Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
It’s raining out, a cold, soaking rain that has been mumbling in the rain gutters all morning and afternoon. The light is full of polished steel gleams, though flat and shadowless as I walk back to the house. The cold penetrates through my sweater and shirt, my cotton pants. My feet make a soft, tired sound on the steps of the garden, a sound I associate with illness, with a slow-healing kind of sickness that felt like asthma but was just a very bad cold. Slippers on the wooden floor, that was the sound I remember about my father on the rare occasions when he stayed home from work and went around in a particularly ugly robe and leather slippers. His white legs were hairless and soft, plump down to the ankles. I smelled Vicks Vapo-Rub on his pajamas as he emerged from the bathroom. I was dressed for school and headed down the steps and gazed out of the kitchen window at the rain falling.
The past is never really past — it ebbs and falls below consciousness like the wash of amorphous water against a sea wall. The ocean lies there full of memories, an infinite waste of abandoned consciousness stirred to life by some mysterious current. You despair to look too far into it, toward the gray, mist-shrouded horizon, with its ghost ships and dead moonsets. Its uncertainty gnaws at consciousness as you stand there, your coat not quite adequate against the cold air blowing inland.
Today is no different from every other rain that has fallen in my life. It falls equally on black, bare tree limbs, and on the soft, wounded earth below. You feel the penetration of spring deep into the still sleeping earth, patting it like a nurse trying to arouse an old man from his nap. The reluctance is profound, an unwillingness of life to be lured back into the struggle. But the vines that wrap around the trunks of trees close to the house are already spiked with unopened green and white buds, ready to open like the hands of beggars at some cathedral door. Everything needs a cup of sunlight to warm the heart; even the stones are pathetic eyes of some disconsolate creature no longer able to move or speak. They gaze up at me as I step over them. I feel the need of every soaked and shivering thing around me to be loved, however obliquely in this metallic weather.
A mouse of dark wet fur darts just ahead of my footsteps. It leaps into a tiny crevice of the roots and vanishes, no doubt sloughing off the human world as it burrows deep into the hidden path. It was out foraging, thinking no one would disturb its leisurely exploration of the ground cover. And here I come, clomping along heavily, not thinking of anything practical. Nothing is what it seems; we live inside a mystery the rain covers in gemstones, broken glass, and words that were never spoken. Once in a while, we are stunned out of complacency by a ray of unusual light piercing through the naked trees, coming to the eye like some voice from beyond our understanding. It illuminates us momentarily and fades between the layers of rain clouds.
A crow sews up the tear in the sky with its black thread. Now heaven is secure again, safe from my prying eyes. But just in that flash of light, I am raised out of the narrow repetition of my footsteps. “Sheer plod makes plowed down sillion shine,” Gerard Hopkins once wrote. Everything gleams in its own subtle, secretive way, and nothing mundane is without its sacred transformation.
I heard a girl laugh in a dark hallway one afternoon when I was coming to visit an old friend in Chelsea, a neighborhood just above Greenwich Village. The laugh was like someone had tapped a crystal glass with a fingernail and then withdrew the sound the moment I looked up. I couldn’t see beyond the gloom of the doorway. My eyes were not yet used to the darkness inside. The laugh was a streak of light, a faint partition of the heavy velvet folds of the dirty air, a kind of brush parting the inertia to let life arouse itself from a long slumber. There were old people in the floors above, shut-ins, widows who had their groceries brought up by boys working for the corner bodega. And a messenger lugging up white stapled bags full of medicines, knocking timidly at doors and handing in the purchases, waiting a moment for a tip. The voice of the girl was gone, vanished. Withdrawn by some law of nature that would not let its raw molten grace be squandered.
My friend was home and cracked the door open an inch to study my face. When he recognized me, the chains came loose, the latches flipped open. The stale air of his apartment assailed me like the heat from an old car. He stood in his underwear and t-shirt, skinny, his pallid flesh hardly able to express his pleasure at seeing me. I carried lunch with me, three paper cartons of Chinese food, a pint of rice, and chopsticks. I sat on his rickety end table next to the couch while he crawled back under his covers. He was ill, had been a long time. The doctors at the emergency clinic found a smudge on his lungs. After forty years of heavy smoking, cancer had pitched its black tent inside him. It was in a place that couldn’t be reached by surgery. It was there to kill him. He was living in a dimension where the rain never stopped. It was falling all around him but there was no slumbering springtime waiting to be aroused by its chatter. He was at the other edge of March, its impenetrable winter fortress. But he wasn’t going to pity himself while I visited. He had no hunger for the food I brought, but he picked at it to please me. We had little to say.
When I left, the sky had darkened its low canopy to the color of soot. The air was damp, heavy with the impending drops of heartless rain. The cars were pebbled with its bubbles of mercury. A man rushed by me with a newspaper over his head. He was annoyed and would have kept moving even if he had knocked me down. This is the spring you wake to if you are part of the garden behind my house — the spiked buds must make room for this abruptness, this savagery of discontented humanity. Indeed, I half thought of getting out my shears to cut back the vines that were girding my half-dead elm. Powerful ropes of vine, like a python, were slowly strangling the soft ridgy skin of the tree. But I chose to do nothing but return to the house and sit by my window.
Tomorrow will bring back the sunshine, and the garden will writhe in slow motion within its watery carapace of black earth. More roots will extend into the darkness below, like some sudden pulse of Viagra stirring an old man’s loins. But now, at this moment of steel sculptures and black towers, in this landscape of stoic winter relics and monuments, the rain merely gilded the surface of things and left its gaudy handiwork to my despairing attention.
Copyright 2016 Paul Christensen