Ricky Ray

On Paul Guest’s Because Everything Is Terrible (Diode Editions, 2018)

Guest’s fourth book of poetry, Because Everything Is Terrible (Diode Editions, 2018), appears ten years after his previous collection, and eight years after his memoir, quite a period of gestation in today’s publish-or-perish climate. At first glance, the cover is as disturbing as the title—a doll in the shape of a human baby, lumpy, dirty, a gasmask covering its head. Everything Is Terrible, Guest tells us—just look at the news, the moral decline, our ecological catastrophe—and while words like ruin and horrifying have haunted the titles of his books before, this time he sets out to prove it. But before we venture any further, I feel obligated to report that halfway through the book, my cat threw up on its cover. Whether she was passing judgment, contributing to the cover’s aesthetic, or rebuking me for parking the book where she likes to nap, I’ll let the gods opine, fickle know-it-alls that they are.

The book is divided into three sections, but one word describes the first half: bleak. And not just a momentarily depressed type of bleak—I mean bleak as a glass of water, neon with poison; bleak as a heart that beats against its own wishes; bleak as deadpan, without the humor. The opening section, comprised of a thirteen-part, twenty-two-page poem called “After Damascus,” quotes Mark Twain in the epigraph—“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”[1]—and reads like a tour through the awful underbelly of America. It slugs us with the cruelty of fate, the cruelty of people, and a vision so sunk that a “pigeon hopped past, unable to fly: / one leg dragged on the ground, / mangled, unexplained. You knew it would die.”[2]

It’s no surprise that the poem is written in the second person, addressed to a vague and anonymous you who dwells in all of Guest’s books, but this you feels different, not at all like the usual absent lovers; this you feels like it might be the poet himself, his troubled brother, the self one shares with others, or someone best left in the dark. In any case, the use of the second person feels transformed. No longer is it someone for Guest to miss, to talk to, but rather a rhetorical strategy that creates a sense of distance, some breathing room, a remove from the emotional register that accompanies speaking in the first. In one verse, the you character slaughters a jellyfish: “You took a long stick / and pierced one, through and through, / though you felt bad about it. /…/ Still, you couldn’t help opening it up, / stirring its invisible, inscrutable systems. / Water like jellied tears ran out.”[3] Clearly the subject feels shame and regret, and yet he lets his curiosity seduce him into murder. Were it written in the first person, we’d feel the intimacy of the speaker’s guilt, but in the second, we’re left on the outside looking in, wondering what type of person would transgress against his conscience.

In the second section, Guest continues to shove our faces into the mire of existence. His “All-Purpose Elegy” laments pert’ near everything, including the sun, California, dead pet rabbits, “the pained myth / of your birth,” and “this emergency we call life.”[4] But Guest is Guest, a remarkable synthesist, and his realm is never any one thing. The natural world offers its balms, however short-lived their reprieves. When an ankle injury robs him of sleep, he turns away from his body to where “[t]he stars through pine trees / were invisible. I looked anyway,”[5] as if in search of distraction. In “Personal Philosophy,” he posits that “[o]ne must not fear erasure’s warm embrace,” then he turns to “the chilled spectrum of the stars…to seek / from them direction / whenever lost.”[6] The trees, the stars, the phenomena likely to outlast us serve as guides when the trials and terrors of our making threaten to overwhelm us.

About halfway through section two, something shifts. In “Poem,” Guest says “I am out of grief,” and ends with “I am human. / I have found that I do not / enjoy art. I don’t like / my soul clogging up my dreams.”[7] This might seem like another swig of the bitters, but it also sounds like a moment of self-recognition, the acknowledgment of a coping mechanism that can compromise joy and emotional health, and under scrutiny, it might be starting to crack. In the next poem, “Social Elegy,” we find the poet speaking from a place of vulnerability:

I think I mentioned

how often I weep.

And the blindness that comes,

then. I’m sure

I have shared this testimony.

It is terrifying

to unhinge my mouth, but I do.[8]

Guest takes down the guard of the second person and lets us into his private grief and fear, which, contrary to the prior claim, he clearly hasn’t run out of. Over the next few poems, he reminisces, not quite lovingly, but as though running his thoughts over formative moments, tracing their influence on the present. And then he moves from grief to desire, which further compromises his emotional armor:

I want to be your friend.

I want to sidle. I want to amble.

To ambulate. To grow terrified of the night.

But not this one. It is

precious beyond math. Look how

the moon grows. Look how the rain darkens the earth.

I want to be drawn

into an argument

with a flat stone. I want

to push my lips up to a burning match.

I want to speak a magic word.

I want to vanish. I want socks because it is so cold.

I want everything.[9]

Here we find a man not biting his cheek or rebuking art, but allowing himself to want more and more—the senses thawing, igniting—until desire consumes everything in sight.

The trajectory of the book can be roughly paraphrased as follows: face our present, tragic reality; crack the shell of emotional defensiveness; and drill down relentlessly into the core of what makes us human—maybe there’s still something warm and soft down there, if we’re willing to dig. By the time we get to “For When You Are Down about Various Ignominious Fates,” written ostensibly for a “Las Vegas bike thief run down on TV / by a one-legged cop,” Guest graduates into full-fledged compassion, telling us how, after the bike crash that broke his neck, Shriners and strangers and his brother showed him barely speakable kindnesses. The poem ends, “foolish thief, / I, too, was knocked / from a bike, from a life, / once upon a time. I think of you / each time I’m caught.”[10] The consideration for a miscreant stranger is touching, as if Guest had built up a store of kindnesses received, and decided to pass some of his good fortune on to the crook. Perhaps the crook might one day find himself in Guest’s place and do the same.

Then the Guest from his prior books returns. Guest the romantic, the love-bit, the man who finds a picture of a girl left in a book and swoons: “I sang my heart out to her. / I sang old country songs / my grandfather listened to / in another world”—a world still inhabited by gun-play and mushroom clouds, but now, despite the clouds being unthinkable forces of destruction, they can be seen “rising into the air like flowers.”[11] The tinge of beauty that often edges the awful returns to the poet’s sight. As does a mischievous delight in breaking the law. In “If Nothing Else This Poem,” Guest delivers my favorite eight lines in the book, quite possibly my favorite eight lines in his entire body of work, level-gazed and shooting from the hip as usual, but with a kind of fuck-it-I-own-this flair:

Yes, something somewhere is

burning down. You will lose

everything. Some day. This is not news.

My hands ache like there

is no blood in them. Just cement.

Bad faith. The state of Ohio,

which I have sped through,

in the darkness breaking law after law.[12]

Something tells me we’re breaking down through that final layer of emotional resistance, too. At the end of the second section, we encounter the title poem, “Because Everything Is Terrible,” in which Guest chooses to praise the trivial, “my sprained ankle, / my sore throat, my face / which needs to be shaved,” and then, unexpectedly and without ceremony, he says “I love you, all.” [13] A simple confession that in most contexts might seem rather benign, but in the context of the “terrible,” its potency disarms—the poet embraces us, simply and sweepingly, a gesture that runs counter to everything the book has set us up to expect.

In many ways, section three is a curious but welcome reversal of the order arranged in the first half of the book. Bleakness remains in view but takes a backseat. The vague and anonymous you from the opening poem gives way to a you in the old garb of the lover. But unlike previous books, this time the lover feels proximate, present, not the ghost of someone’s shape in the sheets. Guest says “[m]aybe I’m done with tragedy”[14] and “[o]ne more wrench lobbed into the gears of time / won’t seize up a single thing”[15]—a claim that sounds like hope. And yet the atmospheric elements that served as a saving grace for the earlier depressive take a turn towards something dark. The sky is unbearable, rain hateful, and clouds are shaped like harm, an interesting conundrum—maybe they’re perceived as threats to newfound faith. In any case, it’s clear that Guest has found a more positive perch from which to observe the world. In response to thinking that none of our narratives matter, he asks “[w]hy does it seem right / to now speak of flowers,”[16] as if in the asking, he gives himself permission to trust beauty and renewal. His version of acceptance is one of the most striking and useful I’ve read:

Important, I think, to accept the testimony of a shadow.

To say it is gospel. To know

there is no need to make peace with

a world that has no peace.[17]  

The poet suggests, perhaps, that shadows not only give testimony to what casts them, but serve as gospel for both presence and the promise of absence that lurks at one’s heel. There’s no need to attempt to make peace—itself a form of struggle—with a world that never claimed to have peace. The claim was always a projection, and when we let go of the projection, we might also find the struggle lifted from our shoulders.

In the last handful of poems, we meet a man all but transformed:

I’m thinking of the light

at dawn. Of the woman

in Alabama who ordered

six songbirds from a catalog because

she was lonely. Or

heartbroken. I’m thinking

of the four that came

dead in the box, mangled.

Of the two that are

missing. I want to tell you

that they were spotted

in the humid air

winging above a mall.[18]

The poet from the first half of the book would have focused on the four dead, on the abomination of ordering live things through the mail. The new Guest still refuses to sugarcoat, but there’s a balance at work in this vision—an honoring of both the living and the dead—which ends by watching the survivors “winging above a mall.” This is the kind of vision that makes the difference between someone who encounters a ruin and joins in the act of destruction, and someone who sees it as an opportunity to roll up his sleeves and rebuild. From balance, it’s a quick ascent to well-being. Guest finds not a theory of happiness, but the actual state, grudging as it may be against the inconveniences of snow: “I’m happy within sight of snow / provided it never comes down / to sleep in the yard / as soundly as the dead.”[19] Ascending from happiness, all that’s left is uninhibited love. In the presence of his lover, the one who replaces all previous forms of you, he finally relinquishes himself to passion:

This is a poem.

So is your hair in the night.

Your hair in this composed night.

Bad form, bad manners, bad rhetoric

to say some simple thing like

the sunset glows red.

The moon burns with light

stolen from the sun.

In thinking of you

all else fails the test of artifice.

No longer is there any use in pretending

one thing is another.

I am tired of metaphor.

Whether our souls

are eternal shades,

or functions of biology,

I want you.[20]

Most contemporary collections read like a hodgepodge of poems thrown together because they were written close to each over a period of time. Few take the reader on a journey and give her the signposts of some perceptible, inner evolution. In this book, and over the course of Guest’s four collections to date, Guest manages to achieve the feat so well I’m tempted to cheer him on, but I suspect he might sneer at the suggestion. And that’s one of the qualities I love most about his work: if Guest ever met a pair of rosy glasses, I think he'd spit on them, or tell them to find some other poet’s eyes to blind. But he's the kind of guy you want in your corner. The one who will give you the straight talk. The one who will tell you the ugly truth that life will kick your ass and keep on kicking, but once in a while, the kicking will ease—once in a while, little pockets of joy will engulf you in the stink.

[1] Paul Guest, “After Damascus,” Because Everything Is Terrible (Virginia/Qatar: Diode Editions 2018), 13.

[2] Ibid., “After Damascus, Section 7,” 23.

[3] Ibid., “After Damascus, Section 11,” 30.

[4] Ibid., “All-Purpose Elegy,” 45-46.

[5] Ibid., “Forget,” 51.

[6] Ibid., “Personal Philosophy,” 48.

[7] Ibid., “Poem,” 63-64.

[8] Ibid., “Social Elegy,” 65-66.

[9] Ibid., “I Want,” 75.

[10] Ibid., “For When You Are Down about Various Ignominious Fates,” 78-79.

[11] Ibid., “Immediate Poem,” 81.

[12] Ibid., “If Nothing Else This Poem,” 82.

[13] Ibid., “Because Everything Is Terrible,” 84.

[14] Ibid., “Before,” 91.

[15] Ibid., “Invitation,” 89.

[16] Ibid., “Before,” 92.

[17] Ibid., “Love Song with Ruin,” 93.

[18] Ibid., “Post-Factual Love Poem,” 97-98.

[19] Ibid., “Impure Poem,” 99.

[20] Ibid., “Eros Poetica,” 106.

Ricky Ray

Ricky Ray

Ricky Ray was born in Florida and educated at Columbia University. He is the author of Fealty (Diode Editions, 2019) and the founding editor of Rascal: A Journal of Ecology, Literature and Art. His awards include the Cormac McCarthy Prize, the Ron McFarland Poetry Prize, the Fortnight Poetry Prize, and a Whisper River Poetry Prize. He lives in Harlem with his wife, three cats and a Labradetter. Their bed is frequently overcrowded.

[Image Description: Picture of a 39 year-old white dude with salt-and-pepper hair and stubble, wearing a dark-blue plaid blazer, a brown v-neck sweater, a light-blue dress shirt with white stripes, and a few fresh flakes of dandruff on his right shoulder.]