Robert Mueller: Barbara Guest and Jill Magi

Barbara Guest, Now Jill Magi in brevi


Robert Mueller

Shearsman Books, which seems to specialize in poets on their way, recently brought out a fine collection of poetry by Jill Magi, her second full volume, titled Torchwood. This collection is assembled uncharacteristically, even for a time when in poetry books great attention is paid to the presentation. For Magi, it started with the patchwork of historical and personal documentation of her earlier volume Threads (Futurepoem, 2007), and is extended here in a sequencing and a selection that are beautifully realized. The poet nurtures a light touch, sometimes a homey touch, and almost always the quick and sure calibration. Challenging and disciplined, her techniques because of this superb touch freely allow the open space she seeks, while the variety of styles and forms delivers panache without sacrificing the elegance of each. All in a parade of parts kept separate and distinct, bringing to mind a collage that has been somehow unglued and spread out color by color and part by part along the poet’s writing desk.

There is thus something different and immanent, yet studied and tactful, that I like in Torchwood. I cannot quite mean that it is unglued, because then it would no longer be “collage,” sensu strictu, even though it feels like it as I take it one by one through the assortment of ideas and projections. Yet it has that texture, that quietness even, as if the parts do not compete for themselves to become the whole, as if the writing were being carried out under the terms of a non-aggression pact.

Also special in Torchwood is the lyrical precision that creates this or that moment of the “collage.” One such moment, titled “Nival,” surprisingly recalls the later poetry of Barbara Guest. This poem or section features a well-tempoed series of subsections, two to a page in 11 pages, plus one extra, each realizing a shape on its half-sheet of space. That sort of measuring might be unlike Guest, but the shapes inside their boundaries do have that look. The semi-clauses and the excerpted crisp phrasings link in open punctuation and in a variation of placements able to shift to the middle and over to the right side or to add room by extra descents. Does Jill Magi with her knack for understated riddling enlist an expectant reader? Hoping for intrigue, I pounced on what I remember to be so compelling in Guest — a blend of spatiality and charge, an open principled quantum effect.

Thus with the newer poet I notice once again the lovely layouts. And once again I welcome this license, however limited to the design, and the playground fun of reading imaginatively by knocking around in the text, or by stopping, quick and square, at its very choicest points. To be sure, Magi goes no farther than to toy with open, cross-angled spacings as she tucks them into her frames. The experience is close enough, however, to navigating the pages of Guest that I wonder what to make of it. Under what scenario could this lark into adventurous spatiality that holds place while the other panels in the “collage” await their turn qualify Magi as an aficionada and champion of Barbara Guest?

I am inclined to settle the matter by thinking of “Nival” as Magi’s pattern of Guest in brevi. Her phrasings would seem to be tuned down, to be let down to a smaller and subtly impinging resonance in comparison to what in Guest’s poetry are the rapturous application of minted locutions unscrolled through page by painted page. Though Guest may entice delicacies of color, it is the delicate wash itself that Magi entertains and that Guest seems unconcerned, in certain texts from the 1990s, either to thematize or problematize.

Let me give you an instance of the pictorial Guest from her 1996 poetry book Quill Solitary Apparition (Post-Apollo Press; my reference reverses the roman and italics arrangement of the words on the title page). The passage begins on the second page of the poem “Pallor,” at the top of the page. Well-cut segments in a timbral tracing create an effect that I will illustrate by using the surveyor’s method:

Beginning with “: figure on roadside”, there is then a drop of three lines and substantially over to the right with “who fasts waiting for the brown toad”, then a little below that back half-way again toward the left margin comes “the azure delicately blotted”, after which the drop is of some six or seven lines coming upon other sorts of phrases that play out in syntactical expressions having complete thoughts in them but not realizing full periods, that is to say other shapes in open composition and stilettic order, as follows, with “where the planter drops a knife” and then “he excises” and then “the blocked harbor:” and then “( miscellany of clouds — )”.

You will notice that though the items link, are not a madcap succession, they charm with the engrossing whimsicality of someone who sniffs, who hunts around circumspectly, the mind and the feelings alert; alert persona or inclining presence who observes sharply and sweetly, and is out for bigger game quixotically qualified.

The map Jill Magi draws is not the ardent chase. If Guest paints portraits — large figures, fleeing epiphanies —, Magi studies landscape, keeps it close within her intensities. At the same time, the leaps and lacunae can sometimes brighten deliciously. Here, also in surveyor’s form, is one of Magi’s half-canvasses from “Nival”:

First comes a phrase from the left margin, “Wall-expansion after”, which leads (the spatial plotting begins) two lines down and further to the ri
ght (so as to look centered) to the single word “grief” and two more lines down and back again against the left margin to another mere single term (with punctuation), “porous.”, and then a further dropping down, but not to the second but to the third succeeding line, and there is a full sentence, but only the idea of one since it is enclosed in parentheses and is overly enigmatic for any regular Joe of a sentence, “(Marginalia sustained the binding.)”.

I hear a gnomic voice that I frequently hear in Guest’s poetry. I also hear the reflections becoming distilled, their thrills diminutived and drawn still further into the in brevi pattern. It is no surprise that Magi’s miniatures, whether coy or careless, cogent or casual, can be her best treats, as when a look of especial brilliance ultra-clarified yields the plentiful quizzicality of “Warming—” (way to the left) followed by “enough god—” (way way to the right) and then “if” (way to the left). Some of the subsections are more nearly regular, but they all have at least one or two of these elliptical moments.

I hope that gives you some idea of an inspired moment in Jill Magi’s Torchwood and the bit-by-bit variation of a style reminiscent of splashier strokes plotted and developed over a number of books by Barbara Guest. There are many sorts of plotting to be surveyed in Torchwood, telling me that I can look forward to enjoying the poetry more and more. I can look, for instance, at the spaces and the separations in the “Relationships” section and appreciate not half-sentences and winged utterances but her strange ways with the full period.

All in all it seems that a confident recommendation is in place. I already yearn to attend to Jill Magi’s forms. But in the meantime I continue to wonder about the perceived connection to a major poet’s major form and where, if anywhere, it could lead. What is this other aspect that elicits a coinage, that prompts Magi to examine a species of “Nival,” the snow-filled preterition that may preclude the common riverbank and its talk of the “Rival”?

New York City

January 2009


Copyright ©2009, by Robert Mueller. All Rights Reserved.

Robert Mueller: Barbara Guest and Jill Magi
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