A Riff on Barbara Guest’s Poem Piazzas

by Nick

I really like Barbara Guest’s Piazzas. It reminds me of Brugel the elder’s The Triumph of Death or any of those medieval paintings with so many episodes that you might only remember one or two. Read the poem in page of 5 of her collected poetry published by Wesleyan.
Yes, I’ve shamelessly stolen this riff format from the fine folks at Biblioklept.
1. I like the phrase “risky autumn” and how it foreshadows the risks all our characters make here. Their risks make them great even if they deal damage back to the one committing the action.
2. Stanzas 3-4 are awesome. “Thin wings attacking a real substance” and “there is always a heaviness of wings” are my favorite. Both of those descriptions combine into this fragile and mature vision of the difficulties in starting love and the persistence required to continue it. These are basic images that a lot of Romantics used but Guest makes them shine.
3. Stanzas 6 and 7 incredibly intertwine while having the first line of each function as headings. 6 entirely talks about imagined comparisons of emotions and thoughts while 7 has a youth fighting inside himself with the “murders real or divined” which spring out of one of the poem’s couple. I can’t tell if it’s the guy or girl speaking. My gut says guy but my gut also tells me to flirt with girls and that never works.
4. “felt/the alphabet turning over” Woah now
5. I’m not sure what to make of stanza 6’s last 3 lines about the late Empresses’ letters and how they might describe the couple’s relationship. If we understand the last two stanzas to suggest that the relationship has died then the “impeccable script followed by murders/real or divined” probably describes the physical ending of that relationship and the questioning of identity in our speaker. So after that ray of light I wrote myself into (really, I didn’t understand this before now), we can tie the youth throwing stones to whichever member of the relationship is our speaker.
5.1. The youth’s self-blame in stanza 6 where he reads his “effigy” in a ricocheting rock is the perfect false emotion after a relationship. You know it’s wrong, but you can’t help feeling like you did something wrong. At the very least you feel worthless even if you know it’s not true. Are we just indulging in self-pity? I don’t think so. Even if we’re over dramatizing it a little bit. The poem understands this entirely in the last two lines of the stanza, “that stone becomes golden as a tomb/beware the risky imagination.” The following stanza adds onto that in a terrifying way with the mirrors for Pinturicchio
6. After writing that last bit it strikes me that the poem mentions the “mirroring air” in stanza 2 and stanza 1 mentions “shadows.” These suggest to me that some amount of the relationship was imagined or the poem wants to present it to us as such (yes, I write about the text as though it were alive). This is not to say that the poem adds up to the death of love or how we are all alone, but that the good and bad bits of love are losing oneself in one another. Only without a partner could Pinturicchio see well enough to “draw his face”, right? Maybe not. Maybe she could be your mirror but what if she’s wrong? What if you can’t even penetrate the self?
7. I feel like I just made a bunch of basic observations and asked some high school level questions, but I’ll hope it’s more than that.