A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Sometimes I find myself wandering out of a book into a rambling daydream, one that has neither a beginning nor an end, just a labyrinth of choices and minor discoveries that don’t add up to much. It’s good. I love the feeling of letting my mind forget the rules of reading and plunge into the high grass. Usually, the place I enter is a field near a river. I can hear the water chattering over the stones, and look out for birds that might be hovering overhead. I keep relaxing more and more into a trance, a state of mind that allows me to draw very slow breaths, like a bear hibernating in a cave. The afternoon grows shadows around me, and the evening’s first cool breeze blows through the windows.
My mother told me that I was wall-eyed, and that the optometrist could correct the focal muscles by making thick prisms to wear. I had weak muscles that barely held both eyes in three-dimensional perception. I wasn’t interested in the corrective glasses, but I had to wear them eventually. I found that letting my eyes go out of focus opened the garden gate, so to speak, to let me out into that strange field where I was completely alone.
It was not a state of mind in which you could accomplish anything. There were no discoveries to be made, no goals to pursue. There was only the breath growing cool and measured, and the hands that, for someone as tense as I was, lay flat on my lap without fidgeting. It was like some powerful dose of Novocain that eased down my arms and legs and turned my chest into a slab of marble. My head barely moved, and my eyes were paralyzed and happy. The wonder of it all was that I could sit like that for hours, if no one found me in the chair. But someone usually did. I had let the room go too quiet; I usually banged around in my bedroom sorting my toys, putting away my stamp album, rummaging in the dresser for socks, something that told everyone else I was busy.
I noticed that once in the field, there was no such thing as time. In winter, I had no anticipation of Christmas or the jagged edges of the new year approaching. I hardly cared if it snowed or not. I had no watch to consult. I was beyond wearing my name or even my clothes. I was just a sheet of warmth moving with the wind over the trembling tops of the wild grass, heading toward the coast, if indeed there was a coast to head for. The river was always there, a mystical sort of stream with its own language and purposes. It’s probably where all the poets of the past went to escape from reality. Wordsworth wrote strange lyrics to celebrate his arrival at the bankside of the river Wye; and Walt Whitman would lie down next to a stream and begin his voyage over America and out into deep space, as I later learned. The river murmured its pulses in our ears, and seemed to unravel our consciousness as if it were a ball of yarn.
I had no one in whom to confide about my wanderings. It was private property, a secret I couldn’t share without making friends wary of me. Everyone else lived in a well-lit center of being and enjoyed their industrious states of mind. I heard someone tell me that sitting too long made him frantic. He would grab a coloring book and begin filling in colors to keep away the boredom. I would listen with keen interest because I didn’t have any fear of boredom. I welcomed it; it was a cobwebbed door only I could open and find myself breathing the sharp air as I entered the muddy edges of the field. I didn’t know what boredom was, until my mother pointed out how lazy I was. She worried I might have low blood pressure or that I had found something in the medicine cabinet that chilled my blood into a coma. I assured her I never explored the little dusty bottles with yellowing labels in the bathroom. But she threw them all out anyway, and made sure any special pills she might receive from the doctor were hidden away in her closet.
But in my pocket was a key only I could use, and only I knew where the keyhole was. When I put the glasses on, my eyes snapped into a narrow zone of intense concentration, and the magic of twilight disappeared as if a bulldozer had wandered into the world and razed all the trees and buried the wild grass where my freedom lay.
I suspect that when the priest would bow his head and begin to mumble a long prayer from his missal, he too wandered into the high grass. His voice sounded like the river, and I noticed how the kids around me would get sleepy and begin to nod their heads. I watched the priest’s eyes, because it seemed to me he was beginning to let focus disintegrate as his mind roamed far away. His voice seemed to hypnotize him, and to lure him out of the church, out of the Sunday morning tedium, out of the city into the tarnished gold edges of the sky and beyond, where the clouds were like ice bergs floating in a gray artic wasteland. I could follow him there if I took off my glasses and let my eyes crank loose from their ferocious obedience to reality. But my brother would nudge me with his elbow and I would come tumbling back into my stiff new suit, and look around like someone caught doing something he shouldn’t.
How close the field lay to my tiny existence. It was vast, a beginning of eternity. I need only put my one foot into the soft, giving earth and I was there. I was moving without weight into the undefined, and feeling freedom brush against my hands and chill them. I didn’t want to stop, but something always made me hesitate to go further. The last fence was behind me, the dogs no longer barked, the rain stopped. I heard voices calling for me as they died into echoes. I could smell the sea. I heard the river talking to itself as if it were on a phone on some steps where it was necessary to whisper.
As I grew older, I always had the impression that the book I was holding was full of unwritten fears of this other world. Like my friends, the book kept chattering against the awful silence that lay just behind our minds. The plot would bend infinity into a recognizable logic of beginnings and ends; the unexplained was banished to the far edges of the page, in the blank margin, and in the end papers, with their mysterious cloudless weather. The ink was like myriad human footsteps treading the same paths of certainty, churning up the factual surface of things until it became worn out with cliches. But even cliches have their mysterious sameness, and were like manholes in print, iron caps you could pry up to gain entry into the underworld. But enough of that. If I were to admit all I know of the underworld I would be sent to an institution. Or made to wear my ten-pound glasses even in my sleep.
I was a window-gazer, a dreamer in class. I hardly knew how to pay attention to the monotonous voices of instruction in front of me. The black board was another page of fear-riddled hieroglyphs meant to shut out the profound silence at the edge of the universe. I would look up now and then to avoid the harsh screeching warning of a teacher who had had it with me. I would write things down, but they made little sense to me. I would copy my friend’s writing but it was something I would never look at again. My grades were terrible; my report card was an embarrassment to my father. He would look at the C’s and D’s and sometimes the F’s and wonder if I were just stupid, or that I was belligerent in my resistance to civilization. I tried to assure him that I liked learning and wanted to succeed in my life. He was my model of the examined life, I told him one day after returning from college for the summer. My mother said little to me. At twenty-one, I was too old to take her advice. When I removed my glasses and sat staring at the blank wall of my bedroom, she must have concluded that she had done all she could for me.
But I had begun to find others in the field where I wandered. Dreamers and idealists, and the occasional freak of nature. I had friends “out there,” out where no one else followed me. I couldn’t speak to them, or even hear them if they should try to speak to me. Let us say, they were standing knee deep in the soft, black earth at the swampy edge of the nothing, and their knees were stained with the moisture of kneeling and drinking the cold water from the stream. I knew my own knees were wet, and I had eaten the pomegranate seeds of the underworld and would one day not be able to come back to the ordinary world. I had to weigh that against my pleasure to roam out into the endless twilight. I had to talk myself into wearing my glasses more often, and to follow the streets to where they led to the rest of my life. I had to make do with reality, and tell myself it was enough.
Copyright 2018 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.