A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
The first chill of autumn is threading its way through the trees, like a brown yarn among the dense green flags. It’s exhilarating. I’m happy. I don’t care how many minions are forced to leave the shabby old White House, with its goons hiding in the shadows, and the racists whispering on telephones to their cronies in Mississippi. Fall makes me think of Chinese apples, of wild turkeys strutting in stately processions through the corn stubble, of crows circling overhead with their black wings spread open like Bibles. It’s a time of reckoning, a gap in the hour when all the rage of summer has abated and nothing is pressing you to get up and mow or trim or paint a rain gutter. You are forced to retreat into a chilly corner and think about your life.
Right now the grass at Mar-a-Lago is losing its neon brilliance and turning into mere ground cover. The fading light strips all the glitter away and reveals that under our illusions and fantasies is a base metal, the sour-tasting zinc alloy that lay beneath my shiny policeman’s whistle, the one my father gave me for Christmas when I was eight years old, and that withstood my continuous shrill warnings until the gleam of painted silver flaked off and I beheld the dull reality underneath. I hear the whistle even now, blowing in the top branches of the trees as they perform their autumnal ballet.
I’m told that “Mad Dog” Mattis, our Secretary of Defense, confided in his troops that he has lost faith in the man who appointed him to run the Pentagon. He’s stranded in a wasteland of ignorance, a man who understands carnage and destruction, and who knows the young men around him are eager to follow him into a world of fire and mayhem if he orders them to. But Mattis knows something is not quite right, and he stands among mere boys in their summer glory as he stares out into a world of coming winter. How easily the buildings fall, the roofs cave in, the women run with their children hanging onto them as fire engulfs them and a civilization crumbles to its end. All that could happen with a single mad error, and Mattis is alone in the world against a man who could very well order him to start a war.
So many hated men have left the house of democracy of late. They file out at night, with a box of their mementoes and a security guard to accompany them to the waiting limo that will take them home. Everyone has heard Trump’s tantrums in the Oval Office, and ducked the obscenities erupting from his rubbery mouth. There is molten anger in the man’s bowels. He can’t help it; his father was just as vitriolic, a man possessed and driven by the ruthless ambition that was like a devil behind him. Trump suffers the same dread of failure, and lashes out at his underlings like a mad king. He is slowly sinking into the terrible mire of derision and national disgust, and he can’t stop it. He knows the threat of war, of retribution against North Korea, of mass deportation of illegal aliens will cloud the attention of the voters, and he dabbles in it, but it’s dangerous to rouse up the forces that could easily strike back. The White House is a morass of self-blame, of fear, of cutthroat ambitions, lies, distortions, blame games all around the Oval Office, where the very source of despair sits in residence.
The apples are ripe and many have fallen from the trees early. The fruit bins in the supermarkets are piled high with a harvest of them, tart green Granny Smiths, Red Delicious for dessert, exotic apples from Asian trees, all gleaming and luminous in their skins. They have the ruddy complexion of boys playing soccer in a cold early morning drill. There lies innocence, but also betrayal. You taste both on your tongue. You know America is no longer innocent after the race riots, the marches, the melees between armed camps. But innocence still has its deep root in the American soul, and you linger over the apples as if they were holding some key to reality.
Tomorrow the little hint of autumn may well disappear and the remaining weeks of summer gather into a great transparent blossom over your life. You want to feel good, to taste the wine, to eat lightly and go to bed to read a good book. To snuggle under the sheet, to thank the gods that you are alive and safe, and that the rumbles from Washington will abate and give you peaceful dreams. You don’t want to hear of some catastrophic blaze of hatred rolling across the world. You want to hear the birds sing, and the lawn mowers moan over the last tufts of grass. You want the cool wind to blow in change and enlightenment, if only you could forget that Trump sat there in the half-light over the desk we call Resolute. If only he could have doubts, you whisper to yourself on your pillow. If only his soul had a wrinkle in it. If only he could sense the gratitude people expressed at his visit to Texas to witness the destruction wrought by Hurricane Harvey. If only an angel would sit on his shoulder and caress his troubled heart. He’s there, blinking in the pale light of his bedroom, listening to voices outside his door as secret service men come and go with orders to prowl the lawns, to check all the doors, to keep the tortured president safe in his blankets.
But if you injure the emotions of a child, they never heal. There is a pool of fear and hatred that sits in the pocket of his soul and has no access to the world. He broods, he trembles at the darkness that falls across the floor of his bedroom. He rises and switches on lights, but the dark is inside him. He saw his father standing before him and terrifying him with his opaque will. He couldn’t escape. He was caught between the utopian blankets he was wrapped in and the powerful arms and legs of this figure out of Wagner’s nightmares. He was the last god of the Teutonic myths, the man who had absorbed all the pains of disintegration that had been distilled from a thousand years of warfare. He blamed the Fatherland’s torments on those who would dilute the purity of German blood. Hitler could smell the presence of Jews when he stepped off the train in Frankfurt. He wrote in Mein Kampf that he must restore some lost principle squandered by tolerance, by welcoming of strangers into his midst.
Trump too wants to gather the lost Aryan tribes under his cloak and recreate a mythical kingdom. He must purify a nation as muddy as the Mississippi and as contradictory as Zeno’s paradoxes. Building towers was not enough to satisfy the longing in Donald Trump’s heart. He must take possession of the house of American dreams, the very fount of hope and aspiration in the New World and break it in two, tear it down in order to rebuild it in accordance with his vision. He found his acolytes among the worshippers of Hitler, the Neo-Nazi irregulars who carried their torches onto the grounds of the University of Virginia and who stood at the feet of Thomas Jefferson chanting their mantras against those who had betrayed white men’s blood.
The sky is filled with the chatter of the wind as it rattles the first dry leaves. Windows are half-closed to keep out the honed edge of the air. One must settle for an old sweater to keep from being nervous at this hour. I smell the cold moist earth under the corn crops, how it breathes out its moldy thoughts into the sunlight. The fields are eternal, unchanging. They have no plans other than to melt away the skin of corn kernels and to regenerate an ancient grass. I am watching as the sky becomes a loom of thin clouds, some of them already beginning to make a gauzy canopy for the coming of night. I wish I were young again, a boy still, playing with his toys in the back yard. I wish my hand wouldn’t tremble when I lift the water glass, but it does. I’m cold. I want the warmth of a summer that is fast shedding its clothes and letting its bones show through.
When the moon rises, it will be a flashlight probing the hidden corners of the woods looking for immigrants. In Houston, the families who stayed in their water-logged apartments were too afraid to come out and face the authorities. They felt that ICE police would put them in shackles and herd them to the detention camps. Now that Joe Arpaio is free from punishment by the courts, he can rise like a bloated effigy of a Teutonic avenging spirit, and hover over the quivering masses hiding in the desert. He wants to run for the Senate in Arizona. He’s ready to take up arms against the future.
Copyright 2017 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who lives in New England.
Photo by Paul Christensen