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17
Issue 17, January-March 2012
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
New England Primer by Bruce Guernsey
Cherry Grove Collections/WordTech Communications (July 2008).  
Reviewed by John Guzlowski


Bruce Guernsey is a terrifying poet. 

Some poets tell you about the terrifying in familiar ways.  They will draw you a picture of an axe caught in a foot or a razor in a trachea, of bodies piled like worthless paper, of mother’s slumped kneeling in the road where the truck took out their daughter or son. There is terror in the pictures drawn by such poets, and we recognize it and turn away and say no more.

Guernsey isn’t like those poets. He shows us a terror that we cannot turn away from because it is the real terror, the terror that slides just below our comfortable memories of our comfortable lives.  

I’ve always suspected this of Guernsey’s poetry, ever since I read his first book January Thaw (Pittsburgh Press, 1982). In its beautifully crafted and meditative poems about rural living, chopping wood, fishing, and the turning of the seasons, Guernsey hints about a world that knows terror at its edges. These hints have become more insistent over the years. The terror seems to be spreading from those edges toward the center of this poet’s world.

In his most recent book, New England Primer, Guernsey writes about a place that you think you know, New England with its comfortably familiar rural landscape. We read in the first part of the book about ice-fishing, igloos, weather stripping, ice-storms, oatmeal, moss, owls, deer, pumpkins, yams, and night fishing on the Pasquaney River. We imagine the poet’s world as a place that we know well, a simpler place in a simpler time, our fallen contemporary world redeemed by nostalgia, a place we’ve come to imagine as somehow restorative, but what Guernsey shows us is a world that is harder, more demanding, as suggested by his title New England Primer.  

It recalls the original New England Primer, the first textbook printed and published in the American colonies. Starting in 1608 and extending into the late 19th century, the primer attempted to teach fundamental reading skills to the children of New England along with the Puritan worldview. Probably the most famous passages in the original primer were these two short poems:

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the lord my soul to keep.
If I die before I wake
I pray the lord my soul to take.

and

In Adam’s fall
We sinned all.

These two poems evoke the child’s world, but it’s a world that isn’t simple. This child’s world is infused with death and sin, sin and death. The child of the original Primer, however, isn’t fearful because he has his faith. There is a God, and He protects the innocent. In Guernsey’s New England Primer, there are no such promises or guarantees. The world is a terrifying place, a hard place where things change and it’s seldom for the better. We see this in Guernsey’s poem “Ice Storm”:

To go to bed one April night,
a halo around the moon,
to sleep for hours it seems,
so soundly
you never heard the sleet—

to waken so suddenly old,
all that green gone white,
the orchard creaking,
its branches brittle as ribs—

to squint at the light with milky eyes,
the great-grandchildren gathered near,
all staring, all frightened—

to point towards the window, 
someone wetting your lips—

to try to tell them

The familiar ice storm with its natural but expected threat becomes a storm that we aren’t prepared for no matter what we do or think. It’s a storm that suddenly descends upon us and transforms us as permanently and terribly and certainly as anything in Franz Kafka. Around the edges and sliding beneath the surface of Guernsey’s ice storm is time and aging and silence and dementia and death.   

Faced with the terrifying, Guernsey doesn’t flinch, doesn’t pull back. One of his favorite metaphors is that of the hunter or fisher, and Bruce Guernsey is a poet who seeks out the terrifying, hunts it down, studies it the way the hunter’s in his poem “The Deer” seeks out a deer: 

At the edge of a field
I wait for the sun,
Study the shadows 
For movement.

And what does he find when he studies the terrifying? Nothing that will make it less terrifying. When dusk turns to dawn, and he can see things clearly, the things he sees don’t rescue him from the terrifying. Death and sin, or whatever makes him afraid, is still there. There are no solutions, neither simple solutions nor hard ones. We don’t have the promises that soothed the generations of children who read those New England Primers. Guernsey in New England Primer is a writer flipping through the memories of his life, seeking something that will last, hunting in the shadows for something that will sustain him and give him courage as he moves forward to the inexorable promise of life, death and silence. He writes about himself as a child, his children, his parents and grandparents, and those he’s loved and loves—hoping that in the writing he will find some connection to them that will push off the fear he feels.  
A number of the poems in this collection show us this, but perhaps it’s expressed most simply and forcefully in the poem “The Phone Booth”:

Today
by a one pump station
in some cornfield town
I said “I love you”
on the phone, words
I haven’t said
to anyone for years
or written down
but had to stop
in a dry wind,
in a flat place
to say, to say
“I love you,”
clear and sure
out of the wind
in the rattling glass
of a phone booth,
a place perhaps 
to start again
where gray wings whirl
above the bins,
hollow, hollow, 
and the tall grass bends.

Guernsey is a poet who knows his craft and knows what will touch the reader. He knows too about the terror that we all feel and the hope that we share that someone’s love will help us live beyond our fears. But will this love save us from the terror at the edges of this world?  

He prays that it does.  

Order New England Primer from your favorite Indie Bookseller
Order Lightning and Ashes from your favorite Indie Bookseller
John Guzlowski’s writing has been published in The Ontario Review, Atlanta Review, Exquisite Corpse and other journals. His poems about his Polish parents’ experiences in Nazi concentration camps appear in his book Lightning and Ashes. Regarding the Polish edition of these poems, Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz said the poems are “astonishing.” Guzlowski blogs about his parents and their experiences at http://lightning-and-ashes.blogspot.com/