SYMBIOSIS by BARBARA GUEST & LAURIE REIDDAVID B. GOLDSTEIN Reviews
Symbiosis by Barbara Guest (poet) and Laurie Reid (artist)
(Kelsey St Press, Berkeley, 2000)
In her essay “The Shadow of Surrealism,” Barbara Guest writes:
I confess that often when looking at art I do not ask what it means, or how was the paint applied, the color chosen, but what has led the artist into this particular situation, what permits this particular piece of work, and how it is solved. (Forces of Imagination, Kelsey St, 2003, p. 53)
I love many things about this passage and will work my way into a few of them, starting with the disappearance of the word “problem” from the construction “how it is solved.” For Guest, at issue in writing is not the solving of problems but the solving of situations and permissions. The writer locates herself somewhere out in the open, perhaps frighteningly so, and then begins to solve that openness. Robert Duncan also speaks of this vulnerability when he calls the point of poetic origin “the place of first permission.”
Guest’s genius as a poet is her ability to solve openness without resorting to closure. Both on the page and in the mind, her poems remain airy, stretched, full of spaces, while still offering the reader densely layered structures. It is like observing the movements of a spider suspended on her barely visible web or watching a snake in the grass: what appears as emptiness or wandering reveals itself to be focused, crucial. Like snakes, Guest’s poems move in order to stay alive.
The particular permission of Symbiosis is collaboration: between poet and artist, word and image, language and print, imagination and stillness. The book opens with an italicized fragment, as if a dedication: “A writer and an artist working together establish a Symbiosis, as in Nature, where dissimilar organisms productively live together.” Productivity in dissimilarity is the hallmark of this collaborative venture. Guest, who as a young poet was heavily influenced by abstract painting, has always asked what art can teach her about poetry. Here she learns from Laurie Reid, an accomplished artist whose work shares the spidery-snaky quality of Guest’s prose (Reid’s work also appears in Guest’s book of essays, Forces of Imagination). Reid’s activity in the book consists of long, draped lines that look like washed-out watercolor or Chinese calligraphic ink, an ambiguity that becomes one incarnation of the border between painting and writing. The lines divide the page into ghostlier demarcations, keener spaces. Guest’s text perches delicately upon Reid’s weaving shapes, noticing and conversing with them. The text is exquisitely letterpressed in soil-brown ink (the book’s other essential collaborators are the printer, Peter Koch Printers, and the designer, Robert Rosenwasser), giving the book an auratic, artifactual quality that belies its price.
To discuss the book as the sum only of its words, rather than as the interaction of figures in a space, would do the book a disservice. On every page, the words and images act in concert, changing our understanding of each. (In the passage quoted above, for example, an ink splotch occurs over the phrase “as in Nature,” preparing the reader for the book’s interest in organic shapes and colors, elemental structures). The book unfolds in beautiful difficulty, with Guest’s lines darting and pulling against themselves while Reid’s lines weave a layered understory. Here’s a scan of the first page of the poem:
The poem tosses questions at us. What is this “wool fable”? Is “hiss” an admonition to the reader? If so, why should we hiss? How does wool turn? What are we to do with the sudden tense and voice shift from the imperative to the active past of “envied”? Working what in layers? Meanwhile the art both explicates and directs us toward the negative space of experiencing without interpreting. “Wool” connects with Reid’s lines both in color and shape (in the sense that these lines weave the page); Reid’s lines too “work in layers,” envying the circle by gesturing toward circles but never completing them; her lines both hold volume and negate it, fading away on the lower left while thickening on the top and lower right. The ink splotch on “fable” emphasizes the space between Guest’s lines, which become both “close and away” by virtue of our newfound attention to the space that separates them.
As the work unfolds, a meditation emerges regarding the nature of collaboration or symbiosis. Like most of Guest’s work, the book enacts its own subject matter: it “is” what it is “about.” Using the unit of the incomplete arc—phrases, questions, quotations, lines that extend past the page—the poet and artist feel their way into a grammar of collaboration. “Is symbiosis aflame”? “Will it belong”? There is fear in these questions, yet the book finds its steady assertions too: “each day autumn. Day wakens, no break in the/ thread.” On a page marked by two painted asymptotes that almost but do not quite touch, Guest writes, “This is the point where the strophes meet,// one line interweaves with another,” although precisely the opposite is happening on the page. Her assertions offer themselves to us more as figures than as certainties. They are true in some sense but lightly so; they are true elsewhere, just beyond the page we currently inhabit.
The reader looking for answers in Symbiosis will get none, exactly. The book does not build to a series of propositions, but rather keeps shifting sidewise, coming at the issue of collaboration from various perspectives: structural (“Positioning the strophes/ ended in calm”), analogical (“Knitting or singing a song”), metaphorical (“Remarkable basins,/ you give me ten years”), natural (“the blue// magnolia nestled; the wild berry, also”), etc. Alongside these explorations, the poem in its second half enters a more defined narrative space. A character emerges, a “she” who both seems to personify symbiosis and can move through it, evaluate it. “She is not so silly/ as they thought in her mantle,// coming from outside,” we are told. The outsideness of this figure allows for greater flexibility: “She is more fluid,” “She can read the image in the overlapping/ even from outside,/ those parts that overlap.” Through this female realization of movement and observation, the poem takes on a body, or rather explores the way language and image already partake of bodies, how they are outside of the body yet a part of it. This originary symbiosis—of the body that creates and the art object that is created—is where the music of poem, in a moment of gentle surprise, comes to rest: “Pushed her leg through the rippling// image changes.” The figure enters, at least for a moment, the creative act itself. Writing changes the image (“the rippling image changes” when writing moves into it) and the image changes writing (“image changes” what it touches). Meanwhile Reid’s lines swirl around and under the text in the unusual freedom of a disturbed pond. With Guest’s death this year, the image of her work has indeed changed. Yet still it ripples.
David B. Goldstein is a poet, critic, translator, and journalist, and is the author of the poetry chapbook Been Raw Diction (Dusi/e, 2006), online at dusie.org. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Jubilat, Typo, Epoch, Alice Blue, Zeek, and The Paris Review. He currently teaches Renaissance literature and creative writing at The University of Tulsa.