The Screen of Distance

By Barbara Guest 1920–2006 Barbara Guest

On a wall shadowed by lights from the distance   
is the screen. Icons come to it dressed in capes   
and their eyes reflect the journeys their nomadic   
eyes reach from level earth. Narratives are in   
the room where the screen waits suspended like   
the frame of a girder the worker will place upon   
an axis and thus make a frame which he fills with   
a plot or a quarter inch of poetry to encourage   
nature into his building and the tree leaning
against it, the tree casting language upon the screen.


The telephone is Flaubert’s parrot and it flitters   
from perch to perch across the city. Or someone   
is holding the dead thing in her hand in a remote   
hotel. A sensitive person with a disability who   
speaks to the inanimate. She may even resemble   
Louise Colet or the helpful niece. She hasn’t sent   
her meaning and I am absent in these reminiscences   
of her. The telephone is the guignol of

It may have been cold moving down from roofs,   
a continental wind caught between buildings.   
Leaves and pollen blowing onto fire escapes.   
Windstruck hambones lying in a gutter. Equinoc-
tial changes the body knows, the hand feels, the   
truck passes without notice and buildings con-
tinue their nervous commitments. The earth may   
have been moaning underneath this junk. I am   
caught in the wind’s draft.


At night viewing the screen of distance   
with shadowy icons framed by light   
I understood the rasping interior   
was rearing other icons,

No longer gentle they flashed ripened clauses,   
or images raised formidable projections of ice,   
the wall was placed in a temporary position   
where words glittered from a dark cover,

Narcissism lived in a silver hut.   


In the lighter time of year words arrived   
concealed in branches. Flaubert exchanged   
himself for words, night became a night of   
words and a journey a journey of words, and   
so on.

Words became “a superior joke”, I trembled   
under a revolutionary weight, a coward fleeing   
from a cloud. The ego of words stretched to   
the room’s borders assuming the sonorous   
movement of a poem.


I entice this novice poem with a mineral, Beryl.
The dictionary bestows on Beryl a skittish description,

         like a sequence in which a car
         moves over ruptured roads and slices   
         into ghost veins of color—
         a camera follows each turn,
         examines the exits where rock protects   
         a visionary tool that prods it:—

         “A light greenish blue that is bluer   
         and deeper than average aqua,   
         greener than robin’s eggs blue,   
         bluer and paler than turquoise
         blue and greener and deeper than beryl
         blue—a light greenish blue that is bluer
         and paler than beryl or average turquoise blue—
         bluer and slightly paler than aqua.”

The speculative use of mineral prevents an   
attachment to words from overflowing, inserts   
a vein of jazz, emblems of color and overcomes   
the persecuting stretch of racetrack where words   
race their mounts ....


Beryl became a distraction as one speaks of color   
field or someone as a colorist or of color pre-
dominant, so the paper on which the poem would   
rest was grainy with color flashing lights   
and the depth, the deepness of the country lane
on which shadows found repose was a wilderness of   
color, ditches and trees lost their contours. I   
created a planned randomness in which color   
behaved like a star.


To introduce color to form
I must darken the window where shrubs   
grazed the delicate words
the room would behave
like everything else in nature,

Experience and emotion performed
as they did within the zone of distance   
words ending in fluid passages
created a phenomenal blush
dispersing illusion ....


A difficult poem intrudes like hardware   
decorating a quiet building, a tic taking   
over the facade, a shrug exaggerated by a   

Shelley sailing into the loose wind,
the storm of neurosis hindering the formal plan,   
a suggested dwelling left on the drawing board   
with clumps of shrubs indicating hysteria or,

Daylight gleams on the rough street where a   
blameless career sighs, the poet beak dips   
in air, his little wings cause a mild stir,   
as someone comes down the stair
he pleads with infancy,

A woman speaks to a dish, old forks, amid her   
preparations she smiles touched by history.   
Chipped, sundry evidences of temporal life   
hiding in a bush. In formal dress domestic   
remarks reel into a corpus known as stanzas.


The Bride raised the cloud settled on her
aspen head and stepping away from her bachelors   
she seized like wands the poem I handed her:

                  “A life glitters under leaves   
                  piled for anonymity ...”

She would lead us through glass to view the   
enigmatic hill where a castle slung a shadow.


There was a dream within a dream and inside   
the outer dream lay a rounded piece of white   
marble of perfect circular dimension.
The dreamer called this marble that resembled   
a grain of Grecian marble, “Eva Knachte,”
who was blown into the dream by the considerate   
rage of night.

Her name evoking night became a marble pebble,   
the land on which she rested was the shore   
of the sea that washed over her and changed   
her lineaments into classic marble, a miniature   
being, yet perfect in this dream, her size   
determined by the summer storm with which   
I struggled and seized the marble.

The marble was a relic, as were the movements   
of nature on the poem. The sea had lent
a frieze, waves a shoulder when the investitures   
of a symbolic life feuded. In that dimness   
with bristles, straw, armor plate, grotty   
Alexandrines there appeared a mobile fiction ....


A man who calls himself a Baron yet strays from   
his estate into the cadmium yellow
of a bewildering sunset rendered by apprehension   
where a broad approach to a narrow tunnel   
is fanned by leaves is faced with a decision—   
at the stylized ominous entrance he wonders   
if reality will maintain him or empathic snow   
subdue his quest ....


I sifted through these fictive ambiguities   
until there was a plain moment   
something like a black table where

Dialogue set in motion urged a search   
in memory for that tonal light   
illuminating the screen,

The Baron faded as distance gleamed   
a clear jar multiplied by frost.

Barbara Guest, “The Screen of Distance” from Selected Poems (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995). Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Selected Poems (1995)

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Poet Barbara Guest 1920–2006

SCHOOL / PERIOD New York School

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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