Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry: Barbara Guest and Gracie Leavitt

By Lisa Russ SpaarAugust 25, 2019

Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry: Barbara Guest and Gracie Leavitt

The Blue Stairs by Barbara Guest
Livingry by Gracie Leavitt

IS THERE SPACE in our current poetic moment for the poem of aesthetic strangeness and linguistic difficulty? That is, is there room for a poetry whose main concern is with what a given poem means intrinsically, on its own terms — a poem, as Lyn Hejinian puts it in “Some Notes Toward a Poetics,” that engages with “meaning as meaningfulness gets elaborated,” the poem as a “site of poetry’s reason — where the plurality of its logics and the viability of its contexts are tested and articulated”? As Geoff Ward asks, rhetorically, in a review of Barbara Guest’s work in Jacket (No. 10, 1999) is “‘real life’ made or marred” by such aesthetic preoccupation? Is such a poetics “an evasion, as it’s held to be when any aestheticism comes under attack, or could it be a defence — even the beginnings of a politics?”

Barbara Guest, who has authored myriad books of poems, essays, art criticism, drama, and experimental prose, as well as a biography of Imagist poet H.D., over the course of her 60-year career, was born Barbara Ann Pinson in North Carolina in 1920 and educated at Berkeley, and came of age as a writer in New York City. She was often allied with the abstract expressionist painters of the 1950s and was also one of the few women associated with the first wave of the New York School of poetry, which included Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. Guest, defying neat categorization, has also been linked with surrealism, Dadaism, modernism, and feminism, and, particularly, by the time of her death in 2006, with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, whose innovations her early work presaged. As David Shapiro remarked in the American Poetry Review, “When one looks at work Barbara Guest accomplished in the late 1950s and early 1960s, one finds pieces that often seem to have been written yesterday, if not tomorrow.”

Guest’s work certainly has an ever-surprising and contemporary feel, and this in itself speaks to its politically transgressive as well as aesthetic value. Many writers have written eloquently about the mix of fierce intellection and sensory pleasure her verse provides, among them Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Peter Gizzi, and Kathleen Fraser (who refers to Guest’s “painterly witness”). Guest herself has called the source of her generative poetics “plasticity.” By this she means a fluid, gaze-subverting, and manifold imagination, at times owing to Gertrude Stein, at others to Wallace Stevens, but perhaps more importantly to a host of painters from Mark Rothko to Jackson Pollock. It is a way of perceiving the world peripherally, which she once described as a “tinge on her left retina something like tequila, a rough peppery hotness […] the ‘flavor of eyes.’”

Guest’s first full-length collection of poems, The Location of Things (Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1960), was issued in a limited edition of 300 copies that reappeared, augmented, as Poems: The Location of Things, Archaics, The Open Skies (Doubleday, 1962). The Location of Things is marvelously out of sync with 1950s and 1960s norm of female objectification and domesticity. As Erica Kauffman writes in a retrospective of the 1960 edition for Jacket 2 (28 April 2011), Guest’s

dichotomy of inside/outside, voyeur/actor resonates through out the book and continues to remind the reader that women do not have the luxury of occupying space in the same way men (her male contemporaries) do/did. In these early poems, we see the surfacing of Guest’s commitment to poetry that works as painting or architecture — poetry that demands the reader look at the thing in front of him/her and then let it teach them to occupy space, with one eye on object and the other on the gendered body that views it.

The Blue Stairs, Guest’s second book of poems, appeared in 1968, when the author was 48 years old. The book is in some ways a Baedeker of Guest’s obsessions, a touchstone volume for the work prior to it and the work that would follow. It exhibits a painterly passion for color and spatial composition, a predilection for sonic wordplay, for mixing the wild with the quotidian, the oneiric and the all-too-real in a way that brings the reader to the brink of unsettling emotions without defining them.

The collection does contain two uncharacteristically direct poems, “The Return of the Muses” (“Here you are back again. Welcome. // […] I want to stop whatever I am doing / and listen to their marvelous hello”) and “Barrels,” in which the speaker imagines an “other” woman coming along to remark on “this barrel of tears / I’ve collected from you” — the you being, presumably, the speaker’s lover. Note that Guest is provocatively ambiguous even as she is being forthright: has the speaker extracted tears from her lover — that is, has she been the cause of the tears — or has she wept them herself in response to him?

I see her coming along.
I know the type.
I can tell you what she’ll
be wearing.

I know the type
I won’t like it.

She’ll look at that barrel
she’s had a few in her day.

Not that she’s ever filled one.

She’ll remark casually,
“Sweet water,
good to wash my hair.”

And who doesn’t know
tears are purer
than rain water
and softer on the hair.

Just as she steps toward it
and makes for the cup,
I’ll see the phantom you
and what you were
brought up by the sea.

And scraps of paper
from this ditch of my brain
will float on the water
and choke her.

The poems in The Blue Stairs intimate exotic travels and occult, interior “weathers,” but masterpieces like the serial and intertextual “A Handbook of Surfing” are more than flights of fancy and wit. It is full of the lingo of the West Coast surf culture it records and, at times, indicts: “Wondering if this day fills you with ennui as it does me / in your bunnyhood so busy on the beach opening tops / six package I’m told”; “Lo your glossy tunics the simple wrap around / or take off always one shoulder the porous / statues on the hill stanced seaward sunstruck.” As the poem rolls and crests, its narrator becomes Cassandra in Virgilian guide-mode, taking the reader on a “Surfari” that acknowledges the mythic roil of the era (Civil Rights, the Vietnam War) beyond the realm of wipeouts and bikinis:

Am called Cassandra in these summer days
when in the soft illness of heat I’m ready
to talk of battles

            He rides in the heat
            he never squeaks
            he is ready for shore order

Whether/or the village cong cough
like a leaky board when the surf is rough
Cassandra thinks of a child whose muscles
are thin; she weeps at the motorboard cost
the reef he’ll hit young as Wordsworth’s Lucy
in the quick clime of bomb


Nobody rides in closeout!

The poem is a negotiation of disaster and beauty, a “[shrewd meditation] / [on] the expanse  the artful dare.”

Guest’s poetics of linguistic pitch and risk is perhaps nowhere more richly played out than in the title poem, which is as saturated with blue as the gorgeous Helen Frankenthaler painting that graces the cover. The form of the poem is stair-like, and it puts “public” and social concerns (“a position / between several Popes” and “republic of space” and “secret platforms” and “orthodox movements”) in spatial conversation with sensuous perception and wordplay (“Radiant deepness / a thumb / passed over it” and “Waving the gnats / and the small giants / aside” and “Now I shall tell you / why it is beautiful // Design: extraordinary / color: cobalt blue”). What Guest suggests is that it is the state of feeling evoked by the poem’s processes — the climb, the descent, the noticing — and not the formal artifice that finally matters. The “blue stairs” are a means (like the poem itself) that, once they take you to where you need to be, can, in a Dickinsonian “the Props assist the House” manner, be “kicked away”:

Reading stairs
as interpolation
in the problem of gradualness

                                    with a heavy and pure logic

The master builder
acknowledges this

As do the artists
in their dormer rooms

                                    eternal banishment

Who are usually grateful
to anyone who prevents them
from taking a false step

And having reached the summit
would like to stay there
even if the stairs are withdrawn

This is the effect of Guest’s poems: they move the reader to a place of arrival, of emotional complexity haunted by the mysterious deftness of their own artifice. That they do so with a freshness that transcends any single poetic or socio-political context makes them all the more worthy of renewed attention.


In her essay “The Gendered Marvelous: Barbara Guest, Surrealism, and Feminist Reception” in HOW2 (1999), Rachel Blau DuPlessis writes that

among [various] critical possibilities, it is important to maintain feminist reception — a reading strategy that puts no limit on the nature of the work, is agnostic as to whether it conforms to rubrics of this or that version of womanhood, nor even cares whether the writer can be assimilated to (available, contemporaneous, consistent, or currently approved) feminist positions.

This strikes me as the right, the human way, to read any text at any time, but it provides an especially apt lens for Gracie Leavitt’s second full-length collection of poems, Livingry (2018). As in Guest’s poems, Leavitt’s language mobilizes emotions — pain and pleasure — deploying an “I” that converses with itself, or no one, while eschewing any linear plot. By operating without narrative logic, this kind of text is intrinsically subversive, unsettling, and, again, as deeply political as it is difficult.

Leavitt credits R. Buckminster Fuller with coming up with the term “Livingry” (“the opposite of ‘weaponry’ or ‘killingry’”), and this is a heads-up that though many of the poems in her collection embrace a kind of dream logic, their concern is societal as well as private. And it’s clear from the poems’ many allusions and shout-outs — from Emily Dickinson to Lou Reed, Ani DiFranco to Edna St. Vincent Millay — that this erudite wordsmith is as culturally savvy as she is involuted.

Threaded through with “angels” (eidolons by turns salvific and disturbing) and a series of witchy “nonce hexes” for various things such as “baggage having shifted” and for “rambunctious progress,” Livingry, like The Blue Stairs, is a kind of breviary of Leavitt’s adventurous imagination, something she acknowledges in the understated “Vade Mecum” (which means, in Latin, “go with me”):

Midmorning’s prestige:
as if earth might add
something to space, a mess

of agates in my palm, all these
mineral lines in freelance fit
run into yours. Now that

is what I call a handbook
— no title: so little
we can do, we should do it.

If Livingry has a predominant obsession, it may well be with selfhood: What is it? How to vex or hex it? How to be any one self? Why? As Leavitt rather saucily announces in the opening poem, “La Rompue,” “the fiction / of this poetry is that / it all gets written down / by one person, ha, if I am / a broken woman / it is into / many, many pieces.” Many things can prismatically splinter a person into countless parts: physical pain, heartbreak, worry, the broken world, even joy itself. And as damasked as her texts are, Leavitt is aware of the dangers of the linguistic veil. As she writes in “Loose Leaf,” a meditation on the privacy of notebooks and perforated pages, but also on tea shared with others, who, after morning exercise gather “in the face almost / certainly of destruction”:

This morning
the mystery
shared itself, but I
don’t want to
only ornamentally
absorb, therein
sly call perhaps
to be a part and
separate …


and I wouldn’t want
to practice such
paper-thin, such
threadbare howbeit
embroidered arts with
any one but
every one
of you.

The planet may be melting, the bees disappearing, the world going to hell and evaporating, spindrift “spume” our ultimate home (“Membership”), but, in Leavitt’s cosmology, retreating into extremity is not the answer. In “Capped Brood,” Leavitt writes,

one thing doesn’t
absolve you from
another. A mother
telling the bees
about her son when
there are none
could mean there is
no telling,
triangulating being
how I get sometimes
at anything.

In “Amygdala Madrigal,” the speaker begins, “Brilliant little sister friend / of faeries and of devils, slay / me and be my best / self.” One reason the reader believes Leavitt is that she has an uncanny gift for describing inchoate feelings we’ve all had but haven’t articulated, such as this, from “Bucolic Rubbernecking”:

Cenotaphic as a sofa
with nearly a deer bed
impressed, obsession
is the double
that severs me
from myself …

Or these opening lines from “Suck Rhythm”:

Just below the rind
a cafeteria kind
of grief. There
my mood completes
the broth. Swallowing
air together
with seawater is
one way of pronouncing
clearly it’s elsewhere
we’ll be arriving …

Livingry shows us that planetary anxiety, conscience, and ire can come to us in poems rife with linguistic artifice and complexity, even difficulty. Leavitt’s semantic and cultural fluency also inspires resiliency, as we see in “Delta Dawn Force,” which might be read as a feminist anthem:

are crucial
shrapnel, cutting
clear through
the wallow
to invite you
into your own
fluency: a few
rosy frills
around elision
not the sort
that omits, sort of
just running together, fast
and for survival.

This poem has me imagining a posse of our timeless poets of difficulty — among them Blake, Hopkins, Dickinson, Guest, Leavitt — walking out at dawn beside the sea as Rome burns, perhaps picking their way among the first surfers, fishers, and skater boys and girls, quaffing mugs of loose-leaf tea and filling notebook pages with lifelines like blue stairs.


Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet, essayist, and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia. She has published numerous books of poetry, and her latest collection, Orexia, appeared in 2017.

LARB Contributor

Lisa Russ Spaar is a contemporary American poet, professor, and essayist. She is currently a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia and the director of the Area Program in Poetry Writing. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Vanitas, Rough: Poems, and Satin Cash: Poems. Her most recent book is Madrigalia: New & Selected Poems (Persea, 2021), and her debut novel, Paradise Close, was published by Persea in May 2022. Her poem “Temple Gaudete,” published in IMAGE Journal, won a 2016 Pushcart Prize.


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