A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
It’s one of those diamond-bright days of winter, with the ground ringing like iron when you walk on it. The horizon has congealed into a slagheap. I don’t see many birds, though a few scruffy sparrows come down to nibble out of the bird feeder on the bay window. That little consolation goes a long way when you sit there with a cup of coffee, staring out at the rolls of steel hanging above the house. I long for a patch of blue sky, but it’s rare. And when it happens, it’s only for a few hours of the mid-day, and feels like a Mondrian painting with those strict shadows. You wonder how anyone could think of a spiritual universe, of gods and angels and wispy creatures flitting through the air, when all you see is the entropy of matter.
I went outside earlier this morning without a coat and stood there gasping. It was too cold to remain long. I went inside and felt the thud of my door lock and turned on the hall light. I looked up the stairs at the gray ceiling, the twilight where the bathroom door stood ajar. You look back at where the empty mailbox leans on the edge of the mud road. The postwoman whirls past us in a red Jeep Cherokee, hunched over the steering wheel. She goes up the hill after us and deposits bills, a magazine or newspaper, and then makes her way back to her house on the highway. Day over. The sky six shades darker, and beginning to thicken into muddled thoughts.
The weather reminds me of that anguished time I fell in love with a girl who didn’t even like me. I don’t know why my heart reached out to her, but it did, and I was powerless to talk myself out of it. She was cold, and would look around while I chatted with her in the moments before class. She didn’t want to be seen with me. She noticed her friends staring and making a few faces, and she would look back at me with that pleading look to go away. I did, finally. I walked off and felt the skin on my back shrivel from the sudden isolation. It was like that now, as I gazed down at the flagstones in the patio and saw little scraps of grass trying to survive.
The weather didn’t like me, or anyone else, for that matter. We didn’t count in its relation to the world. The weather was a vast slab of inertia that had balanced itself on the pitches of roofs and the wiry branches of trees. It had no mind, or way of thinking. It was just there, without fingers to stir the air. It smothered the living under a soggy canvas, something you couldn’t just pry off your face and shivering shoulders. It was too big and shapeless to grasp.
And it was the perfect weather in which to sit down and turn on the TV to watch the news. The headlines were bleak. Nancy Pelosi may have miscalculated her power in holding back the articles of impeachment for a month. She thought Mitch McConell would crumble under pressure, but he kept his cool, and inched along like a Galapagos turtle. He knew the rules and could outwait her. But her defeat in this gambit felt like snow falling against your chest, covering your forearms in indifference. The brush fries in Australia were setting off weird explosions of embers that would carry on the wind and find fresh fuel in a distant field. Nothing could stop the rage and torment of this parched landscape. You looked at an unfinished crossword puzzle but none of the clues inspired you to fill in the squares. Winter was now a cement hat lodged on the earth’s shoulders, and nothing could enter the mind that wasn’t either stale or abandoned long before.
I marvel at how often the news on radio and on TV repeats its meager content to you. The assumption is that no one is really listening for long, so we hear ten times in an hour about the House impeachment managers, their names, their positions, their past experience as litigators. Then we get clips of Nancy Pelosi oddly stumbling over the reading of the impeachment declaration, clearing her throat, hesitating over the words, and taking long pauses before going on. The only bright spot of that tedious, over-long hour of monotony was Adam Schiff speaking clearly about the meaning of both articles, and rebutting the limp prose of the Republican defenders who could only say that the case against Trump was weak. I sat disconsolately through the dreary days of the debate on impeachment in which the same words were repeated again and again in different nasal tones until you wanted to run screaming into the winter afternoon. Now we watch as the procession of managers headed to the Senate to deliver the articles and to stand around feeling a bit awkward. But it was history, and the epic dimensions of the moment were perhaps too grand for anyone to embrace.
The school bus just went by with its load of rural teenagers gazing out the windows after a day of instruction. The textbooks they use are so scrubbed of interesting insights or opinions that you wonder how their high-strung, hormone-propelled bodies can sit there turning the glossy pages and ignoring the graphs, the tables, the boring photographs that presumably illustrate the vast abstractions of history. Oh well. They’ll survive. They’ll make it home and curl up with their tablets and leaf through a thousand saturated color photos of their friends waving, blowing kisses, following their dogs around the house. Outside, the iron slabs of sky are lowering with their bulky freight of ice ready to drop onto the yards as snow, as sleet, as cascades of shredded steel.
I’m ready to lay a fire in the grate, but it means getting up and trudging to the deep freeze of my garage to load up a leather sling with wood and kindling. My breath smokes as I choose a few slender sticks, the quartered oak logs, some fractured scraps of pine lumber from a mill. I tear up the New York Times into strips from a trick I learned watching an actor in Pinter’s The Homecoming, who marveled that the paper tore precisely in one direction, but not in the other. That play also featured a Humber Super Snipe Series six estate wagon that one of the men drove as a taxi. I ended up buying that very model when I was a grad student at Penn and spent a fortune trying to keep it running. I finally gave up.
The fire starts and crackles in a few minutes, and heat begins to pour out and reach my knees as I sit in the darkening room. I’m pleased with my handiwork. The evening is officially underway. The kitchen will pour out its barrels of yellow paint when my wife comes in to to start dinner. The dining room will glow softly, and the long wooden table will tremble with faint light from the passing cars. I don’t have any plans for the evening, other than watching a detective show on TV and then maybe some episodes from The West Wing, which I have already seen four or five times. Martin Sheen will reassure me that there can be presidents who care and try to do an honest job with all their vast power. I will sip on a cognac as I watch the other actors struggle to balance the conflicting forces of their lives, and throw up their hands at the frozen seas of opposing thought. I’m glad I’m not there, with all those dry moments of comic relief among career bureaucrats. I don’t find their lives amusing, just frantic and desperate and always on the vertiginous edge of failure. I prefer my biography of Bogart, which I have been reading a few pages at a time for the past eight months. There lies some more distant era of battles with censorship, studio moguls, McCarthyism.
The earth has nothing to do with me. It doesn’t ask me what I think or how I take the cold. It just gets cold and time stops, the clouds turn to stone, the woods become ghostly shut-up summerhouses without any life. We are told to endure, to console ourselves, to wear warm sweaters and stay close to the little iron box where the fire pops and sighs with its load of flames. I’m part of some procession of fragile human life going back ten thousand years. I am a modest witness to events, a pair of eyes on the sidelines of a noisy parade of hyped news and clashing egos. I shiver a little, hug myself, and return to this gloomy room with its one cheerful oasis at the far wall, where I will sit with my thoughts. It’s going to be okay, I hear myself say. And I believe it. I really do.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.
Copyright 2020 Paul Christensen.