A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
When it’s raining out, houses have a different sound. The door isn’t crisp when it shuts, it thuds softly, and it makes you feel connected to whoever is moving through the rooms. In this case, my wife. Outside, in the earth, which lies there vulnerable and defenseless, the rain keeps rubbing its fingers into the gleaming puzzle pieces of mica and quartz, as if shining them up still further for some startling exhibition when the moon rises. It is spring, the late, begrudging season of a Vermont still in the arms of last winter. But the buds are open, and the birds are eating berries in the trees, and the nearby pond shimmers with the movement of invisible fish. The muddy lane that wanders off behind our house is full of shallow potholes from the ice thaws. The sky is the color of a car whose paint has worn away.
The news keeps oozing out of the gears of the vast journalistic machinery in Washington. The sad old White House sits in a dirty sort of light, gloomy from all the intrigue and dishonesty that has accumulated like dust in its corners. You feel bad just thinking about it. The rain outside my window can’t wash away what has befallen us in this era. We go about our daily lives as if there were enough things to distract us from thinking our real thoughts. The rain is one such whisper out of nature to comfort us. I like standing in it, feeling its cold breath on my shoulders, the dampness sinking down through the layers of sweater and shirt, and touching my skin like a blind person. I am not alone. I am connected to something larger, something that dwarfs my actual self, which is this figure about five feet eight inches, in old shoes, with khaki pants that show signs of a few mishaps with my fork at dinner. I stand there with my hand tentatively in the grip of the rest of the landscape, and it feels comforting.
Maybe it’s good to have a man in power who is, to borrow a phrase from a recent article I read, a mad king. We have had some rough times before, under the gimlet-eyed paranoid, Richard Nixon, whose tormented thoughts made him curse aloud in the Oval Office among his few cronies, and to walk down the darkened corridors of the West Wing at night lamenting his misfortunes. But nothing like this. We have arrived at some height of exaggeration only a second-rate playwright would think plausible on a stage. The rantings of the other night on “Fox and Friends” went on so long even the anchors hosting the show became fidgety and glanced at the studio clock. The producers stood by afraid to interrupt while Trump performed a spontaneous parody of Tristram Shandy. Nothing added up, everything was like a ricochet in a gunfight as his fragmented thoughts tumbled down onto his tongue.
It wasn’t raining, it was more like the still glowing ash from a volcano. And it disconnected me from the political mayhem; I was alone, a man who couldn’t change his situation, only endure it. I couldn’t just lean against the foundations of democracy any more; the cracks were showing, the mortar had fallen to the ground. My shoes were caked in it. I had nowhere to turn for consolation. I was on my own, a creature imagined by Emerson when he wrote his essay, “Self Reliance.” I’m supposed to dig down into the humus of my soul and find seeds, a root or two, something to tell me I could grow my own character and follow its inclinations down the right path. I liked the premise. But I dug my hands into the soft stuff composing me and felt nothing but the grains of evolution, the sand and the planetary debris of a wandering orphan in the galaxy. I wanted to rejoice and hold up my Emerson like a new flag. I got up from the chair and looked out the window at two gray squirrels playing tag on a shaggy maple tree.
Paul Ryan is stepping down after his term ends this year; he will spend time with his family, and plot with his backers how best to position himself for a run for the presidency in 2020. He fired Patrick J. Conroy, the Catholic chaplain of the House, but no one knows why. I suspect, along with a few others, that he was forced to appease the evangelical right by getting rid of the man who prayed the tax bill would not hurt the vulnerable. He had a conscience about the plight of the poor, the fading middle class, the elderly, and our bedraggled veterans. But nothing could thwart the rise of the rich into an inviolable new aristocracy, and anyone who whimpered about it would be summarily dismissed from office. So Ryan, true to his colors, did the bidding of the religious extreme. Nicky Haley, the ambassador to the U.N., is also grooming herself and has her own cadre of investors wanting her to govern in the interests of the lords of Wall Street.
I like to look at the real estate ads in the New York Times, houses that cost millions of dollars and sprawl over the top of a hill and overlook a river or a private lake. The taxes, in Connecticut and Massachusetts, rise to forty thousand dollars and more per year. I marvel at such a rate, and at the ferocious self-love that could be attracted to such monuments. Inside, the rooms are crowded with clusters of furniture gathered around low tables, a grand piano, tea carts, anything to imitate the grandeur of old English and French castles. Money has no identity of its own; it shamelessly apes the imaginary splendors of the past, in an effort to identify with nobility and prestige. I find such gymnasium-sized rooms lonely, spaces without form or harmony. But I understand their power to inflate the soul of their owners, to make one’s life fill with helium and make visible the meaning of wealth. But the rain is an inaudible medium of reality and can’t be heard through the triple-glazed storm windows. One merely glances outside and momentarily admires the endless slope of lawn, the water that shimmers like the bullion in a mint. One has ten cars to choose from, a theater room, immense kitchens unsuitable for cooking one’s own meal on a twelve-burner commercial stove. Everything is too big, too much like a clown’s pants eight sizes too large and hanging in folds over elongated shoes. Everything is out of proportion to reality, but that is what all this struggle for power and fortune is about: To expand the mere body of a man or woman to a size that hovers over Macy’s like circus dirigibles.
Everything runs according to Vico’s cycles, rising out of the tragic muck of barbarism to civilization, but falling once more back into the primordial slime. So here we go again: fasten your seat belts. We’re heading for a new age of opulence and brutal power, of epic dimensions of self-indulgence and rarefied gold-plated luxury. I am reminded of all those terraces of windows decorating Jay Gatsby’s automobile, the one that thrilled Daisy Buchanan to drive. Like everything else about Gatsby, it was an empty grandeur, a useless magnification of Henry Ford’s Tin Lizzie. Both vehicles got you around to the store and home again, but Gatsby, like Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard, demanded the signature of pure transcendence from the ordinary. Vico’s The New Science hastened the Italian Renaissance into existence, with man at the center of nature, and the castles that were rising in Florence and Rome commemorating the ascendance of reason over faith. By the time the modern age was over, we were given the ruins of industrial cities, the polluted air, the dying oceans, the slums and corruption of power, the failure of pubic education, the adulteration of food and medicine. The slime has returned, and the culture is now intoxicated by a vision of a new age of splendor, one without the soot and grease of manufacture or the manure of agriculture, but the grace and dignity of banking, investments, international trade. Tighten your seat belts, we’re in for a another joy ride in Gatsby’s glittering chariot.
Meanwhile, the rain falls as gently as tears into the spring-time earth, and I am at the window watching the uneventful construction of nests, gopher holes, the beginnings of spider webs glistening from the laundry line. Vico was right, what man makes of his life on earth is always spectacular and large, and when it crashes back to earth, the honeybee parts the petals of a rose and dines on nectar.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who lives in Vermont.
Copyright 2018 Paul Christensen.