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

By | 16 May 2016

Guest often changed her titles at the last minute, too, but I discovered another deliciously-significant change to one of her most cited poems.

In a letter to the publisher, 1987, she outlines some late changes to her new manuscript, Fair Realism.

The letter begins ‘New Title: Fair Realism’, and includes: ‘A revision of ‘The Landscape of Leisure’ to be called ‘Twilight Polka Dots’, as you will understand from the contents of the last stanza.’

I’d go as far as to say that if the more middling title, ‘The Landscape of Leisure’, remained, I’m not sure this poem would have found the attention that it has. ‘Twilight Polka Dots’, a line she took from the final stanza and brought up to the title, is glittering. Vivid. A shimmering effect through each line of the poem.

Also, Guest was so bold as to change the title of a manuscript at such a late stage. And what a shift! Barbara Guest without the title Fair Realism is unthinkable, and a wonderful companion to the title of the book that followed, Defensive Rapture. It’s particularly cool because it introduces her new aesthetic – a characteristic stylishness infused with a new layer of constraint, irony, conceptualization and knowingness. It’s as if in that moment, whether she would have liked this to be said of her of her or not, she became a post modernist.

Late changes with the energy of a signature. Electric risks.

One last late cool change. It’s apt. ‘Hotel Comfort’ was possibly the last poem Guest wrote before she died (it’s the last poem of her Collected Poems). It’s elliptical, aerial, reflective, with its famous ‘ostrich leaps’ and late, bold attachment to surrealism in ‘These Surrealist moments’.

Here’s a section of a fax from Barbara Guest’s daughter, Hadley Guest, to the editor of Wesleyan University Press, the publisher of Guest’s ‘Collected …’ (April 20, 2005):

‘Suzanna, I found this poem of fall, 2004 by Barbara, about the Hotel Comfort in Strasbourg, because some of our ancestors were from Alsace-Lorraine in France, and because Surrealism was accepted and developed there.’

The last few lines of the draft are typed as follows:

Wise lettuces exaggerate their claim near the windows of the Hotel Comfort.
And you have sent your letter of explanation for the pleasure obtained
in the wooden jar. Speech-maker, you have sent notes of pleasure
in the glass jars.

Guest, though, has added, just below this stanza, in frail handwriting, what we now see is a late addition to the poem – a surprisingly lyrical last line. One last swift thought, sign off, at the denouement, late day, cool change: ‘tasting of weather and cinnamon’.

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