Issue 1 foreword: Under the Influence

As our team was curating Issue 1, I noticed that each piece we selected was engaging in a distinctive form of dialogue with the world. Each poem, story, essay, and photograph is interested in having hard conversations—some with historical figures, artists, and theorists; some about past and present entanglements with race, gender, and religion; some with pop culture icons; some with close and estranged relatives. Each piece in Issue 1 is driven by an urge to contextualize the self within a larger ethos, community, or mythology.

These works have an awareness of who and what came before them, and who and what will succeed them. Given the current state of affairs in America, and the rampant takeover by an instantaneous-gratification based culture, I understand the impulse of the artist to slow down, study diligently, and record their own witnessing. These writers and artists are able to contribute meaningfully and inventively to the trajectory of American literature and art because they understand innovation in terms of what has and hasn’t been created, and with that knowledge, they break ground.

For example, Diane Seuss’ pair of sonnets examine moments of personal contact that evoke both a private and a public history. They are placed—not only in terms of region and era but of self-knowing. In one sonnet, in moment of half-deja vu, Seuss is startled by how completely she recognizes herself in the film, A Face in the Crowd (1957). “The scene where Patricia Neal meets Lonesome Rhodes’ first / wife played by Kay Medford,” Seuss begins, “there’s something about /  the situation between the two women that feels so familiar it rattles me.” The film—a replica of reality—becomes reality, and the self is suddenly part of a larger, eons-old collective, one in which we all assume (and effectively un-assume) archetypes—those that are “a million times retold.”

This awareness of history often manifests in anxiety, such as in Dierdre O’Connor’s poem, “On Seeing an Exhibition of Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka's Glass Marine Invertebrates.” As suggested by her title, O’Connor transports us into an exhibit of oceanic creatures beautifully rendered in glass. Time is oddly stagnant, and space is otherworldly. However, the poem becomes urgent when O’Connor recognizes a fragility that is distinctively Earthly; the invertebrates have lifelike, animate characteristics, but they are inorganic. To boot, they are works of fine art. To visit the exhibit via O’Connor’s poem is to come to terms with how art can mimic nature but cannot embody it. “Everything old, new,” she says. “Everything new, dissolving.”

Noah Doely’s series of photographs, “Above & Below,” also takes us underwater. On their own, they are visually mystifying, primordial—not extraterrestrial but almost. Understanding Doely’s process makes his photographs even richer. According to his statement, he built dioramas of the cave structures and photographed them using a pinhole camera. According to Doely, this creates a “dialectic between the subject and the means of apprehending or recording it.”

Sublimity (and the failure of sublimity) also emerges in Ethan Madore’s essay, “On The Variety of Angels.” The poem catalogues the ways in which angels are contextualized and co-opted under various cultural and religious frameworks: “Young boys sing like them. Women in bars look like them.” Of course, the multitude of examples reduces the angel to a malleable, oscillating din, and that’s the magic of the essay. The angel is both figurine and figurehead. It is as healing as it is vacant, and by the final line, as Madore is tiptoeing through a Christian trinket shop, his reader is left to grapple with both the immensity and the insignificance of a single archetype.

Much of the poetry in Issue 1 incorporates the verbiage of the academy and its confluence with identity. Jasmine An’s “A Compassionate Racial Analysis” interacts with Guanyin, the East-Asian bodhisattva often associated with mercy. The poem attempts to contextualize the self within a larger context, but the attempt falters. “When we say we I mean I,” she says in one of the poem’s many moments of doubling-back and self-correction. “When I say wise I mean when white grief climbs / into my gut.” Elise Houcek’s poem “Khan’s Laundry” demonstrates a similar moment of contact with myth and history. It responds to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1816 poem “Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment,” an opium-induced fantasy of paradise, or "Xanadu." Houcek throws the mythology of the poem into the stark relief of the present, and by doing so, grapples with whether or not she is safe to profess her own fantasies. There is a fear of public annihilation—“after all the townspeople / hoisted Sybil up in a basket,”—as well as the anxiety that imagination can be as destructive as it is productive.

Jordan Meiller’s poem “Borges Responds to Neruda’s ‘You Start Dying Slowly,’ Which, It Turns Out, Neruda Did Not Write” is also ekphrastic in its scope. Meiller speaks through Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges, who, in his imagination, is writing to Neruda regarding a poem that was recently falsely attributed to him. The three degrees of separation that Meiller establishes between himself and the pseudo-Neruda text allow for a sophisticated conversation with multiple voices as well as an analysis of the poet’s own multiplicities. The poem also calls into question the nature of translation—that which is lost and that which is gained—which adds a fourth valence of distance to these letters. “You exist only in the translated words of a poem not written by a poet invented by a long-dead boy whose longer-dead father did not approve.” Meiller has invented the quadruple negative, and it positively sings.

Michael Martone’s folio of hybrid fiction, “Selected Skywriting of Art Smith,” also calls authorship and narrativity into question. It weaves a pseudo-historical narrative that combines the tools of lyric, visual art, and nonfictional prose. The series traces the exaggerated, partially invented origin story of Art Smith, the pilot who is credited as having invented skywriting. Martone’s piece is a hybrid of personal ethos and creative nonfiction, and the effect is a puzzling, joyful account of invention—both in terms of literary experimentation and in terms of twentieth-century technology. The piece has whimsy and romance but also darkness, including an account of a sanatorium where Martone’s Smith entertained the patients with an elaborate skywriting demonstration. We, his modern-day readers, are situated among them, “gathered on the porches, patios, and balconies in that mid-summer late gloaming.”

Josh Weston also speaks to the dead in his epic poem, “Yesterday Underwater,” in which he grapples with True Detective, the mythology of Zeus and Helios, the death of his great uncle, and the death of his five-year old nephew. The poem is expansive, comprises past, present, and future, and addresses the Edward Hirsch quote in the epigraph using Terrance Hayes’ “golden shovel, a formal maneuver that allows him to weave Hirsch’s words into his lines. The poem is interested in afterlife, but it remains suspicious of notions of abject wholeness. As a way of surrendering to his grief, the poet reaches out to his grandfather: “He said that at seven he didn’t understand, / couldn’t have understood, the permanence / of it.” Of course, Weston is cognizant that death is permanent, but he nonetheless addresses his dying nephew with, “I’ll see you soon.”

The cover image of Issue 1, Missy Maxwell’s “Masked Man, 2012,” reminds me of the characters in Weston’s poem—young boys who are tasked with grief that is beyond the reasonable purview of childhood. In the image, a young man stands against a hedge wearing a mask that is evocative of masquerade and superhero-dom. He looks determined, like Theseus at the gate of the minotaur’s great hedge maze. The landscape, which Maxwell says is Washington, is exposed in a way that gives it the hazy quality of an impressionist painting. A single blade of grass pierces the foreground, positioning her subject in the middle. The young man pays no attention to his viewer; his eyes are toward a horizon that we cannot yet see.

In one of her three poems, “Sincerely Against Lavish Description,” Anne Cecelia Holmes interrogates the traditions of poetry writing at large, and in many ways, demands that they converse back. “I write not to be / visible but to pervert the new / anthem against pageantry,” she says, and I believe her. Poetry often gets the bad rap for marinating in its own prowess, and it is clear that Holmes does not want her poems to fall into that trap. In this poem, beauty (as the canon knows it) is not the utility or end-goal of poetry but a force of danger. The spectacular irony of this poem, of course, is that Holmes is an exceptional poet—and an exceptional imagist at that. Her poem ends loudly—“I was a glimmering whirlpool / before I slammed headfirst / into the wasteland,” and it is up to us, her readers, to grapple with what is lavish and what is earned.

This is one of the great joys of great literature, and one that I think is embodied by each of these eleven exceptional works of writing and art. I hope that you find joy in doing so as you read the debut issue of Guesthouse.

Jane Huffman | editor-in-chief