Review of Paul Guest's My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge

Christy DelehantyChristy Delahanty is a former Poetry Center intern, and recent graduate in Creative Writing and Linguistics from The University of Arizona.

It takes a certain attuned perspective to see "a strange maroon pelt" where a "vinyl coat in the car door" really is. Or "red math" for a digital clock. It is this propensity for the eerie everyday that lends Paul Guest's poetry a special slant. His most recent collection of poetry, My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge, offers a dark look at everything from coupons and monsters to the etymology of galoshes.

Though most of what you'll find written about Guest and his poetry pushes the sad fact of his permanent childhood paralysis as a sort of map key to his writing, such singular pointing misses a wealth of nuance. Namely, it misses Guest's ability to take imaginative jaunts to a refreshing - if absurd - extreme, which cannot be narrowly attributed to what the book jacket calls "a life forever altered."Neither can the specific but applicable shards of historical knowledge be named symptoms of tragedy; lines like "better to cover you / beside the eastern sea / with lapidary jade / fat emperors ate hoping not to die" pile in like trivia into a treasure box.

Still, without the knowledge of Guest's paralysis, it would be harder to forgive his compulsion to throw barriers up in the midst of otherwise universal poems. The opening poem, "User's Guide to Physical Debilitation" sees "witch's brews of resentment," "extreme atrophy," and "the gradual, bittersweet loss / of every God damned thing you ever loved" over the course of two melodramatic pages. This is not to say that a predicament such as Guest's is undeserving of empathy; rather, reader discomfort arises from the hunch that to nod with his lament is to kowtow to pity in a situation where marveling at his inventive language would be worth more to everyone involved.

Remarkably, between the near-surreal portraits and heavy references to a paralyzed life, you don't get the feeling you've fallen down the rabbit hole into Guest's own world. Indeed, you'd be hard-pressed to pinpoint anyone to whom such elegant distortions and crystalline phrase twists might belong. The portrait rather seems to be about the world at (very) large.

Created on: 
Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Arizona Board of Regents