A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I’ve been watching the last leaves fall away from the branches around my house. The wind last night was fierce and numbingly cold. It moved like a carving knife through the remaining remnants of summer, easing away the reluctant last memories we have of the warm and sunny past. Only the stoic brown towers remain, old guardians of the law. You can feel the inflexible joints of a terrifying authority as it towers over the house. What we thought was ours is no longer durable, but as flimsy as little flags waved in a vanished parade. We’re here, huddled behind our windows, gazing out with a mixture of disbelief and consolation. We’ve been here before, but never like this. A season of stubborn rejection has covered last summer with dust and forgetfulness. We thought it would all be different. A powerful gust of hope might blow through the empty forests and remind us that we have a vision, a reason to hope. But in these shallow weeks, we have felt the grip of some bony hand pulling us backward, asking us to give up.
November has always been cruel, a time of disappointment as the winter light comes early and settles over the empty streets. A few flakes of half-frozen rain might glance off your face if you walk outside, and you pull your jacket close to keep out the lifeless chill. Only the geese remain, flocks of them sailing overhead chatting away in noisy phrases as they roam from one farmer’s pond to another to choose a roost. I welcome the sound, like the muffled syllables of a party we are about to join, some bit of hospitality that is only imagined at this point. We’ve just been told to quarantine in the latest surge of infections from the pandemic. Biden’s victory hangs over us like a pair of old trousers swaying from a laundry line. Dark winds hang back, just below the horizon, as we hold on to our emotions and face the evening. We will eat sparingly, and pour a glass of wine from a bottle we have been nursing for several days
In his interview on “60 Minutes” the other night, Obama coined the phrase “truth decay” to describe our times. You can feel the loosening grip on common sense, like a hand letting go on a deathbed. You want to console the parting soul, to say some reassuring words to ease the suffering, but you can’t. You must be strong, and cling to your education, your moral courage, and look away. You sense betrayal, a kind of madness that has no particular name or function. What you hear from the failing breath is that the virus was a hoax, a ruse perpetrated by an enemy struggling to gain power. The promise of making things right, of ridding the dark curse upon the nation, is not credible to the other side. Better to slip into the darkness and leave an arm outstretched in the air before drowning. The ancient sediment of racism and fear of others stirs its mud in the half-asleep minds of those falling into lockstep, marching behind a man who has forgotten what he came to power for, and now wanders toward the sunset with no goal in mind.
The fields look like blackboards someone cleaned hastily with a dirty sponge. The old instructions lie there smudged and cloudy, with their residues of wisdom barely discernible. The wild turkeys will paw through the stony ruins of hay stalks and find a paltry feast of pill bugs and grubs to dine on. That is all that remains of the political rhetoric we have heard for four long, dreary years of incompetent leadership. The words amazing and beautiful are mere echoes now, empty boasts that lie there among the bits of quartz and granite pebbles.
The hordes of protesters of the election could not forgive democracy for letting a black man become president. It insulted their pride, their belief in an imperial race that had ruled the world for four centuries. But the naked trees gleaming like tarnished silver testify to the withering judgments of time. The power of change cannot be resisted or overcome. The bones of Ozymandias lie sprawled out for all to see, and Shelley was gifted enough to understand the metaphysical truth of such relics. Nothing outlasts change itself, not even the most repeated falsehood and the drummed insistence of propaganda from those in power. It doesn’t matter. The foundations of human desire rest upon some mysterious willingness to be civilized, to uphold some virtues against the chaos of coming winter. No matter how bleak the times are, the will to embrace one’s dream, one’s longing to be better, can sometimes be as strong as the decay that eats away at hope. That’s where we are now. In that fragile daylight that remains before the night sky reveals itself, we look about and feel the terrible emptiness of reality. It’s hard to walk in such an hour of dread, but we take some small consolation that the past is still teaching us something that cannot be dismissed by hysteria and mass conversion. Something lingers in the wind, in the soil, in the cry of a hawk whose wings are invisible at this hour.
I go home again and shut the door, turn on the dining room light, the little lamp over the mantle, and lay a fire in the wood stove. Its meager tongues of flame lick at the sooty windows of the stove and cast a faint gleam of reassurance on the floor. It will be good to sit here, to let the silence curl up over one’s lap like a cat. The tired voices of the old order can be ignored for the moment. Best not to turn on the TV and be distracted by the despair of the newscasters. So what if Trump withholds his assistance to the Biden people; it doesn’t matter, not for long anyway. That is what the dying sunlight says as I look out of the bow window to the bluish haze of the Adironacks behind me. The sun will be there tomorrow, and it will burn away the shadows, and I will find the encouragement to fry an egg, sip coffee, and plan what useful thing to do in the morning.
It is only now, in this lonely, fractured hour before night, that it takes some self-engagement to steady the will. Doubt creeps about like a field mouse in a dark corner. It is there, even if it knows how to remain invisible, indestructible. It has found a hole by which to enter the house in the cold weather, and nibbles at crumbs and will shred some paper to make a nest in an unused drawer. It is there, a companion of the soul, a dark cousin who can’t speak directly, only hover at a distance.
Meanwhile the builders of ice and snow are hard at work scraping away the dead miracles, the thoughts that didn’t survive the first garden-killing slash of wind. We are purging ourselves of our weaker aspirations, letting winter shear away the useless daydreams and fantasies. Truth is our stern master, our rule giver, the only one we really have. It doesn’t matter what the vast millions of Trump voters may think. They are too afraid to open their minds to contradiction, to the savage claw of doubt. The contraction of the world to a hard crust is like the word No. The frost on the windowpanes is a breath of some avenging ghost negating our illusions.
Above our confusion is the starry sky, eternal, unmoved, full of piercing arrows of light that come down to us from the dawn of the universe. The light is splintered by prisms of air and rain, but it is always falling upon us from some infinite will that has imagined everything long before it happens. We are the children of this light, this flood of energy that has no boundaries. It is only the closed mind, the failing courage of Trump’s followers, that make it seem we can’t prosper, even thrive in such ancient illumination. The truth lies there among its delicate strings of subatomic particles as they perform a dance of joy around their blessed revelations.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who lives in Vermont.
Copyright 2020 Paul Christensen.