Barbara Guest’s “Illyria”

Barbara Guest
Barbara Guest

Barbara Guest was an American poet (1920-2006) and early member of the influential New York School of poets and painters. Lyrical, imaginative, and often playful, Guest’s poems are deeply concerned with language construction and form. In 1999, she was awarded the Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement by the Poetry Society of America. Her book, Moscow Mansions (1973), from which “Illyria” was taken, was a landmark collection of poems that borrowed elements of Surrealism, abstract expressionism, experimental music, and jazz.

I too admire the way
water spells in the hand riding this way…

In “Illyria,” an ancient region on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea in present-day Serbia and Albania (and the fictional setting of Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night), Guest unfolds and intertwines words as she describes a ship’s passage along a waterway. Guest’s protest here is not so much a protest against a single subject or event, but against a resoluteness of language, a single way of perceiving the world. In this way, it is easy to see all of Guest’s poetry as protest, against the oppression of multitudes, though what her poems offer is perhaps more positive: new ways of seeing the world (and words), a re-vision of objects and places, and a way out of the bonds and constriction of language itself. Notice how she uses certain words–“brows” and “paragraphs” and “rifts”, to name just a few–in startling ways that move beyond those words’ normal associations, embracing often several meanings at once.


And I was right as dawn over head
listening to the buoy as is often done
a bridge while brows float under it yes
it was a way of steeples of construction
of pilings of verbs. I too admire the way
water spells in the hand riding this way and
that and also the moments of green which
like paragraphs point out the stations
we must enter and leaving them count trees
more scarcely; there is much to emulate
not only iron bands but those waves you can
no longer dive into and the seamless rifts
which are noble as you explain omnivorously
having devoured both nail and hammer,
like an isle composed of rhythm and whiteness.
Night is gentle with the promise
of a balanced pear such is it this drop.

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