Thursday, November 20, 2008

collected poems of barbara guest

after a long wait, it's finally here. i picked up my copy of the collected poems of barbara guest this past weekend from rod smith at bridge street books.

and it's indeed a lovely book from cover to cover and all 525 pages in between. the dust jacket image is a 1951 collage by guest herself entitled "wheel." the text is edited by guest's daughter hadley, and contains all the poems previously published in guest's trade and limited edition artist books, along with a handful of poems composed after her final volume (the red gaze, published in 2005 when guest was 85 years old). no other uncollected or previously unpublished material is included. the volume also contains an intro by peter gizzi, a timeline of guest's life, a bibliography of her works, and an index of titles and first lines.

guest was born barbara ann pinson in 1920 in wilmington, north carolina. she spent much of her childhood traveling and being shuttled between various relatives as her father looked for work as a probation officer. education was prized: she could read by age 3 and largely grew up in los angeles so she could attend better schools. she took a year off from undergrad at ucla -- where she met her first husband, painter and sculptor john dudley -- to go to a junior college where she thought the teachers knew more about modern poetry. she eventually graduated from uc berkeley and worked in los angeles as a social worker, helping air force pilots recover from WWII bombing missions.

she and dudley moved to greenwich village in the late 1940s, which provided her entry into the world of visual artists and the company of poets who would eventually be known as the new york school poets: john ashbery, edwin denby, kenward elmslie, kenneth koch, frank o'hara and james schuyler. from there on out, her chronology is largely a list of book publications and literary awards: she truly led a life in literature.

the world of literature, however, was often slow and on occasion downright failed to recognize her. she was one of only four women among the 44 poets donald allen included in his watershed anthology the new american poetry: 1945-1960 and was omitted altogether from the anthology of new york poets edited in 1970 by ron padgett and david shapiro.

the 1980s were seemingly a fallow period for guest's poetry (discounting herself defined, the biography of the poet h.d. she published in 1984), until fair realism appeared in 1989, showing her at the peak of her powers and beginning -- again, at nearly 70 years of age -- a remarkable period of productivity that saw her double the number of book titles published previously in her life.

i won't offer anything like a critical assessment here, as i plan instead to sit down for a long slow read of these poems. instead i'll offer just a few initial impressions that strike me.
  • there are two of guest's books here that i've never owned and possibly never even seen, so i'm psyched now finally to read them: the location of things / archaics / the open skies (1962) and moscow mansions (1973)

  • the timeline lists the following plays written by guest: the ladies choice [sic?], 1953; the office: a one act play in three scenes, 1963; port: a murder in one act, 1965; the diving board, 1966; chinese ghost restaurant, 1967; the swimming pool, 1975; three of these were published in the recent special issue of the chicago review, and kevin killian staged a number of them at small press traffic in san francisco in 2000; i wonder if/when we will ever get to read or see the rest?

  • the timeline also makes frequent references to guest's own works of visual art: is there enough of these to mount an exhibit?

  • most of the poems here that are surprises because i've never heard of before are from artist book collaborations, for example i ching: poems and lithographs with sheila isham (1969): these are wonderful little permutation poems that border on sound and visual poems when reprinted here. (one wonders what they looked like in the original!) likewise biography (1980), which was apparently a chapbook by burning deck and contains nine short lyrics. somehow also stripped tales (1995), a kelsey street book with anne dunn, escaped my notice, and these are substantive prose and prose-like pieces

  • i wonder too if there will be any attempt to do a biography, edit some letters and the previously uncollected and/or unpublished poems. i've heard that there are quite a bit of the latter, cathy wagner's selection for the above-mentioned chicago review being just a drop in the bucket. the barbara guest papers reside at yale's beinecke library: read an overview of the holdings (36 boxes apparently, at least in the initial accession), detailed acquisition lists here and here (which put the most recent count at 42 boxes). let's get to work, scholars!

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