A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I found three tiny crocus sprouts in the garden today. They were as innocent as a boy’s first pubic hair, tentative and shy, but determined to flow with time toward some culmination. It has been a long winter, with the ice so wrinkling up the surface of the world, you would think it might die of old age. But here they were, these indestructible little green hairs worrying their way to the crumbly surface of the ground, under the matted, brown tangles of last summer’s weeds. The green was iridescent, like spears of emerald, or the shafts of some exotic Faberge jewel made of vermeil. They were untouchable; the black ants that like to come in and sniff around our kitchen counters, left these little interlopers alone, even though I suspect the leaves were sweet, as tender as the sprouts we sometimes buy from the coop. The bugs had their own diet, I guess. Or maybe summer had its prerogatives and insects were aware of the bylaws of that season.
I’m bent over the tiny green splotches like some painter admiring the drops from his brush. Nothing I know in life quite resembles the luminous intensity of a crocus, with its spears twinkling with earth crumbs. A complete sentence is being composed out of raw ingredients, out of thought without words. I don’t even want to lean down and part the little strings of dry tendrils that form a flimsy thatch. I am not worthy of editing nature’s intentions. Let the soil speak its own will, and I will watch.
At 5:58 Eastern time this evening, the Vernal Equinox will occur, marking the beginning of spring. I can’t wait. I will crawl to that hour, wine glass in hand, eyes gazing up at the brilliant moon, the still spare, Shaker-like plainness of the landscape around me. I will feel a vibration run through my body, and travel up my spine like some eerie revelation that life is about to be reborn. I will bow my head in reverence, dust off my knees, and walk a few feet more into the yard like some pilgrim who has finally reached the Spanish church at Campostello, wondering what to do next. But there will be joy in my gut, and a feeling that the long siege of ice and saber-toothed winds will be ending soon. I don’t fear another snowstorm, because it will not have the certificate of destruction that winter awards the rogue weather of January. It will be milder, and the snow will be slush in a few hours.
But to be standing at this melted edge of the year is a reminder that not everything lasts forever. The hard, cold fist of political winter is still in our faces, and Trump is still raging against John McCain on his Twitter feed, the Senate is still ruled by the malevolent will of Mitch McConnell, and the mavens of the far right are all punching the keys of their computers spewing out more hurtful lava and vindictive rhetoric. Even that will grow soft and melted, and the Trump we may still fear as a terrible threat to democracy will go the way of the dead weeds. The crocus buds will penetrate his grimace, and the moist, loamy bed on which his anger rests will push up more contradictions and paradoxes than he can control.
On a walk last week my wife and I heard the sound of some excited birds high up in the branches of the wild maples. All we could make out was the red breast of a robin, but it was calling out to other robins invisible in the neighboring trees. It was the official announcement that spring had begun. Other birds were being summoned to the rutted dirt road with its deep ditch full of coagulated mud and ice-flaked water. They would come to fill their gizzards with pebbles in order to digest the grains they would find in the fields. These birds were not troubled by our heads craning upwards; they were as disciplined as Trappist monks on the way to morning prayer. I envied their sense of belonging to another world, and wished I could sprout some modest brown wings and fly up to join them.
The pond is thawed out and lies there like a limp mirror, full of wilted clouds and faded sky. I once saw an otter beating up the stillness with its powerful back legs as it scurried across the water to the far side. It had heard me coming through, dragging my feet a little in the sand. It was in no mood to make my acquaintance and disappeared like a ghostly vision. The pond quivers now and then with the skimming of a fish, ruffling the surface like a summer breeze against a girl’s blouse. Nothing is literal in this landscape. Everything is a metaphor of something else, like some mystic’s diary. Even the worms are more like thoughts that you can’t quite translate into words. They barely pierce the surface of the mud before ducking down again into the unconscious. They’re blind and have no use for light.
I return to the house and sit in my chair by the window, rejoicing in the knowledge that spring is impending in the air over the house. From space, the equinox looks like some child’s drawing of a beach ball in a very precise shadow, while the other half gleams in a gauzy haze of blue marble. The earth has bowed down like a courtier to the sun, and basks in its luminous attention. I give no thought at this hour to the threats of global warming, to the terrible future that scientists predict for us. The lumbering cyclone that swept over southern Africa and created an inland ocean leaves me numb but unengaged. I cannot think of villagers still trapped on their rooftops waiting for rescue. I am interested solely in the advent of a huge decorated circus float full of girls in tiaras throwing coins and flower buds to the adoring crowd. Kids run along side, birds hover over the tinsel-covered castle turrets. The brass band plays softly, and everyone on Main Street is out to welcome in the glorious transformation of the world.
Now I can let the light die on my hands and lap, and feel the landscape yawn in my windows. The trees are waking up slowly, sap is running in their veins, the crows are out stitching black thread into the silvery sky. Spring is crunching the gravel underfoot, traveling about seven miles a day into our frozen precincts. Where it sets its foot, grass sprouts its first shoots, and worms are ready with their pointed heads to break up the sticky molecules to let air in. I must promise the season to work harder at my existence, to do something good for the world I hardly know.
The news tonight is about the still frozen English Parliament unable to decide what it wants from Europe. It is rigid in its ancient xenophobia, its island subjectivity, its fear of others. It drove off the Polish truck drivers, and made the Slovenes feel they had no future on this quaint lozenge off the western edge of the continent. They went home and now there is a shortage of truck drivers and laborers. Spring has not rubbed its oils into the English skin. The budding that aches to sprout out of the branch ends of the beeches and elms withholds its breath, waiting for some sign of grace from the House of Commons. But the bees avoid the windows of that arid dome of power, and sail on to the meadows of Denmark and Sweden, and bring little puffs of perfumed air into the noses of children standing in the cold shadows of afternoon. What joy to smell lilac and rose breath, and to hear the first sounds of the geese returning north. If only the starved heart of man were willing to concede some small amount of love to strangers, willing to extend a hand of friendship, maybe we could all kneel and rejoice that the season more than warms the ice-tattered outskirts of nature.
But there is solace closer by as I pour a small glass of Rhone wine and smell the pungent, aromatic air forming its halo. There are gods everywhere, even in the slivers of sooty darkness behind my wood stove, and in the spidery corners of the basement. Gods in the far corners where I put my power tools, and gods in the mudroom next to the snow shovel, the rakes, the wood chipper, the sacks of sphagnum peat moss. Gods in my hair, in my eyes, in my words, in my wife’s voice clearing her throat as she comes down the stairs. Rejoice.
Copyright 2019 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.