My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge by Paul Guest
In the final lines of My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge, Paul Guest plugs up his own voice with a “fist” of sad “never[s],” reaches around and into the “monster skin” of his own body and tells his “you” that, ultimately, the world is awful and empty and hole-filled. And that’s that.
Guest’s book takes a little love. He says “painful, pained thing[s]” and gets away with it. His poems are pleasurable, sloppy messes of images, thoughts, retractions, culpabilities, injuries, and salves. There is sex. There is the heaving, the suffering of love. There are familial complications. There is food and a moon and bruised gin. Porn. Pockets. Modern contraptions. Many pocked dreams. The excessive awkwardness of being alive. There is even a “tiny bed/ that sleeps [a] toe.” An “index” it certainly is.
“Sloppy” might sound like a negative word for a poetics. It’s not. Any good list or index is a little sloppy, a little messy; otherwise, what’s the point? Nobody likes to find a typed grocery list that exactly adds up to a spaghetti dinner with salad, right? A good find in the bottom of your basket is weird, slightly unsettling, scribbled, intimate: toilet paper, dog treats, a radish, a card, condoms, cookies, Yoohoo. And so it goes with Guest. His “index” is akin to The Anatomy of Melancholy but with the contemporary sensibility of a Lorrie Moore or a Miranda July.
Hold up. Did I mention that Paul Guest was, at the age of 12, left paralyzed by a bicycle accident? That his grief-filled poetics of listing and his sad “holes” are not just fronts? That he has not actually led a stereotypically cozy bourgeois life punctuated by clichéd romances, summer jobs at day camps, and stoned walks around college towns in the Fall? That, in fact, this book tells us quite a bit about how it is to live, in a way, without a body?
Our culture’s assumptions about the bodies of others are, it probably goes without saying, ridiculous. Last year, I read a “Savage Love” that unpacked some of these assumptions. In terms of sexuality -- and other body-issues -- we often wrongly think of people in wheelchairs simply as the objects of fetishists’ desires (if we think of them at all), instead of as people with their own distinct, idiosyncratic sexualities. In other words, we only think of “disabled” people in relation to “normal” people. I was kind of startled at my own guilt in this kind of marginalization. Of course, I considered myself thoughtful and sensitive and aware of the seemingly unseen oppressions and indignities enacted by humans. I still feel dubious about how to respond to these issues, but Guest’s book and ideas are part of this context. These issues are inescapable.
I was actually hesitant to mention the fact of Guest’s disability. On one hand, his work clearly (though not always explicitly) revolves around the failures of the body and his sometimes dependence on others. He has the angry, distant perspective of someone whose physical existence is marked by a kind of non-participatory numbness, and he’s sick of it. “...[A]nd I will help you lose my two hundred pound wheelchair somewhere in Toronto. I will laugh like a marrow-fat hyena when you call it my chariot. When you mention Stephen Hawking. Or Christopher Reeve. Because you are the first, the only, the original, the initiator, the big dog, the supreme wit. I will nod serenely. I will identify with your sister in a wheelchair.” But, given this crystalline anger, I assume that Guest is sick, also, of the ghetto of being a “disabled” poet -- like women poets, black poets, Native-American poets, gay poets, Asian-American poets, Latina poets, etc., etc. When we (I or anyone else reading his work) discuss his accident -- about two decades past, I’d guess -- aren’t we saying: His candid discussion of bitterly relying on his mother well past adolescence to squeeze his toothpaste, or of listening to “normal” bodies fuck in another apartment, make his poems so good? I just love his suffering. It’s so wonderful that after his horrible childhood he can make art. It makes me feel so much better about marginalizing crippled people and forgetting that they even exist.
Guest senses this complicated exchange. Actually, he is pretty wonderful. He is cuttingly funny (“I would be very glad to attend/ the white wedding of your ass-faced daughter”) in his attacks on others and in his sensibility (“I will ride the bus all day with a veteran from the USS Bob Hope”). He’s got a lovely flair for lyric (“I thought of you beneath/ the zaftig clouds. The sun dropping/ them like a lustrous/ bomb” and “There were days when knives of noon light/ sliced the sky apart like tangerines”), and his use of the quotidian -- reworked -- is often quite affecting (“a scented pillow/ stuffed with the extravagance/ of a goose flight”). He laughs on an airplane when he sees the offer for advertising space on a barf bag (your product here). He tries to talk in Werner Herzog’s voice when he demands his nerves (“all of you”) just “come back.”
I think Guest is absolutely aware that the state of his body has funneled his poetics, that his status in physical reality informs his work, and that a bunch of assholes will always want to dote on his suffering and read his poems with the simplest lens available -- his “disability.” Guest holds all the contradictions in place, in his sloppy lists, with a critical eye and ear, expressing the process of self-loathing and self-pitying that anyone engages in at any moment, knowing perhaps better than many of us that “[t]here are things/ [we] know of so little worth” that we cannot help but resent the abstract space they take up in our minds, our “pot[s] of meat.”
My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge by Paul Guest