A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
It’s raining out, the drops coming down like fingers picking off the red and yellow leaves of the maple trees. The ground is puffy and sullen, drinking in the cold streamlets. A weatherman said the threat of flooding was remote since the rivers were running very low. Our own Otter Creek was showing the roots of the overhanging trees, and there were some tree branches that had come loose and were unable to move in the shallow water.
All night the rain drummed on the roof; the dark was gloomy and starless, and the moon, like some lost ship, had wandered off into oblivion. I missed it. Not even the yelps of the coyotes could be heard in such watery static. Things were happening without the will of man; we ride on this planet like so many curious passengers on an airplane, gazing out the windows at the vast, unknowable distances of the sky, and having no power to alter so much as a blink of starlight. Better to read a book, or try to fall asleep.
This is the part of fall no one likes. Your shoes have no firm foothold when you walk. Your world is unsteady and makes you feel drunk. You would like to sit on the glistening black log half buried in the golden leaves, but it’s too wet. You would get up with a cold stain on the seat of your pants and begin to feel miserable. A breeze shakes loose several fragile flags of color from a low branch, and they fall without hesitation into the devouring earth. The apples are dimly lit on the ground, having rotted away after weeks of lying there in the unmowed grass. I feel sorry for them; no one wanted to gather them for a pie or for cider, or for anything. They come from a good tree, too. Sweet, and crisp, and dense in the hand. But there are so many apples this time around that my neighbors and friends are begging us to take some home. We did at first. We carted a few bags of them and put them on the floor in the kitchen, and ate as many as we could. But after a week, the desire to eat an apple slowly died away. They weren’t interesting any more.
I feel the same about hearing news about Brexit in England, the parlalysis that still strangles the Parliament, and the bluster and hyperbole of Boris Johnson, who hams it up before the cameras and pretends to be in control of the situation. He’s just words, lots of words, falling from his mouth like the maple leaves on the hill outside. He can’t reverse anything; he’s stuck standing there in the muddy earth like some gnarled, limb-palsied tree getting soaked in the dull, gray rain.
I can’t bear to listen to the news in northern Syria, either. The abandoned outposts of the American troops are now being occupied by Turkish militias and Russian troops. Their mission is to rout the Kurds, and to drive them south. They fight back and dig tunnels under the little border towns, and wait for the end. They are struggling against immense forces that move like Greek fate in the darkness; nothing can alter the course of hatred and revenge. I can barely imagine myself huddling among the Kurds, cold, miserable, my breath smoking in the chill of early evening, hearing the mortar fire, the cries, the dull drone of trucks moving over the low hills. They move like winter through the lingering warm earth, turning everything into the gray of hoarfrost. They bring death, and the morbid victory of sheer force. How pitiful it is to be human these days.
Someone’s listening to the news in the next room, which behind my closed door is full of thin voices carping and bickering over the available facts. We have become a nation of nagging strangers, each trying to find the weakness in the other and to declare some pointless validity of one’s own position. The skirmishes are unbearably monotonous, repetitive to the point of madness. You can feel the fraying edges of democracy as the voices become shrill and start to shout insults and threats. A picture of Trump hurling his insults at Nancy Pelosi at a conference in the White House feels like the rumble of trucks in the dust as they head down out of the Turkish border into the badlands of northern Syria. The motors whine and complain as they fight the sand and the soggy mud in the riverbeds. I hear the clash of ignorant armies as they lunge at one another in the impenetrable darkness of war. The nation seems to wobble on its foundations in this moment, with an impeachment inquiry in progress, and rogue politicians being exposed one by one as the dark corners of political intrigue begin to fill with a vague light. It’s a fearful time, and the rain keeps picking away at the fragile disguises, the deceptions, the carefully cultivated alliances that were conceived in the back rooms of government.
I remember reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in my grade school assembly each morning. The words bored me, the monotone of the teacher leading us with her hand over her heart as she faced the flag made me feel numb. I couldn’t make the thoughts of that civic oath come to life in my head; it was a set of runes that were too remote and formal to relate to. The flag hung there limp and indifferent; the old assembly hall was shabby at best, with a worn-out stage of unpainted pine boards, and broken scenery leaning against the back wall. The inertia of the ceremony made me groan as a teacher patrolled the aisles of the theater eager to collar anyone not mouthing the syllables. We were all robotic in our obedience. But little did we know that the institutions on which this pledge was based could actually be fragile, vulnerable when enough pressure was applied. My life has been a continuous arc from post-war exuberance and faith to these disintegrating atoms on which our institutions rest.
The eaves are dripping; I hear the thud of the rain like fingers drumming on a table. Something was in the room pondering the losses with me. I couldn’t say who it was, but I felt its presence. Maybe it was Hegel’s “spirit of history” visiting for a moment after roaming the world for centuries. Things were supposed to get better and better, according to his version of time. But no one noticed that this spirit was beginning to slow down, to feel less inclined to thwart the ambitions of powerful interests. The cause of liberty was no longer as pressing as it once was. “The best lack all conviction,” Yeats once wrote, “while the worst are filled with a passionate intensity.” There’s Mitch McConnell with his wife Elaine Chao mugging to the cameras after hearing their allegiance and pork barrel largesse to Kentucky earned them plaudits from the state newspapers. He had stifled so many progressive bills in the Obama years to make way for the ruthless realpolitik of Trump; he held the Republican senators in awe of his power and fearful for their jobs. He was their hero, but was now beginning to show signs of weakness in this age of agonizing reappraisals. We may not be redeemed by our reformers or given a new path forward by the press, but at least we have the bitter satisfaction to realize that our democracy slogs forward, muddles through its crises, patches up the leaks in the Capital dome, fixes the plumbing in the Supreme Court.
The rain is supposed to thin out this evening, as our first Nor’easter of the season moves toward the northern Atlantic and dies out. They say the average cloud weighs about the same as eighty elephants. A big storm such as now darkens the sky overhead must be an infinite parade of elephants milling around in the dark gray pastures above us. Little black streams course along in the muddy gutters across the road. They are full of little jasper glints and sparks of flinty wavelets as the water follows its age-old path toward the Connecticut River to our east. Everything ends up in those bigger rivers that cart off the past to the waiting sea. It’s the way of things. We accept the water’s enthusiasm without asking what it means. The surge, the pulse, the willfulness of such tiny streams mirrors our own ignorance. It tells us there is no explanation to what is happening, at least for now. We only know, as the rain tells us, that change is coming, and that we must live with it. It has no meaning, just an eternal restlessness like the movement of the earth’s plates, the terrible throb of armies in the desert, the crackle of rifle fire.
Copyright 2019 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.