Riding a Wave: On Barbara Guest’s “A Handbook of Surfing


An image of Barbara Guest's Selected Poems on a wooden background. ISBN-10: 1557132003
Barbara Guest’s Selected Poems (ISBN-10: 1557132003)

Barbara Guest instructs me on the deepest level in her serial form poems. One can hardly think of an interconnected serial of Guest’s without thinking of The Türler Losses (what a great book!), but I first encountered “A Handbook of Surfing.” A smaller, self-contained serial poem, this handbook illuminates the lineage and logic of Barbara Guest’s poetry.

The repetition of images in the poem, the elongation of a moment pulled and re-experienced whispers Stein and this debt to modernism. Unlike Tender Buttons, Guest’s time isn’t tied to a prose poem or a grammatical trick for insistence (rather than repetition), but each tableau makes up a another turn in repetitive elongation and the waves of the water lap over and over. The moments gather and fold, as waves that fold, and the whole poem reaches toward length like Alice growing taller. “I’ve read a poem about surfing and now time has been stretched. I’m stuck in a moment, catching a moment.” Moment after moment that forms the serial is a new repetition of a moment held and folded as waves tumble and pleat.

The lines of the poem are often broken before the breath catches a stop, Guest halts the breath and pushes it back with the tide of her lines. Ends topped and full phrases are seldom there to surf all the way these long pipelines of words that curl around and reach a true apex. But even further than the breath that is rolled back and forward, to and from the shore—Guest positions the poem is a free form flow that jumps and flows from left to right on the page. The water of words also move to and from on the page, mimicking the breath, mimicking the sea, mimicking the body of the surfer picking a point to ride and flow on.

Something about the strokes of her pen, the redoubling and glazing of images, the turns in form to underline the rolling content and mimics the image of the title all points to the importance of painting on Guest’s work. The splatters of Jackson thrown over and over to produce the collaged effect of the poem and the painting. The glazing and layering of repetition that cries of Rothko. The importance of the image nailed and forced to move or repeated in the movement of a triptych as in Bacon. Sure, Guest is indebted to modernist literature. She is also indebted to modernist painting. She is in conversation with art, without categorization.

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