Winner of the SFSU Poetry Center Book Award (2010)
One of the most notable members of the New York School—and its best-known woman—Barbara Guest began writing poetry in the 1950s in company that included John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler. And from the beginning, her practice placed her at the vanguard of American writing. Guest’s poetry, saturated in the visual arts, extended the formal experiments of modernism, and played the abstract qualities of language against its sensuousness and materiality. Now, for the first time, all of her published poems have been brought together in one volume, offering readers and scholars unprecedented access to Guest’s remarkable visionary work. This Collected Poems moves from her early New York School years through her more abstract later work, including some final poems never before published. Switching effortlessly from the real to the dreamlike, the observed to the imagined, this is poetry both gentle and piercing—seemingly simple, but truly and beautifully dislocating.
Though she came to prominence late in her career, Guest (1920 2006) remains less well-known and less well-understood than fellow New York School poets John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler. Like them, Guest (who was an editorial associate at Art News from 1951 to 1959) has multiple threads from the visual arts running through the 20-odd books and chapbooks collected here, but what this collection reveals more than anything else is the striking, cohesive majesty of Guest's tone, which can be at once funny, deep and full of Eros while pursuing some pretty difficult images and ideas: "Vases! Throats! Lactations!/ The milk of time in the reservoir moon/ Stones with cloud currents as sylphs/ in nightclothes swim, moon on thicket/ stems climb vases, wastrels" (from "The T rler Loses"). Guest's three masterworks Moscow Mansions (1973), Fair Realism (1989) and Defensive Rapture (1993) are worth the price of admission alone, but surprises like the hilarious The Countess from Minneapolis (1976) or steely and charming late work like Rocks on a Platter (1999) and Miniatures (2002) might end up being many readers' favorites. This book, one of the year's essential releases, should be part of any library of 20th-century American poetry.