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Seeking Weir

Seeking Weir

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
in air.

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.


George Spencer’s The Guesting Rose

George Spencer’s The Guesting Rose

A Line from Barbara Guest’s Roses

That air in life is important but may be less so in the arts interests me. But we are 60% water and worth $28.49 in bone, fat and chemicals so should we focus more on water and $’s and less on air. But you may respond the atmosphere that encases us is all air but this is not completely true since there is pollution and those little filaments we see when light shafts float into a room and illuminate the air. Then we see what we think is truly there. Of course this ignores the question of the further reaches of space where air may be solid and water may be a gas. Then we would have to understand plants differently since plants would have to adjust and worms and beetles too.  Maybe there is some type of traveling incognito and mysterious communication that happens in the air, a space that, for all we know, is a proscenium arch theater? And are our plants mutations or an advanced evolutionary form or just poor cousins? So perhaps we should start by admitting that we know very little even about what goes on in our own heads let alone the heads of our neighbors, of course speaking both literally and metaphorically?  It is why one develops an attitude toward roses picked in the morning air, even roses without sun shining on them. I had hoped that looking at parts of her poem might help me understand her intentions. That did not work. Then I took from her poem the line above and used it to start writing this poem after a period when I felt I was neither water nor air. Only emptiness.  Now I reread her poem and it is perhaps slowly opening a little to me like young roses that, frozen in time and space in a painting, offer themselves but will never deliver all their rosiness leaving to us to imagine the still  hidden or perhaps sadly not.
— by George Spencer
George Spencer’s Obscene Richness of Our Times is due out in 2009 (Poets Wear Prada). He is translating poems from the Ecuadorian slam series he started, to be published as Slamming in Quito. Recent poems appeared in CLWN WR, Poetry MidWest, Caveat Lector, Stained Sheets, NewVerseNews, Phoenix and 63 Channels.
Copyright ©2009, by George Spencer. All Rights Reserved.

Dimensions: More Than Spatiality

Dimensions: More Than Spatiality

Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. 1912

Below, we have a new essay by Robert Mueller. He deals with two fine poets, Barbara Guest and Jill Magi, with imagination and verve.

Jill Magi’s author’s page over at Shearsman Books can be found here. Jill’s homepage can be found here.


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The topic of poetic space on the page is an interesting one. How it looks alters our reception and perception. We read it differently to ourselves depending upon topography.

Poetry is both spatial and aural. Traditionally, poetry was heard, not seen, passed down to us from bard to bard, from shaman to shaman, registering across the centuries in the ear, as we imagined the words and their referents with our inner eye. With the advent books, of the printing press, and much later, the multimedia revolution, things changed radically. Kept changing. Back and forth we go now, different schools of thought tout different authenticities and purities, and we choose.

Is the best poetry that which reads well and sounds glorious in the internal ear? Or is it solely a matter of externalities? What we hear, not what we see? For me the answer is obvious, mostly. It’s both. And the most successful poems lead us off the page and far away from our own space and time, so we can return to ourselves recreated in some small way. Or more than that, if we’re lucky. A merger of art, linguistics, music, science, collective, mysterious memories. Haunting us. The architecture of the poem on the page reminding us of the architecture already there in our mind. Consciously or subconsciously.

I have just started rereading one of my favorite novels, Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. This time, however, I’m relying on a different, brand new translation by Burton Pike. Here is one of Rilke’s best expressions (through the voice of Malte) of what it takes to make poetry happen.

(Slightly abridged with ellipses. Worth reading in full):

But alas, with poems one accomplishes so little when one writes them early. One should hold off and gather sense and sweetness a whole life long, a long life if possible, and then, right at the end, one could write perhaps ten lines that are good. For poems are not, as people think, feelings (those one has early enough) — they are experiences. For the sake of a line of poetry one must see many cities, people, and things, one must know animals, must feel how the birds fly, and know the gestures with which small flowers open in the morning . . . But it is still not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them, if they are many, and have the great patience to wait for them to come again. For it is not the memories themselves. Only when they become blood in us, glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves, only then can it happen that in a very rare hour the first word of a line arises in their midst and strides out of them.

–Rainer Maria Rilke



Robert Mueller: Barbara Guest and Jill Magi

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.

Odds and Ends

Odds and Ends

We have a new essay by Robert Mueller below, about my dear aunt, Barbara Guest. He knows her work well, and offers a unique perspective. Barbara Guest deserves a much wider audience, and with the expected release of her collected poems in September, I have faith that that will happen. A new generation of readers should follow.


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Finished Philip Pullman’s wonderful trilogy, His Dark Materials, and will write about the last two books this week. I will say up front that the last two books in the series provide fabulous material for more movies. No amount of pressure from church groups should prevent that. It would be a shame if it did. The philosophies involved, the overall and underlying spiritual messages, are positive. Very positive and life-affirming. And any attempt to snuff those films out would really only help confirm the fictional picture of dominant organized religions depicted in the three novels.

Robert Mueller: Barbara Guest, West and East

Robert Mueller: Barbara Guest, West and East

The Silent Confucius, The Confetti Trees, Hollywood, Who
Else but Barbara Guest
by Robert Mueller
Barbara Guest’s books are wonderful because of how they come to us with their bountiful co-valencies and layering.  The Confetti Trees, a series of short-short stories or quasi-filmmaking anecdotes that qualify as prose poems (Sun & Moon, 1999), has this implicating character, so that when it takes its measure in the rich play of glitter and artifice that are Hollywood, one of its expounding layers is a blending cosmic plot.  Guest’s stories, deft and trothfilled-wacky in their fabulous causes, propose circumstances that concern none other than the coming to America of Confucianism.  By way of making and divining not only events on the set but their twice-felt reflections, they are the outpouring of sublime Tao (taking the concept “universal law” to be the application thereof), and thus the cream of informed understanding of universal orderliness as ever-changing mobility, and even chanciness, all figured, if you like, in a concept labeled I Ching, the title of the famous treatise that has a commentary believed to be by our Confucius who is much-endeared (just as Guest’s stories may be).

Our Hollywood miracle, in this prospect and formation, is not, however, a torchbearer’s or a spectator’s or a lover’s feat.  Rather, it carries the stamp and fleet trade, a beauteous fleecing, of history — in the form of Europe as abettor and medium, in the form of displaced filmmakers from central Europe who populated Hollywood and lent their magic, as Barbara Guest herself did, bringing monuments of unageing wisdom and glory.

Thus we note how a German scholar, Richard Wilhelm, conveyed the secrets of I Ching to the West, and further (with the help of Cary F. Baynes’ rendering of the German into English) to the American West.  Thus we observe how Guest, in going west, collects and distills the Confucian or Confucius-linked concepts, those of flow and progress within the changes, of the predictability of unpredictability, and pins them, in one of her stories, on another “Wilhelm,” who, with an annoying personal flaw, his coughing, provides the principle of departure, and hence of change and growth and ordering, for a film that will inevitably bear the title “The Cough.”  So insists his colleague on the project, all subtly Japanese and withheld and coy of approach.  So infers and observes the inclining poet.

It all begins with this Wilhelm the filmmaker and, thanks to his Japanese co-director, Wilhelm the unwitting instigator of the film as its conception rolls forward.  He is a sort of bumbling foil to one of superior discernment.  How can this be?  None need care, if the delight be otherwise.  But really Wilhelm for example appears not to know if he should in fact be “Wilhelm,” aptly named for wanting to be in control and for being determined to place his own stamp on creative nature.  Or should he be the other guy, now and then spelled as “Wilhem,” whom we would recognize as the willing/unwilling victim of the tendency (as mentioned, plenty annoying) too much to pause, to “cough,” to catch himself up with a “Hem” or two, to go about as if not so well put together though repeatedly trying? 

The significations collide but are clear.  “Wilhelm” or “Wilhem” is one of Freud’s victims of the Pathology of Everyday Life, of an ordered and explainable behavioral form of rank disorder.  Only now with Guest’s vision of the fantastical projections that are Hollywood and are full of oddities and visually captured wonders and possibilities, the Pathology has become Tao, has become the knowledge of converting the many changes, or chances, or fortuitous disorders with their inevitable misfortune, into success and fortune by way of understanding the signs, or, as Confucius might say, by dint of interpreting and predicating upon the so-called oracles.

Hollywood miracle, therefore, based now and then on the unlikely sorts of mistakes and misfortunes, not chance encounters but chance (let us say) happenings, becomes the joy and penetration of Confucian oracle, wisdom and play.  The “confetti” are the “making up,” for the project and the appeal, out of the shreds of ordinary and once-ordinary existence.  And Guest’s story “The Cough” transforms the ordinary by making it anecdotal subject of filmmaking wherein the vehicle of bemused metaphor attracts glamour and importance, regardless (at least here) of the film’s own beauty or artistic successes.

So Guest goes to Hollywood to become a star; and because she has a star’s qualities she gathers to her everything of any importance.  On the way she meets Confucius. And it is not a question of simple nearness, and it is certainly not an insignificance.  As the world of Hollywood, and filmmaking, are charmed by the temperamental, by characters possessing big or little faults, and big reactions, so a wisdom of composing this world, of performing these analogies, adds to and even completes the charm and wisdom of being here.   Thus Guest may well sympathize with the actress who is to be cajoled and tolerated in “Falling in Love.”  This actress tip-toes to correct a fault in stature, and then in form and deed actually falls.  The falling of the actress, caught on film, is the creation out of a moment of misfortune of the film “Falling in Love”; and her unpredictability scores, is made to form; and moments, mobility, “momentuum” (from another story in the collection) link to confidence, sagacity, the creation of the changes.

In this other story the sagacity, as potentiality and motivation of silence, protects its gains by way of negotiating light and dark, and, adventurously, light and dark show they well know to disperse, to project and play themselves out in the appearance of “the delicacy of piecing together snow floes,” that is to say “the scenario, how snow rinses her wrists slowly,” “the meaning of the snow on the wrists of the actress.”  The cheekiness of such chiaroscuro in camera, of dark participating as halo and surround of image context, is crucial.  So is the time element.  Obedience to the pressures of time, expressed in “slowly,” makes all the difference; and just as light steadies quiet snow, so time’s possibilities are implied in so many aspects of the idea of “snow.”  So it may be easy to pass over the emphasis on “time” as a component of the structure of the hexagram in Wilhelm’s fully developed transcription and explanation of the I Ching.  But it may be that the point is not lost on the judicious learner, just as snow on camera slowly does not melt for the sensitive filmmaker.  The title of the story is “Confucius,” and its uptake springs forth under caress, and under delight and assured mystery:

There seemed to be no misunderstanding as to who indeed was the star and what role the camera played, each subsisted on snow.  Within the screenplay originally fixed solely on the ability of the actress to flex her wrists (camera shot of wrists) (camera preys on face above her wrists) a secondary plot was now beginning to develop as snow and light crossed the face of the actress.

The action of the film simplifies to a camera shot wherein the odd “momentuum of whiteness” (emphasis mine) is its link to counterbalancing the thought of “perpetuum mobile” (phrase mine, not in story), a notion that varies, with limited sophistication, the formal “I Ching,” and thereupon together with “momentuum” may form the proper expression of “I Ching.”
These touching cousins of momentuum and perpetuum (alternatively, “continuum”) are again seen, and again captured, in the image referred to in the story “The Utmost Unreality” as “Die Glückliche Hand (The Lucky Hand).”  Like much of the material in The Confetti Trees, the reference, in German, plays the card of central Europe as the music of Guest’s favorite, Schoenberg, emanates from a lacerated spiritual gloom, “allow[ing] a new genii to escape from under the aged veils of [Schoenberg’s and Kandinsky’s] magic.”  The filmmaking’s progress is dark and ambiguous but hints in its warning motion at the roles of fortune and change in disorderly orderliness, with “[a]tonality” at its piloting beck and call.  Guest has elsewhere touted such thoughtful contradiction in the aesthetic terms of Schoenbergian dissonance vis-à-vis consonance.  Hollywood is her claim to make this apparition prosper; her revamping of a time in history is her Europe, and her Yale and her Harvard, and her felt music.

Returning to “Confucius,” the story that appears to imagine this (or a different) “lucky” hand while “momentuum” parleys the emotions of light and dark, we discover that the actress with the fortunate appeal is a reader of who else but Confucius.  The sagacious director who (continually) reads these chance oracles is a Swede, a central European on the upper half, and he recognizes, or let us say the film recognizes, the greatness of the moment in its near-miss quality.  That is what is seen in the flow and flowing after, after what he films as the cold-sinking, gorgeous lyricism of turning wrist in snow and light.  That is what is seen afterwards, after having composed the exalted moment, after having placed the slowed “momentuum” as homage to the lessons of Tao.  The changes and chances and Hollywood, the silent glories coming again and again from near miss, are Pathology altered to Potentiality, are Annoying Habit altered to Personality:

The Director is a difficult man.  His sudden changes of mood often cause alarm.  In exasperation he picks up a book lying on a table nearby and throws this book hitting the sink where the actress washes, narrowly missing her wrists.  It is silent film so we do not hear a plaintive voice, or the sound of the book striking.

We see the trembling of the actress as the book narrowly misses her wrists.  Without any prompting she picks up the book (no sound to delude us) and guides the book up to her face where we see written on its cover The Sayings of Confucious.  “She is reading Confucius!” we repeat over and over, as we savor the Director’s silent applause.

New York City
July-August 2008

Robert Mueller reports that his main occupation is that of proofreader. He further notes that the presence of unusual spellings and unexpected inconsistencies of various kinds in poetry books authored by Barbara Guest led him to wonder how much of this contrary practice was creative and meaningful and beautiful, or helped to invoke certain aesthetic charms and mysteries. Such questions sparked the current discussion and its hopeful thoughts about how this practice may play out. Mr. Mueller has written on other aspects of the originality and brilliance that is Barbara Guest, as well as on such adventurous poets as Susan Wheeler, John Ashbery and Edmund Spenser. You may find his poem “Bubble or Tripod Which” here in Spinozablue and two new poems on-line in

Copyright© 2008, Robert Mueller and Spinozablue. All Rights Reserved.

The Long Way Home

The Long Way Home

The Embarkation of Odysseus. By Claude Lorrain. 1646.

It looks like we should be picking up steam in early April, with new poetry, essays and fiction. To celebrate Barbara Guest’s forth-coming Collected Poetry, I will be posting some essays about her work and life. A remarkable poet, she deserves a much wider readership and far more recognition.

Current books of note: Reading Carmen Laforet’s Nada, a very fine coming of age novel, set in Barcelona. Recently finished William Everdell’s The First Moderns. Brilliant overview of the people and events that shaped the modernist movement around the world.

Recent guilty pleasures: Watched The Wanderers, based upon the Richard Price novel. Good film. Not great, but good. Set in 1963, in New York, it tells the tale of gang life in a somewhat mixed/surreal fashion. Price’s book, and the movie, draw on historical gangs, but alter them for dramatic purposes. Especially “cool” is the part near the end when Richie (Ken Wahl) looks through the window of a local coffee house to see the woman he loves listening to Bob Dylan. The times sure were a changin’. Thanks to the Internet, you can discover how close or far away from those historical gangs the book and movie get . . .

Poetry as Fun

Poetry as Fun

(For Barbara Guest)


Poetry as fun because the poet laughs
And lives and breathes
The fibers of magnificat surrounding her surrounding him
Until dawn and then again when they see

The blue lapping violins on the turbid water

There is a fair realism in the sense that the poem
 Can meet and exceed the imagination of the violins

As if the violins are imagining the poet watching
Watching the blue lapping notes
Prior to but not really before the crescendo

It was not just for that that Barbara finished her poems
She finished them knowing that they extended
Off the page and went out to sea
Went out to work with the notes and the violins

Again and again
      In some merger of art and life and collaboration

As if remembering those days in New York
When the boys gathered round and wore
Their visuals on their sleeves
Like late-night Jazz musicians

Who can’t stop the beaming improv
Throw caution all caution
To the guardians of new avants

She taught me to listen and watch
And feel everything and collect it
And store it in my suitcase eyes knowing
I could and would retrieve my past my

Present nearby some future off-site
If I owned my own museum
If I owned that tunnel that clear vision
Through the trance of memory and

And furtive anticipation

And it wasn’t just advice
She lived her words and her stories
And sang the role of ambassador
For the fun of it

For poetry’s sake
For HD’s sake

Like a happy prophet announcing
A lyrical apocalypse
A shining deliverance in words
                    And song



  — By Douglas Pinson


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