On Barbara Guest’s Orchid Attention

In Cooling Time, C. D. Wright writes, “[e]nthroned in the ergonomic chair, aligned for enhanced efficiency and productivity, one is advised to resist the amorous movement of the stippo grass; to summon what Barbara Guest dubs orchid attention before running to seed.” [1] This advice imagines a totally embodied writing and implies a resistance to the real world and its grasses, or at least a seated re-cognition of it—an invented version, out of memory or imagination to the page, bypassing the window and the amorous movement beyond it. Through Guest, Wright is calling attention to a divide between the writing mind, or the mind of deep focus, and the body that exists in the physical world.

But in “Shifting Persona,” the essay in which the figure of the orchid first appears, Barbara Guest doesn’t call it orchid attention but orchid position, a positioning based on a quality of attention and a status that doesn’t preclude Wright’s amorous attention to the real world. It might not even be writing advice—Guest’s orchid triangulation is a representation of the type of drama enacted in and by the poem as it appeals to the reader, not necessarily an image of the real poet at the real desk:

“The person inside a literary creation can be both viewer and insider. The window is open and the bird flies in. It closes and a drama between the bird and its environment begins. When the person who is you is the viewer. . . This is called the orchid position, because of the extravagant attention the viewer demands.” [2]

Guest (as reading I, writing I, and speaking I) is preoccupied by the reality of rooms and objects, the window and the garden beyond it, triangulating the writer, the Iwho is a character in the poem, and the reader, who by turns witnesses and participates in the language. In the orchid position, you the reader inhabiting the poem via the attentive signaling of the writer, and the exchange between the viewer and the insider is how you figure “the poem’s concealed autobiography. A memoir of itself which is released as it becomes a presence existing in time.” [3] Pronouns and attentions disclose the poem’s sense of its own subjectivity, its autobiography couched in a temporal idea, and make a subject or object of the reader—or both, variously, across reading time. Guest’s theory of first-person attention is three-petaled: the reader as viewer, the reader as insider, and the writer.

This attentive positioning also begs the ancient question: where are we when we think, when we read, or when we write? Who is the lyric I? What bodies do we inhabit, alternately or variously, and what does this several (in)habitation imply about communication, recognition, or love? In a letter to Guest, John Ashbery wrote [of The Location of Things, Tibor de Nagy, 1960], “One interesting thing about your work is that you employ the pronoun “I” a great deal, though you never seem to be talking about yourself. That is what poetry ought to do (the two together I mean).” [4] In her own orchid positioning, Guest emphasizes the I as the “character,” though I read it as essentially the lyric I, a fictional I created and inhabited by the writer. This I is the persona that moves the vision and action of the poem, the agent of the memoir moving temporally in the poem, a construction emitting but not necessarily reflecting the writer’s actual I. Guest’s orchid attention is precisely lyric, the lyric attending a persona and its place in time: lyric now, and now, and now, a series of scenic nows bound together by the first-person pronoun, a vignetted and emotional mode of autobiography. For Guest, the “[t]ension between the poem and the poet creates an empathy / this tension relies on and alters the plasticity of poetic language.” [5] The shared poetic structure is as inherently empathic as it is linguistic and full of tactile possibility.

The opening stanza of “The Location of Things” includes questions that, instead of defining one scene, invite comparisons with other moments, other scenes:

Why from this window am I watching leaves?
Why do halls and steps seem narrower?
Why at this desk am I listening for the sound of the fall
of color, the pitch of the wooden floor
and feet going faster? (1-5) [6]

Narrower than what? Faster than what? The absent comparison might imply something about the nature of change or of the attentive act of writing. The speaking pronoun asks, “Why from this window am I watching leaves?” If we read this I with orchid attention, we might read as ourselves, and presently we are also both watching leaves and wondering about the watching. And then there is the writing I. Here is a lyric scene that exceeds its own temporality, with an orchid pronoun moving through, “wandering as I am into clouds and air” (line 38), with change as an abstraction and the lake as a tangible if remote image, maybe a memory, a vague one. These are hints toward scenes—settings and situations combined with speakers—but are not yet scenes exactly. Scenes imply specific actors moving relationally in a space, but there is no discernable scene until the second stanza, which repositions subjectivity into a particular space that reminds the speaker of other spaces:

On Madison Avenue I am having a drink, someone
with dark hair balances a carton on his shoulders
and a painter enters the bar. It reminds me
of pictures in restaurants, the exchange of hunger
for thirst, art for decoration and in a hospital
love for pain suffered beside the glistening rhododendron
under the crucifix. (12-18)

The present scene sustains itself for less than three lines before memory interrupts and the barroom dissolves into the forest, activated by the painter and the pictures, conjuring a framed forest in the absent context of a hospital room. A series of exchanges, producing a lyric simultaneity of places and moments, demonstrating the porousness of apprehension, experience, and poetic recording:

The street, the street bears light
and shade on its shoulders, walks without crying,
turns itself into another and continues, even
cantilevers this barroom atmosphere into a forest
and sheds its leaves on my table
carelessly as if it wanted to travel somewhere else
and would like to get rid of its luggage which has become in this exquisite pointed 
a bunch of umbrellas. An exchange!
That head against the window,
how many times one has seen it. (18-28)

The forest sheds its leaves on the table—it’s that close, that present, that real. How many times one has seen that head: if the experience transcends habit and we really look at the head against the window, what might become new? What other moments might (re)surface? Finally, the agency of non-human elements produces another kind of action, or dissolution: the forest that might want to travel, and the blurring of individuals into a bunch of umbrellas: An orchid exchange!

In “The Location of Things,” a floating line reading only “Recognitions” sits between the first and second stanzas, a volta into another room, a “real” scene. That scene turns from the immediate with “it reminds me” (line 14), plunging (cantilevering) the barroom into an elsewhere, a forest, an acre of grass which might itself be a painting (static, framed, in another room somewhere else). The poem coordinates the inside and the outside as literal places or states of being, the orchid positioning of the character and the direction of the character’s attentive imagining, revealed by degrees.

Orchid positioning happens only slowly, a slow disclosure, one that blooms over many lines, multiple poems, various excursions into scenes, rooms, forests, relationships, sites of displacement or exchange. In “In America, The Seasons,” a later poem in The Location of Things, “I” and “you” perform a dance through seasons and inclinations, suggestions of archive, until a moment of direct attention arrives:

Yet on this plain
who would hesitate? (15-16)

Placing the poem on a plain suggests acres, an open field as in “The Location of Things,” the furrows of verse, echoing or answering the forests and climates of the other poems, the cultivated interiority of the orchid, the domesticity or wildness of plants and landscape. To place love in or on an acre is to place it within the bounds of a sensible unit of measurement, to be held by and within a rectangular room. The fraught relationship between human and landscape in Guest’s early poems is also present by way of precarity and pollution in the final poem of The Location of Things, titled “The Past of the Poem,” in which Guest’s slow disclosure slips into a slow violence: what might make a color difficult is what might also dirty a river, corrupt a bond or landscape. This poem is preoccupied with oldness and newness, “from its bewildering year” (line 22)—

Do you remember as I do,
the beautiful dressing that covered
the old poem? (1-3)

The river is dirty, and phosphorous from the acres and fields—“septic sighs of sadness” (line 25), trochaic and disruptive—is likely responsible. This is the “difficult color” (line 17)—something a little toxic, a little metrically off, not even fit “to put a bird in it” (line 14).

When Wright wrote about Guest’s orchid attention and cultivating it before “running to seed,” what did she mean by “resist”? “Running to seed” suggests the turning of the season, a letting go. What in the poems can then be understood as real, unless Guest specifically names it as such? All the things and scenes of the poems are held in the balance of vision and imagination. Like H.D.’s over-mind, a theory of balance, perception, and organization of impressions and sensations, or Denise Levertov’s organic poetry, an exploratory mode of discovery and recognition that is particular to the poet, Guest’s orchid positioning indicates recognition and then also naming, placing experience on a variously subjective relational field.


[1] C.D. Wright, Cooling Time (Copper Canyon Press, 2005), 63.

[2] Barbara Guest, Forces of Imagination (Kelsey St. Press, 2003), 36.

[3] ibid, 40.

[4] as cited by Sara Lundquist in “The Fifth Point of the Star” (Women’s Studies, Vol. 30, No. 1, 2001, p. 11-41).

[5] Guest, Forces of Imagination, 79.

[6] Barbara Guest, ed. Hadley Hayden Guest. The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008).

Anna Zumbahlen is a poet living in Joshua Tree, California. Find recent work at www.annazum.com.