A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
No one seems to know what to think or how to feel right now. The stress is building and the threats to this election are so poisonous, it makes you quiver with fear. It doesn’t matter how confident you feel about your own vote and the situation here in the heart of New England (Vermont), but wherever I go, I see Trump flags, Trump posters, homemade Trump panels in the middle of a pasture, Trump stickers on car bumpers. If you’re lucky, and the fates want to spare you a sour stomach, you might just happen upon some little strip of suburb with Biden-Harris signs in the yard, or in the front of a cow barn, and you raise a friendly fist to the empty landscape.
At night, tossing around in bed, bunching up my pillows, pulling up the quilt against the frosty bedroom air, I see Amy Comey Barrett’s smug look as she stands beside Trump, or exchanges knowing nods with Mitch McConnell, or solemnly puts her hand on the Bible to swear to the oath as Clarence Thomas reads out the words. Her eyes are cold, her mouth set into a grimace; she makes an effort to smile and shake the hair from her cheek, but she is made of steel and has a heart so encased in her determination to push the country backward into some vague Medieval mindset where she has lived all of her adult life. She is willing to do almost anything she is bid to do by her Republican masters, and has followed the evasive answers to questions given by Brett Kavanaugh at her own Senate hearing before the Judiciary Committee. I hear Lindsey Graham’s sugary voice as he praises Barrett’s mind and tenacity, her courage before a multitude of imaginary detractors. My flesh crawls as I go through the fragments of my revulsion, my arms tight with anxiety. I am flailing in a state of mind for which there is no relief or consolation.
If light were as cold and dense as lake water, I would dive into it and descend into the murky lower world, and not even think of returning to the air. I want to circle around among the fish, who stare at me, and the clouds of vague dread that hang there near the bottom of the lakebed. I want to hide under the fishing pier, or probe the bottom of a rowboat where it is tied up, with the oars still hanging over the gunwales. I would roll weightless and disembodied in the shivering water and thank the silence for relieving me of my tortured thoughts. Where does one go to escape from the terrible ghosts that cling to words. I keep gazing into the shimmering light of the bare trees around me, the fragile light that is too thin to support the birds, or too fragile to hold aloft a single bee looking for the last bead of nectar left on a flower stem.
There is a bristlecone pine in California almost five thousand years old. Its shape is no longer recognizable as a tree, but coils round itself in thick igneous bulges and creases, like some petrified elephant. It has weathered all the adversity the earth can hurl at it, and it still stands, a monument to a will power we know nothing about. It endures, raises its old man’s scalp of green leaves to catch whatever rain may fall. It has become as anonymous as the rock it stands on. And it is there to teach some moral law few can translate into human use. It is trying to say that the real work of life is to push against the might of the universe and sip the delicate radium of the sun to foster its creative urge. I must freeze my conscience long enough to absorb this wisdom, and to dismiss the dark specter of tyranny Trump has spread over us. I must push aside the hard, high-cheeked, rigidly set face of Amy Barrett in order to feel the buried urge to participate in the bristlecone ‘s primordial dance.
The light keeps thickening into haze as I sit here. I have shredded reality and found only the motes of dust hanging in the air. I do not know what will happen to us in a few days, whether the vote count will indicate some massive victory for sense and rationality, or whether the bruised and grotesque face of Mitch McConnell will rise up out of the Washington gloom and proclaim a continuation of our terror. We’ve been here before, almost four years ago, when we woke up to the words of announcers saying that Trump has been elected to office against all expectations. I don’t know how one could bear to go through this starkly tragic moment again. I’m told many are thinking of selling off and moving out of the country, to Canada, to Mexico, to Belize, and Africa, to some desolate island in the Pacific where the sound of Trump’s voice cannot be heard. I don’t know how any of us will find enough pieces of our shattered dreams to construct a little balsa wood shelter for our damaged souls.
A walk in the woods is all I can hope for in this moment. I need to feel the solidity of a path, and smell the nearby creek as it unravels itself. I need a bird to tell me there is a tomorrow to hope for, some crisp isinglass sunrise to pull the gloom out of the frozen undergrowth where nature sleeps. I need to feel the chill on my hands, the cold tongue of the wind against my neck as I push ahead, begging the path to lead me toward magic and incantation. My wife is beside me, gazing happily into the pewter gloom of early afternoon, stopping briefly to hold a trampled leaf in her fingers before letting it float back down into the dissolving past.
Others are ahead of us. I hear human voices and take comfort from them. I hear a child laughing, and a dog barking in some musical register that says he’s happy. A man is leading them forward, and I have no idea what he is thinking about. I only know his child and his dog need to bathe their eyes in the unmade future and to sense the construction of life ahead of us. The trees part, the creek’s whispers are fading as we follow the path up to higher ground. Is my soul in touch with the bristlecone pine, does it hear its voice speaking softly, some flabby lisp of its ancient mouth as it prays to an unknown spirit? Keep walking, says my heart. And I lift my shoe and place it before me, touching down into the uncharted wilderness of time.
My grandson called me from Avignon to tell me that he and his friends are watching our political struggles like spectators, trying to grasp what is happening in our fierce struggle to hold a nation together. He’s half French, half American, and has grown up in the palm of French ways. He doesn’t understand the American psyche, and filters what he hears and sees through the filigree of plantain trees, their intricate mosaic of shade, and watches as the old limestone walls of his city rise above the streets and hold an ancient history in its bony grasp. He is not sympathetic. He finds our flaws ironic, even amusing, as we lie there trapped in the dark legacy of the Civil War, the heavy chains of racism, the undying hatred and suspicion of Blacks. He wonders what it would take to change us, but instead, he smells the bitter vinegar that was given to Christ on the day of his crucifixion, when he had asked for water. He hears the thud of his wooden cross, the persecution of innocence, the harsh cries of the Romans as they whip his back and drive him further up the hill to his death. He hears all this, and he is astonished to think such a tragic scene could be reenacted in a country where the flag is the supposedly the symbol of equality and unity. After we talk, he goes back to reading on the couch, under the heavy beams of the ceiling, as the light fades from a dark Mediterranean blue to the lighter, flimsier colors of mica and quartz, and the fragile shimmer of stars. He knows I am thinking of him, and hoping that he will reach down into the shadows below him and pull up a bowl of tangy olives, and raise a glass of lemonade to soothe his throat.
We are all pilgrims in this moment, each heading toward some unspecified destination, hoping that we have chosen the right path. Our feet are hardly the spiritual guide we need for where we need to go, but they take us forward, and in this moment, going forward is enough of a consolation to get us to the night, and to the morning after.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who lives in Vermont.
Copyright 2020 Paul Christensen.