A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The old Calavon river, which is really a glorified arroyo here in southern France, is drying up. It hasn’t rained in two weeks and the weeds are dusty, the clay is growing a shell. But the bullfrogs continue to perform their courtship rituals in the stagnant puddles, uttering sounds no human throat could imitate. It’s a dark, guttural set of syllables that hovers just outside any plausible meaning, but is pure sensual music to the females who hang around in the moist peripheries of the stream. The history of the river goes way back into the Roman era, and was important to the ancient world because it afforded a pass through the high Alps that allowed pilgrims to course down from Italy into what is now France on their way to Campostello, Spain, the site of an important shrine honoring the remains of St. James.
The village I live in sits above this river, perched on a ledge near enough to drinking water to allow it a long, if not prosperous life. My understanding is that some Dominican nuns set up a convent at the top of the village and offered passing pilgrims a chance to rest, heal their blisters and get some decent food. That was back in the 6th century, and things were a bit primitive back then. Wood was scarce, and constructing houses out of rocks without mortar had become an art form. Stone was everywhere; it was the crumbling surface of an ancient sea floor, maybe one that even preceded the Mediterranean before it poured over the rim of desert beginning at Gibraltar and gave us this blue coast.
This is what you see when you take a hike into the woods — melting stone fallen from old walls, still bearing a few marine fossils in its pockmarked surface. You can hold the nearly transparent outline of a trilobite in your hand and feel the delicate riddle of time against your palm. Millions of years had passed before this rock turned up at your foot. Millions more will have elapsed before the rocks melt away into sand. Nothing about the landscape helps you to understand your identity as a human being. We are creatures of a more recent past, and our subjectivity is no means for penetrating the great depth of history that surrounds us.
I think it was Carl Jung who said the human imagination has not evolved from its most primitive beginnings. He suggested our brains still contained a core or reptilian consciousness that supplied our dreams with strange shapes. Every culture has its own version of the oroboros, the self-devouring serpent. That may be one vestige of primal knowledge. I’ve seen that shape incised in rock at an old priory near here called Carluc, where Neolithic priests constructed a sacrificial altar with a circular groove for collecting the slain animal’s blood. It looks like an oroboros, all right; later, when monks took the place over, they simply repurposed the pagan altar into a baptismal font for Christian rites. Nothing gets lost in that finite, self-enclosed imagination within us.
Our first experience as inhabitants of this part of Europe began in the caves. They protected fragile human life from the aurochs, tigers, giant raptors that preyed on anything that wandered into their midst. Humans were not the only tenants of these vast chambers; the caves echoed with the roar of bears, the squabbles of wolves and wild cats, and their voices must have rebounded in frightful ways along the miles of interconnecting passageways. A cave was a kind of theater of nature’s moods, from the whimpers of captured deer to the snarling bellows of enraged suitors. Imagine lying in the dark hearing the profound growls of a beast whose voice was magnified and duplicated by every ripple of the walls and ceiling of huge acoustic studios. It must have filled the unconscious with fears that would never be forgotten, no matter how long ago they first occurred.
One Monday morning I wondered into a church in the middle of the market at Forcalquier. It was a hot summer day and the market outside was throbbing with the cries of merchants, the banging of butchers’ scales as meat was weighed and swung into paper bags; the crowd made its own low roar as people surged and fought for a space in front of the cheese stalls. It was a chaotic time and ducking inside to the cool darkness of the church nave was like standing under a waterfall. I could barely make out any details, even though I was next to a rack of trembling candles glowing under a figure of the Virgin Mary. Slowly, the vast fluted columns holding up the roof began to emerge; old women were praying behind me, holding worn out missals and rosaries in their hands. A priest was walking slowly toward the altar, greeting some of his flock with nods and handshakes.
The mind goes empty in such places. Thought seems trivial, like the objects in a kitchen drawer no one uses anymore. I tried to make sense of things but I was tired, even sleepy. I was falling softly through the darkness, not even trying to catch onto some ledge as I turned over and over. I was in a dream that had no plot or meaning. I only knew that outside where the sun burned in dazzling blindness, the tumult of life was raging and demanding its portion of food and comfort.
I heard a chair scrape somewhere above me as a man leaned forward to turn on a lamp to illuminate a musical score he had opened up. He had a girl beside him on the bench who began to turn pages looking for the passage he wanted. After a polite cough, he placed his hands on the organ keyboard and let out a blast of low notes that curled my intestines. It was a frightful groan, and it felt like it had come from the depths of the earth. The church reverberated with the sound seconds after he had stopped playing; the echo was almost physical in my ears. Others turned to look up at the sudden transformation of the dark and gaped like children. High notes cascaded next, the pipes that surrounded the organ all began tapping their vents and swelling as the sound grew more and more intense. He was playing a Bach fugue, and the pulsations that roared out of the ceiling were like nothing I had heard before. It was like the roaring of wild animals.
I sat there through much of the practice session transfixed by what I heard. The huge fluted columns marching up each side of the central aisle of the nave suddenly appeared to me as the stalactites of a vast cave. I was drifting around in a primordial moment, in touch with ancient Paleolithic experience. I was a Neanderthal with a bit of burnt juniper in my hand ready to depict the beasts of the hunt. I had my stone ax and my hair greased with tallow; my skin was dark and my loins were covered in a piece of dirty bear skin. I had arrived at the bottom of my consciousness and heard the shrill terrors of primal life. I had no idea they had been preserved in this way, in a church, with all its carefully formulated rules of conduct and pious faith. I was staring at the priest as I thought these things. He had come down the aisle again and was smiling at me. He whispered into my ear if I were there to confess my sins. He motioned to the ornate wooden cabinet where I might unburden myself. I said no and went back to staring into the void ahead of me. What was the dirt in my soul that I could be absolved of, I wondered? I was as flawed as anyone in the room, but I had no idea how I might make myself believe I was curable of my weaknesses. Had they not been given to me at the birth of my species? Was I not a frail mortal driven by selfish desires and interludes of pure lust? Did these things vanish with a prayer, a penance, an act of contrition, a wafer at communion? I had tried all of these things as a youngster when I attended a parochial school. But I was an adult now and the complexities of my emotional life left me without any clear resolutions about how to perfect myself.
I was Jacque Cousteau strapped into my scuba lung at the bottom of time, among the sediments of endless millennia. I clutched a living trilobite in one hand and a piece of quartz in the other. I meant to invent writing one day, and to get civilization started on its stone wheels. I was ready for the future, whatever that was.
Copyright 2018 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.