“The Gifts of Women Poets”: Reflections On Barbara Guest and Bernadette Mayer

Over at the Poetry Foundation’s blog, Harriet, Amy King has curated a great two-part feature called “Call and Response: The Gifts of Women Poets,” which consists of brief pieces by a long series of writers, each paired with “an older or no longer living poet who had a personal influence on them”: you can find, for example, John Gallaher on Rae Armantrout, Stephanie Burt on Louise Bogan, Patricia Smith on Gwendolyn Brooks, Armantrout herself on Emily Dickinson, Maxine Chernoff on Ann Lauterbach, Lynn Melnick on Diane Wakoski, and many, many more.

Two entries caught my eye for the purposes of this blog.  The first is a tribute to Barbara Guest by the poet and editor James Meetze (who also co-edited the recent gathering of James Schuyler’s unpublished work, Other Flowers).  Meetze writes:

When Andrew Joron introduced me to Barbara Guest’s work in the late-90s — her books Fair Realism, Defensive Rapture, and Selected Poems — it instantly inhabited me like a path I was obligated to follow into unknown territories. I learned her writing, as we all often do, working backward through it in reverse chronology. When I later got to know Barbara, just five years before her passing, she was the sharpest wit and most incisive thinker I had yet encountered. Her penultimate book of poems, Miniatures (2002), which she sent me via post, demonstrated her version of the closed-captioned poem, attentive always to the translation of image into language. Her book of essays, Forces of Imagination arrived shortly thereafter, and when, in her essay “Wounded Joy,” Guest writes, “What we are setting out to do is to delimit the work of art, so that it appears to have no beginning and no end, so that it overruns the boundaries of the poem on the page” it echoes, for me, the necessity of commune, of voices coming into the poem that are never only the poet’s. For my own poetic practice, this idea of the ongoing and interconnectivity of the poem with the life of the poet—the life lived, imagined, and overheard—is paramount; it is what Robin Blaser calls the “flowing boundary.” Guest’s work is always observant of other voices speaking; it is always flexing and advancing the limitations of form at the boundary of her art. As a graduate student at Mills College, I had the opportunity to print a broadside of a new poem—“Nostalgia of the Infinite, 1913: After Giorgio di Chirico,” later published in The Red Gaze, titled simply “Nostalgia”—in honor of her 2002 reading. In it, she writes, “You began the departure. Leaves restrain. You attempted the departure … Waving farewell.” Then 82, Guest was still at the height of her powers even if her physical body had dramatically slowed. Reading this poem now, it arrives as a conversation between the here and the hereafter, between Barbara Guest and her readers. It is an invocation and a reminder that boundaries are to be overrun, that the poem keeps on going without limit, and that the conversation never stops.

The second is John Rufo’s reflection on Bernadette Mayer, who he calls the “the High Priestess of everyday strangeness”:

My first experience with Bernadette Mayer’s work runs like this: I read Midwinter Day in a tiny hotel room in Calcutta while red and blue fireworks blasted outside, hailing the arrival of holidays. Mayer told me her truths for a week while Mother Teresa’s tomb bustled with nuns several blocks down the street. Maybe this surreal Catholic carnival arrived appropriately: what I love about Mayer are her domestic confessions that knock like jokes and appear like sonnets, prose blocks, free verse columns, translations from Catullus. In an interview with Adam Fitzgerald, she mentions her dying mother’s last request: “Join the convent, Bernadette! They’ll take care of your teeth for free.”

Bernadette is the High Priestess of everyday strangeness. She is the poet who reminds you that even when you’re facing the hereafter / you should still come equipped with Listerine. As she writes in The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters: “How am I supposed to fit in to this life where children eat so much expensive fruit?” Who else but Bernadette would seek out all of the women named Helen living in Troy, NY? She is the sun of the twenty-second of December weaving “the random cloth of life together.” She lists, she journals, she tapes up, she makes an index. She asks you to write a perfect poem. She asks you to look into mirrors and write without using the pronoun “I.” She goes after an attempt to write a poem that will change the world. And one of the words she uses most often is “dream.”

You can check out the whole two-part feature here and here.

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1 Response to “The Gifts of Women Poets”: Reflections On Barbara Guest and Bernadette Mayer

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