Commentaries - October 2012

Cecilia Vicuña quipu menstrual 2006
Cecilia Vicuña quipu menstrual 2006


for Cecilia Vicuña

                Their books were loose bundles of string.
                                                -- Charles Mann



dressed in



yr life

balled up


the end


spindle –



all those


you are


to ask




such a clever

making you
not so


-- all those


& you’re


there it



all those cells

& you never
feel a thing











lost in



last night’s

a thread


some molecules
dream up pictures

that are nothing –
there you go


you pick
that knot

& then
what? –
tie it

its length

in sun
nothing --

or just
the sun?
                                  -- john martone
                   summer 2012

[NOTE. Both John Martone and Cecilia Vicuña have appeared several times on Poems & Poetics. With Martone my fullest accounting of his work & achievement as a poet was in the posting of his poem geometry on August 18, 2009. I describe him there as “our greatest living miniaturist,” an appraisal that holds for me into the present time. The new book from which this comes, Molecular Lament, is ready for publication from Martone’s own imprint (samuddo / ocean), along with an on-line version on his scribd page, (J.R.)]

Photo: l to r: Barbara Guest, Hadley Guest
Photo: l to r: Barbara Guest, Hadley Guest

It’s good to see Jacket2 continuing to focus on the poetry of Barbara Guest, a forceful writer of uncompromisingly modern tastes.
I am pleased to say that at a reading for Carl Rakosi in San Francisco some years ago (where Carl read  his short poem “The Laboratory Rat”) I was able to meet Barbara Guest. I mentioned that Allen Ginsberg once lived on the same street as she did, in Berkeley, at the time he wrote “A Supermarket in California”.
“Well, it’s a very long avenue,” she replied sweetly. “I think Allen lived somewhere on the downtown end.”
Her work has featured in Jacket magazine many times. To read these pieces, click on the links below:

Jacket 10 - Wendy Mulford on Barbara Guest’s The Blue Stairs
Jacket 10 - Charles Bernstein Introduces Barbara Guest
Jacket 10 - Geoff Ward reviews Barbara Guest, If So, Tell Me
Jacket 10 - Sara Lundquist on Barbara Guest’s The Countess From Minneapolis(1976)
Jacket 10 - Ramez Qureshi - Review of Barbara Guest, Rocks on a Platter, Wesleyan, 1999
Jacket 10 - Susan Gevirtz - on Barbara Guest
Jacket 10 - Barbara Guest - Five pieces from The Confetti Trees
Jacket 10 - Marjorie Welish (on Barbara Guest) - The Lyric Lately
Jacket 10 - John Tranter - poem - ‘The Twilight Guest’
Jacket 15 - Barbara Guest - (note) To Kenneth [Koch]
Jacket 16 - Angel Hair feature - Barbara Guest: Homage (1968)
Jacket 21 - Jane Sprague reviews Barbara Guest, Miniatures and Other Poems
Jacket 25 - Barbara Guest and Kathleen Fraser talk to Elisabeth Frost and Cynthia Hogue
Jacket 25 - Barbara Guest reads from The Red Gaze [links to PennSound, an archive of poetry sound recordings at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania]
Jacket 28 - Timothy Gray: ‘Fictions Dressed Like Water’: Aqueous Imagery in the Poetry of Barbara Guest (15,000 words)

Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest (center) at the closing of the Cedar Bar, New York, 30 March, 1963, detail, photo copyright © Fred W.McDarrah, 1963, 2000

Photo: Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest (center) at the closing of the Cedar Bar, New York, 30 March, 1963, detail, photo copyright © Fred W.McDarrah, 1963, 2000

In July 2007 Kathleen Fraser interviewed Hadley Guest about Barbara Guest, her life and her writing, for an audio recording. Links to the items below are on Jacket2 at this page.  

The complete recording lasts two hours and 31 minutes and is available on PennSound’s Barbara Guest author page.
    1.    introduction (0:23): MP3
    2.    Hadley Guest reading "The Next Floor" by Barbara Guest (0:51): MP3
    3.    Kathleen Fraser on being introduced to Barbara Guest and her work (13:46): MP3
    4.    Barbara Guest’s friendship with painters (9:33): MP3
    5.    Hadley Guest on growing up around poets and painters (5:15): MP3
    6.    the division between uptown and downtown in the New York art world in the 60s (12:31): MP3
    7.    Barbara Guest's refusal to be pigeon-holed (2:23): MP3
    8.    the cruelty of the downtown scene and Barbara Guest’s erasure (18:31): MP3
    9.    Hadley Guest on living with Barbara during the last few years of her life and hearing about her first marriage to John Dudley (7:18): MP3
    10.    Trumbull Higgins and social position in relation to money (11:33): MP3
    11.    Barbara’s uptown studio and her strong family feelings (16:55): MP3
    12.    Barbara’s shared apartment with Perdita Schaffner and her experience working walking around Union Square (5:00): MP3
    13.    Productivity, freedom, and moving west (4:15): MP3
    14.    Stephen Guest and introducing Barbara Guest to H.D. (15:35): MP3
    15.    Barbara’s work on H.D. (12:27): MP3
    16.    Barbara’s awareness of women writers, her relation to feminism, and her commitment to being a wife and mother as well as a poet (15:29): MP3

Barbara Guest

Air for roses (PoemTalk #24)
Barbara Guest: The art of poetry
LINEbreak: Barbara Guest in conversation with Charles Bernstein
On Barbara Guest, 'The Location of Things'
Three poems by Barbara Guest
Tribute to Barbara Guest
Typescript of two early poems by Barbara Guest

At an edge of my severed sense, the only overwhelming
breath is not mine. Another sentence to cover this one and
another eye that

begins to heal. Normal is erasing but with
no dust left to trace through, fingers make

no more arcs. In the debutante’s crying room,

the body revolts against its housing, unwelcome
wherever it exists. There are memories of stoplights
in the places
we used to go.                I didn’t know
                                             that we die
                                             in pieces. My lungs

               I've pushed back my hair I've not had
between my teeth: I have seen the way you appear
in dressing gowns and in

another stage of atrophy. The debutante sees an image
reflecting back that belongs in another war: the science
of my hands and nails. Her desire to eat dirt
is based in a math of revolutions, her mouth
another reason to belong

behind stage near mirrors and artifacts. If she could
will her own heart to stop, her eyes would flood
her brain. It is the quietest of comments
which cause chaos.

                                             In her sexual fantasies,
                                             the debutante is a capitalist

and while the reasons
for being quiet
are underwhelming, love achieves us
anyway.           Her entrails presuppose
no wonderment at all. It is

only important           that you
are listened to. I dream of diseases
where the only cure is
another pair of arms. Rewriting

my suicide note, I see the errors
I've committed before:

letters are strangled and
words that were
never mine appear. If these are
my last words, char them neatly
and pretend the veins up your neck are streets

meant to be crossed.               Hell is not knowing
                                             what you did
                                             to deserve it: that she shows       up on film
amazes the debutante. Her story
is Nebraska's

eleventh track. If the debutante
heard you speak, your voice
would become hers. Your lips and disease,
hers alone. What others do
is done to her, every scratch
across your back is three

on hers. A tooth falls out and
the nerve remains, swallowed
in my sleep. The last thing you
want to do is stand up
in a crossfire. I wondered why
all my washed away drafts
reappeared, renewed

with a sense of purpose and
believing they meant
anything. Being in her
own space, the debutante pretends
                          to speak in tongues, in

rhymed verse that
hollowly rings through the hallways
of a discarded mansion, the drawing room
sprawled out. It's not her speech that

cannot be contained: the debutante's air
is bleeding together. A reflection    is not what bothers
                                                                        others in the house:

the way the vents are spaced and how
tragedy is a mural in only
one note. Our debutante seeks
what turns scales into harmonics, a song that won't repeat

again today. What we've surgically structured
cannot be seen with naked eyes or
flaps of skin anyplace else. Only
the debutante can see through the
unreal piercings, fillings, and
recitatives. It's in the seconds
after release that her breathing frees her,
allows the lungs to become set

in her chest again: the debutante knows peace
                         as a word and a sensation, but not

as a conceptualization. I leave myself
thinking about a need that cannot be expressed
in standard notation. The debutante

is constantly in the middle of the sentence “we're

                                             using our
                                             special occasion champagne
                                             now since no special occasion
                                             ever came.” If I could make

                         a cancer grow
                         in my body, I would
                         make it so. What rattles a debutante

is acknowledging her existence in spaces
around a time signature: a pound of flesh
feels heavy in her hands. Just another
song that's too light to be sung
on an off day, thinks the debutante's

mother, a fragile ear in a
peeled-away drowning. The
debutante's father speaks only
when his words cannot be heard, but I'm the one who

hears his thoughts. The debutante
pretends she doesn't understand

how the dynamics of her
family revolve, but at night,
when she's dying, she sees all conversations
before her as a projected verse.

[NOTE. The long poem, which the preceding lines begin, unfolds as a furious thrust forward over the length of the work still in progress, where each strophe awaits its continuation in the strophe ahead and never really lets up. Trivedi has for some time been a close associate at Poems and Poetics, some of his earlier work having appeared in the posting of February 25, 2011. Of the current project he writes:

It began with the line about capitalism. Well, it really began with the first line, but I had a good laugh when I said to myself ‘In my sexual fantasies, I am a capitalist.’ But it couldn't be I, it had to be a person who would have that kind of actual fantasy and so came the debutante. I'm sure there are other wonderful poems and projects dealing with debutantes, but in this case, I hope I'm creating someone who is utterly anti-beauty and the seeming opposite of what our culture seems to define as someone of debut age. Gender isn't important and neither is age, race or anything else. The debutante here is completely wrapped up in itself, unable on one hand to be anything beyond itself and on the other, everything because it refuses (or is unable) to define itself. The ultimate spoiled self, in a way.

Where the poem will end up, it's hard to say. Part of me wonders how much narrative will develop over the next 60, 70, or 100 pages. Should the debutante die? Should s/he/it be erased in some way and redrawn? Hard to say without it getting to where it needs to go, wherever that is.”]

92nd Street Y Oct. 5, 2012; photos by Jacob Burckhardt

Mimi Gross, set designer

A magnificent Douglas Dunn and dancers performance Friday night, first of several this weekend in New York. Sets and costumes by Mimi Gross. Photos by Jacob Burckhardt (except Mimi Gross photo above, which is by Charles Bernstein). Last peformance today.

 Photo credit: Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Cambridge, 1972, copyright © Jonathan C
Photo credit: Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Cambridge, 1972, copyright © Jonathan Culler 1972, 2001

Jacket 14 carries an article by Brian Kim Stefans on the British poet Veronica Forrest-Thomson. (You can read it here.)

I had been excited by her first critical book, and had  been waiting for decades to find someone as smart as Brian to introduce her to a wider public. His piece begins:

One of the misfortunes of the lack of attention being paid to English poetry of this century is the obscurity of Veronica Forrest-Thomson, a poet who died in 1975 at the age of 27. Forrest-Thomson is the author of Poetic Artifice, a book that outlined a theory of poetry from a critical perspective — i.e. a tool to determine the success or failure of a poem rather then merely a vocabulary for describing the phenomenon of a “poem” — but one which, rather than confirming or resisting a “tradition,” concentrated on those elements of the poem that resist quick interpretation or, in her terms, “naturalization” by the reader or critic.

Though Poetic Artifice adheres to the conventions of a text that can be re-used by members of the academy, there are moments when Forrest-Thomson’s skill as an experimental poet, along with her occasional wit, lift the writing and theory itself beyond the level of disinterested speculation, engaging the reader — should the reader be a poet — in what is serious shop-talk.
    Written in the early seventies, at a time when the avant-garde poetry scene in England was still on the defensive against the Movement writers and was, it appears, lacking unity, the book has an wide range of characters; Shakespeare, Swinburne, Pound, Eliot, William Empson, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, John Ashbery, J.H. Prynne, and the critic/poet Stephen Bann (representing the "concrete" poets), among others, come under consideration. [» More]

I later commissioned more articles on Veronica, for Jacket 20.

I had spent half a year as a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge (UK), the erstwhile haunt of VFT, in 2000 and 2001, and used the time to do lots of things, including attending complex and rewarding lectures by poet and don J.H. Prynne and meeting dozens of talented poets, publishers and others, and sampling the wines of the region. While I was there I also gathered material for a special issue of Jacket magazine, issue 20. That begins with a feature, more properly a collective paean, on Veronica:

  • J.H. Prynne: Veronica Forrest-Thomson: A Personal Memoir (1976)
  • Veronica Forrest-Thomson: five poems
  • Veronica Forrest-Thomson: Swinburne as Poet: a reconsideration (an unpublished essay)
  • Swinburne Chronology — 1837 to 1909
  • Veronica Forrest-Thomson: A letter to G.S. Fraser
  • George Fraser: poem: A Napkin with Veronica’s Face, not Christ’s
  • James Keery: ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ and the Levels of Artifice: Veronica Forrest-Thomson on J.H. Prynne — a fifty-page analysis of VF-T’s analysis of J.H. Prynne’s poem ‘Of Sanguine Fire’
  • Peter Robinson reviews Veronica Forrest-Thomson: On the Periphery (from Perfect Bound magazine, Cambridge, Number 1, 1976.)
  • Robert Sheppard: poem: Parody and Pastoral
  • Suzanne Raitt reviews Alison Mark, Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Language Poetry
  • And my own poem, a response to one by Veronica Forrest-Thomson: Address to the Reader

My encounter with her work — its sparkling combination of intellect, youthful high spirits and poetic talent — left me very moved. How I wish she had lived longer! Visit Jacket 20 and immerse yourself in her creative and critical exuberance, and in the astonished admiration of the many great minds who were (willingly) in her thrall.