A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The days are paper thin at this time of year, like the onion skin my mother wrote her letters on. The hours slip along toward evening, and then evening congeals over us like some sort of clay dome, almost starless but for a chink in the cloud cover once in a while. Between Christmas and New Year’s Day is a dead zone, a string of Sunday afternoons that leaves you helpless to do anything worthwhile. The stock market slows down, the newspapers take a holiday from reporting interesting news, except for the usual boiler plate disgust over the latest Trump tweet, or some tidbit of palace intrigue featuring Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, or his wife Ivanka. I find myself yawning over the minor revelations that unfold in these turgid little stories. The clock ticks loudly in the living room, and the refrigerator makes an audible asthmatic hum in the kitchen.I imagine the medieval theologians must have thought about this time of year when they described the torments of non-Christians condemned to Limbo before Christ liberated them. The twilight in the windows of that dungeon, the gruel in bent pans, the scrape of sandals on the filthy floors, the far off cries of guards as they summoned some poor soul to the whipping room.
I spent many hours in a narrow room after school to atone for some minor infraction of school rules growing up. The windows were opaque with frost, but a gray, rusty-iron sky floated by like the ice on the Delaware River. A long, peeling grayish radiator stood under the windows and would belch up some steam every once in a while, puncturing the silence with its muttering. The room would stink momentarily from hot metal and then go back to its idle neutrality while I sat writing some meaningless sentence over and over in a tablet. The teacher was off down a darkened hall reading for the next day’s school work, and would occasionally creep back in her stockinged feet to peek in at me. She disliked me intensely, and I must have reminded her of some brother who teased her mercilessly as a girl.
I hated school, I hated institutional life in all its forms. I felt trapped much of the time, and I was a master of daydreaming with my eyes fixed steadily on her as I fantasized my life as a pirate on a wheezing old galleon, or saw myself living in a dank cave in the middle of a wild, bear-infested forest. When called upon by this tormentor at the front of the class, I would stumble through some inane response that enraged her, and she would order me out to stand in the hall for the afternoon. Limbo writ large. I knew all the janitors by name; I could monitor the slow changing of the seasons as I gazed out of the ancient windows at the end of the hallway. I noted the green leaf sprouts of mid-April on the elms and sycamores; the flapping of mature leaves by May, and in September, when I was dragooned back into classwork, I could enjoy the browning, fragile old leaves, as delicate and veined as my grandmother’s hands.
The janitors would stop sweeping as they came up to me, and fish out a gumball or a Life Saver to help me while away the time until three o’clock. Then I would have five minutes off before reporting to the third floor detention hall to put in my extra hour of penance. I was alone in my defiance, in my unwillingness to bend to the regulations. Others liked me well enough, and found me funny and infuriating in my eccentricities. They preferred to bow their heads and to bend under the invisible lash of authority, and I understood. I knew it was alienating, even frightening to say no, to not smile with a slight sneer, to quit blinking frantically as I raced around in my head looking for some outrageous response to a demeaning question. But even I had worries about my attitude, and my mother would have to sit in the vice principal’s office and try to explain why I wouldn’t pay attention or get along. She secretly agreed with me about school; she was a good student, as every girl in her day had to be, but she also saw the emptiness, the great cavernous void that yawned at the feet of children being told information they had heard dozens of times before.
It was only when Christmas came around that I was momentarily forgiven, or tolerated. I gave a gift to someone whose name I plucked from a box, and hung up the streamers, cut out wreath forms from red construction paper. All in preparation for that perishable magic called Christmas, which, once it happened, left you in free fall for the next few days, as the sun crept languorously over the dusty sofa and down along the pale, worn carpet to the hallway. The meals were all derived from the turkey we had served as our feast. Now it lay there in a moribund state under wax paper in the refrigerator, a corpse to be dismembered little by little to make meals for the next few days until we sat down to a platter of spaghetti and meatballs for New Year’s Eve. The taste of dry turkey and boiled potatoes was like the odor of the radiator in detention as it whimpered against the far wall. I was powerless to change my life, incapable of inventing some marvelous form of escape to let me fly up above the cloud cover and lay my breast bare to a hungry sun.
I hear the news from the other room as I write down these memories; some nasal-voiced anchor woman is reciting the bare, emotionless facts of Trump’s day, including his mounting and dismounting from a golf cart, his perambulations around Mar-A-Lago in the late afternoon as he greeted his paying guests and wandered into the sanctity of his private dining room. Her voice is like my teacher’s voice years ago, dull, cleansed of excitement, neutral as a wall with a map hanging from a hook printed on oilcloth. She is rinsed in studio light; her face has no shadows. She is the idealized woman, pretty, well coiffed, modestly dressed, with only her torso and head visible to the audience. She may have wild emotions after work, and scalding opinions of the news she must convey in that flat voice, but on camera, she is the institutional woman, a model of what corporate conformity should aspire to. If I were her camera operator, I would make funny faces at her as she read from the prompter; I would pick my nose and stare dumbly at her; I would throw a spitball at her desk. In short, I would do everything in my power and imagination to distract her from the ruthless authoritarianism of our capitalist culture, and have her send me off to the detention hall in a continuation of my intransigent life.
But she goes on undisturbed with her duties. She smiles pleasantly, and for a second or two, betrays a wicked sense of humor that she won’t share with us. We’re home tied up with our habits and idleness, stranded in the darkness of our living rooms waiting for supper to bake in the oven, faced with nothing to do but hear a recitation of meaningless, fragmented bits of information about the power structure, about the vast forces that shape our lives into the monotony of hamburger buns and canned carrots. We sit and we jiggle a foot, we look around occasionally at the curious shadows the twilight creates behind us. We are in the dead zone of the year and the world slows to a glacier of tapioca. We are stitched to the curtains, and hung from the shower rod. We are like Greek Orthodox priests gazing out of monastery windows down to the sea, which never changes its rhythm. We are these ephemeral beings occupying a bit of space in the tiny arc of our lives, willing to waste time when every second should count. We have no magic to draw from; our unconscious is sealed off by a thick cinder block wall constructed in those classrooms where I was killing off my instincts.
Here I am again, with the sun bearing down on a dull hedge burdened with great abstract globs of snow. The trees beyond, in the cold field, are standing guard against the encroachment of all those goblins and chimeras that flourished in the minds of medieval alchemists. Come to think of it, no one was bored in the so-called “dark ages.” They were dazzled by seers, enchanted by itinerant magicians, visited by night mares, horrified by the black-cloaked interrogators of the Inquisition, running for cover from the militias sent down from Paris to kill off the Protestants. I hear the penitents coming down the road whipping themselves with hickory switches and clinking thuribles of incense. I am being pulled up into their foul smelling robes and taken into the forest to convene with the ghouls and spirits, thanking my lucky stars I am not back in school.
Copyright 2017 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet who lives in Vermont and France.