A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
We’ve been snow-bound here in central Vermont for the past five or six days. The roads are passable but slick, and I’m no expert on how to pull a car out of a slide. So I stay home. I have had to give up certain little escapes I give myself in the winter months, like shopping for groceries, wandering around the aisles of the natural food coop up the road, eyeing the cheap tools at the Wal-Mart store in Rutland, or waiting in line for a table at the Thai restaurant in Middlebury.
I enjoy doing these things, not so much because they entertain me, but because I can forget how tedious the dull, gray light of the day is. I can pretend to be able to afford the cookware at Kiss the Cook, an upscale supplier of pricey gadgets and French pots, some of which can reach up into the four hundred dollar range. I ask the clerk intelligent questions like how to clean the stuff, or whether the cooking pot is “oven safe.” She answers dutifully, but probably knows from the worn sleeves of my jacket that she won’t be selling me anything. Outside, through the huge plate-glass shop window, the winds are howling and people are bent into the icy gales holding their jackets close, wincing with pain. I am in the warm, brightly lit interiors of this store reserved for the well off. I’m a pensioner, a man on a budget, an earnest preserver of my aging kitchen gear. I leave empty handed, but happy to have killed a half hour touching these precious objects reserved for lawyers and doctors.
But when you’re snow-bound, you don’t have this luxury of escaping. You’re stuck sitting in a chair enclosed in a cone of yellow light from a reading lamp. You are forced to do without distractions. You have only yourself to look to, with all its layers of memory and trivia, fragmented voices and odd, unconnected bits of humor and remorse, and there is nothing worse for most people. They would rather stare at their cell phone, find a TV news program bantering on about nothing, a radio that might play anemic rock, anything to avoid going behind one’s eyes. But there I am, stuck with myself, like sitting next to a total stranger in a waiting room.
I suppose this is a time in which to get to know one self, to kind of be introduced to this aloof stranger. This is the other you you would prefer not to talk to, much less befriend. You’re not sure what this creature feels, or how impulsive it might be. You only sense the foreignness of its presence when you are hesitating over whether to buy a car or get married. You don’t know where an impulse arises, but it does come up out of the mire that lines the back of one’s head, where ignorance has its domain. You realize it is the estranged self asking to be heard.
The snow and the dark wind, the impassable wastes of one’s backyard, the icy draft that leaks in under the front door tell you you have no place to go. You must sit down and allow the slightly old-fashioned language of self to drift in. Getting to listen to one’s thoughts is a bit like that afternoon I spent wandering around Christchurch, New Zealand, where the department stores looked like stills from an old war-time British movie. Everything was out of date, neglected, vaguely charming but unattractive. I couldn’t stop gazing at the manikins propped up over the heaps of underwear, the piles of toddler’s shirts. That’s how my voice sometimes strikes me, as a figure from some far off place where I seldom go.
But the voice persists and it wants you to listen. So I sit there, patient, polite, my hands fidgeting. I hear something that seems corrupted by fading memory, but which nonetheless bears the speech of my mother in a dimly lit kitchen slurping her cup of Lipton’s tea, an afternoon ritual when I was a child. I would see her there, her black hair showing the gray spreading at the roots. Her robe would be tied with a bit of knitting yarn. Her slippers were worn out, and her mouth, about to swallow the remains of a cookie, speaking in a patter of slushed syllables. That would fade away behind my father’s deep, rich baritone as he shaved in the bathroom and found my plastic boats taking up too much room on the tub rim. He would say something and it would run a small chill down my legs. My brother’s voice would be cheerful as he ate his morning cereal, and my other brother, the oldest of us three, would be out back talking to a friend before they left for school. All this comes through the multicolored linoleum of memory lining my head. I might catch a whiff of the tomato pulp in the sink, a sign my mother was preparing dinner, what she called mac and gravy, and that we could expect some meatballs to be served under a dusting of parmesan cheese. Good smells that survived the constant winnowing of recollection.
The idleness is like a dark cellar full of discarded toys and old tools. You feel your way around in the first gloom, and as you step further into the vagueness things begin to look familiar. My old skates are thrown under the bike tire no one repaired. I see a pea coat hanging on a hanger from the rafter. My brother’s chemistry set is still ajar where the last experiment was abandoned. The light from the yard comes through a haze of spider webs and dust, and turns all those dreary rejects into tarnished silver curios. How I hate memory, and love it the moment my heart pinches over some long-lost pain, some unresolved crisis of my puberty. I want to forgive myself, or scold myself. I wonder if I was cruel to the girl who kept passing by the house looking toward my bedroom window. Did I think she was homely? Was I in love with some beauty that scorned me as I came into a classroom? Someone is always left in the wrong, but the gloomy interiors of your mind don’t answer any questions.
I remember praying at the altar rail on Saturday afternoons after saying confession, working off my penance with a few Hail Marys and an Our Father for having “touched myself.” I had to make up some of my sins just to get through the ordeal. Did I really take a quarter from my mother’s dresser and splurge on a snow cone? Was I rude to my brother? Maybe not, but it sounded good. And it merited the usual fifteen-minutes of atonement. But behind my silent praying was the vast open spaces of my real self, idling under my frantic desire to get free of the cold nave with its endless wooden pews gleaming in candle light. Old women would be praying near me, clicking rosary beads, moving their lips over the watery percussion of their denture plates. The statues all around would be staring with stone eyes at me, their faces full of compassion and repressed disapproval.
The self stands there near you, not a hand’s breath from your elbow, even as you dressed for a date, blew out the candles on a birthday cake, opened your presents on Christmas morning. It was there, and it was old, like a bearded prophet from the Old Testament. You went your way and it followed you, carrying its infinite sack of memory with it. You wanted every gadget in the world to fill up your mind, to block out the sad eyes of this self that forgot so little, that recalled the subtle lattice work of disappointment that formed as you grew up and stumbled your way into adulthood. The snow demands an encounter with this total stranger who now inhabits a kind of graveyard in your soul. And snow is the color of forgetting and death. It seems to offer a symphony in one repeated low note as you sit quietly, your hands turning into transparent veils over your lap.
A train passes far below the house, in a little valley that winds around following the meanders of Otter Creek. It’s heading south down to Rutland, and is making a slow, indifferent progress through the disappearing reality of the fields. It’s stalled in its own sense of purpose, and barely moves forward. It is lost, as the engineer dangles his oil-stained fingers on the throttle and gazes into the same vague distance I allow to open inside my head. We are both giving in to subjectivity, the yawning abyss that opens like the gorges of Copper Canyon as a train makes its way into the depths of Mexico.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.
Copyright 2019 Paul Christensen