A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The crocus came up two days ago. I wondered how long it might take to get some sign that spring was on the way. There they are, tough little flowers with leathery leaves and hard, insistent purple petals, some white, like fists punching up out of the crumbly soil under the bay window. It hurt to see them so willfully present, all of a sudden, as if they were leaping out of the darkness to face me. It meant another spring was already in the process of disintegrating, becoming part of the tyranny of the calendar with its powerful forward motion toward the future.
I’m well along on my own travels down that road, having passed my seventy-fifth year two weeks before. I wasn’t touched by self-pity, but I did keep an ear out for a knock at the door, some sign of my failing mortality to announce itself. Were my knees about to go? Was my hearing still able to detect the rush of air of some oncoming bus? Did my hands grasp the coffee cup securely without threat of dropping scalding espresso in my lap? Where was the grim reaper at this moment, I wondered. Out under the sunset gathering souls on the sharp edge of his scythe?
But spring was like some ambiguous love letter in which one half expects to be dumped and then realizes that there was a layer of emotion trying to break free of doubt, trying to say something tender but non-committal. I had received enough of those letters in my youth, from girls whom I had fallen in love with without any help or encouragement. There was no ambiguity in my yard just now, just bulbous crocus stares and silent eagerness to be fully revealed. Down there in the moist darkness of the underworld are the secret minerals that tick like a clock and begin to hum as the rusty iron gears of winter grind to a halt. The will power of such crumbs is so great, nothing can stop spring from bursting forth, overpowering even the icy blades of March wind that promise to descend on us this evening. The crocus will vibrate and flail their fledgling arms and fend off the worst of the frozen rain, and remain standing at dawn, survivors, determined to take over the world.
The sky looks like my mother painted it in one of her nervous moods. The clouds are carelessly daubed in white over the blue backdrop of space, as if no one really cared what they looked like. It was just to fill in the emptiness a little, to add some human touch to what would otherwise remain a void. So there they hang, so many fragile shapes bleeding at their borders, melting away into the lifeless emptiness. I remember how she would decide that she had done enough and put the canvas away, roll her paint brushes into a piece of wrinkled wax paper and secure them with rubber bands. The painting would never be finished. She would have decided she had nothing to say about the sky. And as I looked up after examining the crocuses, I felt the same way. The great arch of infinity with its vast unmoving ocean preceded me and will go on existing long after I am dust.
I am reminded of a house my mother visited when she came through Ecuador many years ago. It was built on the equator, the demarcation of winter and summer. She said there were flowers blooming in one window and at the other end of the house the same plant was bare, enduring winter. She spoke of it often, as if she had almost witnessed the seams of time itself. Life and death, birth and decomposition were facing each other, separated by the floor of a long empty room. She walked from one to the other, and couldn’t grasp the meaning of such a paradox. How could there be a place in which the two ends of experience were almost touching, and yet, forever at odds with each other. She died a few years later in a room in Louisiana, having folded the laundry and finding herself fading as she stood there. She knew it was the end and told my father, who was reading the paper with his back to her. She sat down in the sunlight and composed herself. He was told to get the car ready to take her to the hospital, which he did. He gathered up her blouse and skirt, a pair of shoes, and guided her to the car. The doctors said she was dying, and wanted to open her chest to save her. But she said no, and my father refused to overrule her. It was the end, and that was that. She died quietly on the operating table, under the diffuse silvery light of the lamp over her.
She had seen winter and spring stand within arm’s reach in a house on an empty stretch of gray earth, with the jungle not far behind. She had crossed over from one window to the other, and gave herself fully, uncomplainingly to the hunger of winter to take her back. She was the dying crocus of her moment, the fist that opened and let her soul go free.
Last night, with the evening as dark as newly plowed ground, I saw some deer browsing on the top of the hill. They were full-grown males and had slinked around in the forest on silent feet while the hunters searched for them. They knew how to creep like ghosts under the deer blinds, and to ease through the brambles without flushing out the birds. It was a magic act, and it had to do with the mysteries of dead winter. There they were now, feeding, putting on weight for the rut, getting into the martial spirit of mid-Spring with its violent rituals of fertility. Their shapes were like pieces of jasper that Matisse had arranged on the ridge. They were not literal in any firm sense, but allegories of spring’s imagination. You couldn’t approach them, or even experience them directly through the binoculars. They were real only at a distance, with the fading sky behind them, and their powerful hind legs tensed and ready to spring at the crack of a twig.
“A wounded deer leaps highest, I’ve heard the hunter tell,” wrote Emily Dickinson. A 19th century woman couldn’t say she had witnessed such an event, though she knew to express the deer’s panic by italicizing the verb. The deer was not male or female in that line, but life itself, the virginal self in the throes of being violated by the male principle and fleeing the terrible reality of spring. She wrote the line in her bedroom on the second story of the house she lived in in Amherst. I stood there a few days ago trying to imagine her face at the window as she gazed down at the first signs of thawing ground. She knew the birds were back and the squirrels were sniffing around for buried acorns. The mud was like wounds in the ground, like raw flesh that had not grown a scab yet. The pulse of waking was already palpable to her. Death had ebbed away like a tide from her immediate grasp. Not that it was gone for good, just retired from the scene. And now we were there, gazing back at her, the master of winter melancholy, the poet of epic minutiae, who sat on a throne somewhere in the darkness of the underworld.
March will leave us behind tomorrow and make way for April, the month of openings, as its name implies. The carnival of blossoming gardens will begin, with their gaudy fanfares and the acrobatics of birds swooping and diving among the floats. I hear the commotion of bees and the electric droning of wasps, the faint buzz of wings as creatures go airborne through the heated air. The icebergs of winter are all out in open sea, melting into the gray waters. The work of time has begun with the shuffle of feet, neighbors raking up the dead leaves from the hedges, loading up huge green bags with the diaries of last year’s weather.
If only there were some other way that time could measure me, but the earth rotates in only one direction, and all the clocks follow it. The sky rolls over us and lets the horizon devour the stars, and the blackness of night covers us like a blanket of forgetfulness. But another day thins away into the void, and is lost among the clouds my mother tried to paint and abandoned.
Copyright 2018 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen lives in Vermont. He is the author of many books, including The Human Condition, a collection of poems published by Wings Press.