A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Summer is like old gold, dark with age. You feel its strength become mellow and pliable in the soft breezes. There is wisdom in the heat that still simmers along the edges of noon, as if it were trying to tell us that illness or aging are as natural as drawing breath. The dry, brown fields are waiting for fall to bring rain. The oaks are twisted and gnarled on the side of the road, and birds are no longer eagerly singing songs about the future. Even the little village bar is somber and nearly empty; people have gone back to work at this frayed edge of August. September hovers over us like a bill collector demanding that we pay for our self-indulgence.
Already pumpkins are growing fiery red and heavy, and gourds are beginning to show up in the outdoor market stalls. You look at them as if they were little moons frowning up at you. They bring melancholy thoughts with them; their rough skin has emerged from a troubled memory. I feel their disappointment and rue all the times I have made mistakes out of passion or recklessness. I am as flawed as they, and sympathize with their helpless gazes as we pass by.
Someone stops me in the street and asks the time. I tell him it’s almost noon. He smiles out of a craggy face and pushes on through the jostling crowd of tourists. I want a glass of cold white wine in front of me. I can taste it already, the icy metallic flavor of iron as it slides to the back of my tongue and becomes sweet. So many things strike me as rusty and bitter when I hear them, and then, with a little musing I realize nothing has changed. Not even the terrible moment we live in now, with the Amazon on fire, the oceans churning with heat, the glaciers melting away into swollen rivers. The G7 leaders are meeting in Biarritz as I write, deliberating over how to placate an unpredictable monster like Donald Trump and still get some business done. The word climate has yet to come up, but it is on everyone’s mind. The earth is suffering, and with it, all the human beings who cling to it. Another era of civilization has reached a state of bewilderment and gropes its way forward without wisdom.
An old Saturday New York Times puzzle has the clue, unsuccessful at asking someone out for a date. The answer? Strikes out. I feel for the poor slob who is turned down after planning an evening out, with dinner at his favorite little tavern and maybe some dancing, home by one, with a kiss at the door or more, if he’s lucky. But not this time. His soft jowl hangs over his frayed collar, his shirt is missing a button and his undershirt is peeping through. He has on old trousers and a pair of loafers worn down at the heels. He isn’t a beauty. He’s been letting himself go for years, and his miserable job is beginning to wear away his self-confidence. The woman who rejected him suspects he has nothing much to say and would be a terrible bore all night. She would prefer to watch an episode from “Suits” and sip the last of her Zinfandel alone. She’s no beauty herself, a little on the stout side, with a pair of old-fashioned mules and a sweater that hangs from her chubby arms. But she’s still the messenger of love in the world, the source of joy and imaginative leaps into erotic paradise. No matter what she does, she can’t remove that legacy of Venus from her still youthful face and pale blue eyes.
They honor late summer with their disappointments, this forlorn couple lost in the mazes of a city. I wish I could draw back my bow and shoot both in the heart with a cupid’s arrow. It might ease one small moment of despair before fall comes rolling over the high-rise apartments and erases the past. A gourd lies in the harsh light of a shop window, placed carefully on green excelsior like an Easter egg. You wonder who had the vision to arrange such a still life, with all its attendant irony about springtime and renewal amidst the urban decay and disintegration of faith. But there it is, an emblem of how lasting is hope in the human spirit. The man or woman who has come up with this arrangement is a poet, a rhymer of discordant realities. I wish I could meet such a dreamer, and compliment this fantasy with exaggerated praise. But I am content to not know the mind that has toyed with my mood this afternoon. Better to walk on, and to pinch a few avocados in a stall and decide I didn’t want any of them.
Late summer is a kaleidoscope of thoughtful clouds, each moping in the sky with its own discontents. A farmer looks up and scratches his sunburned forehead with a calloused hand. He has been in this lonely stretch of the season many times, and knows how to read the deserted sky for what it might portend. He has no reason to suspect that his vines will be drenched in warm rain anytime soon. He would prefer to let the vines writhe on their flimsy poles until harvest time. Grapes are meant to suffer. They only live by the struggle of roots to find the last bead of moisture in the sandy earth. The fruit is dark and hangs heavy on the branches, like words that were never spoken. When the workers come in with their snippers and begin untangling the fruit from the vines’ bony fingers, the baskets sigh with the tangy smell of juice.
My hour of people gazing is through and I gather up my bags and head back to the car. My wife is ahead of me, with her own sack of onions and red peppers, a stick or two of yellow squash. Things are either red or yellow now, like the season itself. She’ll make a ratatouille tonight and we will dine sparingly on the sour flavors, the oil-soaked fragments of eggplant, the moldy tasting pockets of mushroom and potato. We’ll have bread with butter, and sip at our glasses of burgundy. I found a bottle at the supermarket with a medallion on it saying it had won a gold medal at some wine tasting. I like it; it is strong, and full of spirit, and brings to my mouth the taste of an old dusty cellar full of cobwebs and ancient oak barrels. I am reminded that what becomes of summer is a liquor of distilled memories bottled like free association in some Jungian exercise. Here comes the bumble bee, and there is the sparrow flying low, and a humming bird sips at the nectar of a dandelion, and now a plane droning through the sky, a boy shouting to his friends that he has caught a fish, a girl running through a rutted field with her kite flopping over her shoulder. And I am there as well, smiling under an apple tree, holding my sack of fallen apples, some of them wormy, the rest still edible and delicious. All these things and more hover over our table as we eat in silence.
When you are young, each day is a birthday party with presents hidden in the closet waiting to be opened. Nothing is ordinary. The day may be long and stretching out to evening without a climax of joy or sorrow, but the very fact that you are young and can walk the winding path of the hours is enough. You are happy to be alive. You want to stay this way as long as you can, with the girl you love brushing her hair on the porch and her father gazing with a worried look at her. You want to ride your bike and sail off into the infinite sunshine as you toss the morning papers on the doorsteps. Nothing you do is calculable or subject to censure; you are on the bright side of existence, living in a timeless wasteland of hours and days without end. You have no idea that summer can end, or that the fall can bring you the first pains of adolescence, the aches and longings that leave you breathless on the bench in the recess yard. You had no forewarning that your body would betray you and leave you stranded like Odysseus on the beach, naked and exhausted, but ready to live again after your first heartbreak. That’s the end of summer, a tarnished jewel lying in a bed of velvet space, a burning eye gazing at you with scorn and some hint of forgiveness for all your failings and foibles. When the bell rings and you are summoned into the room where you will surrender youth for your first strenuous effort to become an adult, the smell of chalk assails your nose and you hear footsteps in the hall.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.
Copyright 2019 Paul Christensen