Ben Lerner
“Selfish Enchantments”:
Barbara Guest and the Nature of Arrangement

Why is Barbara Guest uncomfortable with nature? “Your fear of nature—no laughing matter—/ like mine and Poe’s.” She is either bored or threatened by the natural world: “But the view/ made up for the journeying/ although I don’t enjoy real lakes.” And she repeatedly longs for nature to change and be an agent of change: “I desired sunrise to revise itself.”i

          Nature is unarranged—it’s merely there, merely real, no organizing imagination determining or altering its forms. It has not been placed there. For Guest, placement and arrangement are key terms of lyric activity, and she’s discomfited by anything unarranged or impervious to imaginative arrangement. Consider the first two stanzas of her much discussed “Wild Gardens Overlooked by Nightlights”ii:

Wild gardens overlooked by night lights. Parking
lot trucks overlooked by night lights. Buildings
with their escapes overlooked by lights

They urge me to seek here on the heights
amid the electrical lighting that self who exists,
who witnesses light and fears its expunging

The title and first line already indicate a tension between the arranged and the natural: a garden runs wild but is nevertheless overlooked—overseen—by electrical lighting. Cultivation gives way to nature which is in turn recaptured by the cultural. The opening stanza zooms out from garden to trucks in the parking lot to multiple buildings; “night” drops out of the last line, allowing us to read this final and most encompassing view as belonging to the stars. The natural thus ultimately superintends the artificial. We can’t with certainty identify the antecedent of “they”—“they” could be electrical lights, stars, buildings, escapes, trucks, gardens, or unnamed interlocutors—and this plurality of possible meanings itself parallels the plurality of perspectives described in the first stanza. We might say that “they” refers to the three overlooks: three views that urge the speaker to choose among them and establish specific relationship to the landscape, to locate herself as subject, the way we’re invited to affix the pronoun to a single antecedent. The subsequent stanzas chronicle the speaker’s response to this interpolative pressure:

I take from my wall the landscape with its water
of blue color, its gentle expression of rose,
pink, the sunset reaches outward in strokes as the west wind
rises, the sun sinks and color flees into the delicate
skies it inherited,
I place there a scene from “The Tale of the Genji”

Instead of occupying one of the subject positions delineated in the first stanza, the speaker turns from the outside to its image on an interior wall, a natural scene she then replaces with a narrative one. If nature trumped culture in the series of perspectives offered at the beginning of the poem, here nature is brought inside, then replaced (the desire to bring the outside in is foreshadowed by the fact that we typically think of “night lights” as interior, not exterior, lighting). Rejecting the pressure to locate herself in real space, she instead explores the space of the painting:

An episode where Genji recognizes his son.
Each turns his face away from so much emotion,
so that the picture is one of profiles floating
elsewhere from their permanence,
a line of green displaces these relatives,
black also intervenes at correct distances,
the shapes of the hair are black.

Black describes the feeling,
is recognized as remorse, sadness,
black is a headdress while lines slant swiftly,
the space is slanted vertically with its graduating
need for movement,

Unexpectedly, it’s the painting that is characterized by motion—floating, displacement, slanting, etc.—not the real world of gardens or trucks or buildings with their escapes. The first stanza has only the past tense of “to overlook,” a verb that already threatens to petrify into a noun, whereas even the landscape painting contains elements that reach, stroke, rise, sink, flee. Subject positions overlooking the real threaten the speaker with immobility whereas the mobility within and between paintings (they are aesthetic arrangements that can themselves be rearranged) offers richer possibilities for experience (think of how “witnessing light” is replaced by the more complex encounter with expressive color relationships):

Thus the grip of realism has found
a picture chosen to cover the space
occupied by another picture
establishing a flexibility so we are not immobile
like a car that spends its night
outside a window, but mobile like a spirit.

The flexibility established by artifice frees the speaker from the burden of choosing a particular overlook overlooked by nature and enables her to move effortlessly among a variety of perspectives without finally defining “that self who exists”:

I float over this dwelling, and when I choose
enter it. I have an ethnological interest
in this building, because I inhabit it
and upon me has been bestowed the decision of changing
an abstract picture of light into a ghost-like story
of a prince whose principality I now share,
into whose confidence I have wandered.

Significantly, the ability to float among subject positions is not described as the result of exchanging paintings, but rather as the effect of changing a painting into a story, light into text. Ekphrasis—the possibility of transforming one medium into another—provides an alternative to the passivity and fixity of mere witnessing. Ekphrasis itself becomes a figure for the transformative powers of the imagination—a more effective escape from immobility than the escapes attached to buildings.iii

          These stanzas from “Wild Gardens Overlooked by Night Lights” are a particularly explicit narration of a contest between the transformative powers of artistic imagination and the stasis of unarranged nature; it’s a contest we encounter throughout Guest’s collected poems. Consider these prose passages from “Musings on the Mississippi,” the eighth section of The Countess from Minneapolis:

Although Paris has only one river, the Seine, this river behaves perfectly reasonably within the city limits, or arrondissements, approaching the isles with courtliness and depositing its burdens with a verve one used to associate with the beret. A manner is thus maintained by the Seine which we define as raison de’etre or Steak Diane or the French way of looking at things…

When I come to the subject of Minneapolis and its posture on the Mississippi, a confusion like a drought descends upon me. Minneapolis persistently nagged by the unreasonable river that both gladdens and disturbs her heart. I may become convinced that the only way to survive a long, unsettling, barren Minnesota winter is to sit in a hut by the log fire and looking past the tears of confusion and loneliness falling down my pinched and overheated cheeks study, chew, harry a map of Minneapolis. Thus one might survive until spring.iv

The Seine knows how to behave within the city limits—has a manner, a second nature, and can be personified and metaphorized in various ways. The cultural force of the city organizes the river. But in Minneapolis, the river is in charge. Minneapolis isn’t able to educate the Mississippi; it is unreasonable—one might say uncultured—and the only strategy the speaker has for enduring the winter in such an uncultivated place is to bring the outside inside via representation. Thus she is able to contend with the landscape she inhabits, to frame herself and float above the frame. Such Proustian scenes take place within a book that largely treats Minneapolis as the opposite of culture, as an isolated, barren, rugged place where art struggles to establish itself. At the end of the book, however, art proudly defies (and transforms) nature:


The orange metal plant spread its tendrils aloof over the museum’s roof. With all its fragrant captivity asserting the immigrant rites of sculpture.

Restrained by metal from whispering, from complaint, even from homesickness, Amaryllis with its antique name, its distant origins, held a regal stance.

Between its position and the blockades of the city, between it and the nearest reliquary there would remain no communion. Amaryllis would never yield its superior stance. Its moods, glances, were those of an observer less restless as time passed, yet one who possessed the claim to restrict its grace.

There could be detected something of the borrower here, rather than the lender, an attitude the Museum’s curator recognized would never change. He questioned the effect of those regal metal blooms upon the visitors. He worried if the city were aware of the undisturbed and selfish enchantment Amaryllis cast. A piece of art that through a collector’s whim had come to dwell in Minneapolis.v

“Amaryllis,” Tony Smith’s sculpture acquired by the Walker Art Museum in 1968 (138 x 90 x 138 inches, steel, installed in the sculpture garden), is a “transplant” in more than one sense: it’s from New York and it’s an abstract sculpture named after a flower (a common houseplant; as with “night light,” there is the implication of domestic space). Moreover, “Amaryllis” is a conventional name for a shepherdess in the pastorals of Theocritos and Virgil (“To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,” Milton writes in “Lycidas”). Not only has nature become culture through sculpture, but a shepherdess has become regal, and a genre that idealizes nature has been transformed into a celebration of urbanity. Art, not nature, blooms after the long winter and tears and loneliness give way to an imperturbable “selfish enchantment.” Smith’s sculpture is famous for seeming to change shape as the viewer shifts position; “selfish enchantment” refers less to a self secure in the persistence of its identity over time than in its protean character, its ability to remain aloof from relationships that would fix it as an object (blockades, reliquaries). We have returned, then, to the power of imagination to establish a flexibility between subject and object. And if Amaryllis feels superior to Minneapolis, “she” has nonetheless finally transformed it into a dwelling, a shelter from the wilderness of Minnesota.

• • •

I have been focusing on the narrative elements of Guest’s poems, a relatively unusual tack: Guest is typically read as a “painterly” poet, a poet whose poems (especially her late poems), like abstract paintings, are best analyzed in terms of their materiality, not their referential meaning, or at least not their narrative content. Guest’s experiments with spacing—her textual arrangements—can call our attention away from the narratives of arrangement (placement, framing, etc.) within the poems, and the distrust of narrative among many innovative poets has perhaps contributed to an emphasis on the visual and sonic attributes of her complex poetic constructions. This emphasis makes sense for a variety of reasons, but attending to the specific relationship between Guest’s formal arrangements and the dramas of arrangement the poems narrate is, I believe, essential to grasping the power of her work. The way the poems can shift between being art objects and narrating engagement with art objects is one of the principal ways subject-object relationships are kept fluid throughout her books. By formally dramatizing the interplay of arrangement and its narration Guest’s poems suspend themselves between objecthood and representation; they seem to shimmer between states. They can make the experience of reading a Guest poem like Chad’s experience of Paris in The Ambassadors: “It twinkled and trembled and melted together, and what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next.”vi

          Even in the comparatively conventional formal organization of “Wild Gardens Overlooked by Night Lights,” there are palpable tensions and collaborations between spatial and narrative logics. The extra space between stanzas can initially contribute to our sense of the immobility described in the opening scene: instead of merely leaping the standard stanza break in pursuit of narrative development, the poem immediately makes narrated time contend with real space. But if the extra space begins by threatening non-narrative stasis, it comes to contribute to the sense of floating the narrator eventually achieves: by keeping us attentive to the poem as a textual arrangement in literal space Guest enables us to read “I float” and especially “I place” as referring at once to the activity of the author producing the poem and the speaker within it. We’re subtly encouraged to experience each stanza as placed (by authorial decision, not mere convention) because of the expanded space between them. Guest manages at once to inhabit and float over the poem—to be both subject and object of representation—because she is able to affect, however fleetingly, an identity between the arrangement the poem is and the arrangement it narrates.

          In Guest’s later, typically sparer, work, where spatial arrangement is radicalized and narrative elements can be more difficult to trace, the poem’s double status as arrangement and description of arrangement remains key. Take these lines from “Blurred Edge,” the last poem in Miniatures and Other Poems:

The arrangement of objects      announced

     more firmly than before.

          Observation.      Candor,

where candor approaches the cube.vii

It’s hard not to read, or we’re at least quite able to read, these lines as describing the development of Guest’s own writing, the later work insisting even more intensely on the poem as arrangement. But the poems are no less narratives for narrating their emergence from narrative into literal arrangement, and Guest’s work is studded with reminders that we should read even the most abstract texts as charged with narrative tension, not just as poetic particles: “This is not sand, it is drama.”viii Consider another passage from the later work—Stripped Tales, a collaboration with the artist Anne Dunn—evoked by the lines quoted above:

He changes the scene with its unique nobility into something quite
different he draws around the story a circle and then breaks up that circle
into angles so that the narrative line is abolished. The linear lines of a
narrative are obtrusive and when he breaks it up there will be more energy,
instead of lines he is free to deal with planes. The planes join each other
to become cubes the entire outline of his life fits into a cube.ix

This could be described as a more abstract version of what is by now a familiar dialectic: an outside (a scene) is brought inside (a circle) so that it can be subjected to the imaginative manipulation of the speaker (broken into planes); the new arrangement (cubes) is then able to contain what it was once contained by (narrative). Instead of the subject being trapped by his biography, he is at once outside and inside his own life narrative (imagine “I float over this biography, and when I choose/ enter it…”); the “outline” has become a shape he can move around at will, as opposed to a line that defines and binds him. The poem narrates the overcoming of one kind of narrative—biography—that threatens, like nature, to enforce immobility (by fixing the subject to a particular personality and temporality). And in Stripped Tales, such vignettes are themselves interspersed with—and broken up by—a long italicized poem, thereby establishing a kind of depth, as one poem can be read as containing the other.

• • •

To alternate between being the subject and object of representation—to be both inside and outside of the poem—is to avoid the pressure to be oneself. Nature perplexes Guest because it threatens to foreclose the possibility of an outside from which further imaginative transformations can be staged, leaving one trapped in a specific identity and place. Her fear of nature is a fear of the unframed, but any frame that asserts itself as an absolute limit—a biographical outline, for instance—can be equally threatening to the mobility she prizes. Narratives of arrangement create an inside to the literal arrangement that is poetic composition, and lines of escape established between these diegetic levels prevent subject and object relationships from petrifying. Creating conditions in which first person verbs of arrangement can refer to both levels simultaneously (“I place”) and narrating the becoming literal of the poem as arrangement (announced, in the later work, more firmly than before) are two of Guest’s most effective strategies for affording mobility between interior and exterior. Such mobility is an unmistakable feature of Guest’s work, one not only explored by her finer readers (Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Peter Gizzi, and Robert Kaufman, among others), but by Guest herself in the highly lyrical essay, “Shifting Persona”:

The windows are normally independent of one another, although you may pass back and forth from one view to the other…

Without the person outside there would be no life inside. The scene relies on that exterior person to explain the plangent obsessions with which art is adorned.

Yet inside the window is the person who is you, who are now looking out, shifted from the observer to the inside person and this shows in your work…

The ability to project both windows is a sign of originality and is rare…x


i The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008): 106;
185; 331.
ii CP, 209-210.
iii For a compelling and sympathetic reading of this poem, see Martha Ronk’s “A Foreign Substance,” Chicago Review 53:4 and 54:1/2, pp. 109-112. Ronk focuses on how a kind of deliberate “ekphrastic failure” helps Guest establish her mobility.
iv CP, 147.
v CP, 165-166.
vi New York: Penguin, 2003: 118.
vii CP, 479.
viii CP, 481.
ix CP, 319.
x Forces of Imagination (Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 2003): 36, 37, 38.