A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
My daisies are not ready to bloom. They could have opened last week, which lured me out each day to note their progress toward. But the cold winds, the icy rain, the forbidding rumble of the black clouds deterred them from going further. Plants know when it is not the time; the bees wont be around to pollinate, and the flowering show of yellow flames and bursts of elation are put off. I have no such restraint in my own life, so I am learning little by little how to admire the patience of nature. The rhubarb is still little knots of tawny green in the ground; they’re also wise. My wild onions are all over the place, and care not, since their fruit is underground and it won’t matter if there is a dust of snow.
The world shivers; the trees are shy and reluctant to befriend me this time. I pull down a limb and examine the nodes, the little pouts of flesh on their twiggy fingers, the solemn, stoical reserve they show me each windy day. I’d go out now for a progress report, but I’ll need my down-filled jacket and a hat, and will find spring suspended in the air, hardly breathing. So I keep vigil in my somber living room, a space full of long shadows and cold corners. It reminds me of those times on Saturday mornings I would report to the convent for my weekly piano lessons. It had the same lonely, suspenseful air of impending revelation as I experience now. I keep waiting for the mouse to appear and stare at me before retreating behind the wood stove. I would enjoy a conversation, even if was only one-way. But field mice know the same language as my daisies outside; this is not a time for socializing with the human world.
Neighbors are not stopping or even slowing as they pass the house. I might get a nod once in a while, but they’ve become used to the isolation and have no desire to break through the panes of ice that separate us. They go on into town or over to see if an elderly relative is still making it. Even the little gray birds are more furtive than usual, and are gone the instant they hear the key cranking in my front door.
I keep reading stories about how depressed my fellow Americans are. There is no tolerance of solitude, no willingness to explore the silence we are cast into. I wouldn’t want to be stranded on a desert island with most of them. I would prefer the company of a sea gull, or a turtle to most of the people I see photographed in their kitchens mugging over their cereal bowls, or gazing out a window into the abstract world.
We have been flung backward in time to the 19th century. All that’s missing is the hoof beats of a few horses pulling wagons, or the snap of a whip on some daydreaming mare’s rump. The house coughs now and then and the old grandfather clock in the corner wheezes through the chimes of the next hour. The wind mutters to itself like my grandmother saying her nightly prayers. The only consolation is the buzz of a fly that managed to slip in when the door was opened. It has escaped the wind but now it roams around looking for something to do. I know how it feels.
But I’m not afraid of being alone. I like it, to tell the truth. I live in it daily. I have few friends, and when the phone rings, I cringe knowing it is a wrong number. Or some friend of my wife calling to chat. I never pick up the receiver. I just sit there like some nodding monk in his Tibetan hut. I once wrote a poem in which I said, “He did not know the dark had walls.” Naomi Nye read the poem and signaled out these lines as her favorite part. She was good at that. She always found the moment of casual mystery in a poem, no matter how rough the rest of it was. When the Lt. Governor of Texas remarked the other day that there were “more important things than living,” I was reminded of another passage of a poem I wrote back when I was nineteen. “We could have done better/ in another kind of weather. Life isn’t everyone’s season.” Dabney Stuart liked the lines and told me so. I was very proud. I wasn’t quite twenty yet and he had just published some poems in The New Yorker. I walked a little taller that day. No doubt the two passages were anticipating some far-off future where they might make more sense. The darkness is full of invisible partitions marking off our memories and dreams; and when I descend into the pit of my deepest silence, I’m sure I encounter this dismal perception that life isn’t everyone’s season. But it’s not something you can learn from; it’s just a fearful thought.
There is a book inside us that we are afraid to read; it is bulky, and the language is dense and cryptic. The origin of its inspiration lies deep beneath consciousness, in the oozing strata of the wilderness behind language. One would rather gaze idly at the flurry of syllables coursing down the screen of an I-Pad or a cell phone, rather than let this doomsday book fall open. Who knows what lies there in an illuminated column of meditation copied out by a hook-nosed bald-headed monk with his scratchy quill and his inkpot. Some obscure prior had conceived the words, but then, he might have been remembering some still more ancient source of wisdom that he was reviving. The book is there for anyone to consult, and it holds the key to some ineffable sanctum of nature we cannot reach by any other means.
One dare not confide in anyone that you read this book; it sounds too crazy. It strikes others as the sign you are cracking up, losing your bearings while you endure the second month of nearly total isolation in your obscure corner. So you keep this a secret from the outside world until someone says to you, “Do you have a book you are afraid to read but that you must open from time to time to see what it might say.” Then your heart opens and you begin to admit that there is such a text, full of ancient heraldic symbols and intricate elaborations of ferns and reeds, of reptiles perched on thin branches over a fen. You say your thumb goes down the page as you hold your breath. The book is you, your soul lisping through its wrinkled lips the things it cannot tell you. Isolation melts away the myriad obstructions that prevent you from knowing yourself. You hear voices, spectral sounds, you sense there are lovers you never met calling out to you from the darkness. You know that the reality you lived is only one layer of an infinite gradation of simultaneous events that your senses refused to encounter. But here they were, the diary of the world writ large and in a trembling monk’s hand. You hear doors shutting, and sandals rasping along the marble floor as the bell for vespers rings thinly. You hold the book in both hands like a child staring into the dizzying multiplicity of images in a picture book.
“Close thy Byron, and open thy Goethe,” Carlye demanded in “Sartor Resartus.” Perhaps he meant that Byron was merely sublimating common human desires while Goethe was reaching toward the starts to grasp the ultimate mysteries of human identity. Whatever he meant, as an undergraduate first coming upon this sentence, I was startled and believed he had reached down into my chest to grab my heart. Byron wrote from the instincts, and Goethe was this dour, puritanical divine demanding that the universe open its side and empty out the riddles of the sun and stars. Of course, the book within, the one that hangs from our ribs and bumps against the heart, is that same encyclopedia of secrets. And I understand why my fellow mortals would rather binge watch “Better Call Saul” or “The Game of Thrones” than feel the sudden, trembling encroachment of pure subjectivity.
As I read my inner text in ragged solitude, I feel the daisy buds swelling in the cold sunshine. I feel the roots gripping down into the mystery and sucking water from the snows of many years before. I feel the whole surface of reality tremble and send me off on a rickety little boat to those seas where Newton sailed as he tried to reach god. And when the book closes again, I draw a deep breath and reassure myself that it is better to live than to sacrifice one’s fragile existence to the dissolution around us. If I can endure and outwit the menace of Covid-19, I’ll be thankful.
The dark has stairs and doors that have never been opened. Who knows where they lead, or what impenetrable paradoxes await the person who turns a knob and presses against the infinite ignorance we cower from? I hear the news beginning on the radio and feel utter relief that the daily drift of atoms is about to yield its modest stories.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.
Copyright 2020 Paul Christensen