Event in Honor of Barbara Guest


from Rena Rosenwasser


 Event in Honor of Barbara Guest


 April 26th, The Poetry Project, St. Mark’s Church, New York, co-sponsored with the Poetry    Society of America


During the night it had been raining. Soft sounds were chattering on the roof above my room. I was in Alphabet City, less than a dozen blocks from the Poetry Project. By the time I woke it was late, in keeping with the many time zones I had crossed slipping back to Manhattan, my old home, to honor Barbara Guest. Those of us who had chosen to read in honor of Barbara, who were we? Some were colleagues from her early years in New York: John Ashbery, Charles North, and Kathleen Fraser. Kathleen was actually in Rome, but a recording was played of Kathleen reading from a cafe verses from The Türler Losses.


And there were artists of course: Susan Bee and Richard Tuttle. How could an event for Barbara be complete without the painters and sculptors with whom she had spent so much of her life conversing? Richard Tuttle read selections from Dürer in the Window, one of the books he and Barbara collaborated on.


And poets like myself who had met Barbara in the seventies or eighties: Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Charles Bernstein, Ann Lauterbach, and Marjorie Welish. Peter Gizzi, Africa Wayne, and Erica Kaufman were also reading. We were all to recite for a brief five minutes. First 10 minutes had been allocated, then because so many of us desired to participate, we were parsed to half the measure.


Barbara had been such an inspiration. She stressed the essential importance of the poem, the work of art, the book. This was what I had always looked to art for. In one of her lectures Barbara had said, We have learned that words are only utensils. They are inorganic unless there is a spirit within the poem to elevate it, to give it “wings.” [1] As a child art was indeed my angel. And New York was the city where I had found this angel everywhere. Barbara when she first came to New York as a young woman in the fifties was also smitten.


In the sixties, as a teenager, I met, anonymously, “Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry us Higher.” The perfect pressure of the poem’s words would often erupt in the cavities of my ears on unexpected occasions. Isn’t that what a lyric is supposed to do, vibrate like a chorale along one’s inner arteries? I heard the words now, for our Barbara felt fully present as I walked out onto 7th Street. Cherry blossoms were strewn over the side walk. The wind had cast them down, the rain had dampened their pink petals, and they now lay bruised on the pavement, all their blowsiness taken out of them. Everything smelled of rain, cherry petals and rain. Barbara would have had something surprising to say about the quality of these petals. When I finally met Barbara in the eighties, I realized she had been the author of my “Parachutes.” Now her parachutes were rising as the petals fell. What was it Barbara wrote? Cloud fields change into furniture/ furniture metamorphizes into fields/ an emphasis falls on reality. [2]


The sun was trying to shine as I reached 10th street and the door of St Mark’s. It was chilly, though blue was finally nudging its way through cloud. I had pages I was prepared to read, as well as Symbiosis, one of three collaborations Barbara and I had undertaken with painters.


Arriving early at St Mark’s, I stood in front waiting for the doors to open. Hadley Haden Guest, Barbara’s daughter, and I chatted briefly. Stacey Szymaszek, organizer of the Poetry Project tribute, finally opened the church’s doors.


In the distance, I recognized Anne Dunn and her partner Jane Kitselman. It had been ages since I’d seen them. Anne had collaborated with Barbara on Stripped Tales. Greeting her, hearing her voice again, with its clear British intonations, I felt as if years had dissolved and I was listening to Barbara speak fondly of Anne. Barbara and I were in her Berkeley living room and she was telling me stories about Anne and the seventies. Now it was 2008, and Anne and Jane had ventured here from uptown and were sitting quietly waiting for the readers. Nathan Kiernan and Jane Frelicher joined them. Soon John Ashbery would arrive and sit in an opposite pew. I remember a dinner Nathan had thrown in the nineties on the occasion of a book on James Schuyler. We had all been there at the dinner. Now Marjorie Welish was beside me, and then Mei-mei and Richard appeared in a flurry with Chaco, their auburn toy poodle, quietly wagging his tail. The staid reserve of the poets broke into oohs and aahs to the tune of the tail. I saw Ann Lauterbach out of the corner of my eye. Ann had amazed me in the past with her descriptions of Barbara’s work, always managing to find the ideal articulation of Barbara’s poetic practice. This time she was brief, as all of us were, concentrating on the poetry, though she managed to hit the perfect descriptive note:  I can think of no (American) poet who brought such clarity to mystery—who endowed mystery with so much clarity and lucidity. Then Ann read one of Barbara’s gems, “An Emphasis Falls on Reality.”


Mei-mei, one of the early readers, had already drawn us into a mood of reverence with the soft timbre of her voice. Barbara had brought so much beauty into the world, not the least of which were the words Mei-mei placed before us in “The Screen of Distance.”


John Ashbery, with an anecdote, added levity to our tributes. In Paris, in the early years of his friendship with Barbara, she had required his urgent attention to convey in French information to a hotel concierge. All of us in our pews who knew her well could hear her voice gasping over details of matrimonial arrangements. This light and lively tale by the eminent Ashbery would have delighted Barbara most of all. He proceeded with “Crocus Hill” and “Persians in Minneapolis,” distinctly casting Guest’s verse with his own prosody.


I spoke a little about Barbara’s California years and the impact she had on all of us in the Bay Area. Charles Bernstein, with a rousing tone, read an essay he had written on Barbara. Marjorie Welish chose poems from a later book, Rocks on a Platter, in which Barbara found the perfect pitch for abstraction.



Sitting in the room, listening, all the strands of my life seemed connected to these measures and these artists: collaborations, dinners, conversations, trips to New York and France. Barbara had always said to me, when my energy and confidence were failing, the work you do for Kelsey Street Press is so vital, critical. She cleared my head of all doubts. I suppose my commitment to Kelsey Street Press for these last 33 years had more to do with Barbara than with anyone. She had the most profound belief and commitment to art, whether in poetry or in painting, whether inscribed on a page or on canvas.







[1] “Poetry the True Fiction”, read at SUNY, Buffalo, Forces of Imagination, Kelsey Street Press, 2003, p. 29.

[2] “An Emphasis Falls on Reality”, Fair Realism, Sun and Moon Press, 1989

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