Editor's Column

Heraclitus in Waders

by John Kilgore


e’ll miss his voice. The actual, physical voice I mean, calling a cheery hello down the hall, or carrying through his classroom door as you pass by, a well-modulated alto, so good at spinning its tales and urging its lessons that no one nods off in his eight o’clocks, and he can keep those farmer’s and hunter’s hours he actually likes. (In season, he has been known to arrive for class elated and red-faced, in full camouflage, after sitting for hours in a freezing deer blind.) It’s this same voice that has made him such a capable MC at countless readings at the Tarble, getting those potentially tense or tedious events off to a brisk start, then on to a gracious close, paying due respect to the visitor even while on another level he seems, just a little, to be making fun of the whole proceeding. I will miss—or would miss, if I did not absolutely intend to go on hanging out with him—the hiccough of contagious laughter that may erupt at any moment in a conversation with Bruce Guernsey, whether the subject is Jacobean dramaturgy or whoopee cushions.

Right here, though, at the outset of this otherwise adulatory volume of Agora that is dedicated to him, I want to go on record that his jokes are sometimes bad. Really. Write down the next joke Bruce tells you, sleep on it, and come back the next day. Chances are one in four, maybe one in three, that what you will be looking at is a bad joke. The reason you didn’t notice is the way he told it—the glee, the gusto. The delivery was so good he managed to fool you with second-rate material. It’s a gift any English Department could use more of these days, when humor has to pass through the metal detectors and strip searches of political correctness on its way to the classroom (not that there aren’t some good reasons for this), and often arrives in shaky condition.

Turn to Bruce’s poems, though, and you find a place where laughter comes together with—not tears, exactly—but a quiet toughness, a steady unspoken awareness of endings, limits. As Martin Scott shows in his fine essay here, the core vision in these deceptively plain lyrics is Down East stoicism, a New England certainty that the soil is rocky and winter always on the way. For Marty this suggests Frost, with his loose topsoil of folksy wit clinging to granite grimness beneath. I think also of Roethke in “The Far Field,” of Keats in “To Autumn,” for the resilient sense of joy and delectation. The poem may be as innocently funny as “Toad” or as wickedly so as “The Affair,” two old favorites I’ve chosen to reprint here, but what makes them memorable (and in the end even funnier) is a keen consciousness of time, the sure knowledge that all paths are one-way paths. Not that transcendence is impossible. In the amazing “January Thaw,” a kind of transistorized Tintern Abbey, past and present, loss and joy come together in a wonderfully comprehensive moment of celebration. It’s a poem to be kept handy, clearly marked in your Emergency Poetry Kit, for tough times. And for the toughest time of all there is “From Rain,”a much more recent work, which I am delighted to say Agora gets to publish for the first time. Disguised as an apologia for that ritual so mystifying to outsiders, fishing, it is really a meditation on all the Big Questions, unpretentious but sure as it stands in the midst of that stream you can never step into twice, looking upstream and down without complaint.

In the halls, in class, in the pages, somehow it’s the same message: here you are on earth, alive, wonderfully, at the edge of nothing. Best make the most of it. Therefore (the corollary is crucial) let’s go fishing.

Carpe Diem, Bruce. Or do I mean Carpe carp?

After last May’s “Friends” Issue, several colleagues suggested that we might make contributions from off campus a regular feature in Agora. Grateful for the suggestion, we are happy to present here a chapter from Lynn Pruett’s Ruby River, a fine novel just out from Grove / Atlantic Monthly Press. Anyone interested in hearing me run on about how good it is should check out my review at Amazon.com, where you can also order a copy if you don’t want to borrow mine. Also in the well-laden creel are a spiffy interview article by John Guzlowski and Michael Loudon’s harrowing account of weathering a typhoon in Guam, a yarn that will change the mind of anyone who thinks English teaching is a sedentary profession.

Enjoy, everyone, and remember that your contributions are always welcome here.


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