Monday, February 20, 2006

Barbara Guest: The Blue Stairs

Cover by Helen Frankenthaler

"Her placement of words was like the placement of paint on a canvas," said her daughter, Hadley Guest.

Modernist poet and art writer, Barbara Guest died on February 15, 2006 in Berkeley, California. During the 1950s, she created collages that later became covers for her books, and along with her poet colleagues in the New York School wrote for Art News magazine.

In her recent collection of art writings, "Dürer in the Window", gathered from a lifetime of looking, thinking and creating, Barbara Guest describes her experiences as a poet among painters and sculptors in a time when there was no "recognized separation between the arts."

Her poems are crisp and visual with a taste for color and painterly image. "The Blue Stairs" inspired by a stairway in the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam is a good introduction to her work:

"The Blue Stairs"
by Barbara Guest

There is no fear
in taking the first step
or the second
or the third

having a position
between several Popes

In fact the top
can be reached
without disaster


The code
consists in noticing
the particular shade
of the staircase

occasionally giving way
to the emotions

It has been chosen

To graduate
the dimensions
ease them into sight

republic of space

Radiant deepness
a thumb
passed over it

as one who executes robbers

Waving the gnats
and the small giants


How to surprise
a community
by excellence
somehow it occurred

living a public life

The original design
was completed
no one complained

In a few years
it was forgotten


It was framed
like any other work of art
not too ignobly

kicking the ladder away

Now I shall tell you
why it is beautiful

Design: extraordinary
color: cobalt blue

secret platforms

Heels twist it
into shape

It has a fantastic area
made for a tread
that will ascend

Being humble
i.e. productive

Its purpose
is to take you upward

On an elevator
of human fingerprints
of the most delicate


Being practical
and knowing its denominator

To push
one foot ahead of the other

Being a composite
which sneers at marble

all orthodox movements

It has discovered
in the creak of a footstep
the humility of sound

Spatially selective
using this counterfeit
of height

To substantiate
a method of progress

Reading stairs
as interpolation
in the problem of gradualness

with a heavy and pure logic

The master builder
acknowledges this

As do the artists
in their dormer rooms

eternal banishment

Who are usually grateful
to anyone who prevents them
from taking a false step

And having reached the summit
would like to stay there
even if the stairs are withdrawn

Note: The Modern Museum in Amsterdam has blue stairs.

Barbara Guest in Italy, 1968

Originally published in The Blue Stairs (New York: Corinth Books, 1968)


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