Dispatches | December 09, 2010

“their hymns like an aftershock/ in which there is only stillness,/ stillness like a rock, your rock, your wound,” writes Paul Guest in “Sincerely,” one of his new poems out in our most recent issue (33.3). To call this sincere would be an understatement. Reading a poem of his is like sitting in that aftershock, watching as the potency of his words begin to steadily calm.

It is not just the profundity of Paul Guest that drew me to him, or the intuitive stillness I gradually discovered in his poems. His poetry is often associated with an understanding of wound, of grief, and of loss – those things that we cannot just get back or refresh immediately. In “The Intrusion of Ovid,” he writes, “You, yourself trample/ the sadness I lushly tend like a garden/ and tell me to come in from the rain.” His poems express this kind of sentiment, of one who understands that brokenness needs restoration.

This past summer a few of the interns at TMR were able to contact authors and set up interviews. Although I was unfamiliar with his work, I chose Paul Guest. I knew he was a poet and that I was a poetry intern. I remember going through our back issues (30.7), finding “My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge,” and sitting in the office with it. I read it, over and over. I sat there in silence and just stared at the words. The voltaic wit, the structure of images, and the furious insight were unshakeable, paralyzing. I was affected emotionally and provoked cerebrally. The impact of his language caught me off guard and when the poem ended, my mind was still recovering. His writing is fierce, electric, tragic.

I read “Melancholia” and “My Life Among” – and discovered a similar style. The words “broken”, “lost”, “functional”, “half-truths” continued to stick out to me. An intuition inhabited his work. He was funny, too. So, when our editor, Evelyn, gave me his new book to read, One More Theory about Happiness, I was anxious to dig in, and I did. When I finished reading it, I passed it to two other friends, saying, “He’s brilliant” and “This man just gets it.” Not only does he depict his experience with quadriplegia, the frustration and humiliation of it all, but he moves his story from one in a body to one with new eyes, creations, and vulnerabilities.

In One More Theory About Happiness he shows us how the body is an odd thing. It is both acting and being acted upon, igniting wry realizations of boundary and sensitivity. He recognizes his own body’s sensitivities, but he moves beyond the exterior, attuning us to a tenderness that only comes from the eyesight of the injured. We get this same kind of external/internal instinct within the form of his writing, both in his poetry and prose.

If you want to see what recovery looks like through respectable eyes, read Paul Guest’s brilliant works. Start with “Melancholia” and end with One More Theory About Happiness. He’ll take you from the storm of tragedy and grief to an aftershock of honesty and hope, while making you smile every now and then, too.

1. In “One More Theory About Happiness,” you document your life, exposing us to the man behind the poetry. Your memoir is a very vivid picture of your experience with quadriplegia. Why did you choose to explore this experience with prose?

You might say I had resisted writing about my injury before.  At least in such detail.  I really cared about writing about other things. But, more and more, I began to warm to the idea.  It was frightening to me, the scope of such a project, but I began to feel there was much I might be able to do that I’d never done before.  And, in the end, I learned a lot.

2. What was the most maddening thing someone ever asked you to believe?

That a man can fly?  Mission Accomplished?  Hmm.  Santa was easy. And, God help me, the Easter Bunny, too.  Disbelief is maddening, as well, especially in this Tea Party era.

3. You talked about broken things and redemptive things in both your memoir and your new poems that came out. What does redemption mean to you?

For me, redemption isn’t some miraculous negation of suffering – scar tissue doesn’t go anywhere, it sticks around, it stays.  But, it is possible to go on, to create something new in one’s life and work.

4. Apart from poetry, what is the most satisfying thing you do?

Teaching is very satisfying to me:  talking about words and ideas with smart people is not bad work if you can get it.  I’ve been very lucky, in many ways.  I try to never forget that.

Emily Camp is an intern at the Missouri Review.

Paul Guest is a poet and memoirist. He has written One More Theory About Happiness, My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge, Notes For My Body Double, Exit Interview: Poems, and The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World.