Wednesday, February 22, 2006

I just finished Barbara Guest's The Countess From Minneapolis (Burning Deck, 1976). I've been meaning to read her stuff for a long time now; it's weird that her death spurred me to finally do it. Countess is an excellent book; the writing is so varied, moving between quasi-narrative prose poetry about what seems like personal experience, much weirder collections of nouns, strange little lyrics, and dialogues. It's clearly some kind of journal of her stay in the title city, and my cultural position as a faithful midwesterner makes the book pretty funny--though my origins are closer to the southern end of the region, I'm definitely from the other pole of the major cultural encounter in the book. The voice is often that of a New Yorker, steeped in European high culture, who's a little freaked out by the midwest; there are a lot of exaggerated Norweigan names, mythic Viking references, and so forth, and four pages after writing about the Mississippi River as being more substantial ("leaving rich traces") than "Alpine water" ("weak because the minerals are lacking"), she comments that "the unappetizing swell of the muddied water could only appeal to the truly desperate."

I have to disagree, but her consciousness of this emerges over the course of one of the book and becomes one of its major trajectories: a recurrence and reframing of familiar and unfamiliar cultures. Clothing, paintings, and other objects from New York City show up in a strange light. Imported architectural styles are noted; "Picasso's heavy easel" has "Las Meninas on it;" there are discussions of the Northern invaders of the Roman Empire. The proper place of something or someone (including names, which are always selected with regard to their "importedness" or their origins in other times) becomes an increasingly questionable notion throughout the book, one reason being that "the Countess" herself is not a reliable stand-in for the authorial "I"; they move toward and away from one another. Here's a nice example of a few of these moves (in a given poem in Countess, more than one is usually being made):

The further exoticism of reading a British novel while visiting Duluth. The Countess
usually "tucked one in her dressing case" when preparing for a visit to one of Theodoric's
relations. The excitement of the Lake precipitated an unconscious association with former
boating parties when she had been younger and, alas, inhabited a narrower world.

"Rather like reading of the River Niger while dining alone in New York," sympathized
her cousin, Glanville.


Already what seemed like the hip east coast discomfort with the midwest has come far from condescension. At the end of the prose piece containing the negative evaluation of the Mississippi, there's a sudden shift: "Old Chinese men with shoulders bent under their thin kimonos passing over bamboo bridges. Mountain paths going ever upward into fog swirls." China comes back a number of times in the book. Here it seems to be contrasted with the midwest and its flatlands and wide, muddy rivers, but by the end of the book the relationship is more complicated. Minneapolis' "Walker Art Museum was formed from the nucleus of the Walker Chinese Collection." There's a strange description of jade model cities, and then a quote from the Ching dynasty in 1784 describing the original of the model, a place where "One cup of wine and one poem were enough to bring out the hidden emotions." It's then observed how easy it is to go upstairs to the roof, "transcending one hundred ninety-two years," to the sculpture garden where a Tony Smith piece is housed. The strangeness of this NYC sculpture in Minneapolis is greater than that of the Chinese model; China, formerly contrasted with Minnesota, is now closer to it than New York. The sculpture is said to be more like an observer than something observed. By the book's conclusion everything is shifting; belonging somewhere is a tentative state that can't depend on time or space for stability. This book gets more interesting the more I try to pin it down, and the focus here on its most coherent, documentary or descriptive sections only scratches the surface. There's a lot going on in this writing.


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