In the last few years of her life, the poet Barbara Guest (1920–2006), long considered a member of the New York School, began to identify herself, both at public readings and in private conversation, as a surrealist. As a member of Barbara’s circle during this period, I was witness to her surrealist efflorescence. At the “Audacious Imagination” tribute to her life and work held at UC Berkeley in 2003, Barbara announced that she was “now writing surrealist poems,” adding “Though I came to surrealism late, it’s better late than never.” She then proceeded to give a reading of one of her greatest last poems, “Nostalgia of the Infinite” (a reference to De Chirico’s painting of the same title).
Barbara subsequently shortened this title to one word: “Nostalgia.” Indeed, there was something of nostalgia in Barbara’s late engagement with surrealism. If it’s true that in old age we return to our roots, Barbara seems to have retraced her own roots here, going deeper than the aesthetics of the New York School and Abstract Expressionism to arrive at their surrealist sources. This lineage had already been made explicit, of course, in her essay “The Shadow of Surrealism.”
Barbara’s “return” to surrealism may have been facilitated and encouraged by the milieu in which she found herself in later life, namely that circle of admiring young men with surrealist tendencies whom she fondly referred to as “the boys”: Garret Caples, Jeff Clark, and Brian Lucas. Despite being middle-aged, I also counted as one of Barbara’s boys. As Barbara’s neighbor in Berkeley (living only a few blocks away), I enjoyed regular afternoon visits with her for many years. Our conversations frequently revolved around Barbara’s interest in surrealist poetry and painting, and “what was happening now” in surrealism.
However, the complexity of Barbara’s character and creative process ensured that her composition of “surrealist poems” never followed Breton’s (early) formula of “pure psychic automatism.” I was witness to the often agonizing, spiritually perilous process of revision, self-doubt, and self-rescue that the making of each new poem (even, and especially, a “surrealist” poem) entailed for Barbara. The terror of the blank page combined with an imperative to make of each move an unexpected swerve meant that Barbara often needed to trick herself into writing (something, anything). The notion that she was writing surrealist poems was perhaps the last trick that Barbara played on herself.
Or was it the last? Barbara, in another turn of this complex game, finally felt it necessary to efface some of the evidence of her surrealist self-trickery. The working title of her last book, The Red Gaze, had been, in the initial drafts, Surrealism and Other Poems. This subtitle was eventually dropped. A poem at first entitled “She Honors De Chirico” was retitled, significantly enough, “Loneliness,” indicating perhaps the withdrawal of an enabling presence. Surrealism had become once more a shadow. Nonetheless, both in its process of composition and in its structure, The Red Gaze recapitulates the history of surrealism’s development into Abstract Expressionism, as its evocations move from De Chirico to Hans Hoffmann––and so recaptures the New York art scene of the fifties in which Barbara experienced her emergence as a poet.
Thus, this book, which was published and brought to her bedside as she lay dying, was really about her own birth. Yet even after the completion of The Red Gaze, Barbara continued to be haunted by her surrealist sources. Her final poem, “Hotel Comfort,” left unfinished at the time of her stroke, makes repeated and explicit reference to surrealism (as a source of comfort?) and testifies to the convulsive beauty that inhabited her to the end.
Minutes each hour took ostrich leaps on the roof of the Hotel Comfort in Strasbourg.
These Surrealist moments cherished each roof a long time.
In the thickened weather of Surrealism the cathedral is across the street.
Wise lettuces exaggerate their claim near the window of the Hotel Comfort.
And you have sent your letter of explanation for the pleasure obtained
in the wooden jar. Speech-maker, you have sent notes of pleasure
in the glass jars. Tasting of weather and cinnamon.
Andrew Joron is the author of Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems, published by City Lights Books in 2010.