On Barbara Guest, 'The Location of Things'

Barbara Guest’s remarkable first book, The Location of Things (Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1960), establishes that it is possible to reclaim gendered space, and this possibility is manifest in language itself. As Julia Kristeva writes, “Writing is an act of differentiation and of participation with respect to reality; it is a language without a beyond without transcendence.” [1] The act of writing is human, and in being human it is gendered. By presenting or writing a female text, the writer internalizes and recycles the desire for the dominance of masculinity, meaning the historically accepted male language. In “The other window is the lark’ on Barbara Guest,” Rachel Blau DuPlessis writes, “Once more, as so often in the fifties, female figures are positioned in an asymmetrical binary system through which they are habitually left behind as all too normal, all too tedious. Indeed, they must, by definition, be left behind for anything amusing and lively to thrive.” [2] These binary realities (particularly relevant when situating Guest in the male-dominated New York School) coupled with the alienation and surveillance of the Cold War, make Guest’s domestically divergent poet(h)ic lens even more striking — mandating that the poem opens up to something more than “public speech.” [3] Robert Bennett describes these spaces as “deliberately constructed both to unsettle conventional expectations about the nature of spatiality itself and to suggest instead intimations of a more complex world in which both ‘proofs’ and ‘illusions’ of ‘stability’ are subverted by a profound awareness of the chaotic contingencies of modern life.” [4]

The Location of Things indicates sovereignty of the writer over the inanimate.  If this title was “A Location of Things,” this control would not be present, but the use of “the” leaves the impression that this “location of things” is an absolute, a constant. And, in contrast to several nonfiction bestsellers of that year, including Better Homes and Gardens First Aid for Your Family and Better Homes and Gardens Decorating Ideas, Guest presents readers with an alternative to the “woman in the house” — rather, as Lynn Keller writes, “Guest indicates that love, romance, and a man’s protection — all essential to the gender divisions of the fifties feminine mystique — cannot possibly do all that they are supposed to do.” [5] Guest displaces the relationship between woman and house that the public is accustomed to and creates a new relationship, quite different from the one indicated by the househelp books sold that year. Sure, “no one listens to poetry,” yet one can’t help but salute this new architecture Guest establishes here — a “Shifting Persona,” where, “without the person outside there would be no life inside.” [6]

Beginning with the poem, “The Location of Things,” the book launches into a deconstruction and reconstruction of the domestic.

Why from this window am I watching leaves?
Why do halls and steps seem narrower?
Why at this desk am I listening for the sound of the fall
of color…        
Am I to understand change, whether remarkable
or hidden… [7]

We begin with the repetition of “why,” an interrogative adverb; instead of describing a situation, Guest questions it.  In his 1941 “Foreword to a historical geography,” Carl Sauer writes, “houses are historical geographic records.” [8] Rather than literally placing the speaker inside a house, Guest offers readers the chance to involve themselves in the architecture of this inquisitive space — to build a “record” through engaging with language.  Anna Rabinowitz refers to this as how Guest’s “language seeks ways to become that which it sets out to name; poems where the page functions as pictorial space…” [9] The real power of this collection is in its poeticization of the painterly priority of “defining space,” while redefining the domestic. We see this aesthetic re-visioning of space in lines like: “This roof will hold me. Outside the gods survive” (“The Hero Leaves His Ship”). [10]

“Sunday Evening” begins:

I am telling you a number of half-conditioned ideas
Am repeating myself,
The room has four sides; it is a rectangle,
From the window the bridge, the water, the leaves… [11]

“Safe Flights” ends:

The house is a burden to the weak cyclone,
You are under a tent where promises perform
And the ring you grasp as an aerialist
Glides, no longer. [12]

This dichotomy of inside/outside, voyeur/actor resonates through out the book and continues to remind the reader that women do not have the luxury of occupying space in the same way men (her male contemporaries) do/did. In these early poems, we see the surfacing of Guest’s commitment to poetry that works as painting or architecture — poetry that demands the reader look at the thing in front of him/her and then let it teach them to occupy space, with one eye on object and the other on the gendered body that views it.

In closing, this amazing first volume anachronistically reminds us, as Yi-Fu Tuan writes, that “the built environment, like language, has the power to define and refine sensibility […] without architecture feelings about space must remain diffuse and fleeting.” [13]

[1] Julia Kristeva, Language: The Unknown (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1989), 24.
[2] Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “The other window is the lark’ on Barbara Guest,” Jacket 36 (2008).
[3] Edward Brunner, Cold War Poetry: The Social Text in the Fifties Poem (Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 2000). One of the main accomplishments of Beat writing — specifically Ginsberg’s “Howl” — was that it turned poetry (which was previously much more of a private art) into “public speech.”
[4] Robert Bennett, “Literature as Destruction of Space: The Precarious Architecture of Barbara Guest’s Spatial Imagination” Women’s Studies no. 30 (2001): 43-55.
[5] Lynn Keller, “Becoming a Compleat Travel Agency: Barbara Guest’s Negotiations with the Fifties Feminine Mystique,” in The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets, ed. Terence Diggory and Stephen Paul Miller (Orono: The National Poetry Foundation, 2001), 219.
[6] Jack Spicer, “Thing Language,” in My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, ed. Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 373; Barbara Guest, “Shifting Persona,” in Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing (Berkeley: Kelsey St., 2003), 3642.
[7] Barbara Guest, Poems: The Location of Things, Archaics, The Open Skies (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1962), 11.
[8] Carl O. Sauer, “Foreword to Historical Geography,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 31 (1941): 124. Full quote from Sauer: “The study of house types basically is the study of the smallest economic unit, as that of village or town is that of an economic community. In both cases description seeks the meaning of structure in relation to institutionalized process, as an expression of the culture area. Houses are historical geographic records. They may date from a former historical stage, or they may, as current buildings, still preserve conventional qualities which once were functionally important…”
[9] Anna Rabinowitz, “Barbara Guest: Notes Towards a Painterly Osmosis,” Women’s Studies 30 (2001): 95-109.
[10] Barbara Guest, Poems: The Location of Things, Archaics, The Open Skies (Garden City: Doubleday, 1962), 20-21.
[11] Ibid., 26.
[12] Ibid., 32.
[13] Yi-fu Tuan, Space and Place: the Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1977), 107.