A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I’ve noticed as I grow older that my conscious mind is not so defensive about its executive authority. I feel the steady encroachment of something else making itself known, pressing for its own participation in managing my daily life. I rather like it, to tell you the truth. It’s a little like having a third hand suddenly catch the lid that come’s loose on a jar and putting it back on the counter. My other hands were busy just holding the jar so I could read the label, and make sure it wasn’t the hot sauce but the raspberry preserves. I grab my keys to go out and forget to check that they’re for the car, not the pick up truck. Something tells me to look just before leaving the front door, and sure enough, they’re the wrong ones. Who told me that? What’s lurking behind the frail empirical boundary of my senses? I find myself paying more attention to this other sense, as if I were beginning to discover I’m not the only one in my once imperious ego.
I grew up to the sounds of my mother arguing with my father on some mornings, nagging at him about his silence, his stubborn ways. He seldom spoke voluntarily to her, unless it was about a bill to pay, or some little errand to be run that he didn’t have time for. Otherwise, my father’s mind was preoccupied with itself, with all its minute tributaries of thought and fragmentary dialogs. She couldn’t bear it; she felt lonely much of the time. She was like Eurydice in the Greek myth, the lover of Orpheus, who was grabbed up by Hades and brought into the underworld. Orpheus came down to look for her but doubted she was behind him, and was snatched back into the darkness forever. He had lost his imagination in that moment; it now lay inaccessibly in the back of his mind, his unconscious. My mother was a source of wisdom that my father could not grasp; he was practical, a stern Protestant who believed wholly in self-reliance and his waking self. Only his ego guided him, that and a very literal sense of how the world worked.
My mother was Italian, a passionate, sensuous woman who believed in fortune telling and heeding the voice of intuition, which was very strong inside her. She told me she had been born under a veil, meaning the amniotic sack at birth, and that this was the sign of her prophetic powers. So her bickering, her outright bitching on some mornings, was her way of trying to shout through the thick iron walls of my father’s pragmatism. It didn’t work, until he got older, white-haired, and would finally listen to her as she tried to tell him what was going on at work, why he was being passed over for certain promotions. He would sit there like a child, helpless and alone, wanting to know why all his sturdy optimism about life had abandoned him.
You should have heard her whispering to him, telling him about a dark man who would come into his life and cause him harm. He would purse his lips, knit his shaggy brows, raise a pudgy hand to his forehead and scratch with those “potato fingers,” as my mother called them, trying to match his brittle logic with her peasant insight. All this told her she was getting through to him, and she would produce a deck of cards and begin tapping them with her fingernail. Her words came in little staccato phrases as she turned over the cards and said, “Don’t befriend him. He’s your enemy and will cross you. Trust no one right now. You are passing through a troubled place and there are dangers around you.” I loved it, and I pressed my ear to the railing upstairs to hear every word. It was all poetry to me; it was the Sybil’s voice at Delphi, as she sat suspended over a cataract where mephitic fumes from the bowels of earth would cast a spell over her.
My father had killed off any other voices in his head in order to pursue a fierce, unrelenting drive to conquer uncertainty. He had ground his teeth to stubs in his labored sleep and now chewed with a row of gold crowns. He was the picture of modern man, chiseled out of granite, a monument to the will that had created the Industrial Revolution and the powers that ravaged nature. No one heard the silent scream of the organic world as the mines dug deeper for ore, and the engines throbbed and threw off the toxic ash that would end up in our skies today. But the voice of some small part of the green world was in my mother’s throat, and her bitterness at being ignored could well have stood for the sufferings of the rain forests from Brazil to Madagascar. She spoke for all that lost diversity that was driven into oblivion by the palm oil plantations, the industrial wheat and corn farms, the steady expansion of suburbs into the hinterlands. But my father, when robust and self-contained, could easily dismiss her words as nonsense. Now that he was shaken in his confidence, he allowed her words to get through to him, and he found some of what she said to be consoling, even a kind of guidance.
Apollo, the god of reason, was reputed to have killed the great earth serpent at Delphi, who lived in the cataract over which the Sybil was now suspended. It took me many years before I could interpret this myth, but it occurred to me one day in front of a literature class. I had told the students about the snake and the avenging sword of Apollo, and reiterated that nothing is literal in myth. So what was the snake, I asked. Everyone looked down and fidgeted. It suddenly hit me that it was the umbilical cord between earth and man. Apollo had cut the cord to make man his own god. But now the fissure, the navel of the world, leaked out the vapors of some deep source of knowledge different from reason or common sense. My mother was the latest incarnation of the Sybil, and she spoke with unshakeable conviction about her knowledge, even if its source was irrational.
That was my education as a child, even if I didn’t understand a word of what I was hearing. My father would cry out, “Balls!” when he had heard enough and storm off to work with shaving cream still clinging to his ear lobes. My mother would make a cup of coffee and sit there in the kitchen mulling over her words. I tried to be as Apollonian as my dad, in honor of his great success at work, his silk ties, his long polished shoes, his sense of luxury and need for good food. He set the example, but try as I did, I couldn’t suppress my own blurry voices, and would find myself, like Odysseus, hearing them calling from some rocky, forbidden shore of enlightenment. I didn’t know what I could do with my instincts, my impulses, hunches, except that I preferred my own interpretations of literature to any I read from the critics. I loved to stretch the literal into the fabulous, to make ordinary reality with its drab causes into thresholds of fable. Sometimes I was right, and surprised my teachers; sometimes I was just goofy and error-prone. That’s my whole life, teetering between the poles of my father and my mother, between fact and dreams.
But as I got older I would catch myself taking the wrong turn in a city and feeling it before I could think it. I would park in the wrong space knowing my hands were unhappy with me, that I was using a handicap spot and would get a ticket. I would buy a book even though my stomach said I already owned it. I would look at someone as if she were a complete stranger, even though my lips were smiling and recognizing a neighbor of mine. There’s a certain venetian blind in the bathroom window where I go each morning that I open by twisting a plastic rod to the left. I twist to the right to close it at night. But this morning, groggy from a light sleep, I twisted to the right only to feel it tighten up even more. I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t quite say it to myself. I twisted and it didn’t work, but there was something in my wrist that tried to stop me, to reverse the twist. It was funny. How many hundreds of times had I twisted the damn thing to the left to open the slats? I couldn’t count. But my hand knew before “I” did, and I reversed a second later. Who spoke in me? I should ask my father, now that he has finally surrendered to my mother’s superior wisdom. But he’s dead, and he’s probably laughing at me for trying to be like him.
Copyright 2019 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.