Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Paul Christensen: Timbrels in the Marsh

I’ve got sprouts in the little flower patch under my bay window, still curled up like Dead Sea scrolls, afraid to inch up much further because the frost is still hovering over us at night. But nothing can stop spring from pushing and urging, nudging and cajoling even the most timid flowers from showing their pubescence. The sky is a stoic blue, hard as a marble, with little wimpy clouds that carry nothing more than a few regrets from a dying winter. We’re here, right on the precipice of a season. The mutterings of birds can be heard in the distance; the crows are out and their caws are gravelly. They look down on me as they leave a tree and do a bit of scolding. I don’t talk back. Crows remember things, I’m told, and know who their enemies are. 

            The signs are up on the little blue roads warning that trucks weighing over a certain amount are not permitted while the earth is thawing. So we don’t get the grunts of some rhinoceros lumbering down the hill ten miles too fast; the young guys who pilot these freighters are careful about cops. Half of the drivers have a ticket or two in their checkered past and ease up even in the dead of winter. Right now they’re all sipping coffee out of chipped mugs at the diners around here, and waiting for a pizza to arrive. They’re all that’s left of cowboys, well-built handsome young men who would have enjoyed a career riding fence and branding calves in early spring. This early spring they have only their gas tanks to worry about. Their minds are as clear as thawing ponds; nothing troubles their minds as they sit there tapping their fingers on the counter. 

            It’s been a hard winter with lots of snow and fiercely cold nights; we’ve had windstorms that kept me up at night waiting for the sound of glass breaking. March came in full of fury, and blew every stray leaf away and left the ground sandblasted. Those nights felt like family arguments, the kind where my mother would fling a dish against the wall and stomp out of the kitchen. My father would mope around and slowly do the dishes, mop the floor, scrape pasta off the enamel wall and then read the paper under his reading light in the living room. He was of Norwegian stock, and could draw on deep rivers of stoicism flowing through his blood. He could taste the metallic seawater of a fjord in his spit, and glimpse the endless winter night when he blinked. He gave silent thanks to his job in the government, where he could forget all about his domestic life and open file after file at his green desk, and look up as the creak of the coffee cart came near. 

            I would lie there in a crooked jumble on my bed reading a book I didn’t like. The bedroom was tiny, with the wallpaper blistering over the heat vent. Voices could be heard coming down the back alley, a woman with her two daughters chatting away as they lugged groceries from the car. A dog would bark and reassure me that some boy was out collecting money on his paper route. Some things made sense, and the rest of the world simply melted away into the night air, desolate as an old woman aching for word from her dead son. I was young, still cocooned in my uneventful innocence. I hadn’t considered what lay ahead of me, even though a girl in my class had twice stared into my eyes and smiled cautiously before going off to lunch. I didn’t understand her, or what she was trying to tell me. She wore a sweater that was worn at the elbows and shoes that were beginning to crack along the instep. She was from a poor family, and her hands were red from washing dishes. She was going into the world soon and already knew what it held out to her. 

            I’m tempted to rake the flower patch to coax the sprouts to come out further. But maybe the leaves were holding in the day’s heat for them. Worms were roaming in the darkness, coughing out little puffs of air as they ate the soil. A grub might be lying there in its white obesity, legs trembling, hoping there would be rotting wood to munch on in the first warm days ahead. The mealy earth, the chewed remains of the past year piled up like bread dough at the bakery. The molecules of memory were scattered among the shadows and the shafts of light, grains of experience that had no further use to us. The language had been sloughed off their tiny husks, and there they were, on the surface of the silent world, inert, unassembled, full of the bitterness of oblivion. 

            A man stopped me in the supermarket the other morning and complimented me on my choice of groceries. I didn’t know what to say, but I realized he was lonely and wanted me to thank him. I did and we moved past one another like deer in the woods. The crows were bickering and staking out their territory in the woods opposite the house. There was a lot to do before spring arrived in all its colorful rags and aromas. Bees were not to be seen, though I am sure the hives were bubbling with larva. 

            It’s hard for me to concentrate on driving when the blue mountains around me were all piled up like the language of eternity. Ice clung to their sides, and the cold was embalming their fragile saplings until they stood there like brittle skeletons. Who could wake these stone glaciers and bid them expose their hearts to us? They required no forgiveness for what they were; they lay there rigid and unconsoling. Their job was to remind us that our mortality was paper thin, and that nothing we could think or say would perpetuate our fragile puffs of smoke. Vast blue slopes, ice hats pulled down over their stony brows, crags and crannies stiff with deadly hoarfrost, a few bleached legs of careless wolves. We must remember these expanses as we make our way to town to appease our hunger, and to keep the breath entering and leaving us. If my heart were strong, I would climb up those steep escarpments and put my hand on the remote face of these hills and ask what they wanted. 

            Winter lingers, and looks down at us like a woman who has lost her ability to hope. I feel her stalled emotion as she looks at me, her hunger to be held. I’m an old man now, and I don’t have the generosity to comfort her. She must make do with her destiny, and I must go about picking and choosing which eggs to buy, how many cans of beans to purchase, observe the fading green of the broccoli stalks to determine if indeed some little cluster of florets could be steamed tonight to make a decent supper. How the concrete of the sidewalks gleams when it’s cold out; as if the earth were lit from below by ancient lanterns, held up by ghosts looking for some way to escape from death. 

            It’s hard for me to believe that the gaunt, parsimonious branches of an old orchard could once again flower and hang heavy red apples from its ancient fingers. Or that the weeds could cough out the dust of their lungs and resurrect themselves out of the ruined ground. That is the miracle we must prepare for, and when it occurs to the clamor of robins and blue birds, when the precise details of its awakening are accompanied by the kazoos of bumble bees and the giggles of children playing under the sheets on a laundry line, when the jazz band breaks open and shatters the silence of the icebound world, then you know you are entering a realm of magic. You just have to wait, like I’m doing now, hands in my pockets, shirt buttoned up to my neck, cheeks a little rosy from the wind. I want to smell some delicate scent blowing off the fields, and to be told that love has returned to this morbid wasteland. My only regret is that I didn’t buy balloons from the novelty store. But tomorrow, if there is time in my schedule, I’ll get some and blow them up, just in case I hear timbrels and singing in the marsh below us. 


Copyright 2020 Paul Christensen

Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who lives in Vermont and in the south of France.

8 comments on “Paul Christensen: Timbrels in the Marsh

  1. Eva Simms
    March 22, 2020

    You took me on the journey through your landscape, once again, and I will go out into mine today trying to sense the coming magic….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jose Alcantara
    March 22, 2020

    Onomatopoeia. Your words are as rich as the unfolding spring. So many blossoms. So many scents.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. joseph r witkowski
    March 22, 2020

    A meditative read that put me in a different place and a beautiful start to the day.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. David Ades
    March 22, 2020

    Such a pleasure to read Paul, as always! I love the melding of the big picture view with the small details of life. Thank you for each one of your elegant ruminations!

    Liked by 1 person

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