The Lost Brigade

The Lost Brigade,
by Bruce Guernsey, Water Press, 2005,
70 pages, paper, $12.95, ISBN: 0-9744524-9-1

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New England Primer,
by Bruce Guernsey, Cherry Grove Press, 2008,
80 pages, paper, $18.00, ISBN: 9781934999226

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I’ve been waiting for heat — no power, yet there is no need for lights outdoors.  Branches glisten with ice, a glossy sheen.  An eerie quiet hangs over neighborhood.  The willows branches droop like chandeliers, and I am reading The Lost Brigade by Bruce Guernsey.  It is an enchanting book.

On a May day, cool as it can be in New England, Guernsey’s father wandered from a VA hospital, headed off on his own, ailing from Parkinson’s disease and was never found.  As he and others search the countryside for his father, the book traces the topography of loss.  A World War II veteran, his father embodies the temerity of that generation — men who sacrificed immensely, suffered as many veterans, silently, with recurrent nightmares; men who, despite their internal angst, remained steadfast and dedicated to their families.  Since the central quest in this book is epic — finding his father — it has a strong narrative thrust.  The initial poems, both haunting and tender, about his loss, about disappearances, and about attempts to reclaim the lives lost, draw you into his quest.

But he uses the loss to reclaim his memories of his father and of other men, uncles and relatives, whose lives were irreparably transformed by the war.  When I read about Iraq’s soldiers, coming home from the war, attacking their wives and oddly enough, their combat buddies, I often find it difficult to imagine how the battle is carried back home.  In several poems, Bruce captures the Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome as well as any writer I have read.

Although Bruce grew up in New Hampshire, the poems remind me of the vast farmlands of the midwest.  He evokes how the corn, “dry and blowing, brown / and rattling . . . as if something were inside . . . / someone maybe.” (4)  He tells of farm kids who disappear, losing themselves “in the tall acres, / tunneling under the tall sabers.”  When he tells of his father, the images of him as a soldier holding on to some “statue’s head, / A head / with no body, marble and grim,” (13) he often speaks as if he wanted to piece together a psychic puzzle.  By recounting the story — in the title poem — of his Uncle Donald, who was a member of brigade sent to Alaska to scan the sky for Zeroes, he poignantly reveals how soldier’s lives are shattered in war times.  Rich in imagery, this poem delves into his uncle’s dread and fascination with the sky.  Having to watch for planes coming from Japan in a desolate base, the sky “the color of pewter before a storm,” his uncle stared for “cracks, some small / fracture / in the steel-gray weld of sea and sky, blinded finally / by all (he) did not see,” like Illinois farmers, “after weeks of plowing empty late fall fields, / staring into their coffee, silent, numbed / by so much nothing.” (10)

In this poem, Guernsey’s wonderful finesse of sound, particularly the alliteration, and rhythm drive each image toward its fate — his uncle losing his mind.

Another haunting poem is the five part poem, “The Search,” in which he takes us through his own realization that his father was missing and would never be found.  It’s filled with questions, “did they ever come close / to where you fell, to where you shivered, / to where you wandered off that sweet may morning?” (19)  It is a poem on how loss can turn on you and how you can turn on it, constantly vigilant as if on guard, waiting for comrades to come back from the front lines.

Throughout the book, each moment — when the milk bottles clink “like chimes in the dark” (57); when he stands, as his father did, cooking steaks at the grill; when he remember his father marching “to an off-beat drummer and then / with Parkinson’s, / became a wind-up toy soldier who’d charge, / head down from the disease,” (65) — is a way of saying good-bye.  I can’t imagine having a loved one wandering off and wanting to reclaim him. But I do know, in this book, we are given, with a precision and generosity, a way of holding on and letting go.  In one poem “The Hands,” he tells us how “every morning / they are full of longing, / like a one-arm man / trying to play,” how they “pull . . . apart /starting the day, yours / to your work, mine to mine: / purses, pockets and change,” but how they “love, the night, / the cool of linen, the undersides /of pillows — sneaking out, /meeting without us in the dark.” (33)  If poetry, in its lyrics, can save us from desolation, Guernsey has shown us how it can be done.

Since the ice storm had not ended, I read his latest book, New England Primer, too.  In this one, he delves into the underside of language, how short, carefully rendered poems can unleash a whole panoply of experiences about topics that, you’d think, just would not work as poems.  From bitter winters, to the letter x, to a casket of glass, from a vulture to a pumpkin pie, to a telephone booth — the topics both quirky and mundane — he delves into them like a ventriloquist getting a piece of lumber to speak.  These poems brim with wry humor.  His images are startling: a lobotomized pumpkin, a yam “being a potato that ate all its carrots,” “moss, that slipcover of rocks,” and “vultures with tilting wings / like sails but black / because no songs / will fill their beaks.”

It seems impossible to capture the impressive range of topics and poetic styles in this book. I think, therefore, that quoting one poem in its entirety may be the best way to show what he has done. In the poem, “Long Distance,” his concision and rawness, his humor and seriousness, is captured, which is emblematic of the book:

Suppose your wife should call

suddenly fluent in a strange language,

you couldn’t understand a word.

Would you know it was her?

There’s nothing but silence to go on,

the pauses she makes.

She’s slept beside you for years —

you know her breathing.

In sleep, the voice is free of words,

like traveling without luggage.

We reach the kingdom of mutes.

Listen now through the long cord. (63)

He may imagine being free of the luggage of language.  But his language is not so much luggage as it is a luxury and worth the carry.

Bruce Spang