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A Tribute to Beauty

Review of Chicago Review, Summer 2008 by Zachary Boissonneau



The voluminous Summer 2008 edition of Chicago Review is really two journals in one.

The first half is a tribute to American New York School poet Barbara Guest (1920-2006), featuring three of her short plays, many poems, and commentary by twelve contributors. Guest is best known by this reviewer for her excellent book, Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World (1984). The second half of the journal features seventeen poems, three short stories, one essay, one interview, ten reviews, and a note by C.D. Wright and letter by John Ashbery.

Guest's plays, from the 1950s and 1960s, are at once poetic and enigmatic."The Office--A One-Act Play in Three Scenes" is the most cryptic, with characters such as X1, X2, Girl 1, Girl 2, Figure in Yellow, and so on. Lines such as "Dear Madam: / Accept my condolences. Admire the rain," mix the commonplace with the whimsical. When X1, speaking into a Dictaphone machine, says, "To dream now that life is worthy of the dream!" we realize that the office scene before us is both life and a dream, life heightened and immortalized by the dream of a poetic vision.

"Port--A Murder in One Act" is slightly more accessible, as Inspector and His Assistant attempt to solve a mystery, with Six Voices providing a Greek chorus amid the rest of the dialogue. Lest you think "accessible" means we're in Agatha Christie Land, note that a typical line has the Hero saying, "I'm as full of affection as a tuna fish."

The most impressive of the three short plays is "The Lady's Choice," in which "an unmarried and unhappy heiress," Antoinette Newton, relates to several different men in varying ways. Here the language is at its most stark, its most beautifully poetic, as when Antoinette says the following:

My hair stirs
The empty air.
These wrists twist
Stones.
A father's beauty
Circles
My false beauty.

Five of Barbara Guest's uncollected poems follow the plays, along with an Afterword by Catherine Wagner. The remainder of the Guest section is comprised of various selected poems of hers, each followed by commentary or reminiscence by a different writer, and ending with a bibliography of Guest's books, chapbooks, and artists' books (Guest's poems with illustrations). To give each of these excellent poems and these writers their due would mean forsaking the rest of the issue, which would be unfair. There's a lot of ground yet to cover. Guest was a gifted writer who has left us a rich legacy. Her work bears discovering or rereading. (The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest [Hanover: Wesleyan University Press] has just been published this year.)

But let's move on.

Bret Sparling's "Buying In: Views From Entry Level" is listed as a short story, which makes it a fascinating instance of metafiction. The first part purports to be an interview with Yang, a twenty-four-year old Chinese vegetable farmer from the Fujian Province. A footnote informs us, "These interviews are transcriptions of actual conversations. They have been translated from Mandarin by the author." Think of Pearl Buck crossed with Studs Terkel.

Yang is persuaded by a childhood friend to go into the furniture design business. But when he arrives where his old classmate lives, the plan turns out to be a classic pyramid scheme that has nothing to do with furniture. The details about brainwashing and recruiting are fascinating. Yang abandons his scruples and his dreams ("People without scruples expand fastest"), but in the end returns home and becomes a fisherman.

The interviewer talks with three more subjects: a Burmese prostitute named Xiao Hei, aged nineteen, who at sixteen trafficked in heroin; Xiao Lin, a prospective emigrant to Mexico; and Ah-Chi, a gamecock enthusiast whose family has been evicted from their homestead. What all four subjects have in common is their longing for a better station in life. Sparling gives them compelling voices, each distinctive in its own way, and we come away feeling we have spent time with five real people (including the narrator). If this is indeed fiction, Borges would be proud.

Ed Roberson's poem "White-Out" describes "the white / blizzard off the lake" that propels gulls "by the wind, / not them always / at the ropes of muscle / flying not in control." The gulls are piloted "seamlessly back into land" by the silence following "Snow thunder," which "has the sharp profanity to it / that cuts through." This is a vivid piece that paints a picture not through narrative but individual words strewn together as if wind-tossed.

Craig Foltz's story "Miasma" feels more like a stream-of-consciousness prose poem, eleven sections varying from one to eight sentences long. The main character--the only real character--is a woman who owns a massage parlor and a pit bull. As the story opens, she is dreaming that she doesn't own a massage parlor or fight with her boyfriend or cut vines of kiwifruit down to expose a weathered fence. But then she wakes up, and what is the reality? Things are either happening, or they're not, or they're being dreamed about, or they're real. It's an intriguing conceit. "The pit bull sleeps under the hibiscus tree, which, for some unexplained reason, has survived the chainsaw onslaught." One can't help but wonder what the dog is dreaming.

Christine Hume's "A Conversation with Rosmarie Waldrop" finds the writer/translator in an expansive mood, discussing everything from the betweens of life and art--"I've always thought it was the conscious change to English, my coming to the US [from Germany], that not only made me a translator, but gave me a sense of being ‘between,' and a sense of writing as exploring what ‘happens between.' Between words, sentences, people, cultures."--to Barbara Guest. "I discovered Barbara with the book Moscow Mansions and fell immediately under her spell." She concludes, "I've been trying to write a prose poem for Barbara," and the poem, a work-in-progress, is printed at the end of the interview. It's called, "THE POEM BEGINS IN SILENCE," and in it Waldrop tells us that "Time is perishable." It can certainly seem so. As she states earlier, "But with Barbara Guest, Robert Creeley, and Jackson MacLow dying in short succession--three poets equally important in their very different ways--I do have the feeling it's the end of a world."

Finally, P.K. Page's "Your Slightest Look" is something I almost don't expect to find when I open a new literary journal--an honest-to-goodness love poem. And a beauty it is. What Page has done is taken four consecutive lines of e.e. cummings' "somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond" and used each consecutive line to end one of her own stanzas. It works, because the poet's own language is gorgeous enough to match cummings'. "No matter if I sleep, my dream will see you / looking my way, the curious gaze you give me / bringing you to me bringing us both together / as if I were between you, you between me." I could easily copy the whole poem for you and still wish it were longer.