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Book Feature

Soldier's Home
poems by Bruce Guernsey
© 2004, Water Press & Media, Inc.


Building the Pond
The Vase

In his moving, poignant collection, Soldier's Home, Bruce Guernsey takes us to the very outposts of remembering, where the left-behind tokens of the deada father's cap, a coat, a photographforever ring with talismanic power, and where the ghosts that haunt us are not only those of the dead but of our own earlier, as-if-dead selves. Soldier's Home is a stirring meditation on loss, and on the respite that memory provides us with: "a moment of light/in all that dark."
—Carl Phillips



There is a house across the field.

From the other side where I started
it did not seem so far away.

I have been walking toward it a long time,
through mud, the turned ground,
and now this snow beginning to fall.

The house has grown
only slightly larger
and I think I see someone outside.

Yes, I am sure of it—
people, two or three, beside the house,
moving about.

I am waving, suddenly waving,
but out so far in this openness of field
will not be seen or heard.

Faster, walk faster,
before they go inside
whoever they are, before they close the door
across the field
where nothing is growing,
the gray, flat horizon.



From his window on the ward
I watch it puff from the hospital stack,
black and billowing,
vanishing far across the fields,

and wonder is it coal or oil
thickening the thin fall air.
Five floors up, I’m glad for glass
and wind that blows the stench away

though in the seasonless ether of this place
I crave the smell of burning leaves,
to sit again on the damp, raked grass
and watch my father cupping a match.

He is kneeling to the leaves,
the reds, the yellows, the orange leaves,
the smoke in whispers first
soon full with the breath of fall.

the rhythm of his arms and rake
ghostlike through the gray.
Then, in the swirling haze, he disappears,
slips away to circle back

where I’m waiting there afraid,
searching the smoke for my father –
a hide-and-seek he liked to play
every fall the same, sneaking up behind me

from where he was hiding,
coming back, always, like some kind of magic
a boy could believe, from nowhere,
like a promise he would never die.



In the ravine
the maples lean to the light
like sunflowers
and fall to my saw
like weeds.

Since morning,
blue smoke, wine,
the rasp of clearing.
I sit by a stump,

In the afternoon light
the silence of sawdust
drifting through air
as if through water,
oarlocks banging overhead,
the splash of a paddle.

It is spring as I cast
where I’ve cut all day,
the bass on their nest.
From twelve feet down,
bubbles of trapped air.

To sleep is to find
what lies on the bottom,
that lake you fished as a kid,
the log you snagged
in the deep water.



The endless movement of stones,
how they work their way up,
surface each spring in the garden
as if out of breath.

How others will sink,
slowly, over the ears, unnoticed,
like a man at peace
slipping off to sleep, or dying.

History happens under our feet,
the tunneling of worms,
the loosening of earth
letting breathe

what’s underneath —
the cold foreheads crowning like birth,
our footsteps each year
heavier, deeper.



If the earth
in its waking
remembers rain, grass,
the scent of flowers,

then in its sleep
it dreams of ice,
of wind again
across the glacier

the way we hear
winter nights
when sound
travels for miles:

in the distance,
the scraping of stones;
through the thin air,
a father’s voice.



Behind me this morning on the train,
in the early light made warm
through the window’s double-glass,
an old Amish man,
the rough of his beard gone white,
is singing to his wife, both of them
round and red-faced as apples
in their simple clothes, bonnet and hat,
their seat on the Amtrak
one of those looking south
as we head north to Chicago.

My back against theirs,
I close my eyes to listen
but in the privacy of their language,
in the seclusion of their ways,
I can’t make out the words
and hear instead the rails,
their heartbeat like hooves
as he hums to her in the sun,
one hand I dream in hers — the other, the reins,
their buggy’s glass lamp swinging in time
toward their farm in Arthur.

Suddenly awake, suddenly alive,
feeling suddenly happier than I have in months,
I want to call them you and me,
to sing to you in words
some guy going to a meeting in the city
can’t understand.
And oh, if I could hold your hand
just like that,
no one else on the train,
just the two of us in our buggy,
looking back.



May in March: our daughter’s birthday, somehow now twenty
as the crocus uncurl in their black beds, everywhere
yellow, yellow, a whole week
of weather yellow as her hair –

even the bug light on the north porch
where a moth this birthday evening, back too soon,
flaps against the glass flower,
the dust of its wings on the yellow bloom.

In the mild of this scented night, so fragile,
we walk her to her car and back to college:
seat belt on, doors locked, half a carrot cake
in a box beside her and leaning against it the vase

we found and filled with twenty daffodils
to brighten the table tonight yellow, yellow,
yellow the petals from its delicate neck
like wishes we’d given light to, gone in a breath.

– for Amanda Litteken, 1975-1995