A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The air has a certain thin resemblance to the smell of nutshells. I remember holding up a walnut shell to my nose after I ate the nut, and wondering what it smelled like. It reminded me of my grandmother’s bedroom, with its highboy dresser, crooked candles, some saints’ pictures hanging precariously from the frame of a large mirror, a doily long stained from wax drippings, and a scent of old age, of time that had slowed down as if its batteries were going dead.
That smell fascinated me. She was an old woman when I knew her, frail, round-shaped, her hair thin and pulled into a bun, her mouth expressionless from a pair of cheap dentures. Her bedroom was not meant to be entered by the rest of the family but I wandered in and stood there in the quivering light of her candles, and gazed about at what seemed a secret doorway into the past. And there, hanging in the air like so much dust, was that smell of something dry and disused, a carefully sequestered relic of some sort, like her palm crosses from Easters long behind us. You inhaled the stale odor and it held you in a momentary trance. Now it was back, floating around in the house, coming down the street from someone’s kitchen, who had opened a door in the pantry and took out a tin of old almond cookies to be thrown away.
My mother kept fava beans in the coin slot of her dresser drawer. I would take them out and admire their shiny, dark shells. She said they brought good luck, and remembered an old story about how fava beans were the last things growing in a drought in Sicily that kept the villagers from starving to death.
She had gone through the Great Depression and remembered the lean suppers my grandmother served, stretching the last crusts of bread, serving up a dish of pasta that had been dinner for two other nights. Dreary stuff. The house was quiet and sad in those long winter months in New Orleans, and she would sit and plunk the keys of an out-of-tune piano in the living room. Everyone was sitting in the near darkness thinking, moping, waiting for some sign of relief, which did not come until the election of FDR. He made promises and everyone believed him; things began to move again, like the iron wheels of locomotives long idled. Her dad found a job and brought home his first pay envelope and emptied it on the table, with a few coins rolling to the edge before someone stopped them and put them back in the center of the table. Eyes gaped wide at the dollar bills, which meant almost anything if you were hungry and nearly hopeless.
The thin night air of fall has begun to settle over us now that the last heat wave has dissipated. The cool breezes bring out these apparitions of the past, these aromas of a vanished world. A bike went by with its gears clicking, and its rider taking short breaths. He had come up the steep hill to the village and was dragging himself to the bar down the street. He might have been a ghost for all I know, someone who had pierced the twilight at the edge of town and quietly pedaled his way toward us with no verifiable existence. He coughed, and his saddle wheezed as he shifted his posture. But other than these flimsy signs of his presence, he was made of air and memories, a flickering light that had long ago exhausted its mortality. The moon is now a crescent hanging above the root tops, not quite orange, more white like a partially dissolved pill in a glass of water. I wonder who the biker is, but as soon as his clicks are swallowed up in darkness I forget about him.
These are evenings when time bulges in the corner like unused lamplight. No cat is around to play with the spool of thread someone dropped; not even a dormouse sticks out its soft gray head to look around. The board games are stacked in a lower shelf of the bookcase, but since the grandkids are not here, no one will disturb their shallow slumber. The towns are sliding under a sea of blue obscurity that keeps pouring over us from the nearby mountain. The crops are in, the hay fields are mowed and left with their stubble jutting up like little gold knives. The bees are on holiday. I haven’t seen a fox all summer. But I hear the thrashings of a few wild boars on my walks out of town; they are gouging the soft black earth with their tusks, digging up edible roots and a few grubs. The gleaners are all that’s left of the ferocity of earlier days.
You wonder what the poets are doing in such a limbo of tired nature. Is anyone scratching out a few lines in a notebook? I can’t imagine language forming at the end of a pencil that could even remember the last rush of emotion from an unexpected kiss. I’m sure someone is thinking about those things, but not here. The hard stone houses seem to forbid such sentiments when nature is dying. Better to contemplate the wispy notion of god or the desolate language of the wind as it moves sluggishly through the weeds. A dog I am fond of likes to slump down at my feet at the little table where I sip a drink, and raises an affectionate eye if I dangle my hand down and scratch its back. We comfort each other.
Perhaps I am grieving at this moment the death of an old friend, who passed away two nights ago in his sleep after a brief battle with liver cancer. He was a brilliant man who had conceived an algorithm for predicting the rise and fall of raw materials for industrial plants in Scandinavia. He made his living publishing his predictions about how much to expect to pay for aluminum or rare earths from Russia. He was funny and told many wonderful stories about growing up in Sweden as we sipped at our after dinner schnapps. He and I would devour a plate of marinated herring and look around like slightly dazed sailors. Then he would fall silent and think about something that wasn’t easily translated into English. I would wait until he cleared his throat and would begin a new story about a reluctant client who doubted anyone could foretell where the price of rolled steel might go in the next three months. He said the man gave in and signed a contract when my friend told him that his own car would appreciate in value because South African chromium was going up and new cars would become much more expensive. That made the man feel good about himself, as if he had been touched by a wand and the air sparkled around him.
At my age you lose a lot of your friends. The earth devours them in its grim lips. The moon hangs there in a pale light that offers no consoling thoughts. A crow would rejoice at the unfeeling justice of this world, as it takes away one bright spirit after another. But crows eat the dead and find redemption in being free of remorse or regret. I’m told they remember human beings who were cruel to them, and will dive down and threaten them with menacing screeches. The kind ones are allowed to pass below without any such curses. But crows are messengers of the night world, and are the troubadours of all the dark laments muttered at the back of our nightmares.
The inside of a nutshell is chambered like the heart, with little ridges and flanges where the nut grew and prepared itself for falling into the waiting earth. That’s what I smell when I hold up a nutshell to my nose. It is the odor of anticipation, the willingness to be sacrificed to the sharp teeth of an animal worrying the shell until it breaks. Some nuts survive and are introduced to the fertile underworld, where their roots will eventually grope around and find moisture and begin a new life as a tree. I must remember this as I grieve for my dead friend, whose spirit was far too strong to merely evaporate into cosmic dust.
Copyright 2019 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.