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

logoborderlite

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!

Milk by Bruce Guernsey

Milk

When I was a boy
there was music to milk in the morning,
its windy ring, the bottles clinking
like chimes in the dark
when I’d wake before school
to hear the milkman bringing
on his white wings our milk
thick with cream for the licking.

From the tin box on the back stoop
I’d lift them slippery as fish still dripping
cool against my small boy’s chest, hugging
glass to the white, icebox door,
my morning chore before the nuns,
those angels on broom-sticks over me hovering
asking why, why God made thee,
their steel-rimmed eyes and me, still yawning.

Milk, oh milk, sweet, sweet milk,
it melts a winter morning
this milk I warm for my kids, this soothing
silk from the carton with its faces now
of the missing, vague in wax, everybody’s children
who late for the school bell’s ringing
took a ride one day forever.
The bus, kids, it’s here. I love you, get going.

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

Editor’s Note: Though this poem begins with simple narrative description, it soon transforms into a meditation on childhood (difficult, frightening, and nostalgic, all at once).

Timetable by Bruce Guernsey

Timetable

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
towards 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.

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

Editor’s Note: Possibly only someone who lives near the Amish (as I do), and who has also ridden Amtrak (as I have), will truly feel the rich imagery of this poem, but I like to imagine the emotional narrative will also reach readers who know nothing of buggies, trains, and love.

Soldier’s Home by Bruce Guernsey

Soldier’s Home

When my father came home from the war
two years after I was born
I couldn’t match his voice with his picture
and cried each time he came near.

Learning to talk, I called him “Doug,”
the way my mother did,
this strange man always trying to hold me—
how could he be my dad?

My father was there, right there in black and white
over my bed every morning
where I could see him with his uniform on,
boarding a train, waving good-by and smiling,

not that deep voice down the hall,
not those footsteps outside my door.
No, my dad’s a soldier who’ll be home soon,
so watch out you, whoever you are.

Then Doug went away like him,
leaving for work before dawn,
the knocker on the front door always tapping
as he closed it behind him in the dark,

the big brass knocker that brought me running
to peer through the mail slot
for him who never knocked, who never came,
only Doug, home late

each night from work, this man Doug
marching up the stairs, the hall light
fierce behind him in my doorway,
a blanket in his hand.

by Bruce Guernsey

Editor’s Note: The spare narrative style and dramatic ending of this poem clearly illustrate the disconnect that comes from families that must endure separation.

June Twenty-First by Bruce Guernsey

June Twenty-First

My mother’s cigarette flares and fades,
the steady pulse of a firefly,
on the patio under the chestnut.

The next door neighbors are over.
My father, still slender, is telling a joke:
laughter jiggles in everyone’s drinks.

On his hour’s reprieve from sleep,
my little brother dances
in the sprinkler’s circle of water.

At fourteen, I’m too old
to run naked with my brother,
too young to laugh with my father.

I stand there with my hands in my pockets.
The sun refuses to set,
bright as a penny in a loafer.

by Bruce Guernsey

Editor’s Note: The subtle tension of family relationships from the point of view of a teen is colorfully drawn in this poem’s imagery.