Barbara Guest’s poem “Saving Tallow” from her book The Blue Stairs plays in my head on repeat, in small patches, almost daily. There are so many unpredictable, wildly assured lines in the poem (“There was once a shadow/called Luis; there was once an eyebrow/ whose name was Domingo”) and so many deft atmospheric shifts, but the lines that affect my body most when I hear them are: “no one drew back/the curtains; there were no curtains” In isolation, the lines are striking because they create a fixed-explosive image, an accumulative negation that reverberates a fleeting subjectivity and a fluttering landscape into being and then relief. This self-contained near-palinode appears in the middle of a poem dense with variable tones and paces. There is a fairy tale/origin myth quality to the phrasing of certain parts of the poem (“There was once”…) that creates the expectation of revelation but what is revealed is often a reversal, a shadow image, a story’s skeletal doppelganger. It is a visionary poem that, at this particular point, gives us the experience of eclipse. Often, the statements in the poem that evoke the most wonder are the most imagistically familiar and logically grounded in daily life. It’s as if everything else in the world has changed around what object or perception is directly in front of us. The feeling reminds me of this moment of uncanny transformation in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse: “Think of a kitchen table then,” he told her, “when you’re not there.” There are many things to say about the rest of the poem, but I’ll close by pointing out that it ends with the word “Puff” surrounded by white space.
There is a recording of Guest reading the poem in 1984 (via PennSound): HERE.