Born in North Carolina in 1920, Barbara Guest spent her childhood in Florida and California. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, she settled in New York City where she connected with the equally emerging New York Poets and artists of Abstract-Expressionism who were then to influence her poetry.
During the 1960s The Location of Things, Poems, and The Blue Stairs were published. Moscow Mansions (1973), The Countess from Minneapolis (1976), and in particular her novel Seeking Air (1978), pointed to a sense of structure moving in more varied and experimental directions. This was true of her acclaimed biography of the poet H.D., Herself Defined (1984), which had consumed five years, and especially of a major poem, The Türler Losses (1979), and of Biography (1980).
Fair Realism (1989) was followed by Defensive Rapture (1993), of which a critic has observed that Guest was now "pushing the reader into the spiritual and metaphysical possibilities of language itself." Both books were highly acclaimed: Fair Realism was awarded the Lawrence J. Lipton Prize for Poetry, and Defensive Rapture was chosen for the San Francisco State Poetry Award. At this same time, Guest left New York City, moving to Berkeley, California.
In 1995 her Selected Poems were published, and marked a continuing international recognition of her writing. The work was chosen as the best collection of new writing by the America Awards. Her Quill, Solitary APPARITION, won the same award in 1996 for the best new book of poetry. In 1997 Guest took her work in yet new directions with the publication of The Confetti Trees, fictional film scripts written in her highly lyrical style.
BOOKS OF POETRY
The Location of Things (New York: Tibor de Nagy, 1960); Poems: The Location of Things; Archaics; The Open Skies (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1962); The Blue Stairs (New York: Corinth Books, 1968); Moscow Mansions (New York: Viking, 1973); The Countess from Minneapolis (Providence, Rhode Island: Burning Deck, 1976); The Türler Losses (Montréal: Mansfield Book Mart, 1979); Biography (Providence, Rhode Island: Burning Deck, 1980; Quilts (New York: Vehicle Editions, 1981); Musicality (Berkeley, California: Kelsey Street Press, 1988); Fair Realism (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1989); Defensive Rapture (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1993); Stripped Tales (Berkeley, California: Kelsey Street Press, 1995); Selected Poems (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995); Quill, Solitary APPARITION (Sausalito, California: The Post-Apollo Press, 1996); The Confetti Trees (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1999); If So, Tell Me (London: Reality Street Editions, 1999); Symbiosis (Berkeley: Kelsey Street Press, 2000); Miniatures and Other Poems (Middleton, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2002); The Red Gaze (Middleton, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2005); The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest (Middleton, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2008)
Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher
I just said I didn't know
And now you are holding me
In your arms,
Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher.
Yet around the net I am floating
Pink and pale blue fish are caught in it,
They are beautiful,
But they are not good for eating.
Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher
Than this mid-air in which we tremble,
Having exercised our arms in swimming,
Now the suspension, you say,
Is exquisite. I do not know.
There is coral below the surface,
There is sand, and berries
Like pomegranates grow.
This wide net, I am treading water
Near it, bubbles are rising and salt
Drying on my lashes, yet I am no nearer
Air than water. I am closer to you
Than land and I am in a stranger ocean
Than I wished.
(from Poems, 1962)
Santa Fe Trail
I go separately
The sweet knees of oxen have pressed a path for me
ghosts with ingots have burned their bare hands
it is the dungaree darkness with China stitched
where the westerly winds
and the traveler's checks
the evensong of salesmen
the glistening paraphernalia of twin suitcases
where no one speaks English.
I go separately
It is the wind, the rubber wind
when we brush our teeth in the way station
a climate to beard. What forks these roads?
Who clammers o'er the twain?
What murmurs and rustles in the distance
in the white branches where the light is whipped
piercing at the crossing as into the dunes we simmer
and toss ourselves awhile the motor pants like a forest
where owls from their bandaged eyes send messages
to the Indian couple. Peaks have you heard?
I go separately
We have reached the arithmetics, are partially quenched
while it growls and hints in the lost trapper's voice
She is coming toward us like a session of pines
in the wild wooden air where rabbits are frozen,
O mother of lakes and glaciers, save us gamblers
whose wagon is perilously rapt.
(from Poems, 1962)
Someone has remembered to dry the dishes;
they have taken the accident out of the stove.
Afterward lilies for supper; there
the lines in front of the window
are rubbed on the table of stone
The paper flies up
then down as the wind
repeats. repeats its birdsong.
Those arms under the pillow
the burrowing arms they cleave
as night as the tug kneads water
calling themselves branches
The tree is you
the blanket is what warms it
snow erupts from thistle;
the snow pours out of you.
A cold hand on the dishes
placing a saucer inside
her who undressed for supper
gliding that hair to the snow
The pilot light
went out on the stove
The paper folded like a napkin
other wings flew into the stone.
(from Moscow Mansions, 1973)
An Emphasis Falls on Reality
Cloud fields change into furniture
furniture metamorphizes into fields
an emphasis falls on reality.
"It snowed toward morning," a barcaole
the words stretched severely
silhouettes they arrived in trenchant cut
the face of lilies....
I was envious of fair realism.
I desired sunrise to revise itself
as apparition, majestic in evocativeness,
two fountains traced nearby on a lawn....
you recall treatments
of 'being' and 'nothingness'
to appear from variable directions─
they are orderly as motors
floating on the waterway,
so silence is pictorial
when silence is real.
The wall is more real than shadow
or that letter composed of calligraphy
each vowel replaces a wall
a costume taken from space
donated by walls....
These metaphors may be apprehended after
they have brought their dogs and cats
born on roads near willows,
willows are not real trees
they entangle us in looseness,
the natural world spins in green.
A column chosen from distance
mounts into the sky while the font
they will destroy the disturbed font
as it enters modernity and is rare....
The necessary idealizing of you reality
is part of the search, the journey
where two figures embrace
This house was drown for them
it looks like a real house
perhaps they will move in today
(from Fair Realism, 1989)
Borrowed Mirror, Filmic Rise
Arriving speeds the chromatic
we stay with fire
arrows jasper pontifex declare
an imaginative risk.
fermented moss a
bulge in aramanth
motley filmic rise
that welds a natural
shield refreshed in hutch
from borrowed mirror
rain a seized and
crystal pruner the limned
and eyed cowl
commends internal habitude
bush the roof
day stare gliding
qualms the weights of night
medusæ raft clothed sky
radiant strike the oars
evolve a fable husk
aged silkiness the roan
planet mowed like ears
suppose the hooded grass
numb moat alum trench a solemn
glaze the sexual estuary
floats an edge.
(from Defensive Rapture, 1993)
The Minus Ones
She submitted a few stories she called The Minus Ones.
They came to her as short signals, as if they lived on her roof top. They rolled off the roof of her mouth climbed there from memory or from a table where empty cups glistened with tearfulness. Also menu-like out of her strung heart came surprising plots: Spanish women and high shoes, stories of valleys and boatless seas no cargoes. Rocks similar to the porpoises in her marine story appeared. They were made of coal hard yet they chipped flakes of coal dust blew off them soiling her clothes.
From her reading she borrowed a lake bottomless and a body without gravity flying over it. This appropriation brought on a serious malaise; she became plotless and her stories were bound with the usual wrapping of ribbon.
Seasons became important, ivy on green trees and the mournful rhododendron, icicles appeared more frequently. And meadows with horses. She neglected to include the rituals of contemporary life and the Scenario Department complained. When she wrote of wood burning she and the devils inside the fire were excited.
The fire scene destryoed any chance she had for her new stories to be accepted. They told her they like real fires and not those of the imagination. Imagination was harmful and always messed up the set.
(from The Confetti Trees, 1999)
Patches of it
on the lettuce a geography
on trucks brilliant noise
on the figure a disrobing
radiance sweaters dumped
weightlifting there in the forest clump
striking at the underbrush, digging
past the clumsy curve
skipping certain passages, taking off
That fir cone found its voice on the path
in light after the sun came out
the postcard illuminates certain features in the face
the notebook lying on the windowsill,
the spindle back, the broken stem, all richer,
niceties tend to drop, also words like "many
loves" come forward the surprise of white stars
and the boots step by amazingly on the dried rich clay.
He swings his racket after it the luminous
the ball nearly swerves into it
those ancient people learning to count
surrounded by it, every day,
and navigators noting it there on the waves
the animus containing bits there on its subject
perched like sails,
bright rewards for preparing to strut forth
like the diver there onthe board forced
by his green into it.
Many loves changes to many times falling into
the day's lucid marshes
a tap on the shoulder or a first grasping that
object full of sparks
the wilderness untangled by it.
The fireceness with which it forged its memory,
its daylight, its absence.
Yes to the point of damages,
yes to the stunning infrequency,
yes to encourage with repetition its repetion,
yes to sober knowledge of its parsimony.
A few fir cones, sails, the stain removed,
blazes from the paper without lifting your hands.
(from If So, Tell Me, 1999)
"Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher," "Santa Fe Trail," "Red Lilies," and "An Emphasis Falls on Reality"
Reprinted from Selected Poems (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995). Copyright ©1995 by Barbara Guest. Reprinted by permission of Sun & Moon Press.
"Borrowed Mirror, Filmic Rise"
Reprinted from Defensive Rapture (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1993). Copyright ©1993 by Barbara Guest. Reprinted by permission of Sun & Moon Press.
"The Minus Ones"
Reprinted from The Confetti Trees (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1999). Copyright ©1999 by Barbara Guest. Reprinted by permission of Sun & Moon Press.
Reprinted from If So, Tell Me (London: Reality Street Editions, 1999). Copyright ©1999 by Barbara Guest. Reprinted by permission of Reality Street Editions.
Minutes each hour took ostrich leaps on the roof of the Hotel Comfort in Strasbourg.
These Surrealist moments cherished each roof a long time.
In the thickened weather of Surrealism the cathedral
is across the street.
Wise lettuces exaggerate their claim near the window of the Hotel Comfort.
And you have sent your letter of explanation for the pleasure obtained
in the wooden jar. Speech-maker, you have sent notes of pleasure
in the glass jar. Tasting of weather and cinnamon.
Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, III, no. 2 (April 2006). Copyright ©2006 by Barbara Guest.