A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Winter didn’t die easily here in Vermont. Its hand was still gripped around the doorknob, keeping us from leaving the house. We had to endure the ongoing death rattle in its throat, the slivers of ice that formed at the end of its breath. We were tired already, exhausted to the bone wearing our heavy coats to go to the store, to check the mail, to peek around the corners of the house at the scrubby little weeds shivering in the wind. I pitied the frail green things that wanted to come back, like orphans weeping underground. I could hear their muffled cries and hoped I too could endure the siege of this stubborn ghost. Then came the corona virus and we were given a three-month sentence to live once more in the dull heat of a furnace, in the cataracted light of our windows. I hauled out the trash, and longed for the sound of a car on the road.
Then the murder of George Floyd bit into us like the fangs of a snake, gnawing at our frazzled nerves, causing us to be pinned against the reality we dreaded to acknowledge. I sat there in a morbid state of despair, clasping my hands, listening to the drone of endless repetition of the news, the photographs, the cops crowded around the wheel well of a car, with the head of George Floyd pinned below, under the knee of a man who had lost his humanity and become a senseless brute. I could feel the rage building as I saw the nation writhe, then uncoil its wrath and take to the streets. I was demoralized to realize that my whole life had been lived in the twisted emotions of a country poisoned to its soul with racist hatred.
Winter had darkened the sky again, throwing its black cloak over the house and drowning us in inconsolable remorse for what we had become as a nation.
I went out into the sunshine and felt the sun glowering over me. I was accused of something, but I didn’t want to examine that feeling too closely. I felt like a jeweler who has been handed an engagement ring and must tell the young woman with big eyes that she has been given a bit of paste by a stingy lover. I walked into the grass to the bay window where I have been coaxing my the flowers to blossom for a month or longer. They were already drooping their long necks and letting their beautiful blossoms fade and fall apart. So things go on. Nature has no regrets. I stood there and realized that my emotions were not of one thing or condition, but were as frail and seducible as these lovely green shoots. I felt a breeze tickle my cuffs and send a little sigh full of cool air up my legs. The hot sign was only one part of the day’s repertoire. The air was fresh, and in the shadows, where I now stood, it was instructing me in the wisdom of forbearance.
The struggling roses at the end of my yard were writhing a little from the heat, but they were pulsing with energy. I know I shouldn’t take my lessons from what the tamed world is showing me, but I need consolation, and here it was. Let the birds above me sing me a love song, I’m ready for it. The nests are full of the anticipation of hatching eggs, and the birds were edgy that I was milling around with suspect intentions. I wanted to assure them I meant no harm and retreated to the house. I heard snippets of Al Sharpton’s eulogy yesterday as we were driving up north toward St. Johnsbury. I hoped he was making sense of this tragedy, but he has often spread himself too thin.
Our car trip took us past Warren Falls, and the towns grew smaller and dustier, with old porches piled with chairs that had not been taken down yet for the warm months. It was like the world we had stumbled into was encased in an invisible amber. Nothing much had changed from the 1940s. A general store warned that it would not answer the door unless you called on your cell phone. My wife did as required and ordered two cups of coffee, which we sipped on our little tortured roads, many of them cracked like old dishes from the ice storms of a few months ago. Hikers were out, and bikers were huffing along up the hills beside us. The woods were as incongruous as Magritte paintings, as if evening had settled in by two p.m. while the houses on the road were blazing with early afternoon light. When we got back, we slurped up some gin and tonic, and ate a light supper. Then I awoke to find myself funked out again, with the news reminding me that the protests were going on and that more police violence was erupting in Buffalo, and in other towns where innocent bystanders were being thrown to the pavement. That’s what dimmed the air around me into that murky light you sometimes see at the edge of a storm.
We still can’t sit down at a restaurant or wander around in a department store trying to forget where we are. Things remain shuttered here, bammered down, as a drifter once described Sunday in a Texas town. You had no real incentive to visit larger towns like Burlington or Brattleboro, because they were ghostly and uninviting in their hibernation. Best to stay with the villages, which might have a farm stand set out by the road. The apple trees along some roads are luminous with pink blossoms, and the bees are floating in a drunken ecstasy over so much nectar. If I were a pagan, I would be tooting on my pan pipe and dancing in the weeds. But I’m a fallen Christian, a lapsed Catholic with no particular god to bow my head to. Still, I feel deep stirrings of religious hunger in such moments, and wonder who I might pray to.
I am made of many contradictory emotions, I contain multitudes of them, and no one has mastered me. Not yet. I could sob, but then I might just as easily find myself bursting into laughter at something that popped into my memory unexpected. I have lived a long time and my mind is like a choir loft filled with singers all tuning their voices for the evening service. A freight train cuts through my solitude with its deep breath and shrill cries into the surrounding marshes. I am like marble, slashed with brown and red and creamy swirls of emptiness, and gleaming with that startling smoothness that holds us together. Around me, right now, I hear the throb of insects, the whirr of bees and wasps, the stealthy creeping of spiders hunting for a place to erect a web.
The heat means we are sliding forward through planes of light, each one brighter and starker than the one before. We are entering the palace of summer, with its gilded ceilings, its vast windows thrown open to the breeze, the staircases circling upward to rooms as vast as our dreams. We arrive at this juncture of the tormented year uninvited. We may press our cheeks to the casements and stare into that grand baroque invention of heaven, and come away struck with awe. Nature has built its summer castle on the ruins of winter, which rises upward as if nothing could stop its transformation of reality. And yet we turn and go home, and shut the door. We sit alone, in our persistent misery, wondering what summer really means, if it is only here for a few dazzling months. Behind it, waiting for the cue to recite its own lines, is fall with its red maples and black rivers, its rocks turned to faded silver. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little lives are rounded with a sleep. And as we lie in our beds we hear the anguished cries of a wounded nation, one struggling to understand the poison rooted in the marrow of its soul. Life is sorrow, and the weather merely beats down on it with ferocious power, flooding our aspirations and dismantling our shabby little cultures meant to shelter and console us.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.
Copyright 2020 Paul Christensen.