A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Winter has settled in for the next few months, with its bony grip on the hillsides, the gray and balding trees, the sheet-metal skies. Houses are hunkered down on their dry slopes, like exotic birds with their plumes of chimney smoke. Over us, now and then, are flocks of Canadian geese cruising along in a loud conversation with one another. The sound is like some southern beauty parlor where gossip and laughter flourish. If birds laugh, it must be the noise of some throaty, guttural belches and guffaws. At five in the morning, the neighbor drives his pickup to the hardware store where he works. Otherwise, all is dark and gloomy at that hour, waiting for the first robin’s song.
It’s a time of reflection before a fire, an anticipation of evening when the cork is pulled and my wife and I settle in for a glass of dry Rhone wine. Supper is making in the oven, and there is a cheery light in other rooms. The Christmas tree was stripped of its ornaments and dragged out to the far side of the garage for a man to pick up. His goats like the taste of fir tree; later, they will sit on the cold ground and ruminate about time and goat memories. On our way north to Middlebury, we pass an alpaca farm. These dwarf camels stand around in what appear to be baggy flannel pajamas observing us with curiosity, or is it Andean condescension? The land slopes down in the same direction, south or southeasterly, and are the last foothills below the Green Mountains. They shed the rain down to the boggy lowlands and creeks, especially Otter Creek, with its serpentine folds and gleaming ebony skin. Even now with a patina of ash-white ice on the surface, one can see little scurries of fish below, sunk like forgotten knowledge in the depths of the bone-chilling water.
The old Vermonters have all found consolation in their potting sheds, where seeds are planted, and some are already thrusting up their heads. It is a reassuring sight to see that spring is working its way to the surface, like the thrill of first love. No wonder all our love poems are about this tender green hope that the earth will survive the long dismal winter months and rejuvenate the world. Dogs scamper along in tight sweaters sniffing at fence corners and checking out the lampposts for any love letters. They also have that look of longing and hope for better times.
The other day I watched the opening session of the lower House, where Nancy Pelosi and Steney Hoyer sat whispering and waving to friends. It was like old times. The great inertia of government brooded over their heads in swirls of white marble, while voices droned on about the vote for House Speaker. It gave me the feeling of history being made, lived, as the creaking wheels of its ancient mechanism rolled forward into the future. Powerful forces were at play, and the mortals who sat there smiling like school children seemed only vaguely aware of how grand it all was. It was lovely and the pageantry inspired me to take a deep breath and feel my back relax after two years of sheer terror. There is a government, and a Constitution that keeps our promises washing back to shore to give us reason to go on.
There was no great oratory that day, only a feisty proclamation by Pelosi that we must unite around our common goals. I half listened to it, wondering if indeed this was another burst of optimism before reality set in once again. The Senate was nowhere to be seen, but everywhere to be felt. All those bills eagerly voted for will be sent to a chamber ruled over by a mean-spirited right winger hell bent on crushing every attempt to restore the parts of government Trump had closed down. But it didn’t matter. It was the giggles, the nudges, the antsy young first-timers all sitting there eager to get started that made it feel like a festival, and I left the room elated.
Up here in this lonely corner of the nation, we have our resources to keep winter from gripping us around the neck. The light of our table lamps is enough to scatter the illusion of summer onto the carpets, and to open corridors of sunny air in our dark rooms. If you have a few bags of last autumn’s apples, you look at them like piles of money. They are dense little gobbets of honey and summer fragrance, and you bite into one the way you might purse your lips for your first kiss. Eve saturates the mudroom with her perfume, her innocence, her vulnerability, and the apples are her gift to us. We won’t be cast out of Paradise a second time. The apple is grace, a taste of forgiveness, the reminder that nature has no morals or judgments. We make it all up, and fashion a prison out of our fears and worries. Against the gray iron drabness of a cold day is this globe of luminous fruit eager to be eaten.
Sometimes my wife and I go for a drive in the country just to admire the purplish silver tops of the hills, where cold is given its true poetry. Nothing can make the soul shiver more than to look upon those tree-covered slopes with their icy diamonds shimmering on their skin. They are there to remind you that your mortality means nothing to them. They stand for the severity of time, the rules of the universe that have nothing to do with our petty lives. To enter into their kingdom is to hear some sermon on the vanity of human wishes. And I never tire of being told I am a few quarts of water wrapped in a warm skin, and that my dust will add nothing to the workings of eternity. The deer know this and look up from their browsing on a patch of stubble to smile vaguely as we pass. Even the shaggy bobcat I saw the other week creeping along in a backyard strewn with kids’ toys had that look of wisdom as he turned his head to follow our progress up the hill.
Who should hold the great truths of the north more firmly than the granite outcrops that part the pastures like the ribs of an ancient god? You feel the infinite finding its only metaphor in this black, pebbly earth. The vast mysteries that surround us are made to seem briefly finite as you get down and walk with uncertainty up the slope of a hillside and come upon this ancient rock. Under your feet are the millennia before you, the endless succession of winters that parade across the sky without memory. The law of winter is anonymity, the evanescence of existence for all but the seams of granite that lie below. Maybe that’s why our tombstones are fashioned out of stone, to honor the only thing we know outlasts our most cherished dreams.
The car knows the way home like an old nag. You hardly need to steer through the gentle curves and below the farmhouses that lean upon their porches and observe the erosion of memory. A crow darkens a maple branch and looks out on the barren fields. He has already eaten his supper of scattered corn kernels and longs for sleep. He seems to know that if he keeps his eye on the western ridge of hills, he will not be disappointed as the light fades. The sun dies away like the words of a eulogy spoken over the remains of an old farmer who sold his cows and sat in the corner growing feeble. On his walls are pictures of barns, a hay field in full bloom, cows meandering down a country path. The old days. The tender remains of a past that has become idealized in the minds of the living, but were mud and labor and the rank ammonia of the barn straw if you lived through it. So what, says the poplar leaning over in the wind. A young man is mucking out a barn and looks up to observe the geese flying to a pond behind him. He holds the moment in his hand, and the moment is delicate, a butterfly, a moth, and will return to the lingering brightness of the day and disappear.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.
Copyright 2019 Paul Christensen