Guest Blogger: Robert Mueller
It is tempting to admire poets whose poetry rewards the loving attention of repeated reading. Barbara Guest provides that experience, and some readers may draw away from her results simply as if she were just trying, just trying to be difficult. It is true, the writing has a distinctly prepossessing character. Everything associated with the poetry, including the image, the style, the statement, the brilliant and tranquil charm of her spectacular, or humble, or both, words, or both in the same blizzard-cutting phrase, speaks nobility. If they step proud, if they step serene, they inveigle the rushing blame, put it fondly to rest.
That is how I see it. But what of all this delight, apparent only for the reader who likes to assume a scholar’s robe? What can you really make of tasty bits of hidden significance, these pearls of cool or streamlined and then piercing astuteness?
It is in this light that I find instructive an essay by Kathleen Fraser from her collection of essays, Translating the Unspeakable (U Alabama P, 2000). Here, the loving reader (of the novel Seeking Air) finds much not only to illumine the text but to place her subject, Barbara Guest, in company with the most imperishable of sensibilities. More plainly, Fraser demonstrates a cubist form of especial persuasiveness, and marks how all the appealing reflections in and of that form (“the half-seen clue, the private notation, the broken surface, and the fleeting thought as they collide, impinge upon, and elucidate one another”) send the novelist through to her quiet resolutions, her whimsical, her sudden and suave, her almost shameless revolutions.
What is interesting to me is that I, a naïve enough reader and not to be concerned if I should stray into single derivations, have discovered something that has been missed.
Or have I discovered something? Does the intellectual beauty of Barbara Guest’s writing sometimes occasion inept reaching, dimmer after-throws? Should readers stay with how their imaginations are tossed as a prime encounter, helping each other with the bounces, and how they feel, and leave aside endless sophistication, even if it means averting endless glitter? What is the true and pleasant nature of Guest’s prevailing nobility, her extended celebrity?
I am going to suggest one or two modifications anyway. Fraser excerpts for her epitaph the lines from the poem Roses from which the title of the novel, Seeking Air, draws its emphasis. She then completes the circle by quoting the concluding clause from the same lines at the end of her essay. Here are the lines from Guest’s poem Roses:
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
So that explains the title of the novel, derived from the poem’s thematics, and appropriately so for such a beautiful and delightfully poetic novel. But does the series “. . . seek . . . cube [think “cubist”] . . . air” actually deliver the phrase “seeking air”? The idiom “seeking air,” as found for instance in Robert Louis Stevenson’s last, unfinished novel, Weir of Hermiston, would seem to supply a more natural though not equally pertinent connection. As the 19th-century writer uses it, the phrase refers to getting out of the house, where the air is not, and way out, to an isolated spot, where the air would be, for someone who is seeking air. In other words, the implied connection offered by Fraser is richly suggestive, and will do splendidly (though it is not her explicit purpose to make this point), but the suggestions belonging to it as idiomatic phrase also charm and resonate. Plus, the fiction of Robert Louis Stevenson, while a good read today, enjoyed perhaps greater popularity around the time of Barbara Guest’s earliest years spent in Florida; and although we do not assert she took the phrase from Weir of Hermiston, these circumstances would make it likely that the idiom was familiar to her, much more so than to us today, and felt and later remembered by her (even after her moves to other coasts and other American languages). In any event, what we might take from this alternate sourcing is a “this too” category of literary interpretation. We could mix it in with the aesthetics of air as noted from the poem; or we could simply add it to the aesthetic possibilities while putting it to the side but still within reach.
The passage in which Stevenson uses the phrase “seeking air” is a climactic scene, a scene of heightened emotions, and is inspired and beautiful, and one might easily recognize it as a rich and fitting cue for another author. So here is the passage, in large part. Observe the new lovers Mr. Archie Weir and Miss Christina Elliott as they enter into the next stage of their courtship:
For she turned to him and smiled, though without rising. There was a shade in this cavalier greeting that neither of them perceived; neither he, who simply thought it gracious and charming as herself; nor yet she, who did not observe (quick as she was) the difference between rising to meet the laird, and remaining seated to receive the expected admirer.
‘Are ye stepping west, Hermiston?” said she, giving him his territorial name after the fashion of the country-side.
‘I was,’ said he, a little hoarsely, ‘but I think I will be about the end of my stroll now. Are you like me, Miss Christina? The house would not hold me. I came here seeking air.’
He took his seat at the other end of the tombstone and studied her, wondering what was she. There was infinite import in the question alike for her and him.
‘Ay,’ she said. ‘I couldna bear the roof either. It’s a habit of mine to come up here about the gloaming when it’s quaiet and caller.”
‘It was a habit of my mother’s also,’ he said gravely. The recollection half startled him as he expressed it. He looked around. ‘I have scarce been here since. It’s peaceful,’ he said, with a long breath.
In addition, there is more in the poem itself than meets the eye. In Roses, Guest writes about anti-suffocation measures leading to subtle joys. One of them has to do with “The Marvelous” or “La Merveille” to be found in an escape route in the left corner of the painting by Juan Gris to which the poem’s title alludes. Thus there is air in this painting as thrilling as it hard to find, as you will know maybe because the painting was, and it was not, part of the exhibition of Juan Gris’ art staged at The Museum of Modern A
rt in New York in 1958. It was shown as a black and white reproduction in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition; but it was not shown as a painting in the museum. It was not seen. It was not included in the exhibition due to its fragility.
What, however, can we make of an additional aspect of this kind? And is it truly additional, is it worthy of more of our attention, how Barbara Guest illustrates the experience of seeking air by means of an image, of a view claimed to provide air in a painting, while the painting is in fact not being seen?
Amidst all of these considerations, to be sure, Guest’s poetry affords the sensuous experience of getting the reader caught up; but, further, her poetry invites the reader to understand it, and thereby she pays a compliment, a noblesse oblige of flattery, good-will and respect. Understanding becomes all-important. How you have to go about understanding a Barbara Guest poem, and what it means that this is required (the sore point for some), are what start the debate going.
For someone with so much admiration for Barbara Guest, I do not spend as much time reading her as you might expect. That is natural because it is intimidating, an experience to be cherished. You can take only so much of it. Yet, given this strange and deep respect, it is odd that I take it so freely. Why do I not feel more fear, more practical reticence? Why am I so keen, perhaps too keen, on announcing these discoveries, as if it is not the forest or the trees that will lead me, but the inroad that cuts its way into the forest and the trees?
New York City resident Robert Mueller writes independently on poets and poetry, freely generating a prose that expands and becomes playful and approaches its tasks in unexpected ways. This writing includes reviews online of Jill Magi’s Torchwood and Sharon Dolin’s Burn and Dodge, plus an essay at the Barbara Guest home page of the Electronic Poetry Center. In print, he has written in a more direct fashion on Edmund Spenser and John Ashbery. In addition to poems (and essays) appearing here in Spinozablue, poetry by Robert Mueller may be found online in Blackbox Manifold, Moria, Ink Node and SugarMule, and forthcoming in far out further out out of sight.
Copyright ©2010, by Robert Mueller. All Rights Reserved.