Otranto

By Barbara Guest 1920–2006 Barbara Guest
At sunset from the top of the stair watching

the castle mallets wrenched from their socket

fell from ambush into flame flew into hiding;   

above the stoneware a latch like muscle hid   

the green; he stood waist high under the rapt

ceiling and hanged the sparrow; where the kitchen   

had been a mirror of eggs served in a tumbler he

saw the ring when a lancet pierced and threw it.


In a basket and lowered it where sails enter

the harbor over a parchment like dominoes;

the petrel-like eyelash.

To the sun and its rites were pulled the dried   

banners; they flew past the ruins the tower

and window where ivory guided the mist on his back;

he rubbed his eyes and counted them kneeling

wrinkled as grass.


A ghost in their nostrils put a heel at their

forehead; they saw only the moon as it

fasted.


II

If the ship meant anything if he heard a world

view in the midst of his rhythm or the spell

lustrous like hair on his arm; that groaned as

it struck near the tumble down or

combing hair; words burnt as they quickened.

The bitter they share crept into forage and

muster is in their skin; the grey

worked like a vise they brushed this

to turn arrows; they shut off the vast

cellar and the turret leaped to a pattern;

the mosaic blended was untouched.


III

The frankish hills and hummocks metered

the greed over sun and cloud; voluptuous

in the straits turbanned held scarves to the

water each sail embroidered;

who washed in their music a lattice.

A major or borrowed sky this aspect provides

the lily stalk inside the frame; a gesture the lily

pointing north as if the wrench from sky decides

cold rain or change of tide; the lily

she chooses.


IV

Waking in must the high pierced window dew on

the furnaced bar the poaching hour the cup

takes smoke from the tower; they drink

in the smoke the print cradled; cut in dark.

The siege made cloth a transfer

learned from invaders who craved it;

spindle thieves.

She sang high notes and pebbles went into her

work where it changed into marks; in that room

the armor-like wrens:


rites turned with thread a dower

begs lapis; eglantine on a spoon; the castle

breeds tallow.


V

A change of tide might delay the run

they watched as if by simple water;

read magisterially whatever the book decided;

night outside covered with filmic screen

ghosts they store; then bring an experimental

wheel out of hiding.

Even the Nile wind; fortune cards

jugglers a remedy from old clothes;

to appease the fable—pearls

rolling in straw.


The way a cowslip bends

they remember or Troilus as he stared;

they agree on brighter covers; looser

shifts fluent tower to tower.


More ephemeral than roundness or

the grown pear tree connected

with vision a rose briar.


VI

There was only a rugged footpath

above the indifferent straits and a shelf where the

castle lay perhaps it was sphered like Otranto;

there the traveller stood naked and talked

aloud or found a lily and thought a sword;

or dragged a carcass upon blunt stone like a

corded animal. In weeds in spiritual

seclusion a felt hand lifted.

Barbara Guest, “Otranto” 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

Subjects Activities, Travels & Journeys

 Barbara  Guest

Biography

Barbara Guest rose to prominence in the late 1950s as a member of an informal group of writers known as the New York school of poets whose membership included Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler. Their innovative approach to poetry was influenced by modern art, especially surrealism and abstract expressionism. Guest drew on her own background in art (she worked for Art News magazine in the 1950s) to create poetry . . .

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SUBJECT Activities, Travels & Journeys

SCHOOL / PERIOD New York School

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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