My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge

My Indexby Paul Guest

The poems in Paul Guest’s My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge (Ecco, 2008) are astounding and unforgettable. They all reflect, either obviously or more subtly, a central fact of the author’s life — that a bicycle accident at age 12 left him permanently paralyzed. In his poems, Guest uses everyday language and straightforward diction; there’s no attempt to puzzle or frustrate the reader. The undeniable power of the poems comes from the accumulation of detail that Guest uses. As he explores his feelings at forever being set apart from those who are able to move their bodies at will, Guest’s tone is sometimes colored by anger and bitterness, and sometimes by a sadness so deep and pervasive that his poems are literally painful to read. Here’s how the poem “Bad Mood” begins:

Bad mood and bad dog and bad luck like
my broken neck or heart or head
playing out so much bad weather
like kinked yarn unraveled by a bad
black cat, which summons luck again,
that diffident lover half naked in the dark.
And here’s the start of “My Life Among”:
I’m beginning to dream of my life among
the ornamental, the vaguely functional,
the doorsteps and paperweights, my tenure
in the legion of lawn gnomes, my brotherhood with novelty decanters,
my solidarity with the generally useless, the inscrutably devised,
the deformed idea, the Elvis clock,
the flea market phantasm, the broken
stapler clicking toothlessly, the pen caddy unpenned,

“Vaguely functional” — wow! What a thing to say about yourself. Once you start with the first of these remarkable poems, “Users Guide to Physical Debilitation,” I don’t think you’ll be able to put the book down.


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