The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World
New Issues Press, 2003
Chosen 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] and [3.5]