Moscow Mansions


On the back of this paperback copy of “Moscow Mansions” James Schuyler writes that Barbara Guest’s “images feed from her hand like birds, and then take wing again”; if birds, her images—and poems, are always turning and returning, getting sharper and more deadly with each flap of wing.

A sudden failure of confidence: writing that, what do I mean? Is it possible to speak about a poem, or a group of poems, this way? Are poems birds, flowers, “sharp”, “deadly”?


According to The Virginia Quarterly Review, in a pullquote also on the back of the book, Barbara Guest’s poems unfold “like flowers”.

It is hard to confirm this language because it speaks obliquely in relationship to poetry. How can a poem be like a flower?

An unfolding flower is organic, active: her poems feel both organic and active. But poems that are nothing like Guest’s poems could be said to “unfold like flowers”. Flowers unfold directly, without guile, and Guest’s poems are anything but direct. Flowers can be categorized easily, by genus, by colour, by habitat, or by length of growing season, but Guest’s poems do not respond to category. Though one could say generally that according to struture or methodology her poems fit a particular school or approach to poetry, what is inside her poems—what is their essence—cannot be firmly grasped and appraised as if they were flowers.

And yet I agree that her poems are like flowers, that if they are like flowers they are “unfolding” flowers.

A perfect poem for this discussion might be “Red Lilies”. Its title identifies it with flowers and it manages to achieve a sense of coldness by unfolding like a flower:

Someone has remembered to dry the dishes;
they have taken the accident out of the stove.
Afterward lilies for supper; there
the lines in front of the window
are rubbed on the table of stone

The paper flies up
then down as the wind
repeats. repeats its birdsong.

Those arms under the pillow
the burrowing arms they cleave
as night as the tug kneads water
calling themselves branches

The tree is you
the blanket is what warms it
snow erupts from thistle;
the snow pours out of you.

A cold hand on the dishes
placing a saucer inside
her who undressed for supper
gliding that hair to the snow

The pilot light
went out on the stove

The paper folded like a napkin
other wings flew into the stone.

By the end of the poem, the reader doesn’t know what has “happened”, only that the world is in conspiracy with the feelings of an alienated couple. Like them it is cold and distant, full of little failures and disappointments.

The couple is never identified or addressed, they hover at the edge of the frame, like spirits: “someone” has remembered to dry the dishes, a “cold hand” places a saucer, a paper folds itself like a napkin, &c.

A failed or failing relationship is glimpsed through no detail precise to the failure of the relationship: or perhaps through detail so outside of the relationship that it feels precise. For some reason it is the effect of this exterior detail that causes me to believe her poems are like unfolding flowers.


VQR also writes that Guest writes poems with a “painter’s eye”. She translates language into paint, as she explains in “Passage”, where she writes that words are just syllables, “notes / sounds / a painter using his stroke”.  Nearly every other page contains a reference to painting. In “The Poem Lying Down”, Guest experiments by trying to do to a poem what a painter might do its subject: turn it on its side, make it lie down. Guest is much too clever to attempt a literal transformation: the poem isn’t literally shifted from the horizontal to the vertical, or shaped in a way that suggests the form of a reclined person. Instead, the lying down is suggested by a subtle shift of language, and an incompleteness that marks the poem as somehow different than the other poems in “Moscow Stations”. Guest prizes emotion, feeling, sounds—paint—over literal meaning: in “Byron’s Signatories”, the speaker complains that the name of a painting by Hirschvogel is too literal, and threatens to tear it up, until she realizes that despite its name the painting is enchanting, a locus for the speaker, who cannot help but fall into its German windows “conjuring rigid sleeves or hearts plunged or purged”.

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