained and enlightened by the lightest, most graceful and atmospheric of touches.

'Nostalgia' can be taken as not unrepresentative of the poems of the opening part of the book, and there are further references to a tower (in 'Imagined Room' and 'Loneliness'), though not necessarily to the same tower, to Rome (in 'Roman stripes' and 'Freedom'), to birds of different kinds (in 'The Brown Vest' and 'An Afternoon in Jeopardy') and to various trees and sorts of leaves (in 'A Burst of Leaves' and 'Modernism'). some further mention needs to be made however of the second part of the book, which is a little different in character. This contains the book's longest poem, 'Hans Hofmann', and reads as something of a eulogy to this Abstract Expressionist pioneer, an influential precursor of the new styles, born in Germany, a resident of Paris for 10 years who became a Us national in 1941, settling in New York, where he set up an art school, until his death in 1966. The poem evokes Hofmann in two contexts, where first he is encountered by a third person 'she' 'sitting at the end of the park bench' and both 'Talking' and 'Listening in an atmosphere of color.' At the poem's closing figuration we find 'students preparing for the class and its famous master' which meeting is countered in the next line by 'A deep red gaze through maple leaves.' The poem's concluding lines are:

     The class begins to speak of cold. The class shivers and they laugh.
     A pinch of red remains on Hofmann's palette knife.
     It reminds him of the red of maple leaves

We are thereby introduced to a painterly gaze, an aestheticised quality of colour. The poems subsequent to this then pick up on what are recurring figures, first Hofmann again and a curious white chandelier in 'Vignettes', next the chandelier and cited 'Echoes of other poems' in 'Echoes' and at the last three short, gnomic pieces on modes of  writing, which are 'Instructions' (in 6 lines, over 3 pages), 'Composition' (in 7 lines) and 'supposition' (in 5 lines) with a final one line epigraph on page 49 from Adorno. In terms of personae, there is a movement here from 'she' ('Distances linger in her hand', 'Instructions') on to 'we' (the stirring 'Our lives are composed with magic and euphony', 'Composition') and back to the 'you' of the opening poem ('To rearrange rhyme, / while you gather its energy', 'supposition') bringing to mind the presumed efforts of Hofmann's painting classes and indeed the inherent ethos he applied to composing abstract paintings, from surrealism to Abstract Expressionism.

The result then is a satisfyingly refined piece where we are met, as Guest says, with 'Writing, narrow and sparse, pungent as the lemon tree.' ('Composition') Figurative motifs keenly aware of abstract painterly analogies are evoked in a sometimes austere, minimal essentialism, with highly creative gestural evocations and collaged juxtapositions. For a clean fluent efficacy of style in aesthetic accomplishment and knowing awareness the outcome here, clearly, is astutely realised.

     © Clark Allison 2005