Three poems by Barbara Guest


After so many hours spent in the room,
One wonders what the room will do.
Whether speech or action will be first,
And whether the weather will be first
To begin.

Such long inaction is unnatural.
But why should it happen to you, when
Outside, the street has silver cars,
All unoccupied, equipped and ready
For departure? Even the kitchens
Are ready with pans, and the dishes for something
Heretofore unplanned. The people who pass
Whisper and stare, then say, “house.”
Why not accept the waiting and forego
The known? After all,
Occupancy is only a matter of making up
One’s mind. The silver cars are square
And the room is long.

Interruption would be different in a car.
It would come on the road, like trees and fern.
Like the flowers whose names have been learned.
Or sandwiches made in layers; the friction
Would be brief and quickly swallowed.
Not people. Not the stranger with the listening
Heart, or the girl without a mind. Not
Person. The encroachment would be barely
Visible. It would happen on a side road,
A detour, or a highway cut by mistake.
You would wipe it off like the windshield
And be ready for the next advance.

After all, this house is old.
How many people come creeping,
After the spider, upstairs. Some with bags
And some with baskets, and all going nowhere. They
Only want to settle under the roof like pigeons;
Quarter their young and prepare for the future.

But you are different. You have watched
The vanishing of the separate ghosts. You have seen,
Over the bannister, the disappearance
Even of those who tried to remain.
You should not wait for the walls
To speak. Go into the bathroom,
Turn on the faucett, and swim into the street.

[c. 1945]
[Typescript of this poem]

The Inhabitants

Early night and the evening bus
Passing with a new wreath around
Its straggled head. The push cart
Halts and fifty pineapple eyes stare
Into the invalid light. We move
Like people in an opera on this street,
Arranged and decked, our arms
Progress against the dark, unconscious
Symbols of the hour we have left,
The escape we have planned and made.

The subway. Seated within
The nocturnal car, we expand; grow
Gracious in this self-conscious night.
Unnatural botanists, we observe
The stations as flora, more curious
So far underground. We select
The rarest, the one we years ago
Have seen inside a dream, and known
That here the trowel must sink,
The root be cut. And we ascend.

Memory of past cities. Cities
More beautiful in a poem. Fallen
And wept for, the warrior cities.
Even the silent ones, who are
Known only for the trouble
They have borne, the tormented ones.
Yet what can surpass the adventure
Of this city, crossed by water, beyond
A river. The only city whose lover
Is the bridge …

The grey cat enters the broken gate.
The ball hits the wall, and children
Run, side by side, down the walk.
The twilight games of the very young.
Somewhere a curtain moves and a pattern
Of lace falls from a room. Boulevarded
By space, every sound is of a thousand
Voices crying, and each one
Saying the other is false.
And the riverboat saying, return.

Someone is following us. Experienced
In apprehension we look back.
Relief turns the green face white,
For we have seen our familiar fear
In the long coat with the tearful
Lapel, the perpetual ghost under
The lamplight. We call out.
His answer could be affirmation,
Or even sorrow changed into a leaf,
For we are allowed to enter our house.

[c. 1945]
[Typescript of this poem]



         An opposing force nestles closer
         — to the four square of its joint

               the nimbus divides at an unfaded seam

         and the naughts are shuffled at the table

                                and rapidly the wheedling gems
         appear and disappear from an unsteady table —;

                                — this superstition —
         the oathing — (winter in society) is felt by the hard folk
         and they scatter —

         and read their palm — the oathing catches up    under the nimbus
they part —

                             eliminate the intoxication of force — and the mincing
suggestions cast by the opposing force     weep at solemnity horse on the
platform    his thrust —

                             yet they are freed of the nimbus and opposition
they are like larvae — they are under the glass at first — and they proceed
with exemplary caution over newly paved roads    under the spy glass

                         like Hannibal; and again as the wheels of a traveller
              reactions are diverse    not being under the nimbus —

                                             being Latinate perhaps —.

This was worth breathing into — translated not bloody —
afternoon under new palms and rivers    imagination agitated and warm—;


yet verbal complications — (bestial desiring) — Jove or his discontent
                       Zodiacal origins —
mosquito Soul

                       memory of the oathing —.

It was a shawl on that table                         that hair piece the rhythm
       of the forehead    classic moans

                         interrupted the blink    the mellow square
             memory and her hireling —;

                                                   the same supperless complications

gods who multiply; wench who lifted her eyes —; what passes on the tile’s

belly (the mantle and) — perhaps Allah.

Regard the wheel
                         dark blue   maraudering.


                Not being under the nimbus    of earthen of metal
                          terrace levelled beams crossed; folk who
                offer early and late    zero numbers
                          sneeze in late autumn    the random


                                                       chalk sketch

                primi pensieri:
  that man coming up the hill


                                               it grows later as he climbs
                                           the multiplicity of early
                                                                                 of late


                         landscape’s script and nimbus

                                                                        natural and mimetic

                                serene yearning

                          early and late

and the Ode.

[Previously published in The Iowa Review 26, no. 2 (Summer, 1996)]

Typescript of two early poems by Guest
LINEbreak: Barbara Guest in conversation with Charles Bernstein