One morning in November 2019, poet Julia Guez sank to her living room floor to meditate, when her son, Landon, five, still in his striped pajamas, plopped down beside her. Even as she focused on taking slow deliberate breaths, she couldn’t ignore Landon’s earnest interpretation of the task — his loud, belabored sighs.
Guez’s poetry is built from these tiniest things. Not that her family or the ephemera of her Brooklyn apartment are in her poems — they aren’t, specifically. But also they are. “Ora et labora they say and I am listening still. / What, in the end, the slenderest hands will carry / hours soon reveal … ” she writes in “Evensong” in her debut collection, a decade in the making. The poem’s lines gesture toward spiritual rituals, toward a child’s diminutive palms. Overall, the volume In An Invisible Glass Case Which is Also a Frame, published in September 2019 by the prestigious Four Way Books, exhibits a rigorous mind at work and announces love and grief, both visible and hidden.
“Katabasis,” for example — a 16-section poem that features figures from Christianity and Greek mythology, as well as “Oysters / in the soil / where a maggot might’ve been / boring into mealy harpsichords.” Guez gives us mystery and specificity as the poem continues with “vats of vellum” and further on “ … the ledger. A bowl of cigarettes, / wet once and grey all over.” Her work, though personal, is not transparently autobiographical. This is also true of Guez’s new collection, A Certain Body, which has just been published, again by Four Way Books.
The motif of the “Still Life with … ” appears in both collections. “Still Life with an Opioid Epidemic,” “Still Life in Another Neighborhood We Can’t Afford,” and “Still Life with Extreme Weather” would seem to grapple with, among other things, the opioid crisis, gentrification, and climate change, or what Guez has called “forces of our own making.” But if the titles are bald, the poems are not. They offer lyrical encounters, evocations, instances, sometimes layering oblique references to poets who have come before.
For example, “Still Life with Vicodin” from her debut collection, builds upon concentric influences. It owes a debt to Guez’s former professor, the poet Lucie Brock-Broido, and her poem, “Still Life with Aspirin,” which in turn borrowed something from Wallace Stevens. Stevens had a habit of making phrases, and in one of them he playfully paired a picture trope with the name of an over-the-counter medicine, “Still Life with Aspirin,” which he added to his stockpile of unused titles, possibly for future poems.
Throughout the fall of 2019 and into the late winter of 2020, Guez read “Still Life with Vicodin” at close to 50 readings in libraries and bookstores throughout the East Coast and in her home state of Texas. At reading #38, held at the Blue Bottle Café near Gramercy Park, Guez stood before a dozen members of the Poetry Society of America, the evening’s co-sponsor, and barely glanced at her text. In her buttery, Texas-twanged, five decibel voice she recited the unexpected opening lines, “Maybe there is no magic, no Technicolor, but inside the seed, there is a kingdom.”
Her demeanor was candid, caring. She’s petite — her five-year-old is already half her height. “Ask me anything,” she continued, “and I will tell you the truth.” As she read, she swayed forward gently, riding up on the toes of her red sneakers and then gently down again as if waist deep in ocean swells:
It is a fatal wound for every wolf and thimble.
Even the night watchman is not immune.
We may as well sing, George.
Inside the throat,
a carriage, a pony, a parachute.
And just like that, what began with a prescription pharmaceutical ended among fairytale icons and songs — a poet’s told truth.
Guez’s homages continue in her new collection, The Certain Body. Not even the title’s immune — its adjective “certain” nods to T.S. Eliot’s epigram “assured of certain certainties” — which Guez cites at the volume’s outset. In the book’s Notes section, Guez also sources the phrase the “certain body” as a translation of an Arabic phrase describing the physicality of a text document. These Notes pages, at the end of both of Guez’s spare collections, demonstrate how much of her writing rigorously and intimately corresponds with the words of Renata Adler, John Berryman, Oscar Wilde, Timothy Donnelly, Laura Kasischke, Joanna Klink, and Dante, among dozens more. In some instances, the Notes occupy more space than her verse. Take Guez’s poem from her first collection, a poem with the undulant title: “Have We Made it Across the Vast Plain of Night?” Composed of a single word, the verse supplies an answer: No. But flip to the back and readers will find this slender work earns a paragraph of citations containing English translations of several Latin expressions. The notes function as a back door to the poems, or a basement reception after their ceremony.
A few weeks after Guez delivered her 50th reading at the beginning of March 2020, she experienced her first Covid-19 symptom. Potentially unaware of the poet’s vocation — concise phrasing — medical experts told her not to go to the hospital unless she couldn’t finish a sentence. On March 24, Guez checked herself in. The virus thrived, replicating itself inside her body for approximately 75 days. By April 2020, the title of Guez’s debut collection seemed prescient — across the globe, so many in social isolation peered through glass panes. Life seemed stilled. Guez noticed New York City’s soundscape alternated between silence and sirens, a far cry from the place she’d moved to a decade ago. On the cusp of age 30, she enrolled in Columbia’s two-year MFA program and once there, found in the city a place to “be queer, make art, and find a home.” She studied with luminaries like Timothy Donnelly, Mark Strand (who died in 2014), and most influentially, Lucie Brock-Broido (who died in 2018.)
Halfway through the two-year program, Guez experienced a moment when she finally felt like she “had something that I might center that made other people glad to be there, too. Or glad that I was there as well.” She remembers that her whole class — 20 students — was gathered around a single table for the Practice of Poetry, led by Brock Broido who sat at the head of the table, lobbing provocations to the students. Guez perched at the table’s opposite end 15 feet away. Whereas in the first semester of the program Guez scarcely spoke, now she was taking Brock-Broido’s intellectual bait and offering an “irreverent but, also, sort of magical and in some wild way, plausible reading of this poem.” Brock-Broido, whose bearing was commanding, listened rapt, “tracking, all the while smiling an astonished smile.” Guez recalled, “In that moment, even as I was intentionally being playful,” Brock Broido seemed to “acknowledge that I was not fucking around … she held the floor for me, the way someone might hold a door open. There was this opening.”
That trust, with its implicit permission, enabled Guez to cross into the forum of her own poetry, where the acts of thinking could be captured and examined and where cognition itself could be made to vault across the page. In “Myth, Then,” a poem that seems to take for its subject her gritty, artistic practice, Guez writes:
Home is a question of this and that frequency then
something akin to silence — a word for which my lexicon can’t supply a
cognate, only gestures, mostly, tokens, a being here together on the same this ocean,
the sound canceling itself out across so many distances until
there is nothing other than this
to say, a small aperture opening between the phrases.
In the 2009 book American Hybrid, A Norton Anthology of New Poetry, editor and poet Cole Swenson introduced an emerging strain of poetry that wasn’t straightforwardly narrative, but also wasn’t obliquely inscrutable. “Hybrid writing,” Swenson says, “tolerates a high degree of the restless, the indeterminate, and the uncanny because, like the best writing of any era, it doesn’t seek to reinforce the received ideas or social positions as much as it aims to stimulate reflection and incite thoughts and feelings.”
She could well have been describing Guez’s work, specifically. Guez knows that her poetry can make a “real ask” of readers, challenging them to investigate its peculiar vocabulary and to exercise patience with its indeterminate tendencies. Nonetheless, she hopes that readers feel invited, or at least inclined, to abide with the difficulty — that the voice in the poems, with its cadences, or as she calls them, “measures,” will carry readers.
Guez is preparing to read before audiences again, with upcoming tour dates in October and November. This time she’ll be reading from her new collection — scarcely 20 poems, intimate and erudite, generated during her Covid-convolescence. The volume’s cover features Julie Mehretu’s “Aleppo” (2014), an ink and acrylic drawing of a blueprint-style transparent city buildings, sketched atop more buildings. These replications of skeletal structures hearken the seemingly vacant cities of the pandemic, reminding us how everything the book contains was born out of uncertainty.
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