The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of
New Issues Press, 2003
by Campbell McGrath for the 2002 New Issues Poetry Prize, Paul Guest's
book, The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World,
is remarkable for its bigness, its massive reach and range. One can see
why McGrath liked it—there are similarities to his own work in the
meandering impetus, the associative logic, the jumping diction—all
that crusty linguistic goodness. The poems loom large, exploding like
far-off stars, years-dead and still coming inexorably towards us. The
book itself is long for a first book, coming in at 94 pages. In some ways
it is a bestiary, a Monster's Manual of late-night television
and absorbed lessons from astronomy, cosmology, what science has to offer
us for consolation at the wreck of the world.
These poems touch on Yor, the Hunter
from the Future, the lives of Tasmanian devils, Led Zeppelin, tiny
yeti, Rodney Dangerfield, Pinky and the Brain, Bride of Frankenstein,
Megalon, Biollante, Mothra, the Toxic Avenger—the absurd and heroic,
the lovely, the sometimes stupid and blazing. The more two-dimensional
the better. The poorer the special effects, the more we are asked to sympathize.
Guest is interested in the lives of lifeless things. Special effects are
on display here throughout. These poems trance in and out of persona,
the rigor of the sestina, iambic pentameter. Realism's not the game we're
playing and you'll be happy for that.
"Like shark's teeth, these poems startle."
Guest says it best in "On My Failed Epic," and who are we to
disagree? The reach is what's important here, the transcendence achieved
when Guest is filled with the voice of the poem and is ready to let it
lead him wherever it may. This is what we find (perhaps) most admirable
in his poetry—a refusal to succumb to mire, to hit the apex, crest,
return to earth too soon. He understands the danger of premature reentry,
when the poem burns itself out coming back through the atmospheric whatever.
He avoids this in most of these poems. Not to suggest that they don't
return eventually, because they do—if they didn't, either linguistically,
rhetorically, or even in terms of the (loose) plots herein, we'd end confused
and would lose the confidence we have in the voice, in the tightrope walk
that he continues to enact. This is to say instead that the best of these
poems certainly surprise us. This comfortability in the spotlight, on
the high-wire, comes from a solid grounding in prosody, in the natural
on-again and off-again iambic gait, again without which we are probably
not willing to go where these poems want me to.
Guest will make no apologies for his poems.
Whimsy is in bloom herein—the personae of the poems, while sometimes
located sometimes close to (we presume) the author, whatever that does
for us, are otherwise familiar—Foghorn Leghorn, Pinocchio, Archie,
Alice the Goon. "The Ghost of Foghorn Leghorn Speaks of Unrequited
Love" doubles up on us (and doubles us up) with its technical trickery:
besides being a lovely persona poem, it's also a sestina. "Pinocchio"
is one of the strongest poems on exhibition here. Partially this is because
the character feels so well inhabited, and partially it's due to the lovely
sonics on exhibition throughout: "Once I was wood and my heart was
a knot. / From a block my brain was slowly cut— / legs, arms, knees
and nose, my all of me". This is good stuff. The other side of this
poem is that the persona meshes well with what little (evidently) autobiographical
material Guest gives us in the book. Perhaps this is why the poem feels
so well-lived in. "Strings at every joint to tie life to me"
is suggestive of the massive hurt underlying these poems, and though it's
obviously unfair to judge the book in terms of the sad backstory (Guest
was "paralyzed in a bicycle accident at age twelve," according
to McGrath's introduction), this central story is in evidence throughout.
Admirably, the poems don't trade often on this pain—the purely confessional,
the central risk of writing a book with a broken spine at its spine—but
synapse-jump elsewhere throughout and set off more fireworks. He even
offers a sort of disclaimer, in the often-hilarious "For a Long Time
I Have Wanted to Write a Handi-Capable Poem": "For a long time
I've wanted to ask people if they might / please shut the hell up."
Just so. This defuses the woe factor—and this is what Guest does
well throughout The Resurrection...—even going so far as
to say, later in the poem, "Jerry 'MDA' Lewis can burn in hell".
What excellent spininess—pardon the pun—this is on display!
Hilarious in its cheek, cranky—a satisfying modulation of the tone.
He does return to the personal, the more
obviously confessional, as we move throughout the book, and we are not
sure where finally to judge the book in relationship to the life behind
the book. Guest certainly plays on the tension throughout, going back
and forth with his own consideration of this kind of economics—there's
hesitation to speak of it in spots, a suggestion of guilt at trading in
pain for some of these gorgeous lines. In one of the quiet, more obviously
meditative poems, "The Flesh," we get a heh, a nakedness: deserved
respite from the prestidigitation: "I am tempted // to speak of the
flesh / a last time and fall silent // on the subject, / as if sleep could
claim // my mouth for its own / and close what I'd say // like a wound."
I'm sure Guest would put us off any identification of this as a tender
moment, but there it is regardless. This is a sensational and sensuous
book, one that suggests the start of some new poetricious goodness. Ladies
and gentlemen, we have a new late-night television hero.
Paul Guest is a previous contributor
to DIAGRAM. Find him in issues [1.1]