A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I’m sitting at home listening to all the layers of silence that come to life when you are as idle as a houseplant. Or a sleeping cat. Nothing important happens as you sit there; your eyes may droop from time to time for lack of any suspense. You may want to attend to the “chattering monkeys” that accompany a prolonged absence of events. I know all about these nagging voices that float around like paisley dots in your eyes after a sleepless night. I have failed many times to enter into a deep state of meditation. I gave up on it after a few lame submersions into the ether. It’s like swimming; if you are a natural, you keep going out further into the haze of the sea and don’t mind the depth under you. But I don’t breathe right when I’m in the water; I start gulping air and belching and flailing my arms and looking back at the shore more and more. That’s what happens when I try to lull myself into a trusting relation to an empty mind.
Anyway, I prefer to hover like a ghost over the little ticks of the floor, the occasional rasp of something against the window. I hear the fine threads of a pair of wings examining the panes of glass just above my head. I am an object of curiosity to many prying eyes. I don’t mind. I want to reach out across the great abyss of my alienation and let a creature land on my hand. But I never quite complete the intended friendship. Instead, I cross my legs and switch from one side of my body to the other, to improve blood flow.
How immaculate silence is. A woman praying in an old church knows how to thread the silence into the dry clicks of her rosary beads. She repeats her words over and over, she numbs her attention until it is as opaque as the statues that loom over her from the altar. The dark, the trembling light of candles, the scraping of a pew behind her all make for a strange lattice work of sacred commotion. She goes on praying, releasing the tension from her arms, letting all the bickering anxiety ooze out of her until she is airborne. She floats away on her syllables, and has no means of returning to her slumped and mumbling body below her. I admire her. I envy her, in fact. She is a student of the nothing and can pad around in it in her woolen slippers, in her soiled housedress. She has no fear of growing old. She’s already old, used up, worn out by work. She has sacrificed her body to laws she hardly understands. Someone should nudge her forward into outer space. But she’s here, among us, and will go home and start supper with her dented pots and her refrigerator jars.
The dark, ominous virus raging elsewhere in the country covers the sky like a Bedouin’s tent. You see the sun shattered through its coarse and desperate vision. No one can bring himself to obey the rules of the mayors and the governors because they fear the four walls that would imprison them. They would rather risk the odds and go out to a backyard party and dance, throw back some beers, turn up the music, yell, grab someone from behind and scream in frustration. Only to find that the virus has entered their throat and will descend into their lungs and leave them helpless and gasping. But the effort to escape from inertia was, for a time, worth it. Now it is a cause to bitterly regret. “Don’t make the same mistake,” says a man dying from Covid-19, shaking his weary head and wondering what made him fall prey to his illusions of flight.
I remember sitting in a class on 19th century British prose in which the professor lowered his voice and said that Matthew Arnold perceived the disappearance of what he called “spiritual authority” in his time. Without it, he said, we will have to look to the arts to replace it, and provide a variety of smaller authorities to comfort us. I was twenty at the time, frustrated with my life, and eager to escape into the unknown, if I could only find it. I had no idea what Arnold may have meant. He needed something to prop up the civilization he saw floundering in imperial wars. He saw England losing its grip on reality, and when T.S. Eliot came along, the need for solace prompted him to turn his back on his own early poetry, notably “The Waste Land.” He wrote religious verse after that, but it was too late. The dove had escaped the gilded cage and no longer stood for anything. The world was drifting toward chaos, he thought, and spent the rest of his life praying. I admired other poets who strove to find the answer to belief in beauty, in harmony, in the Greek sense of order. But they were fragile things, and would not build new cathedrals out of their words.
Silence moves like a silky apparition through the salt grass; it polishes the dry wooden eaves of a house, and leaves behind the traces of a cloud. There’s a man on the dock who is sewing a button on his coat. His wife of many years died and left him alone. He watched her sewing at night, and he remembered how she held the thread in one hand and the needle in the other, and how the two became one. It was an act of unity, a fundamental gesture of how the world comes together. If you want it to. It was her way of keeping her husband modest and covered against the ravages of time. She would tense her lips as she fed the needle into the cloth and pulled, then sunk the needle back in, and made her slow progress toward repairing a loss. She didn’t talk; he dared not interrupt her work. He admired her skill. He couldn’t cook or clean or make a bed. But he could look and behold some infinite principle of metaphysics that he couldn’t articulate. She was constructing a meaningful universe out of filaments, and the more she plied her hands to the task, the better things became. He felt the joy in his stomach, in his legs. He couldn’t wait to observe how the missing link in his trousers would now have a sturdy scar of pouting thread to protect him. And she had done it in complete silence.
Sometimes, when I am standing in the yard with my panama hat flapping in the wind, the birds fall silent. They are watching me, wondering what I am up to. I just stand there. I’m not impatient, just curious. They finally leave their hiding places and swoop around very low, just over my head, and go back to what they were doing. But they don’t sing. As if to sing at this moment would be to rupture some infinite silk membrane that had been stretched from one end of the world to the other. Their shrill cries could tear the invisible canopy, perhaps, and there would be unpredictable consequences. Or I just make them nervous and their lovemaking and territorial skirmishes would be letting me glimpse too much of their secret world. But there I am, a thread of ephemeral energy, being buffeted by the breezes. I have no place to go, and neither do they. This is their domain, and I am a bashful caller at their threshold. They make music all morning long, and at night, they sound like an orchestra of panpipes. I stare out of a window caved with lamplight and wonder what song they are singing. But beneath it all is the silence on which they invent their scores.
Here’s to all the birds, I say, holding up my glass of white wine. And may they outlast all our errors and misjudgments. I feel the dark, deep grinding noise of the earth’s rotation as I say this. I am possessed of a brooding spirit, some ominous angel who has landed on my shoulders, staring at my ear. It wants to know why I do not understand silence, the poetry of space. I am illiterate, I say to this inquiring creature. I know that silence is the fate of so many who have sickened and died in our time. I feel the restless earth around each grave, the sullen shrug of soil as it slowly devours the bodies that have come to it. I stand like a lonely sentry over the deceased, all those many thousands of souls who have withered away in ICU rooms, the multitude of frightening tubes and groans of the mechanical imagination that has come to them in their final hours. I hear the nurse speak softly, adjust a cover, rearrange the gauze holding the respirator to the mouth of some dying spirit.
Silence laps at our consciousness like an emotional sea, waveless and eternal. It moistens our lips, and numbs our tongues. It makes us breathe deeply and look away, eyes half-closed to the late afternoon light. It would be good to feel the warmth of someone’s hand gently grasp my own, to console me. But the silence has no companions, no visitors. It is the beginning of the dark, the first chill of an infinite emptiness stretching out at our feet. To be silent is to mumble a rosary and stare until half blind into the quivering flame of a candle, and to submit to the zero that lies before us.
I go for a walk out to the fields, just to see what lies there beyond my thoughts. The earth is placid and intricate, full of mysteries ruled over by patient insects working their daily shift at gathering food, laying eggs, providing for the future. Nothing alters the metronome of mortality out here. There is wisdom in the stoic fortitude of moths and wasps, in the monotonous droning of gnats gathering in the air. I should understand that at the other end of silence is the chord sounded by creation, the throb of life itself. I stop to embrace this difficult revelation, even though I hardly understand it.
Copyright 2020 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the South of France.