A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
They’re beginning to park the snowplows on the corners of city streets, and along the country roads. They say the more apples there are on the trees, the heavier the snow will be. So everyone has set their jaw and stared at the plows as if they were ominous signs. I am used to Vermont’s gunmetal gray skies now, after a week of drizzly weather, and the chill of damp mornings. We light fires in the late afternoon and come down early to our easy chairs to read, or gaze around at the unfocused landscape with its low-hanging clouds and brownie-crust earth. The crows are out cruising the treetops and singing out their raucous caws to the empty landscape. This is their favorite time of year. The moles are sleepy, the chipmunks haven’t quite made up their minds to burrow yet. It’s a season of uncertainty that the crows know to take advantage of. Their diving skills are remarkable, and I am sometimes numb with excitement when I see one suddenly slice through the air and capture something on the ground I can barely make out.
The shops in town smell like cinnamon, and make you ache for consolation. You want to believe something transcendent is about to occur, some power of the air to produce miracles at this gloomy turn of the year. But instead, you see pumpkins in the doorsteps, and sprays of zinnias and dried roses gathered up onto a wreath and hung from doorways. The ghosts are moving out of their graves and leaning on the ivy-covered stonewalls at you head out of town. Everything has a meaning, but there are no whole sentences in what you see. Our myths have been discarded and all that’s left are fragments of a language that can’t quite express itself. I feel moved to believe that this is the crack in time when the dead are liberated back among the living. But I’m not sure of it, and my skepticism rejects any leaps of faith. I move along in a vague state of doubt I learned from Kierkegaard.
My mother used to dress me up like Carmen Miranda on Halloween, with a cluster of plastic fruit on my head and lots of mascara and rouge, and send me out with my brothers to knock on doors. I was always the winner in my colorful drag and later shared out a bounty of candy bars and suckers, and little mounds of pennies. No one made us sing for our treats or come inside to be admired by old folks gathered over their beers and pretzels. We just stood at the door with smoky breath until our bags rattled with more candy or coins. The older kids were dousing dog poop with naptha and knocking on doors. I once tied a string to a screen door and let it slam until someone came out and stood around looking into the dark. We lay hidden behind a hedge stifling our giggles. So much for the mysterious pagan ritual of honoring the dead and placating evil spirits.
Cold moves its delicate fingers along our scalps and seems to find some little unprotected opening into the back of our minds. I would walk along in the dark with other kids and begin to feel myself lifted out of my scrawny body into a realm of memory. I would be transported back to a helpless infancy where I was left to cry in my crib. Or be lying there in bed wondering whatever became of my uncle, who had faded away from my life. He died a lonely old bachelor and I could not console him when we visited his house. He just smiled and sat in his old faded chair in the living room avoiding everyone’s eyes. He used to be a musician and played with various bandleaders like Louis Prima, but those days were long gone. He lived with his mother and let the years pass without complaint. He was old when I knew him, and had sold off his paper company and now lived on his meager savings. He was close to me as I walked along, as if he were about to take my hand as we crossed the street. But he didn’t. He dropped back into the darkness with all my other memories. The streetlights made islands in the sidewalk you could step onto as if they were atolls or sandbars, and you hated to leave them behind. The cold air was a wall you could walk through. The houses began to turn off their porch lights to tell you that there was no more candy inside.
I would lie awake admiring the night sky with its stars needling my eyes. I could smell the cinnamon on my fingers and feel the sugar making my stomach squirm. I would pull the quilt tighter against my shoulders and drift off into dreams. Each of us goes to bed and becomes a poet with infinite shapes and plots to choose from to make our stories, our epic journeys. I would dream I was a soldier in a strange country walking alone with my rifle among the dark trees, the little stone houses of poor people. I was fighting for some cause, but I couldn’t tell myself which one. I was just there, tired, unhappy, missing home. But the dream was free, and I embraced all its sudden twists, and I would wake in the dark with a feeling I had grown older, had spoken a foreign language. What a thrill it was to hear my mother calling for us to come down to breakfast the next day, and to make my way to school with a satchel and a lunch bag.
The air outside is as gray as putty. A huge decoy of a goose lay in the underbrush beside the pond where we walk each afternoon. It lay there with its neck bent toward the earth and its huge wooden body painted with gray feathers. It was on the pond in the summer, but we’re not here in that season. It floated around in the stark sunlight as the geese flew overhead. I doubt any goose took the decoy for anything but a ruse. None landed, I’m told by our neighbor.
The year writes its diary on the landscape, scratching out its thoughts against the shallow hills, the stumps of dead trees, the scatter of rotting apples under the apple trees. I wonder what the season is thinking, what it feels as time moves through its ancient fingers. There are no memories of love, no regrets of things left undone. The eternal has no fear or sorrow, just the subtle motion of change as it erodes the present. The cold intensifies the fragility of the light, and makes you feel as if you cannot fathom the meaning of your existence. You are merely here, walking along a damp, puddle-pocked mud road, with the sparrows eyeing you from a safe distance of a branch. Cows are grazing in the pastures, and when you stop and pull out your gloved hands, they slowly move toward the fence line to watch you. They act as if they would befriend you, but they won’t. Their minds are empty and their eyes are alert to your every move.
October is the eighth month of the year, and sounds harsh when you say it out loud. You hear the thud of an ax against a tree. You know the woods are full of preparation for winter, and that the foxes are nervous as they make their burrows and keep an eye out for a hawk. The coyotes are moving in a small pack to the marsh below us, looking for an otter or a raccoon that might be inattentive at this hour. I long to sit before my wood stove and warm my knees, but I’m told I must walk some more as my wife pulls me along. A glass of wine would taste good right now. A piece of warm bread and butter would be a serious treat. I feel the hard earth under my shoes as I slowly mount the rise a hill, and come upon the beginning of the woods. It’s like meeting the back of your mind as the gloom surrounds you. It’s the place where the dead are sleeping, barely breathing in the moist black earth along the creek. They will rise when the time comes, and ask the living for a candle, perhaps a dish with a cookie on it. The moon is half full, and hangs down like some shepherd’s lantern from another age. How I wish I lived back then, among horse carts and hayricks and barns full of cows mooing in their stalls. I would gladly give up the conveniences of a car and supermarkets, and settle for a withered garden full of ripe tomatoes and mounds of buried potatoes. I can imagine myself bending over with my shovel harvesting dinner vegetables in the glow of the kitchen window, and then come into the house with my basket. I would embrace the dark room and hug my wife, and tell her not to worry. The snow is far off, way down the season, and we are warm in this old house, safe from all the terrors of the future.
Copyright 2019 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.