A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Anyone who reads too much news these days, myself especially, falls into John Bunyan’s Slough of Despond, that quagmire of doubt and misery in The Pilgrim’s Progress that robs you of any hope of escape. Newspapers are very clever at offering you little wisps of hope now and then but always couched in very dark prophecies about Trump pulling out an unexpected win by playing the Electoral College lottery with great skill. You can’t breathe deep and relish a moment of liberation from your misery before you hear that the gap between Biden and Trump has shrunk to four points in Pennsylvania. Then you groan again, stumble around the house, gaze out the window into the early fall weather, and wonder if it’s time to start piling up logs for the fire place.
I understand the twisted logic of journalism these days; you have to sell newspapers and pump up your advertising revenue, and to do that, you must keep the public fretting, chewing its nails, getting little sleep before reading the next day’s headlines. I looked over the front page of the NYT the other day and counted eighteen articles and opinion pieces with Trump in the headline. Below the fold, there was only one piece on Biden, and it was boring. All you see there and in the Washington Post are Trump’s manipulations of the press, and he plays them well. He is better than P.T. Barnum was in his heyday, but the one thing that seems constant in the coverage is that his numbers aren’t going up. The RNC convention was a flop, and his campaign on law and order is not getting the panic reaction he wanted. I read today that many in the armed services are beginning to drift over to Biden’s side, which has sent the Pumpkin into a funk. Now he has to contend with the suspicion that he may have had some mini-strokes that sent him to Walter Reed for tests. It’s only speculation whether he had such strokes, but he keeps changing the details of his hospital visit as he tweets to his critics.
But his credibility with the public is wearing out, as Alan Shartock, the vigorous commentator on WAMC Radio, a NPR affiliate, keeps saying. I believe him. Trump has fibbed and exaggerated and lied too many times for any thinking listener to believe the man. He seems racked by self-doubt and will seek revenge against anyone who questions his integrity. He has many more contenders for that role than he had even three years ago. He no longer can depend upon Kellyanne Conway’s Rabelaisean defense of Sean Spicer’s “alternative facts,” when the short-lived first press secretary claimed Trump’s inauguration crowds were bigger than Obama’s. Trump’s house of cards is built on ruses and Iago-like deceptions, a palace of flimsy lies waiting for the door to fly open and a gust of honest wind to sweep them all away. That wind is building up behind the White House and is about to grow into a gale by November 3.
I write these words huddled in my jacket as a cool wind shakes the maple trees. Already the back garden is covered with fallen leaves. It’s hard to believe that summer is almost over, but already the supermarkets are putting out their Halloween candy and ghost costumes. The air feels different, almost old-fashioned as I pad around the yard observing the tired flowers and the scraggly shoots of our wild onions. Chipmunks are scurrying around the top branches with their cheeks bulging with winter rations. Even the ants have thinned out and no longer parade around the counter tops as if they owned the place. The cold weather is coming, and the time is near for mulling a pot of cider on the wood stove and soaking some kidney beans for supper.
America tried to buy change on the cheap in the last election. It didn’t work. Those who stayed home were paralyzed by fear of Hillary Clinton, and those who voted were persuaded that Trump would bring some new populist redemption to a country strangling from what Matt Taibbi called a “vampire squid” in Rolling Stone, sucking the lifeblood out of the eonomy. That image of the brokerage giant Goldman Sachs devouring our future was enough to run shivers down everyone’s back and make ordinary people pray for deliverance. Trump saw his chance to grab the scepter and thunder his way into the White House. Clinton didn’t see it coming; she kept trying to explain what happened but couldn’t find the words. Nobody could. The gloom settled in over us, and the dismantling of democracy began soon after.
For almost four long years the lights dimmed, fears grew, comedians on late night shows couldn’t quite phrase our mood or make satire of the tragedy unfolding. When covid-19 began spreading out of New York and California, the darkness was unbearable. The economy froze, the usual ways we cope were no longer open to the public. Nursing homes became morgues; hospitals were warehousing the sick in hallways, makeshift wards, tents in the parking lot. First responders were dying in greater numbers while Trump and his minions sat on their hands pretending there was nothing they could do. Then we learned that the majority of victims were Blacks and Hispanics, the poor, the marginalized, the unwanted, the elderly, the uninsured and homeless.
Trump took no responsibility for the troubles. He bullied doctors and specialists at his corona virus updates, a shameless performance by a man who knew nothing about the terrors most of us felt. He had no sympathy. He couldn’t feel the common citizen’s pain. He simply stared into the camera and loped off stage to his inner sanctum to huddle with the men and women taking apart the last remains of Obama’s protections. You had to draw deep breaths to calm yourself, to reassure yourself that things might still turn around. But they didn’t. They got worse.
You began to wonder if you had any hope left. Until you looked up and saw the crows landing in the field next door and heard their raucous caws. The tractors were beginning to cut the grass for the winter fodder, loading up huge wagons with round and square bales, and piling them up in rickety barn lofts. The skies were moody abstractions of clouds and dark blue prairies; the hills were suddenly flashing patches of red leaves as the maples began to turn. You were alive and the natural world was calmly going about the business of eternity. Be thankful, I told myself. There is a reality beyond this ailing, despondent human world.
So the days crawl along as if they were turtles hauling us forward, into the stormy western horizon. I am glad we are moving, that we can’t get down and stop the grinding gears of time from doing their best. The wind is full of subtle currents, like a river after a long rainy weekend. I stand somewhere near the edge of certainty, my feet planted in the fragments of knowledge by which I know myself. If only I could foretell what will become of us. I would gladly give up something valuable to be able to comfort my neighbor, a friend who keeps asking me questions. I wish I were of more use to others. But I’m not. I’m living a meager life, and all around me are these menacing forces that would pull me away against my will. I stay under this deeply rutted sky, observing how summer dies like an old woman in her dark bedroom. She slowly loosens her grip on the sheet, and lets the chill air enter and hold her. She doesn’t whimper or complain. Neither do the trees as I look up at them. They are letting go as well. Mistakes are painful, and powerful. We have made our share and it has cost us dearly. But the only virtue left is to be quiet, and accept the plainness of our lives and let time take away the little we have to give.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.
Copyright 2020 Paul Christensen.