The Red Gaze


Erica Kaufman

Barbara Guest’s newest book, The Red Gaze, is full of poems that are like good cinematography: fluid, visual, and surprising. I’ve always admired Guest’s unique ability to create seamless links between person and object, real and material, but here she takes this talent even further. The direct kinship between the book’s title & the poems within is everywhere evident, particularly if one thinks of the idea of “the gaze” in Lacanian terms of shaping one’s own identity through the act of looking at someone or something and the attainment of visual recognition. “The Gaze” is important in poetry because it enables the reader to connect to a poem, while also allowing the poem itself to develop its own unique qualities.

In her essay “Imagism” (Forces of Imagination, Kelsey Street Press, 2003), Guest defines image as “a locus between intuition and concept.” The Red Gaze begins with a poem titled “Nostalgia,” in which the sheer variety of imagistic sensations is overwhelming.

Hands are touching.
You began in cement in small spaces.
You began the departure. Leaves restrain. You attempted the departure. A smile in sunshine, nostalgia.

The very first line strikes a primal chord, arousing a sense of tangibility through word choice, while in the second line extends the sensation to meet the exterior world. The relationship of the poem to the past, implicit in the poem’s title, is further developed by the repetition of the word “departure.” By the end of this first poem (“I am not detached, / bulletins permit us comb, fish of silver”), we are submerged in Guest-world, that place where language serves as monocle, charged with sound, muscle, and clarity.

Guest’s language does not merely describe, it presents the reader with the means to see in an entirely new way. In the poem “Imagined Room,” her gaze turns imperative with lines like, “Do not forget the sky has other zones” and “Let there be no formal potions.” Hers is not a gendered gaze, it surpasses all traditional limitations normally placed on a point of view. As such, Guest changes the way one thinks of time, thought, and even what a poem can accomplish. This is illustrated in the last couplet of “Imagined Room,”

In the tower you flew without wings
speaking in other tongues to the imagined room.

The Red Gaze takes the norm and subverts it to an extent where the poem becomes completely omnipotent and, at the same time, empowers the reader. Anything is believable and possible, flight, fluency, brain space.

In “Alteration,” Guest extends an invitation to the audience to join in her struggle against the ordinary. “I ask you to permit the image / and the alteration of time.” With “A Burst of Leaves,” where she says “We are ready for a new orientation.” and with so many other poems in The Red Gaze, Guest sets the stage for an exciting new sphere of innovation. In “A Reason for Poetics” (Forces of Imagination), Guest writes, “Ideally a poem will be both mysterious (incunabula, driftwood of the unconscious), and organic (secular) at the same time.” Guest’s poems achieve this and much more.

According to Lacan, “the gaze” is a result of “the mirror stage,” where a child learns to recognize his or her own image. That recursiveness may be, in part why the very word “gaze” is often indicative of fascination, wonder, and awe. Throughout Guest’s work, the idea of “the gaze” is tri-fold—reader to poem, poet to poem, poem to poem. In fact, the poem itself is its own fascination-provoking entity. In “The Past” she writes, “It might have been a celebration, so strong the presence / of the poem.”

In the title poem, Guest writes “Complications of red enter the leaf / and it is more accomplished.” This parallels the progression of the poems in this book, they are colorful, complex, and challenging. It is as if the poems themselves have already passed through “the mirror stage.” They are now self-aware, and because of this, assertive in their originality. As she states in “No Longer Strangers,” “You will notice it is all one speech, / and jocular.”

In her poem after abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann, Guest writes, “To invoke the unseen, to unmask it. Reality in a glass / of water. The mirror reveals heartstrings of reality.” Hofmann is recognized for his ability to combine elements of surrealism with a conscious sense of perception, a technique that is not all that different from Guest’s poetics. She too is able to “invoke the unseen,” to use a “mirror” to “unmask reality.” As she writes in “Shifting Persona” (Forces of Imagination), “The poem’s concealed autobiography. A memoir of itself which is released as it becomes a presence in existing time.” Or, as in the poem, “Composition,” “Our lives are composed with magic and euphony.”

The closing poem of The Red Gaze is entitled “Supposition” and reads,

You are willing
to pass through the center
composed of independent poetics.
To rearrange rhyme,
while you gather its energy.

This poem is then followed by a closing quote from Theodor Adorno, “In each genuine art work something appears that did not exist before.”

The Red Gaze is itself a “genuine art work,” a great rarity that progresses with equal skill through the visual & intellectual. These are visceral poems and it is hard not to be drawn into “the gaze” they invoke. This book is a welcome addition to Guest’s masterful body of work.


Originally published in the Poetry Project Newletter, Dec. 2005. EPC edition with the permission of the author.