The use of thresholds in Barbara Guest's 'The Location of Things'
Although I research and discuss mainly prose literature, this week’s newsletter is looking at the work of one of the pioneering voices in women’s 20th century modernist poetry: Barbara Guest.
Even as a scholar of English literature, I find poetry the most difficult to wrangle with. Guests’ collection The Location of Things (available in her collected poetry edition) opened up to me when I first discovered it, and I continue to return to it, in an effort to understand more. I hope you enjoy my first attempt to put some of her ideas into context!
At the beginning of the 20th century, a growing group of writers began to set about escaping - or subverting - many of the traditionally accepted literary conventions. Becoming known as modernists, the poets working in the modernist aesthetic began to discard many traditional elements of poetry, such as working with metre and rhyme, as well as often choosing strange and obtuse subject matter. This became a particularly urgent concern for female writers, who arguably had their own aesthetics to create.
Not falling tidily within the modernist movement, the work of poet Barbara Guest shared much of the modernist aesthetic. Part of the so-called New York School of writers formed after World War II and influenced by the avant-garde art movement, Guest sat on the periphery of modernism and was highly influenced by surrealism, a key component in the avant-garde art scene.
However, no art or literary movement develops in isolation and Guest’s poetry, whilst forging new and often challenging modes, borrowed from an earlier pastoral tradition. Her collection The Location of Things shows how Guest blended the fresh, modernist aesthetic with the tradition of pastoral to create binaries of interior versus exterior landscapes.
The New York School poets were often influenced by modernist artists such as Matisse, Picasso and Miro, as well as Abstract Expressionism, leading them to adapt their new modernist aesthetic into a new working of the earlier pastoral tradition, which tends to idealise the natural world. Guest also indulged in what is known as ekphrasis poetry; poems written about works of art.
The New York School poets often created work containing references to New York City, representing the urban pastoral aesthetic, however Guest’s work is less apparent in this. The only female poet amongst the New York School members, Guest appeared to set out to revise the pastoral and create her own, experimental style aesthetic, allowing for an exploration of both country and city life.
Another member of the school, Frank O’Hara, made an argument for the urban pastoral mode, claiming that the pastoral no longer needed to be located in fields, instead relying on the oppositions and contrasts around nature and simplicity with civilization and artifice, and commented on the examples of this based around separation and loss in Guests’ work.1
This opposition or contrast of urban versus rural was something of which Guest was acutely aware. Frequently spending time in rural Long Island, Guest claimed to hold an ‘unconscious division’ between the country and the city, stating that she often wrote whilst in Long Island and took this writing back to the city. Interestingly from the viewpoint of a writer, she claimed that her weekly bus trips into New York helped her to create the tension between the city and the country in her work.2
Guests’ poetry often moves ceaselessly between the domestic, urban, coastal, and rural environments, creating a collection of ‘spaces’ in which to enter and leave.
In ‘The Location of Things,’ the title poem of the collection, we encounter such an example of this persona located at a window, looking out. The window acts as the first of three locations within the poem, which functions in both a realist and surrealist aesthetic. In the opening lines of the first stanza:
‘Why from this window am I watching leaves?
Why do halls and steps seem narrower?’
the reality quickly turns from the realist to something more representative of a surrealist painting, accessed through pastoral language:
‘Or hidden, am I to find a lake under the table
or a mountain beside my chair
and will I know the minute water produces lilies
or a family of mountaineers scales the peak?’3
Guests’ ‘window’ functions here as both location and dislocation, framing the speaker’s view. But this is no ordinary scene, as Guest slips between the real view from the window, to pastoral scenes of nature, and then into a third persona of memory:
‘On Madison Avenue I am having a drink, someone
with dark hair balances a carton on his shoulders
and a painter enters the bar…’
The schema of the poem follows the narrator’s thoughts as she witnesses the reality of life through the window, juxtaposed with surrealist elements and memory. A later mention of a ‘crucifix’ and a scene introducing a ‘hospital’ present a further location, perhaps speaking to loss or grief. The juxtaposition of the natural world with ‘Madison Avenue’ perhaps indicating the longing for the simplicity and beauty of the natural world, as perhaps Guest acknowledged on her weekly bus trips back into the city; representative of Guest’s disparity between her rural life in Long Island and her day-to-day reality in the city.
Although poetry is not my area of expertise within literature, what interests me about this poem and the inferred distance between ‘locations’ and ‘things’ is the idea of the threshold of the window at the beginning, framing the scene and so framing the memories or other images Guest fragments throughout. It appears that the window represents the ‘threshold’ between the interior and exterior landscape of Guest’s persona. These interior versus exterior binaries representing the shifting between the reality of the speaker’s actual location, and enigmatic references to natural elements.
This, for me, embodies the way we experience memory and recall: how often does our mind move between locations as we sit or walk during a morning commute?
Throughout Guest’s collection, there appears an emphasis on dislocation, displacement, and incessant ‘travel’ – whether real or imagined. With such contrasts between the persona’s memories and the traditional elements of pastoral writing, Guest creates some wonderful lines:
‘The water’s lace creates funerals
it makes us see someone we love in an acre of grass’.
The rain on the window of the speaker’s actual location functions to dissolve the scene, obscuring it both metaphorically from her mind, and literally from view, indicating that the poem’s narrator recognises that these are all disparate memories which are now dissolved in the reality of her current location.
In the final stanza, however, the speaker is:
‘rushing into darkness as corridors
who do not fear the melancholy of the stair’.
The narrator here demarcates between the narrow view from her window and the world beyond, indicating uncertainty.
To take a leap further from this idea of the window as ‘threshold’, I would suggest that this metaphor has further far-reaching suggestions.
As the New York School members were involved within the avant-garde art movement and thus were forging new approaches to writing and art, as the only female member, Guest may have felt a more urgent need to subvert traditional writing modes and to shape her own identity, creating something new. Guest arguably forged her own style as a poet, with her poems demonstrating a modernist inspired aesthetic, whilst simultaneously an adaptation of a female reconstruction of the urban pastoral tradition through the lens of the female gaze.
If we take that in conjunction with the idea of the ‘locations’ within her work, particularly the idea of the window as threshold, or framing device, it could be argued that Guest is reflecting her position within the modernist aesthetic as sitting on the threshold of a whole new sub-genre - or genre-adjacent - to both modes. Her fragmentary verses, having no regard for traditional metre or rhyme, (as with the other modernist poets emerging in the 20th century), are coupled with a nod toward the traditional pastoral, working to create this new and bold aesthetic.
In another poem in the collection, ‘The Brown Studio’, Guest’s ‘location’ this time is a room which she enters:
‘Walking into the room
after having spent a night in the grove
by the river
its duskiness surprised me.’4
‘The Brown Studio’ references this collision of absence of colour within the room, in comparison to the natural elements outside it. In the second stanza, we are told ‘the brownness alarmed me’, when faced with the reality of the return to the studio after ‘The hours I had spent under foliage’. Throughout the poem the narrator conflates the darkness of the studio and the reality of ‘the black stove, the black chair…the black coat,’ with death and decay - ‘a dying brown’ - when compared to the natural world she has left behind.
Again, the binaries of interior versus exterior landscapes are at work here. Guest’s persona within ‘The Brown Studio’ is ‘melancholy’ upon her return, where everything appears dull and decaying, represented by the browns and blacks, in an echo of pathetic fallacy. Her inner conflict at leaving the nature she has encountered the evening before, bears a stark contrast to the way she feels here, back in her studio.
This could be a reflection of Guest’s own feelings of her time away in Long Island, writing amongst nature, and her subsequent return to the reality of her workspace in the city.
The persona represented in ‘The Brown Studio’ faces the same dislocation expressed within much of Guest’s work. But different in this poem is the darkness and melancholia of the speaker as represented by the absence of colour; the interior landscape here being reflected within the exterior landscape, as opposed to its opposite.
Interestingly, the poem refers to a person whose only presence is now represented by a photograph:
‘Of course you weren’t there, but a photograph was.
Actually a negative. Your hair didn’t show up at all.
Where that fairness had lit the open ground,
now there was an emptiness, beginning to darken’.
So again, as with ‘The Location of Things’, this poem appears to represent the loss or separation of someone, and the room – the ‘location’ – merely a representation of this loss, echoing the earlier words of Frank O’Hara.
The reference to the photograph being ‘a negative’ further adds to the absence of colour within the poem; an absence not only within the exterior location of the speaker, but of the interior landscape within which they are reacting to their return. By returning inside the brown studio, the speaker is effectively returning to the inner dialogue which involves remembering the absence of the person in the photograph, represented by the absence of colour, light, or shade. The ‘Studio’ referred to in the title being another of Guest’s locations, places, or thresholds, which frame her persona’s melancholy, separation, and loss.
I admit to finding poetry the most difficult of the literary arts to study. Modernist poetry is no exception, and in fact can be seen as written as a collection of disparate images without the formal traditions of poetic style.
Whilst Guest’s poetry contains strong elements of the experimental, modernist mode in its fragmentary and ruptured nature, her poetry in this collection works together on a dialogue with the more traditional pastoral mode. But even so, it is often ruptured and difficult to pin down. Her collection pulls together recurring themes: melancholy, decay, death, even umbrellas and rain. The weather and seasons as experienced whilst Guest wrote her poetry in the rural retreat of time spent in Long Island are reflected as both interior and exterior landscapes throughout the collection.
It could be argued, then, that Guest writes in a modernist, surrealist, pastoral aesthetic, however urban her locations may be. However, I would suggest something of a hybrid; a genre-adjacent mode, encompassing newly transgressive forms whilst borrowing from earlier traditions.
Although I often find such works to be difficult to access, in Guests’ work, the effort feels rewarding. As I live on the edge (dare I say, ‘threshold’) of a busy urban city juxtaposed with the natural expanse of the Peak District National Park, Guests’ work speaks to me in her capturing of such contradictions. Her use of nature with the ideas of memory, as well as the thresholds of ‘place’ – both physical and literal – are explored in some of the most beautiful, resonant language, that I continue to return to.
Postscript: I hope you enjoyed this brief foray into the work of Barbara Guest; I hope to return to her in a later newsletter, looking at her biography as well as her poetry. If you love all things literature, and haven’t already subscribed, please consider a free or paid subscription. I also offer a free upgrade to paid for any students or unwaged who feel they may resonate with my work.
Frank O’Hara, ‘"Nature and New Painting," Standing Still and Walking in New York’, Ed. Allen, Donald, (1983), 41-51.
Barbara Guest, Untitled, Barbara Guest Papers, Box 9, Uncat MS 271.
Barbara Guest, ‘The Location of Things’, The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest, ed. Hadley Guest, (Wesleyan University Press, 2008), (all subsequent references to this edition).
Barbara Guest, ‘The Brown Studio’, The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest, ed. Hadley Guest, (Wesleyan University Press, 2008), (all subsequent references to this edition).