Weather and Cinnamon: Late Changes in Major Poems by Barbara Guest

By | 16 May 2016

Curiously, and you may have noticed this, Guest, in the audio on the Poetry Foundation website, reads the end differently again! In fact, she’s still reading an early version of ‘Roses’. The recording of Guest’s reading was made by The Library of Congress in 1969, four years before ‘Roses’ was published in Moscow Mansions. Hear Guest finish the poem with ‘and breathe’.

It’s likely she’s changed the last line to ‘and breathe’ from ‘and go to sleep’, which has then suggested the possibility of making the switch, flicking it, to ‘escape’. (One brush stroke in the draft suggesting the next.)

You can see why ‘and go to sleep’ might have bothered Guest. It’s a very slow close, an eye closing on the poem, and it unbalances the poem’s energy. There’s also something, as mentioned, too easy about it. It’s familiar, neat. The eye, which was scanning the painting, is fatigued and it naturally closes with the poem. It’s a satisfactory ending – the heat rises in the poem and then comes to rest – roses (‘picked in the morning air’). But Guest never liked it when things go too cozy: ‘If I feel there is too much music I deliberately make something awkward’ (“Barbara Guest: An interview by Mark Hillringhouse” 26).

‘And breathe’, too, is fine, referring back to the quick intake of air or the need for it, described earlier in the poem, but it’s also neat, a little too pretty, unexceptional, all qualities Guest eschewed.

‘Escape’, though, her change, arrives with the energy of a wild signature, it immediately scrapes the poem to a new place, new temperature, its flashing nerve-like movements meet wonderfully anxiously with the poem’s earlier descriptions of psychological tension – that seeking for air.

I spent a long time at MoMA, as the blizzard gathered. It was a thrill to find Juan Gris’s ‘Still Life with Flowers’ (1912), a painting that seems overshadowed in the discussion of ‘Roses’ by Gris’ ‘Flowers’ (1914 – though apparently possibly 1912), in the story for Guest’s poem ‘Roses’. It’s easy to assume that Guest, a poet who liked to let her ekphrastic gaze wander, was referring to at least both of these Gris paintings. It’s obvious from the Guest archive of letters that for Guest and her friends, MoMA was an extension of their living space. In Gris’ ‘Still Life with Flowers’ (note also the emphasis placed on the word ‘Still’ in the poem) the eye naturally moves in a diagonal from the top right of the canvas through the ‘air’ of the painting, guided by the fractured 1912 cubist rose petals, pivots on the curves of a guitar, is guided by its long neck, ‘sifted’ by the cubist shapes and slips off the table the roses sit on to the edge of the canvas where we find penciled handwriting and then ‘escape’. The eye exits the frame. We’re outside the picture. Enlivened to the ‘mysterious travelling one does outside’. The ending glosses the entire poem into action, confirms the utter confidence, the ‘attitude’ of the poem. And this is how ‘Still Life with Flowers’, also succeeds, how paintings work. She has managed to track the eye and the exhilaratingly feeling of slipping from the ‘picture’. This late change is essential to this poem’s brilliance.

Guest’s process here is sculptural and, in the context of the late 60s and early 70s, abstract expressionist. Guest typically began poems with handwritten text then transferred that text to the typed page. Often the first lines of the original draft would remain all the way through to the final draft, but the deeper the poem went the less likely those later lines were to survive. The last line often contained the most revision.

Here’s another example of a late flourish, in yet another significant poem of Guest’s: ‘The Poetess’, also from Moscow Mansions. Again we have what looks like a very late typed-up draft. The title is in capitals, the ‘(after Miro)’ epigraph is set, and yet she has again changed the last line. I’ve included the last few lines of the draft (again underlining the sections that will change) followed by the final version:

loquaciousness  The 
poetess riddled
her asterisk as
Important as space!

loquaciousness  the
Poetess riddled 
her asterisk
genial!   as space

The swapping of a capital ‘t’ in ‘the’ with the capital ‘p’ in ‘Poetess’ is curious, and it’s gorgeous the way ‘asterisk’ seems to absorb the word ‘as’, but those changes are fairly minor and easily puzzled out. What’s dramatic is how the word ‘important’ is replaced by ‘genial!’, which really lifts this poem aesthetically and humorously. ‘Important’, given the possibilities opened up by ‘genial!’, seems cumbersome, earnest and lengthy. But ‘genial!’ really pops. Playing the word, or this pop, off the asterisk is fun enough, let alone setting it up with the actual physical double space in front of it, along with the word ‘space’. In ‘The Poetess’ this cool late change comes with a lightning bolt!

I found other examples of these late last-line changes. In ‘Freed Color’, an anothologised poem from her final collection, The Red Gaze, compare the last two lines of the draft, followed by the final poem, below:

The jingle of crystal follows you everywhere, 

even into the whistling giant’s corridor.

The jingle of crystal follows you everywhere, even into the whistling corridor.

Shifting the ‘whistling’ from the mysterious and fantastical ‘giant’ (who had not appeared in the poem up to that point) to the corridor, gives the poem an effervescence; sound and image shimmering in new weather.

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