To read Paul Guest's poetry is to expect the unexpected, to release oneself to dazzle, to performance, to the hurtle of his images, and the kind of strong emotional shifts that make one marvel at how the poem is able to contain such vast range. It is this quality, this synthesis of images, narratives, humor, and great pain, that calls into question any singular thread a reader might draw from My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge.

Take the first recommendation listed on the back of the book: "The invalid's rage . . . and the ridiculousness of it all inform Paul Guest's wonderful poems, flung one after another in the teeth of 'daily' life, each an act of defiance that affirms the terrible power of that life." — John Ashberry. I have puzzled over this blurb for a long while now. What struck me immediately was the "invalid" part, to be sure. What lingered later was the "rage." The speakers of these poems rarely rage; yes, there are moments of frustration, anger, distress, but to present the central emotion as rage is to depart from the other facets of Guest's symphonic deluge. Five of the seven blurbs from major poets contextualize the book through Guest's paralysis, in some cases crafting an overcoming narrative that will indeed make a wide audience want to buy the book. And people should, because it's also fantastically energetic, frenetic, sonically resonant, and self-aware.

I suppose I too have participated in this focus on Guest's disability, so pleased as I was to have the chance to read My Index, knowing also that I could conveniently review it here, and thus render reading for pleasure into a "productive" activity. As I began preparing to write this review I gathered poems that address disability, poems I felt would stand out for a disability studies audience. While I certainly wouldn't present Guest as someone who's overcome a tragedy — he's beyond that, with greater perspective — I found my desire to locate disability in the poems ran counter to the voice Paul Guest creates, and ran somewhat more parallel to some of the notes on the back of the book. Because to focus solely on the narrative of Guest's paralysis, to seek out those moments of disability, is to lean towards the objectifying gaze, the spectacle that his poems play with, self-consciously engage in, and wryly work against. Witness the opening lines of "Travel":

. . .and 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. Or your cousin. Or your pet whimpering at home. Yes, lupus is sad. I will never not be sad. Just for you. I'll be happy when you say. When you dispense Jesus to me like candy, I will shout amen. (56)

Guest deftly deploys his sardonic wit and mastery of syntax to transition the poem from these assumptions made by the able-bodied into feelings of intrusion, molding the world of the poem into something darker, lonelier: "I'll interrupt oral sex beside the Delaware River because there's no ramp down to my hotel. The shadow of one more bridge will fold me up, will hide me from the world" (57). The book's first poem, "User's Guide to Physical Debilitation," introduces the reader to the concept that the desire for inspirational stories is rooted in able bodied expectations of disability as the worst misery imaginable:

It is our hope that this guide

will be a valuable resource

during this long stretch of boredom and dread

and that it may be of some help,

however small, to cope with your new life

and the gradual, bittersweet loss

of every God damned thing you ever loved. (2)

In both poems Guest presents able-bodied perceptions of disability as a form of anxiety-forged voyeurism that hopes for cheerfulness but fears loss of control.

Voyeurism is not a charge leveled only at the outside; Guest's speakers themselves are watchers. From two poems shaped after DVD audio commentary tracks, where the speakers describe in blasé tones the carnage of their film shoots, to the lyrical poems devoted to past loves, the act of looking predominates. In one poem, while distractedly picking at a piece of weather stripping ("like a wound") with the stick he holds in his mouth, Guest thinks

of a woman's hand, water

she bore in a glass back to the bed

we'd share like it was air

or candy, a surfeit of rain

beneath a brick arch where once

we kissed a long time,

and that water she gave me first to drink,

and how cold it was

nothing could prepare me for (25)

Memory's eye hooks on details, moves from the hand to the glass to sensation: cinema's wish to feel that water. In other poems Guest, who has pointed out his own objectification by the non-disabled — and by women — focuses his gaze on a woman's body with a self-consciousness that is entirely palpable and refreshing. In "My Nightmare," Guest catalogs a number of things his nightmare is not, then a near-nightmare, the refusal of a woman to let him kiss her ear. He follows with, "No one ever warned me/ to fear my hands [ . . . ] the things they would do/ or not do," a sentence which takes the reader to another place in order to prepare us for what is to come, the gaze, the spectacle, and the inaccessibility of the female body:

Once you let me watch you

bathe, the tub sudded with lilac froth.

We hardly spoke as the water cooled.

The soap fell from your skin.

You were new.

Beside you I failed to dream of anything else. (48)

This edenic moment of looking is also the silent expanse of time during which his hands "will not do" a thing, and though it is beautiful, it is melancholy, and it is the only dream in this poem. It is nightmare.

The logic of that poem, that the pleasurable, visual lyric moment is the most painful, provides a complexity Guest later explores in "My Arms," a poem which opens with dark humor: "My arms are mostly cosmetic. When I say this/ to a stranger, often he'll wince/ like he wants to hide inside his eyes." He refers to the narrative of his paralysis, the childhood accident, as "the telling of a poor joke,/ made of pain, nerves snuffed like wicks." The modesty — "poor joke" — combines with the stirring image of "nerves snuffed like wicks" to accelerate the poem's tone and perspective. This is not a poem that begs for pity; it is a poem that seeks irony through melancholy:

How many clasps

and how many buttons

did I try with my teeth

until her hands did for me what I could not?

Untrue to say I lost count

of what I never sought to keep.

A lie to say that when

she held my hands to her hips

and her body above mine,

I loved such need, I did not hate us both. (52)

The irony, of course, lies in the double negative of that last sentence. And it is wrenching, a moment that takes time, perhaps, for full effect, but whose impact burns deep, in part because of Guest's control of time and speed.

Guest writes elsewhere in My Index that "Everything is gravity and velocity"(4). If there is any way to best describe the texture of these poems, it is through their heft and speed. What may appear random — the mixing of disparate images and tones, like Kim Jong Il's appearances, or the heightened surreal apocalypse in others — is actually part of the orchestration and construction of movement. The poem's ability to transport the reader. Often the poems feel generated by the title, or by syntax, experimenting not just with what is said, but privileging how it's conveyed. This is evident in poems like "Loyalty Oath," which spins on the axis of "Solemnly do I swear," or "Things We Agreed Not to Shout," which lists phrases that the reader must imagine in their negation, both common ("bingo," "not anymore") and hilariously, oddly uncommon ("In our spare time, we enjoy perfecting methods of evisceration"(29).) And while the book calls itself an Index, it too is tightly wound, each poem stitched carefully to the next. The poem "Valentine" asks, "Tell me to sleep" (23). It's followed by a poem of imperatives, "To-Do List," whose second line commands, "Stop all attempts/ at rhetorically complex valentines"(24). Similarly, "Poem to Replace Another," which ends with "stranger who doesn't know me at all"(9) is followed by a poem that opens with what could seem like a continuation: "Meaning, I am separate"(10). What seems like a crash isn't, but is: it's not a wreck but a commotion. In "My Luck" one could say Guest summarizes the movement and tone of the book:

So many times I've lied

my way into your beds and back out again,

it isn't funny. Except it's hilarious

and painful and exhausting and cathartic and untrue.

All at once,

a metaphysical hernia. (78)

My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge presents us with a bruised world in all its scatter and hurry and pain and violence and loss, a place where Guest searches for ways to love its perpetual motion and its finalities.

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Copyright (c) 2009 Laurie Lambeth

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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