In Review: Bruce Guernsey’s From Rain: Poems, 1970 – 2010 (2012, Ecco Qua Press)

In the autumn of last year, Bruce Guernsey enjoyed an attentive audience of several dozen, who lapped up a smolderingly dramatic poetry reading from his new retrospective book From Rain at the home of one-time Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick. Guernsey was introduced by Wendy Murray, who is both the mind behind the quarterly Ellery Sedgwick literary workshops at Beverly’s Long Hill, and the editor-in-chief (in fact the only editor) of Ecco Qua Press. It isn’t easy to make a poetry reading much more than an exercise in endurance for the audience, but Guernsey’s work was every bit as good as his delivery. He is a rare entity: A clean, rough, visionary poet in the classic American style, heavily anthologized and endorsed by Pulitzer Prize laureates, but so humble as to sometimes fly far from the eyes of the literary press, and so under-appreciated as to hit walls in every direction when he wanted to publish a retrospective. Put simply, he is exactly the kind of author Ecco Qua Press was created to find and publish. The right man and mechanism have met each other at exactly the right moment.

Guernsey’s work has broad audience appeal because of his career-long commitment to clarity. At a first reading, his short line lengths and often declarative sentences can propel you through to a poem’s finish with very little interpretive strain, creating a false sense of simplicity. In “The Dump Pickers,” a colorful, almost Norman-Rockwell family are sifting through a garbage heap in their Sunday best:

From the highest of piles
Mother shouted orders
through a paper cup,
the men hurrying under
her red, high heals,
dragging metal to the pickup,
the little girl giggling,
spinning her toes
through the blowing paper
like a dancer, a little twist
of wind in the dust.

The details in this stanza are easy to comprehend, and read aloud, the single sentence it consists of flows as sedately as children’s-book prose. But like Robert Frost, Guernsey uses the Americana of his content to mask subtly unfolding terrors. The family might be a bunch of hobbyists collecting scrap at the dump for supplementary income, but it seems unlikely that any woman would wear her best red heels to this kind of operation unless they were the last shoes she had. The girl, who is apparently too young to lend a hand in the work, is making a playground of the scrap heap. After a few readings, the poem gives off an atmosphere of cheerfully concealed desperation; of a kind of poverty that is still hanging on to dignity, but in which the girl’s future is about as stable as dust curling in the wind.
Nearly all of the beauty in Guernsey’s work is haunted in this way. In an interview, he commented that he saw poetry as “the working out of tensions,” a phrase that takes advantage of poetic ambiguity, leaving me to wonder whether “working out” was intended to mean “finding relief from” or simply “figuring out how to express.” The two processes might be the same, but also might not. Guernsey’s life, and consequently his work, has been cuttingly affected by multiple wars. His father, a World War Two veteran, disappeared inexplicably years after returning home to his family, and as a professor of literature at multiple American universities during Vietnam, he fought a moral battle each time he contemplated flunking a student, knowing they would immediately be plucked up by the draft. “I did have a student who was killed,” he said, “and it tore me to pieces.”

Many of his poems deal directly with the subject of his father, such as “Me and Hitler at the Rhine,” in which the memory of a postcard sent from the front–a photo of his father holding the head of a toppled Hitler stature–triggers a dream in which the poet watches the same statue marching “in strict steps” towards the river, “its right hand out and rigid,/a man’s head in its marble hand.” It is clear whose head the stature carries, and the terrible reversal here is a reminder that many soldiers are lost to wars long after the fronts quiet down. Elsewhere, Guernsey uses nature as both a consolation from untimely death and a parallel to it. In “The Owl,” a New England walk leads to an encounter with the bird that resorts to none of the pat metaphors for wisdom, mysteriousness, or friendly wilderness:

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.

These simply-put visions of a frighteningly complex existence make From Rain worth reading and returning to, and it is clear that both Guernsey and his new publisher, Wendy Murray, are thrilled with the partnership that produced it. “I had a great time working with Wendy,” Guernsey told me, “though the situation that brought me to her wasn’t my choice. I tried some of the bigger presses [that has published me before], and they were after new blood.” Murray, who runs Ecco Qua Press out of her kitchen in Beverly, got connected with Guernsey through another author she had under contract. Guernsey sent a section of the manuscript in hard copy, and immediately Murray asked to read the whole collection. “I don’t consider myself a poet,” she said, “but I know good from bad, and I liked what I was reading. So I took a leap of faith.” That leap landed them both at Long Hill late last year, where Guernsey read to an audience that included the author an anthologist X. J. Kennedy, and where he sold a large chunk of From Rain’s initial run. “Just this week he ordered more books,” Murray told me. “To him this is an ongoing project–it’s his life’s work, and he keeps on getting invited to read it.”

For Ecco Qua, which cannot afford sustained press releases or to act as an ongoing agent scheduling readings, promotions, and the like, Guernsey is the perfect fit. The press is staunchly dedicated to the printed book (even manuscripts are only accepted in hard copy), but at a time when energetic authors are capable of mass announcements and self-promotion through the internet, it looks as though Murray’s startup, which was born less then two years ago, is in the position to keep on yielding excellent dividends. “I’d like to get two more titles out this year,” she told me. “It is gong to be slow. But I have planted my flag on the power of good, printed writing. This keeps on being true: Once a book is a book, it’s always a book. No one can take that away.”

~ You can read more about Bruce Guernsey at bruceguernsey.com 
~ You can purchase From Rain, find submissions information, and read more about Ecco Qua Press at eccoquapress.com

 Alex Miller is a literary reviewer, arts journalist, fiction writer and poet. His essays have appeared in The Curator. His poetry has appeared in Pif Magazine, Thorn, and has been set to music by the composer Justin Johns. He works as an Associate Professor of the Humanities at Gordon College in Wenham, MA, and a teacher of high school English and Rhetoric. You can find more of his writing at thirdcardinal.wordpress.com, and follow him on Twitter @miller_jr and @thirdcardinal.
banner ad

No Responses to “In Review: Bruce Guernsey’s From Rain: Poems, 1970 – 2010 (2012, Ecco Qua Press)”

  1. [...] Read More at Art*Throb. ShareLike this:Like Loading… This entry was posted in Announcement and tagged Bruce Guernsey, Ecco Qua Press, poems, Reviews, The Atlantic by A. Miller. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

Leave a Comment