Desert Spaces:
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”:

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it—it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less—
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own 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:

Up here, in this cold,
you won’t get fat.

I don’t mean your ribs,
I mean your words.

Far north, in the deep snow,
nouns are skin and bone

for verbs to gnaw on,
lean as ice, raw as oak—

cut, clear; split, burn—
one breath, one bite

up here where ax
is both a thing and work.

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:

When the doctor beams his line of light
in the water of your eye,
can he see the stars, the glisten of your tears?
I pull a bluegill from the dark,
its belly pink, the winter moon.
On the ice, it flops just once.

The eye of a fish is flat
for seeing under water. Out here, in air,
nothing it sees has depth.
Summers, the pond a sky,
you can’t see in because of the light.
All you see is sky.

This afternoon it’s ten below,
the land, the ice I fish through, white.
I stare in the hole, jigging the line.

Compare this vision with a few lines from “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop (a New Englander by birth and for most of her childhood):

I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
--It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.

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):

This morning, half way up
a snow-packed hill,
I spotted an owl
on a branch at the top.

Out of breath, I stopped,
watching it turn
at the crunch of my step.
In the cold, staring back,

the hangman’s eyes,
the holes in his hood,
watching me climb,
coiling the slack.

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,”

What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

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):

The clouds, the source of rain, one stormy night
Offered an opening to the source of dew;
Which I accepted with impatient sight,
Looking for my old skymarks in the blue.

But stars were scarce in that part of the sky,
And no two were of the same constellation—
No one was bright enough to identify;
So ‘twas with not ungrateful consternation

Seeing myself well lost once more, I sighed,
‘Where, where in Heaven am I? But don’t tell me!
Oh, opening clouds, by opening on me wide.
Let’s let my heavenly lostness overwhelm me.’

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”:

Every night since you disappeared,
almost a year ago now
I wake around 3:00
and lie here like this
staring at nothing,
and think of those nights last spring
you spent outside alone,
where you went, what you did
as the searchers circled in with lights,
the howl of their trail hounds on the leash,
Nazis, I’ll bet, to your blurred mind
as you blundered through the honeysuckle vines,
after me, following, still after me, running, stumbling,
the war you never stopped fighting.

Or did they even come close
to where you fell, where you shivered,
to where you’d wandered off that sweet May morning
from your ward at the V.A.?—
the tremors of Parkinson’s disease
shaking the voice I once feared,
your cries for help, mute, confused,
lost in the stars you stared up at
from some field or thicket snare,
no clouds to blanket the earth’s heat,
no ceiling like this one over my head,
this blankness I’ve come to know, to hate.

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):

For the buried, closure.
For the missing, space—

this Illinois distance
where a man can walk forever,
stubble and sky,
where a house on the other side
is ever the horizon.

The missing need a place to be,
as much as for themselves as we
who cannot rest for tracking them, we
who dream of snow, his footprints fresh and he
just ahead I’m sure, just over the next rise, see
where he stumbled here, how he needs
an arm, a place to lean,
faster now, hurry, hurry please,

then suddenly to wake and the ground
winter-bare, hard,
the snow, the tracking snow
a passing dream.

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”:

Those who’ve been to war love maps.
They keep them everywhere: in pockets, drawers,
the glovebox of cars and stacked by the toilet.
Maps are what they read, these poems for soldiers
who hear in the lines the whir of blades,
who smell in the colors the char of smoke.

They know the hidden meaning of rivers,
the true symbol of water, how dry a last breath—
that here, spread flat on the kitchen table,
are really mountains, the strategic home of gods.
For those such as these, myth is truth,
and this paper you touch, a metaphor for earth.

Unlike 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.

In essence, the speaker of “Maps” can now forgive his soldier father, but only in terms of poetic experience—the poet son imagines the father as also living by metaphor, both men surviving by flattening their vision to paper and ink. One might say the speaker has circled back to Bishop, regarding the father / fish in terms of the son’s poetic vocation, rather than looking out through the father’s prosaic but hallucinatory eyes as he did in “The Search.” But there is a difference now in why and how the son deploys his vision. All these poems we’ve examined have secretly been angling for a desert space where history is meaningless and where imagination can do its work—leveling differences and sentimental attachments and, ironically, dissolving the speaker into images contiguous with the father. Once this contiguity obtains, “myth is truth,” and death becomes irrelevant because we already know “how dry a last breath” can be. The last desert spaces we navigate are dry lungs after the surrender of our humid breath, and our bodies, “spread flat on the kitchen table,” once the “strategic home of gods,” are the maps we look away from in search of—what? Can there be hope of resurrection in a world so “dry”?

After this long, troubled winter, after death and loss and nothing, we find the spring arriving and the speaker fishing once again in the lovely poem “From Rain”:

Around Easter
when the woods are still pastel
and the air is damp with April,
I need to feel the river’s pull
I haven’t felt all winter,

this longing I have for water
that led me here where cutbanks swell
with spring from every hill,
mysterious, maternal,
and into that fullness I enter,

myself no longer
but one with the shifting gravel,
and, like these mayflies hatching in swirls,
from rain I’ve come, will spinning fall
as once and ever,

both son and father,
eternal and ephemeral,
while the current around me curls
and I lift my line in this ritual
of rod and river, of Adam and lover.

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.”


Acknowledgement is gratefully made to Henry Holt & Co. for permission
to reprint "Desert Spaces" and "Lost in Heaven."

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