On Bruce Guernsey’s Poetry
by Martin Scott
ew England is an exotic place to me. I’ve only been there once, and I was in fourth grade, so I don’t remember much. I have a few images of Maine: waves colliding into spectacular cliffs, a spanking-red lobster, and a gift shop on Campobello Island where my mother bought me a decal of a Royal Canadian Mountie. I think we also visited the L. L. Bean store where she bought me a blue sailboat I kept on my desk for years, right next to a jar full of octopus from Atlantic City. Our Cape Cod house in New Jersey seemed light years away from New Hampshire or Vermont, but then we never visited New York and seldom hazarded Philadelphia during my suburban-provincial childhood.
But there is a New England state of mind I can understand—a tough Romanticism that refuses easy consolation even as it demands beauty. It is common to many poets who absorbed important imagery and ethos from that landscape. How well aware Dickinson and Stevens are, for example, that “fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is famed to do.” In this northern world, snow takes on an uncanny, disturbing personality, as in Frost’s great poem “Desert Places”:
Far from a rustic dispenser of wisdom, leaning over the cracker barrel, Frost is one of the most terrifying poets of the twentieth century. Only Paul Celan chills me more, but then he had the Holocaust to deal with. Frost is “benighted” not by memories of death camps and hollow-eyed corpses, but by “whiteness,” a world “With no expression, nothing to express.” The bubble of language in which we conduct our lives seems “lonely” when we glimpse the expressionless/wordless “desert spaces.” Frost claims this desert as his own and as New England.
Bruce Guernsey, in many of his taut, finely-turned poems, has more than a little of this New England sensibility, the inhuman / winter eroding language we’ve erected to shield us from the Real. To Guernsey, this seems not as devastating a perception as it does to Frost, since he starts with diminished expectations that nature could reflect the human back to us. Take a poem like “North,” the opener in Guernsey's as-yet unpublished selected poems, From Rain:
In Guernsey’s world, language devours itself “in the deep snow” of the world, gnawing itself down to monosyllabic verbs to reveal “the thing and work,” the ax in your hand and the axing you do. The word he holds up for admiration in the final stanza is two letters long, hardly a word at all, hardly a speck between the noumenal woodpile and the perceiver. The work of the poet is to point you away from the very language he has ground and cut into diamond-like sharpness to an evocation of the world that the poem, finally, cannot represent. The poem is an ax to chop wood—what we need from axing / reading is the wood / world, not the tool we used to produce vision. The ax “clear[s]” the reader’s perception in the way Zen koans are used in monastic meditation to polish the mirror of consciousness and undermine linguistic assumptions. In Guernsey’s New England of the mind, desert spaces are a relief from the jungle of unrestrained, artless language overgrowing the human terrarium.
We see this also in “Ice Fishing,” a poem which begins with an examination of the organ of perception:
Compare this vision with a few lines from “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop (a New Englander by birth and for most of her childhood):
Where Bishop confronts the fish’s eye in term of herself and human productions (“eyes / were far larger than mine,” “tarnished tinfoil,” “old scratched isinglass,” “my stare”), Guernsey asks us to regard the world through the desert spaces of the fish’s eyes, comparing a flat reflection on a pond to the depthless view of the bluegill. He doesn’t put a human mask on the world—he looks out through, rather than at, the fish. And unlike Frost’s speaker in “Desert Places,” Guernsey’s is at home in the “flat” and “white,” “jigging the line” in the “hole.” This cut in the ice is his metaphor for the world’s eye—parallel to the human one in the first stanza—in which he fishes for “stars.” He leaves the possibility open—Something could be fished out of the desert, certainly nothing human, but Something. And maybe we ourselves are watched by Something through the ice hole eye.
Of course that Something could be death. In another winter poem, “The Owl,” the speaker again exposes himself to the howling wilderness (as the New England colonists called it):
When the inhuman deigns to wear a human mask in Guernsey’s world, it’s a hangman’s hood, the gaze intense and three dimensional, not flat as a fish’s. This strikes me as almost Freudian in its uncanny tone as the ultimate in repressed knowledge (that of our own mortality) bobs to the surface of the speaker’s consciousness. This time Guernsey marches right into one of Frost’s desert places and attempts to cover the “holes” with human features, the figure of the hangman—at least the cold stare bears a recognizable face. But it’s clear this cold comfort resides in the poet’s metaphor, not in the landscape itself. Nevertheless there is Something out there, and It’s watching us closely. Are we prey? It is, after all, through the eyes of a predatory bird that we first sense Its awareness of us. Or are we merely interesting data to a cold Mind in a cold world because of the ridiculous “crunch” of our lives? What brought us to this pass in the first place, or as Frost puts it in “Design,”
In Frost’s poem, the spider hunts the moth from on high with predatory intensity, but, in Guernsey’s poem, it is absurd to believe the owl could devour the man. The terror exceeds the actual threat from the Watcher, so Guernsey has taken Frost’s idea one step further: this overflow of fear tells us the owl is the merest tip of Something huge and glacial underneath the image, as if Time itself were about to roll out of those cold eyes.
But how does the speaker on his trek navigate these cold desert spaces? If we again turn to Frost for help with Guernsey, we might notice this poem, “Lost in Heaven,” appearing just before “Desert Places” in A Further Range (1936):
Frost’s speaker surrenders to his “lostness” as if being in the world were more “heavenly” if he can’t “identify” where he is on earth, or if he dispenses with consideration of “heavenly” issues and concentrates on earthy “lostness.” Guernsey is also concerned with disorientation, but with none of Frost’s cheerful abandon. Indeed, navigation and “lostness,” calls and lost connections, are common frightening metaphors in Guernsey’s work, especially in the strong and moving poems about his elderly father who wandered away from a nursing home and was never found. The ambiguous knot of grief and anger is intensified because the father’s body is never recovered and because the son feels he should have been there to help navigate by the stars, as in this section from “The Search”:
Though the form is more expansive here than in many of his poems, Guernsey still creates a stark and almost unbearably desert place. And whereas in Frost’s poem, the clouds merely occlude the “skymarks” the speaker could use to find his way, here the clouds betray by their absence, allowing the old man to freeze during May. In “North,” Guernsey saw the desert places as purifying, but here, he finds “this blankness I’ve come to know, to hate,” as if the purgatorial ice has become too personal, and so the language more expressive, less restrained. The desert places Frost fears, Guernsey now hates for absorbing his father—and for inflicting an internal weather and landscape on him that he must continually navigate in dreams (“The Search,” section 3):
The diction, rhythm and rhyme here, especially in the long stanza, are very Frost—and good Frost, too—though re-imagined and re-versed in Guernsey’s sense of the line. The rhyme, especially, is insistent in Frost’s manner, and disturbing in its sudden emergence from the “winter-bare, hard” ground of this free verse poem, as if the Master himself, the other lost father, were “passing” through this “dream.” And the strategy here is also a turn on Frost: the inner weather has replaced the outer, since Guernsey’s father actually disappeared in May, but here in the speaker’s dream, the world is “winter-bare, hard, / the snow, the tracking snow / a passing dream.” And now the snow is doing the tracking, hunting / haunting the speaker much like “The Owl.”
“The Search” ends in section five with a vision of the father in a “far field” driving a stake into the ground to construct a primitive sundial: “watch how the shadow falls / in a circle on the ground.” This is how we map time—we watch the shadow fall over space. We measure time not in hours or minutes, but by how the “shadow falls” across the bodies of our loved ones, ever circling around back toward us. Perhaps this explains the popularity of the children’s game Ring Around the Rosie: at the end we all fall down “in a circle on the ground” in gleeful imitation of what happens when “the shadow falls.” By acting out what we fear from desert places, and laughing at it with an almost sexual anxiety, we loosen the grip of vacancy.
But there are certainly moments in Guernsey’s work where navigation seems more successful, at least for a moment. Metaphor is a kind of map, a reference tool that can guide us home when the stars cannot, as in “Maps”:
the ax in “North,” here the tool/map is more explicitly
poetry, and the work to be done recognition. When we are inside, and
the noumenal landscape unavailable, the map/poem evokes the phenomenal
counterpart—memory—and the pleasures and terrors of myth—“the
whir of blades,” “the char of smoke.” On one level,
this use of metaphor enables “Those who’ve been to war”
to call up past landscapes (battlefields?) or present ones (work routes?)
in a safe and artistic manner, much as readers of books call up the
characters and events of a storyline. But these maps make the world
“flat,” as flat as the fish’s vision in “Ice
Fishing,” and studying charts does not itself constitute escape
from the desert spaces. Readers of books and maps must both look away
from their texts at some point, and use what they have learned to navigate
the Real. The map / poem points away from itself to something untextual,
not found on “this paper you touch,” but on the earth. Because
we never see these old soldiers look up, I wonder if they ever do find
their way, or if they aren’t a bit like the Lotos-eaters, narcotized
by a substance that replaces Ithaca for them.
The pure joy in the language of this poem (“from rain I’ve come, will spinning fall”), the revelry in half- and off-rhymes, and the imagery of rebirth and integration of personality signal a new swerve in the work of this poet. The speaker no longer fears the mutability of living (“myself no longer / but one with the shifting gravel”) or the certainty of death’s gaze (“both son and father, / eternal and ephemeral, / while the current around me curls”). And what has brought about this shift in voice, the ecstasy of “I lift my line in this ritual / of rod and river, of Adam and lover”? The point of fishing is not just to catch fish, but to stand in the river and let it curl around you, to cast your rod and jig your line and know that’s exactly what you’re supposed to be doing—living the metaphor. And the point of loving is to be Adam (or Eve) in this very moment while the current around you curls, and to feel the river’s pull on your bodies in the fullness of Now. Of course this ritual, this map of behavior, is another metaphor for poetry as the artist “lifts [his] line” “as once and ever,” a kind of raising of the glass to the Real. Now water replaces winter as the serious trope, and baptism replaces extreme unction as the dominant sacrament.
Once when I was a child I remember playing down by an icy creek on my grandparents’ farm in Pennsylvania. I held in my blue mitten a palm-sized plastic howitzer I prized, but clumsily dropped into the fast-running brook. I must have been very young, as I remember my surprise at the bright cold when I splashed my hand into the water to retrieve my toy. Of course I did not realize water refracts the light, so that when you see your hand in one place, it’s actually a little off. I aimed for the cannon, closed my fist on Something and brought it up. Instead of green plastic, I held a small minnow in my mitten, flipping back and forth, shimmering pink and silver in the snow-bright air. Just so, Bruce Guernsey’s poems are the sort of gems that slip through your fingers if you don’t hold onto them right. Cold-blooded, taut little masterpieces, their “loneliness includes [us] unawares” in an emptiness “so much nearer home” than we had dreamed. Like Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” Guernsey has worked in a quiet and steadfast manner to cultivate a “mind of winter” so he can gaze uninterrupted at the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”