Updated date:

Barbara Guest's "Red Lilies"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Barbara Guest

Introduction and Text of "Red Lilies"

In Barbara Guest's preposterous "Red Lilies," the speaker creates in eight versagraphs observations that stack up in her mind transformations of frivolity and motion. The ragged mind that concocts blistering stench pushes the envelope to the edge of oblivion. Poetry movements rage and range on difference, and sometimes the difference becomes so different that it is a whole other species from its ancestors.

Nonsense has its place in both the literary and non-literary worlds, but when it masquerades as the genuine, it is time to call it out for what it is. Beginning poets love to wallow in the abstruse filth of nonsense; it gives them a sense of elitism that high-brow guff may prove the holier-than-thou crowd is with it.

What Barbara Guest needed was more critical responses like that of Matthew Cooperman, who, likely out of fear of being drummed out of pobiz, hid this scathing remark in his essay called "Envy and Architecture: On Barbara Guest’s Realisms": "we can never quite fall into her worlds as the words get in the way."

Red Lilies

Someone has remembered to dry the dishes;
they have taken the accident out of the stove.
Afterward lilies for supper; there
the lines in front of the window
are rubbed on the table of stone

The paper flies up
then down as the wind
repeats. repeats its birdsong.

Those arms under the pillow
the burrowing arms they cleave
as night as the tug kneads water
calling themselves branches

The tree is you
the blanket is what warms it
snow erupts from thistle;
the snow pours out of you.

A cold hand on the dishes
placing a saucer inside

her who undressed for supper
gliding that hair to the snow

The pilot light
went out on the stove

The paper folded like a napkin
other wings flew into the stone.

Reading of "Red Lilies" at 4:06

Commentary

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't know if he really likes you.

First Versagraph: Fried, Scrambled, or Otherwise

Someone has remembered to dry the dishes;
they have taken the accident out of the stove.
Afterward lilies for supper; there
the lines in front of the window
are rubbed on the table of stone

The speaker observes that the dishes have been dried and infers that someone must have remembered to dry them; she also observes that the accident has been removed from the stove. The speaker then invokes a brief reference to the poem's name-sake, "Afterward lilies for supper. "

Now that the accident has been taken out of the stove, the cook is free to prepare the lilies in any style the eaters will like, whether scrambled, fried, or any other number of ways including completely raw. She then notes that "rubbed on the table of stone" are "the lines in front of the window." She remains emotionless regarding the rubbing of the stone table, as well as caring little about the lines in front of the window.

Second Versagraph: Birds of a Paper

The paper flies up
then down as the wind
repeats. repeats its birdsong.

The speaker then diverts her attention from the kitchen; some papers outside flying about have caught her eye. She must report on this momentous act. The wind is causing the paper to "fl[y] up," and it keeps it up until the speaker's mind becomes bored with the notice and decides that instead of mere paper, the wind is "repeat[ing] its birdsong."

One might have thought that actually birds repeated their songs; however, this speaker has corrected that notion: it is the wind, not the bird, that repeats the birdsongs. This notion plays out in utter sincerity while the speaker takes further mental notes.

Third Versagraph: Arms Cleaving to the Night

Those arms under the pillow
the burrowing arms they cleave
as night as the tug kneads water
calling themselves branches

Another mental jog lands the speaker's attention on a memory of lying in bed with her arms nestled under the pillow. But these arms are creative; they "cleave / as night" would as it engulfs a boat in water, and these arms are so clever that they are calling themselves branches. The similarity between human arms and branches has not escaped the sharp eye of this speaker.

The world becomes a murky tangle of limbs and water, songs on the wind still spilling into the open air of night, when all things may look silvery and rested on the brim of consciousness.

Fourth Versagraph: Oh, So Clever! Tree Metaphor

The tree is you
the blanket is what warms it
snow erupts from thistle;
the snow pours out of you.

Remaining with the clever tree metaphor, the speaker blurts out, addressing herself, "The tree is you." She then decides that if the tree is herself, then the blanket warms it. The blanket warms her when she is a human body, so now the blanket also warms her as she morphs into a metaphorical tree.

Then by fantastic luck, "snow erupts from thistle." The speaker has landed full throttle in a tinseled universe, and she could not be more elated, because now "the snow pours out of you." She becomes like thistle, enjoyable bristling with natural verve.

Fifth Versagraph: A Saucer of Breathlessness

A cold hand on the dishes
placing a saucer inside

The speaker then notices surrealistically that some cold hand now is in the process of placing a saucer somewhere inside something. She has not, at this point, determined where the saucer is going to be relocated, but she seems breathless with anticipation.

As she wonders, at this point, what difference it is going to make, she gleams out of ethereal wonder that a hand so cold could ever place itself on dishes, as she accepts each bit of jetsam flowing into her brain. Flotsam may hang or loom as traces of bilge hurry by.

Sixth Versagraph: The Naked, Clintonian Truth

her who undressed for supper
gliding that hair to the snow

Surprisingly, miraculously, and yet again surrealistically, the cold hand has placed the saucer inside the speaker. She did not see this coming; thus she placed the act in the following versagraph.

She had "undressed for supper" and has been "gliding that hair to the snow." Neither the speaker nor the reader could not have wished for better news, but then, she is sure that she has always tried to tell the truth—the naked truth is like finishing off supper in her birthday suit.

Seventh Versagraph: Oh, the Inhumanity

The pilot light
went out on the stove

Unceremoniously, the stove, despite having the accident removed from it, suffers the indignity of having its pilot light extinguished. This occurrence could be either advantageous if the gas somehow ceases to escape, or disastrous, depending on the proximity of a lighted match.

The speaker becomes agitated but continues to report only what she truly understands. If moss grows on the north side, she is certain she did not observe the green stuff on another side.

Eight Versagraph: Visions of Wind-Throttled Paper

The paper folded like a napkin
other wings flew into the stone.

But the speaker refuses to anticipate any likelihood of an explosion, as her mind once again returns to the wind- throttled paper that caught her eye a few versagraphs back; the paper has miraculously folded like a napkin. And the stone table is now being bombarded by other wings.

Likely, some wind giant with hands like cork-screws has fashioned that bleak napkin. Otherwise, the speaker seems certain that when "other wings" fly into stone, they will not only break but become the bones of cherubim stunted on the horizon but chilling in the pockets of red lilies.

Barbara Guest

Life Sketch of Barbara Guest

Barbara Guest was born in Wilmington, NC, 6 September 1920. She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1943 and died 15 February 2006 in Berkeley, California.

Guest's poetry career earned her inclusion in the New York School of writers, along with the ilk of James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, John Asbury, and Frank O'Hara. This group of writers had come to despise the confessional poetry of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell.

The New York School opted to take their inspiration from painters such as Larry Rivers, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning. The more abstract, even the more nonsensical the work, the more this group salivated over the prospects.

Deeming poetry not the place for ideas, they instead focused on individual words instead of meaningful groups of words. Unlike William Carlos Williams, who concocted the notion, "No ideas but in things," this group believed no ideas ever, no images, just language.

Guest's illustrious career includes the winning of several prestigious awards: the Longwood Award, the Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement, and the San Francisco State Award for Poetry. She also benefited from a grant, offered by the National Endowment for the Arts.

About Barbara Guest's poetry, Matthew Cooperman writes, "we can never quite fall into her worlds as the words get in the way." Quite a testimonial for one whose words were the only focus.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles