Donald Revell: “A Family of Mountaineers: Barbara Guest’s Exceptionalism”

A Family of Mountaineers: Barbara Guest’s Exceptionalism

He was particularly indignant against the almost universal use of the word
idea in the sense of notion or opinion, when it is clear that idea can only signify
something of which an image can be formed in the mind.
—James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson

Exceptionalism is a circumstance purely—one of quiet attention to one truth just as that truth begins to change. The Tea Party might be amazed, but American poetry has always taken exceptionalism to be the natural consequence of its piety before the wilding of the New. Our poems are wholly given to laud the exceptional minutes of real change. “Terrific units are on an old man” John Ashbery avers in “Two Scenes,” the opening poem of his debut collection, and he concludes “In the evening/Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is.” An opening poem surely, “Two Scenes” redoubles the instants of its gaze as objects seen remake the scenic grammars of juxtaposition into some things, rich and strange. “News” rhymes perfectly with “noise;” and as “the day was warm and pleasant,” it becomes proper and irresistible to say “we see you in your hair,/Air resting around the tips of mountains.” This is not obscurity. This is exceptionalism purely taking note. Exceptionalism is where we start from. The precedent is as old as the Book of Genesis, which begins with an exception to the Rule.

Barbara Guest, like Ashbery a poet of the New York School’s first and most vivid generation, begins her own debut with a title poem, “The Location of Things.” Twinning “Two Scenes,” it fronts emphatic change with eyes and not with grammars.

Why from this window am I watching leaves?

Wherever the eye alights, the accent falls, freely. Every word might be the exceptionalist. For example: “why from this window” puts the case of one out of many, or perhaps one most (or least) of all. Transparency trumps structure. For example: “why…am I watching leaves?” queries a possible distraction, or visitation. And from there it is hardly any distance at all to Vision and the visionary mode. I’m going too far, I know, but I’ve been invited. The very words with which the poem declares its location dislocate—one by one and by one—the emphases. And the soul of exceptionalism is the absolute freedom to emphasize at will. It uses a grammar beyond grammars. (Here I am minded of a beautiful phrase from Ann Lauterbach’s “Boy Sleeping;”—“I am coming with you nevertheless and because.” I take those words to be self-evident.) Beyond grammars, words go free. They make a dash, as Dickinson’s so often did. The last word on the line is “leaves.” The noun, plural, inclines towards a verb, and there it goes. We are left with a question. Location has opted for furthering and for elsewhere. Wherever the eye alights, it goes free.

When objects seen are not for one moment delayed by the scenic, i.e. the captivating mind, wonderful geographies become the order of the day.

…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?

This is an America America never meant to say. This is a wilderness country discovered wholly in the minutes of one uncanny emphasis: the poem. Each word, as if to reference Ashbery’s stanza, is a “terrific unit,” numbering the impossible union of inward and outward, nevertheless and because of a poetic line whose syntactic interior is suddenly engrossed by mountaineers. The exceptional happens. At times, it appears miraculous. At times, it occurs as a matter of fact, in a portrait of a boy having his breakfast outdoors with mountains visible in the distance beside his chair, painted by Fairfield Porter. To the exceptionalist, miracles are matters of fact, and certain facts, such as the painting by Porter, simply miraculous. The self-evident has something more than a metaphor in store.

…It reminds me
of pictures in restaurants, the exchange of hunger
for thirst, art for decoration and in a hospital
love for pain suffered beside the glistening rhododendron
under the crucifix.

Beyond or, rather, apart from metaphor, are vivid exchanges to which the attention of the exceptionalist bears terrific witness. Then arrives something further than witness: a wilding. Alerted to exchange, the poem crosses over, quietly, into a new territory. (Quietism is what distinguishes the New York School from every other American avant-garde: the panache of piety.) Love is on offer for pain. A flower glistens at the foot of the cross. Not figurative, but literal, these are states of being, emblems of self-evidence in the new nature, their natural habitat. Alert to exchange as to a new species of empowerment, the poem emphasizes and is emphasized in its turn by remarkable locations of change.

…The street, the street bears light
and shade on its shoulders, walks without crying,
turns itself into another and continues, even
cantilevers this barroom atmosphere into a forest
and sheds its leaves on my table

Here is power to which metaphor can only allude. Here, carelessness is the prerogative of the Exceptional. Guest shows it also to be the instance of tenderness and relief.

“The Location of Things” goes on to become in itself bright evidence of exactly how the exceptional pluralizes all entities, dispatching numberless singularities each upon its unique errand to the wilderness. (It is only surprising for a little while, and then wonderful, to realize that the New York School, more than any American avant-garde, takes up the Puritan task.) Guest depicts an ecstasy of pronouns against a pure background of transparent window glass.

That head against the window
how many times one has seen it. Afternoons
of smoke and wet nostrils,
the perilous makeup on her face and on his,
numerous corteges. The water’s lace creates funerals
it makes us see someone we love in an acre of grass.

The aftermath of ecstasy is, for once, not familiar sorrow but extravagant nature newly born(e) by love out of death. “If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”

It is the way of miracles to be miraculous, i.e. to embody exceptions to those very rules which make them exceptional. This is the American mystery. This is the way in which exceptionalism proves the one and only Democratic Vista on offer just now. Guest ends her poem with a final extravagance, an operatic gesture which would have thrilled our Whitman through and through.

…I hand you
from my prompter’s arm this shako,
wandering as I am into clouds and air
rushing into darkness as corridors
who do not fear the melancholy of the stair.

Her errand is new. The changes underway are not fearsome, and the climb effortless. It is hardly any distance to Mount Vision after all.

Donald Revell is Professor of English & Graduate Studies Director at UNLV. Tantivy is his twelfth poetry collection, published by Alice James. Donald Revell’s previous translations include The Illumninations by Arthur Rimbaud, and A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud, both of which were published by Omnidawn. A Season in Hell won the PSA translation award. His books of essays include Invisible Green: Selected Prose, published by Omnidawn. He serves as poetry editor of Colorado Review. Revell lives in the desert south of Las Vegas with his wife, poet Claudia Keelan, and their children Benjamin Brecht and Lucie Ming.