A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
For my grandfather, Lewis Parke Chamberlayne
“…so-called periods of transition (if all periods are not so) –
those centuries when a new religious or political system
is growing up amidst the decay of the old one…” LPC
Since the contagion isn’t stopping,
upstairs is where I do my shopping –
upstairs, the attic of the mind
where childish things are left behind
for us to uncover or rediscover,
unearthing treasures over and over,
pawing through time like an eager lover.
Past years add up: a palimpsest,
a drift of papers, an old desk,
yellowing folders from which school…
reuse, recycle, or retool.
Upstairs is ancient history.
Back at ground level, what do I see
in every day’s kaleidoscope?
Terror, stasis, glints of hope.
Ghosts of evils that came before,
plague and depression, civil war,
take on new life. So here we are.
Repurposed T-shirts make a quilt.
Each day’s fresh headlines spell out guilt.
Zombies pop up with renewed
appetite, and seek warm food.
As if just roused from hibernation,
they shamble toward our – vacation?
Maybe. Weeks back, a snowy spring.
Today, zucchini blossoming,
raspberries plumping, peas in flower,
the gardens growing by the hour.
Late June: summer in its glory.
But this is hardly the whole story.
The past is where I do my shopping;
the present moment’s stalled and stopping.
The season hums with green and growth,
true; but not the only truth.
History’s coming home to roost.
My grandfather sends a post –
essays that made their way to me
through complex serendipity,
not papers someone tucked away
but messages received today.
These meditations on my screen
from 1911, 12, 13,
taken to heart as soon as seen…
More than a century since he died.
Did he write these for me to read?
Who are writers speaking to?
Unknown descendants – is that who?
A Virginian through and through,
and son of an artillery
captain who fought under Lee
(a name now in the news each day),
my grandfather on my screen
(he died in 1917)
is pondering transition.
Words aren’t statues. They don’t fall,
as Lee has, from his pedestal.
Words aren’t statues. Let them stay.
Don’t delete what they have to say.
He sensed the pattern – something new
growing from the old’s decay.
But wasn’t every era, though,
transitional? He wondered, who,
born in 1879,
died in 1917
at thirty-eight. And here I am,
in late June, 2020,
grandchild he never lived to see,
much older than he lived to be.
He left these essays I digest.
I do my shopping in the past.
If you have the time and patience,
the past yields food for ruminations.
The future? Hard to think about
until this virus peters out,
which it shows no sign of doing.
The garden’s parched. The lawn needs mowing.
Sheltering in place in this green space
where summer shows its shining face,
we’re teetering between two ages
as the pandemic rages, rages.
Author’s note: My maternal grandfather, Lewis Parke Chamberlayne (1879-1917), was a Virginian whose father, John Hampden Chamberlayne, served under Robert E. Lee at the Battle of the Crater. Lewis was a classicist, poet, and translator, whose essays and book reviews in The Sewanee Review in 1911 and 1912 still make compelling reading. He was teaching at the University of South Carolina when he died of an infection at the age of thirty-eight. My mother was two years old. (There seems to have been a family pattern; Lewis was only three or four when his own father died.) Had contact between these generations not been cut so short by early deaths, some interesting conversations would certainly have ensued.
Rachel Hadas is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, essays, and translations. Love and Dread is forthcoming in 2020, and a selection of prose, Piece by Piece, in 2021. Rachel Hadas is Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers-Newark.
Copyright 2020 Rachel Hadas. First published in Consequence Magazine. Included in Vox Populi with permission of the author.