Poet's Choice

By Mary Karr
Sunday, October 26, 2008

Real life has enough horror without adding ghouls and ghosts to the mix. Here's a scary fact you'll want to know about Paul Guest: At the age of 12, he was permanently paralyzed in a bike accident. That's the least interesting aspect of his work, but it did produce this startler, "User's Guide to Physical Debilitation," from a forthcoming book of his poems:

Should the painful condition of irreversible paralysis

last longer than forever or at least until

your death by bowling ball or illegal lawn dart

or the culture of death, which really has it out

for whoever has seen better days

but still enjoys bruising marathons of bird watching,

you, or your beleaguered caregiver

stirring dark witch's brews of resentment

inside what had been her happy life,

should turn to page seven where you can learn,

assuming higher cognitive functions

were not pureed by your selfish misfortune,

how to leave the house for the first time in two years.

It's both agonizing and funny for an invalid to joke about his "bruising marathons of bird watching." And Guest's humor often disarms me before he ambushes me with longing. Losing a potential love makes his joy in a mid-January burst of spring both funny and sad in this wry poem:

The Lives of the Optimists

So the jonquils are fooled into flaming up

though it's January. The bricks soak

in heat like ruddy sponges.

Walking home, I hide

within whatever's radiant.

A bird whose name I've never bothered

to learn sings its farewell

to winter. It's January. Tomorrow

we'll grieve. Or the next

day, but not this thawed instant,

not in this false blush

of lilac. In my bones, the old scores

with the earth are laid to rest

and each dyspeptic grudge

blossoms into frantic, sweet, careening

love. In your bones,

the tidal hymns of blood.

This heedless smile once was yours.

So too my hands,

themselves fooled

by the tilt of the earth, the white face of a star.

Guest's twisting syntax, his poetic phrasing -- "tidal hymns of blood" -- and his wicked wit about "each dyspeptic grudge" make more palatable the grief of the lost love. It's her face that blinks past us, I think, disappearing in the white face of a star.

"User's Guide to Physical Debilitation" and "The Lives of the Optimists" are from "My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge" (Ecco, 2008).

Mary Karr has published four books of poems, most recently "Sinners Welcome."

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