A N E M P H A S I S O N R E A L I T Y
In whatever disguise reality becomes visible to the poet, there is the choice of withdrawing from it visibility to create a secret life. The poem is the unburdening of ghosts of the past who have come to haunt the writer exposed to the labyrinth. These are ghosts not words; they are the ephemera that surround and decorate the mind of the poet, a halo rescued from life. And it is the poet’s halo that we see arching within the poem, not the full dress of rhyme or structure. Not the artifice of landscape or the surround of language.
— Barbara Guest in “Mysteriously Defining the Mysterious: Byzantine Proposals of Poetry”
Purple clouds floating across the sky like spirits.
I described the painting I wanted from my aunt’s basement to my mother in no greater detail than that, but it was enough. A few years before, an artist from The Netherlands, named Koert Van den Beukel, had visited my grandfather in Baldwin, MI. He was a man then, but as a teenager, he lived with my grandparents for a year, just as his mother had when she was young.
I was a teenager myself on his second visit and watched him paint my grandfather and two of my cousins in the gold speedboat we used to own, the shadows he saw moving on the front lawn and the driveway. After Koert left, I forgot about his paintings until I came upon them in my cousin’s basement. Julie hung two blue ones in the bedroom of her new apartment, and I wanted one too. My mother didn’t believe me. “They’re just paintings of the basketball competition he went to,” she said.
“But this one looks like spirits,” I said, and it did. What I didn’t say was that the spirits made me want to write. Their shapes and colors haunted me. The sky captured my imagination.
The image of the painting attached itself to my memory, though my imagination invented a few details. The spirits are actually distorted shadows of basketball players, and they are deep shades of green and grey and brown, not purple. There is an outline of the rim of the basketball hoop in the lower left corner, but the big blue sky that forms the background is unmistakably where the pavement would be. And the large shadow that fills up the right side resembles neither human nor basketball. The painting hangs in my bedroom now, and each time I look at it on the wall, I see the Gus Macker basketball players on the left side and a spirit floating across the right.
Barbara Guest writes, “Imagination is the spirit inside the poem,” and it is (Forces of Imagination 85). As an art form, I get that poetry needs a mysterious, almost magical, imaginative freedom to be considered art, but, for me, poetry is a way to access the real. An emphasis on reality is what I desire, in life and in art, though the realness that I seek is entirely subjective. Perhaps it comes from being adopted.
Philosopher Kimberly Leighton says, “The truth is, I have always wanted to know. My identity as adopted has always involved a ‘desire to know…’ such that my being adopted, my experience of myself as an adopted person, has been defined by and in relation to this desire” (149). The real, the concrete, the solid is appealing to me as an adoptee because I feel unreal, which is not the same as fake or fabricated.
The real are grounded in the facticity of being real, but it is as though I am a copy, perhaps a darkened one, of a real person. The real have roots beneath them—roots formed from blood, history and knowledge of who they are and where they came from. I am missing those roots and constantly looking for knowledge and truth, desiring it, trying to become real. Realness is the spirit inside of me.
In her poem, “An Emphasis Falls on Reality,” Barbara Guest writes:
I was envious of fair realism.
I desired sunrise to revise itself
as apparition, majestic in evocativeness,
two fountains traced nearby on a lawn…
you recall treatments of ‘being’ and ‘nothingness’
to appear from variable directions — (26)
I am envious of fair realism as well.
Reality is beautiful; it is desirous and fair when all you have are purple cloud fields from which to orient yourself. Each sunrise is another day full of clouds in the sky, shape-shifting spirits that appear and disappear from the left and right like the meaning of life. That’s reality.
Each sunrise is another possibility. “Being adopted has been an identity of possibility; it has been a way to make sense of the tensions produced by being both at once the product of one’s environment and someone whose meaning always exceeds that environment” (Leighton 147).
Barbara Guest’s works, particularly this poem, grasp that tension between fair realism and magical imagination. Her poem, at once, emphasizes the ability to arise out of one’s environment (i.e. “It snowed toward morning,” “the wall is more real than shadow or that letter composed of calligraphy”) and to move beyond or supersede that environment (i.e. “each vowel replaces a wall,” “willows are not real trees, / they entangle us in looseness”).
Another way to supersede one’s environment is through imagism. Ezra Pound believes:
The Image can be of two sorts. It can arise in the mind. It is then ‘subjective.’ External causes play upon the mind, perhaps emerge, if so they are drawn into the mind, fused, transmitted, and emerge in an Image unlike themselves. Secondly, the Image can be objective. Emotion seizing up some external scene or action carries it intact to the mind; and that vortex purges it of all save the essential or dominant or dramatic qualities, and it emerges like the external original. In either case the Image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy. (qtd. in Forces 58)
A place of ideas and energy where the process of moving from the subjective to the objective, and vice versa, becomes something else. The artist creates an image of an original object and makes it more than what it once was out in the world.
As an adoptee, that desire for the real, the concrete and the solid, leaves my images flat and inauthentic if they only exist on the page. Too intangible like “that letter compose[d] of calligraphy / each vowel replac[ing] a wall / a costume taken from space” (Fair Realism 27). I want more than costumery. If I’m not making art out of the images in my life and the world surrounding me, then I want my images to become part of that world. The necessary idealizing of you reality.
I wrote a lyrical essay called “The Red Frame.” It uses images: large red doors with doorknobs so high that standing at full height, I can’t reach them; windows to refract and reflect light; red threads which all lead to a story and the search for a frame.
It is a layered piece about the possibilities that exist for an adoptee, and I use the Chinese idea that a red string ties us to the ones we love—known and unknown, past, present and future. The necessary idealizing of you reality is part of the search, the journey.
Searching for something greater than an idea, greater than mere image, I created the twelve-foot red doors and six overlapping frames in the shape of a window, tied together with red string. Eighty-two red scarves fall from the sides of the doors. An emphasis falling eighty-two times on reality.
A poem should make a radical movement. Be radical. Like the move from the classical to the modern, it is destructive, even disturbed, but free.
A column chosen from distance
Mounts into the sky while the font
they will destroy the disturbed font
as it enters modernity and is rare…(Fair Realism 27)
Imagism began the modern movement that became Surrealism. It was revolutionary. A movement from a column that climbs the sky to a train that crashes through it. In Forces of Imagination, Guest applies art techniques to writing poetry. She began as a painter, and surrealist art heavily influenced her writing because of the freedom involved in the form. She began to take what she could carry for her poetry. Of Hegel, she writes, “Art exists in absolute freedom and is allowed to attach itself freely, he says, to any form it chooses that will help it ‘exercise the imagination’” (106).
Radical poetry goes wherever imagination can carry it. It is free-floating purple cloud fields, green spirits. “Painters are the revolutionaries to whom writers turn in their desire to break from the solemnity of the judicious rules of their craft” (Forces 51).
Why not become a painter, then, to paint poetry? Who makes these rules? I am more of a collagist, or a found objects artist, than a writer. I am more of a writer than an artist. I am an essayist, not a poet. I am a poet, not a storyteller.
Is a poem a walk?
I need to know where I’m going when I’m walking.
Truth, knowledge, desire.
I desired sunrise to revise itself.
Who one is is always in process, in relationship with others, and in need of re-signification. Being adopted (as an identity) thus involves appreciating the fact that identities in general are socially constructed and that the appearance of solidity, of substance or essence, is itself an effect of such construction. (Leighton 168)
Cloud fields change into furniture
furniture metamorphizes into fields
an emphasis falls on reality. (Fair Realism 26)
Say nothing is solid. Say nothing is real. It’s all filtered through subjectivity. The appearance is still seductive. “Kant sees a close similarity between the artist and the dreamer, like fairies in an Irish dream,” says Guest (98).
Fair realism the dream.
Fair realism the disguise?
Fair realism, the costume, where the wall and vowels become one.
It looks like a real house.
A house formed by ideas that are greater than ideas.
where two figures embrace
This house was drawn for them
it looks like a real house
perhaps they will move in today
into ephemeral dusk and
move out of that into night
selective night with trees,
The darkened copies of all trees. (Fair Realism 28)
I dream of a darkened copy of me. My two halves embrace and become one, greater than the night.
Guest, Barbara. Fair Realism. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1989. Print.
—. Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing. Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 2009. Print.
Leighton, Kimberly. “Being Adopted and Being a Philosopher: Exploring Identity and the “Desire to Know” Differently.” Adoption Matters: Philosophical and Feminist Essays. Eds. Sally Haslanger and Charlotte Witt. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005. 146-170. Print.