Poet's work features frugal use of words
Mention the word “poetry” and many people will run in the opposite direction.
But even those who only picked up a poetry book at the insistence of an English teacher can likely appreciate poems that are short, clear and meaningful.
Bruce Guernsey, who lives seasonally in Bethel, is such a poet. On Oct. 17 people can meet him and learn how he has found poetry in the simplest of objects, including milk, ice, moss, glass and yams.
Guernsey is a native New Englander who taught English for 25 years at Eastern Illinois University. A former editor of “The Spoon River Poetry Review,” his poetry has been published in “The Atlantic,” “Poetry” and “American Scholar,” as well as in less-expected publications such as “The Journal of Medical Opinion” and “Fly Rod & Reel.”
After retiring in 2003 he and his wife, Victoria, came to Bethel to live seasonally, and they plan to soon make it their permanent home. He described what brought them here:
“I’d done some fly fishing around here years back, and had driven through this village out of curiosity and was much impressed by the cleanliness and charm of the place. But what impressed me more than anything was the absence of fast-food joints and WalMart.
“Having lived in Charleston, Ill. for over 25 years, I’d seen what can happen to a small town when the corporate giants move in and take over, depersonalizing the area and wiping out businesses like Frommel’s Hardware, a long-time family-run store on the Charleston square. It was a mid-western Brooks Bros., complete with uneven wooden floors, nails in bins, and friendly sales folk— now, all gone.
“For my wife and me, finding Bethel was like finding the past. I was returning home to New England, and Victoria, who grew up in an Illinois town even smaller than here, was back in a world she once knew.
“It’s that sense of community we both love best about being here, one best symbolized by my favorite spot in the village: the entry way to the Post Office. That 4x8 little glass room with its two busy doors is a center of civility and chatter, of ritual and manners.
“No matter age or gender or what kind of weather, someone will be holding the door for someone else who will in turn be holding it for another as all of us do-se-do through our ‘good mornings’ and ‘how are you’s’ on Bethel’s little stage of ‘Our Town.’”
Guernsey hopes to share with residents of his adopted town poems from his recently-published book “From Rain: Poems, 1970-2010” at a Western Mountains Senior College gathering at the Mill Hill Inn Oct. 17. The “Down Home Maine” event is open to the public and will take place at 4:30 p.m.
The book is a collection of poems from throughout his career, which began in 1967 when he became an English instructor at William and Mary College. He was first inspired to write poetry after a former student was killed in the Vietnam War. Writing poetry, said Guernsey, “kept him, and me, alive.”
He found his poetic style through his efforts to teach his students. “I was trying to do the same thing in my poetry as in teaching - make things clear,” he said.
His poems often focus on the tangible, physical world. A poem entitled “Stones” begins, “The endless movement of stones, how they work their way up, surface each spring in the garden as if out of breath.”
“I want people to know that poetry doesn’t have to be obscure - that it can surprise, delight and perhaps bring a chuckle through the sparse use of language,” he said.
Some of his poetry also reflects his father’s disappearance in 1987 from a V.A. Hospital in Pennsylvania. Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, he went out the door one day and was never found.
In the poem “The Search,” Guernsey begins, “Every night since you disappeared, almost a year ago now, I wake around 3:00 and lie here like this staring at nothing, and think of those nights last spring you spent outside alone ...”
It is a search, he said, “that in many ways I still continue in my writing.”
Other titles in “From Rain” include “Splitting Wood,” “October,” “Ice Fishing,” “Canoe,” and “Weatherstripping.”
The Oct. 17 gathering will include readings and discussion of the poems. Copies of “From Rain” will be available that evening, as well as online at amazon.com.