The Well by Bruce Guernsey

The Well

The mystery of water underground,
the dark stream where the dead kneel
cupping their pale hands,
splashing the stillness from their eyes.

I drop a stone in ours to hear
if there’s water for the children’s bath.
And if it’s dry, no sound—the pebble
a star, falling through the night.

Here, a rope once hung, a bucket
on its noose. Here, the cattle gathered
summer evenings at the trough,
their dull heads bowed.

No one fishes this hole, or ever did,
though in the cold, moonless pools
fins move through the dark, deep
in the ground, where spawning begins.

by Bruce Guernsey, from From Rain: Poems, 1970-2010.

Editor’s Note: The detailed imagery of this poem creates a narrative space where the reader can imagine a story that extends beyond a simple well, and a simple sound.

From Rain by Bruce Guernsey

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 leads 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.

by Bruce Guernsey, from FROM RAIN: Poems, 1970-2010.

Editor’s Note: The long, single sentence of this poem strings together the imagery and idea of water as a ritual that can tie us to our past, our present, and our future.

Naming the Trees by Bruce Guernsey

Naming the Trees

At the national cemetery in Gettysburg
all the trees have names,
both family and genus
on small brass plaques at the base of each
to let the visitor know
the kind of oak,
whether red, white or black,
and is this rock or silver maple
looking once like any other
burlapped ball of roots
when it was lowered to earth
those decades after the war.

Colorful names like Tulip Poplar,
Weeping Beech, Buckeye,
Sweet Gum and Ginko—
sounding like nicknames almost, these trees
from every region and state
with broad leaves or skinny,
shiny, dull, or no leaves at all
like the Eastern Hemlock,
but all, all with names every one,
no matter the size and shape
amidst the many anonymous
mute stones in their shade.

by Bruce Guernsey

Editor’s Note: The focus on trees and names serves to emphasize the true heart of this poem, which is only revealed at the very end.

A Winter Without Snow by Bruce Guernsey

A Winter Without Snow

In a winter without snow
how do we know the deer
have crossed the hard fields at night?

In a winter without snow
there’s no white to glaze the sun,
gray on the hill at dawn—

no steam from the ice, no
sign of the stream underneath.
No hush in the woods, only the bone

rattle of branches as the cold
winds rises, the skeletal
clicking of sticks.

by Bruce Guernsey

Editor’s Note: Spare yet vivid imagery sets the tone for the narrator’s relationship with nature in this poem.

The Specials by Bruce Guernsey

The Specials

At eighty-five my grandfather,
blinking his way from Florida
to New Hampshire that spring, his last,
drove the by-pass around Atlanta
four or five full orbits, or so we figure,
before my grandmother, hungry again,
as fat as he was thin,
awoke beside him where she’d always ride
to ask if they could stop
for breakfast there this morning,
so good were the grits last May,
the coming summer come and gone
in the wink of her nap
and now we’re heading back, she thought,
her sense of time like his of space
as he drifted towards an exit
through horns and middle-digits raised,
somehow finding north,
these two old ducks, though missing
the Stuckey’s of her dreams
but finding, we’re sure, another,
because they always stopped at this—
or was it that one?—for mid-day dinner,
side-by-side in their favorite booth
where for as long as anyone can remember
the same waitress brought
the sirloin special, chopped, for both.

by Bruce Guernsey, from FROM RAIN: Poems, 1970-2010.

Editor’s Note: This poem doesn’t shy away from the stark reality of aging, but the drifting narrative is more welcoming than sad.

The Birthmark by Bruce Guernsey

The Birthmark

No matter what he did—
the Silver Cross for valor,
the powder he’d cover
his right cheek with
like gauze on a wound,
his Florida tan—no matter,
his was a mask he couldn’t take off,
rising like flame from the collar
of his tropical shirt
everyone noticed first,

my Uncle Charles
with the map on his face
as he called it,
to not get lost, so he said,
my baby sister giggling,
bouncing on his knee
each Christmas
when he’d come to visit,
his bags full of presents
as he reached to hug me
and I ran away,
afraid to touch it,
the burn from birth
that made Charles different,

though when I did once,
sneaking up
where he slept on our couch,
it felt the same
to my tender hand
as my father’s face
after he shaved, my uncle
like my sister in her crib
sound asleep as I traced
the scarlet coast for his house,
my fingers trembling, barely touching,
not wanting to hurt him anymore.

by Bruce Guernsey, from FROM RAIN: Poems, 1970-2010.

Editor’s Note: Short, narrative poems must function as miniature stories, and this one doesn’t disappoint. The narrator’s adventure arcs from curiosity, through fear, to realization.

The Vase by Bruce Guernsey

The Vase

—For A.L., 1975-1995

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 as the petals from its delicate neck
like wishes we’d given light to, gone in a breath.

by Bruce Guernsey, from From Rain: Poems, 1970-2010.

Editor’s Note: The repetition in this poem shows the emotional weight of goodbyes with great subtlety.

The Lost Brigade by Bruce Guernsey

The Lost Brigade

My Uncle Donald always knew the weather.
“Had to, during the war,” he told me, “in Alaska,”
as we stood on the steps of our cabin in New Hampshire,
this strange, middle-aged man and I,
scanning the skies for Zeroes—
“I hear ‘em. Doncha? Doncha, through the clouds?”—
but I heard nothing, saw only the lake, its surface
the color of pewter before a storm, and my uncle
cupping his troubled brow with his hands
like a soldier with field glasses, his blue eyes blank
and far, far away.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .He’d been a member, I learned years later,
of “The Lost Brigade,” the men shipped to the Arctic
in 1942 to guard the Aleutians, those stepping-stones
the ancient Asians crossed centuries ago,
and on Umnak Island Uncle Don gazed west for months
toward Kiska, the island base of the Japanese
fifty miles away.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Taking turns in twelve-hour shifts,
he and the others of “The Lost Brigade” stared across an open tundra
seemingly forever, watching for cracks, some small fracture
in the steel-gray weld of sea and sky, blinded finally
by all they did not see, like the farmers out here in Illinois
after weeks of plowing the empty, late fall fields,
staring into their coffee, silent, numbed
by so much nothing. Forgotten on Umnak for nearly two years,
Private Donald Heffernan went insane, had to be shipped
back to the States, and by the state,
put away.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .“He saw God’s foot on the treadle of the Loom,”
Melville says of Pip, the cabin-boy swept from the Pequod
into the sea, gone mad from that immensity. And my uncle?—
a priest without beads, mumbling to himself, an old man now
in his dead parents’ house on St. Pete Beach
where he’s piled a fort of old papers
deep as snow on any tundra, and boarded up the doors.
From there last week, hurricane season, they dragged him off
screaming about devils in the distance
to a locked ward at the Florida V.A., a room without windows.
Donald’s had enough of sky
though he knows the weather, the gathering clouds
a squadron’s thunder
so far away.

by Bruce Guernsey, First Published in TriQuarterly. Reprinted in From Rain: Poems, 1970-2010.

Editor’s Note: Impeccable narrative poetry sucks the reader into the story. In this poem, we learn that absence can drive one mad as surely as a life filled too much.

Fortunate Sons by Bruce Guernsey

Fortunate Sons

My Uncle Sheldon never went to war,
the oldest son exempt by law
to carry on our family name,
to care for the farm.
From milking cows his hands grew strong
those cold, Catskill mornings,
and gentle, too, bathed in milk,
his fingers long against the firm,
pink udders, and by the time his brothers
came back from overseas,
he’d taught himself to play the piano.

His brothers—
Alfred, Douglas, Charles—
he calmed with those hands
when they’d wake in their beds like boys
to the high whine of shells
and brute fact of lead,
the rhythm, like milking, of his fingers at the keys
stilling the rattling windows
with music like steam, grassy and sweet
from the buckets rising, filling with sleep
the house they each were born in.

by Bruce Guernsey, from FROM RAIN: Poems, 1970-2010.

Editor’s Note: This poem’s narrative is deceptively simple. Sometimes describing trauma is best approached from the side of things.

Pushcart Prize Nominations – 2016


I am happy to announce the following poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize:

In Sicily, On the Road to Gela by Carol A. Amato
American Numerology by Stephen Bunch
June Twenty-First by Bruce Guernsey
Slack Traffic by Martin J. Elster
Visitation by Jo Angela Edwins
Hurricane by Bayleigh Fraser

Congratulations and good luck!