Issue 3 Foreword: Good Taste
The pieces featured in Issue 3 of Guesthouse point to that which fills us, morally and gastronomically, when we reach for the warmth and sustenance of the dinner table. But ours is no Thanksgiving cornucopia. The bounty of Issue 3 is not without its pits and bruises, and many of the pieces question the very notion of good taste: “The man who taught me / How to sit in silence / Looked like Death,” Daisy Bassen writes in one of her two poems, “Materia Physica,” “designed / For the black silk cape he wore / To the ballet.” As the issue’s saltatory image, it beautifully juxtaposes the glint of theatrics against the gut. A silk cape is both costume and class marker, both threatening and outrageous, as is its wearer.
Food-writer and chef Amy Colter’s series of essays, “Thanks for the Meat, Mom,” “A Trinity of Flavors,” and “Peak,” situate “taste” as subject in a far more literal way. In fond and tantalizing detail, Cotler recalls memories of food––prepping it, eating it, sharing it, studying it––buoying her reader through her upbringing, career, and marriage. These brief essays, their language compact as “dense white bread against the roof of [one’s] mouth,” demonstrate the emotional power food has on our lives and in the stories we tell of ourselves.
Hunger and desire are present but decidedly unsentimental in Aaron Smith’s poems. He undercuts it with danger, sharp humor, and unabashed envy. “I’m mean to men / with perfect throats who take selfies in the mirror / at the gym,” he says.“[I] let doors close on them in stores.” He aligns himself with the oft-radical and oft-maligned writers he read early: Olds, Walker, Plath, claiming them as his forbearers in both embracing and rejecting standards of “beauty” and “goodness.” His mode of confessionalism often operates at his own expense and that of the canon, and the result are dutifully self-aware and celebratory poems.
The canon is also on trial in Trevor Ketner’s “Nakedness and Fern Cento,” a collaged piece, quilted from bits from philosophical, literary, and other published works. “Nest, chrysalis and garment only constitute one moment of a dwelling place,” he writes, co-opting text from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (Beacon Press, 1994). In this poem, the naked form––be it flora or fauna or text itself––is neither shameful nor sacred. It is neither whole nor partial. Ketner splits the difference, settling on a notion of “body” that is, like a fossil, more relief than artifact. Nicole Callihan’s poem, “The Women Compensate for the Movements in Men” takes on the subject of the body and situates the body as the subject. A cast of women stand around a “subject” on an exam table, each of them defined by their relationship to the task at hand. Whether it is physical, mental, or emotional labor is left to the reader’s interpretation, but what was clear to me is that these women escape these boundaries by drawing new ones. “The third woman,” for example, “rejects the reality / of the subject, the body, the axis,” Callihan writes. “She searches, instead, for a bird.” The poem establishes an impossible physics that defies convention and gravity.
R.S. Wynn’s essay, “The Longing of Gnats,” also explores desire in a novel way, tracing personal history, longing, and loss alongside anecdotes about the common, household gnat––those tiny creatures that come into our lives uninvited. Desire become as dire as that of a moth’s to a flame or a gnat to a garbage disposal: “She [the gnat]––I imagine it was a she––hovered an inch above the gushing faucet, almost static. Then suddenly she darted toward the drain at breakneck speed.” Anthropomorphism also bridges the gap between insect and animal in Sean Mahoney’s essay, “Eating from the Wind.” “Ever see the movie about renegade dragonflies decapitating people left and right,” he asks, “blinding their would-be destroyers with magnificent iridescence?” Shifting between the journalistic and lyric modes, Mahoney tells three stories at once: a teenager who stumbles too soon into the adult realm; the oddball camp of mid-century monster movies; and the unusual life cycles of dragonflies, who are born, live, and die infinitely hungry.
Like Mahoney does with dragonflies, and Wynn does with gnats, C.M. Koseman’s paleoart relies on the givens and mysteries of the biological world, torquing fact and imagination into something vibrant and new. Harrison Cook, in his interview with the artist, remarks that in Koseman’s paintings, the “pterodactyl resemble[s] a reptilian gargoyle, then a more birdlike creature, and then a strange, furry lizard.” These “false reconstructions,” as Koseman calls them, blend and quilt together form, feather, and function, calling into question the allegedly static nature of paleontological record, reminding us to recognize “reconstruction as something [that is] never complete.”
Tyler Mills’ three poems, written in first-person and close third-person historical personae, also leverage imagination to reconcile with history. In her WWII tableau, each character (e.g., a woman in 1930s Berlin and an ethnographer) speaks as a conflicting motion of her own mind. “I think I am / you,” Mills writes, both in the voice of and in response to one of her narrators, “some mornings while I stand, / back to bricks like now, and smoke / for seven minutes.” When Mills’ poem are read in series, the result is a chorus of voices reaching for a whole but deliberately dissonant note.
It is fitting that in our first issue since bringing on Harrison Cook to lead our nonfiction team, that a smattering of Issue 3 pieces in other genres demonstrate new ways of leveraging autobiography. For example, the strange, domestic interior of Steven Ray Smith’s poem, “The Parlor,” is both physical and metaphysical. The narrator stands at a closed door, presumably his grandmother’s, wondering “Don’t forebears exit first? Why / was I the one locked outside?” His family lineage transforms from a vertical to a horizontal hierarchy, and the resulting threshold between generations is booby-trapped.
Camille Warmington’s series of paintings, “Identity,” also reconstructs the past in order to interpret it. Warmington paints images of polaroid photographs from her family archives, initiating a dialogue between the memory, the photograph of the memory, and the painting of the photograph of the memory. The photos are domestic: a child in a kiddie pool, a courtyard in springtime. Photos that carry both deeply personal and broadly archetypal connotations of family life. I love how they elevate personal artifact into public artifact and their beautifully round, muddy brushstrokes that evoke my favorite impressionists.
Mary Peelen’s poem “Negative One” also invites the reader into a domestic memory, her narrator recalling a storm dismembering a tree in her backyard. “We wait until dusk / and then, cruel as heroics, / we fetch the lopper / from the shed,” she writes, employing the present tense and clipped, percussive lines to transport us into the scene of the wreckage. The poem begins as the storm ends, when “we,” the poems’ unidentified narrators, presumably spouses or housemates, must lace their boots and do the grizzly work of reconnaissance.
Justin Danzy’s two poems, “I wish we’d all been ready,” and “Sonata in E-minor,” are similarly rooted in domestic space, but his recollections of “home” are characterized by their surprising and defiant details. He recalls Grieg, his piano teacher, “who was Russian and Orthodox / and cooked mayonnaise with her grandson.” Danzy’s poems are chock full of love but don’t succumb to easy notions of family and place. Instead, he telescopes between the macro and the micro, the mundane and the mythic: “the trickle of blood that oozed from him, hot / like a geyser, which don’t really ooze, […] they gnash like my grandma when pretending / to have teeth.” Within Danzy’s associative motions of mind are entire rotations of the planet.
Before I settled on “Good Taste” for this issue’s theme, I toyed with using “abundance.” Katherine Gibbel’s poem, “Dawn at Mormon Island,” which is accompanied by three original sound pieces by Ben Gottesman, explores abundance in both form and function. A crown of sonnets, the poem is as wide as it is deep, and it doubles (and triples) back on itself. Watching cranes (thousands of them) perform their migration rituals, Katherine’s narrator remarks that “The present / has many modes, / each iteration calling / itself / counting down.” The poem––like cranes, like days, like art-making––is so abundant and uncountable that it defies landing on any one shore.
Duplication is also present in Jean Wolff’s paintings, which are richly colored arrays of one, two, or three tones and shades, painted on wooden panels and folded paper. Their immediate simplicity demands the viewer take a closer look in order to appreciate the infinite varieties between green and green, blue and blue. Her unusual techniques explore materiality itself: colors deepen at the creases in the paper and in the gutters between panels. One swath of warm-white is entirely unlike another.
Mike Lewis-Beck’s poem, “Bloomfield Diner,” also transfigures the ordinary into something stranger. “Joe’s carving his egg in Bloomfield diner,” he begins. And then later: “One egg’s likely all this place had / to offer, a beat-up old house on the edge / of town.” Using everyday language to recall an encounter in a midwestern dive that veers into the surreal, Lewis-Beck elevates the diner––an archetype of its own right, rich with class- and region-specific significance––to a place of heightened sense and experience.
I hope you enjoy feasting your eyes, ears, and mind on Issue 3 of Guesthouse, and that these tremendous pieces and their many confluences help sustain you. We took great pleasure in curating it––bone, gristle, rind, and all.
Jane Huffman, Editor-in-Chief