A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Well, 2020 will go down as the year with the least clear vision of our time. We are six weeks away from inauguration, and every hour seems to hang suspended in a sudden freezing of gears. But then the rasp of forward motion begins again with a sigh, a grunt, some stifled cry from the wind. And when the sky cracks open its lead canopy of snow clouds, and a tiny patch of blue appears shot through with sunbeams, you get the feeling your pain will subside after all. We can embrace a normal world again. A bright, cold, sparkling moment that feels like a ring on your finger, something so fiery it catches a little of the sun’s radium. That’s where we are now, here in the creased landscape of central Vermont, not far from Lake Champlain and the heave of mountains that wall us in from New York on one side, and the glittering pinnacles of ice on the other, where Connecticut begins.
The farmers are resting after an ambiguous fall of hay harvesting and plowing for the winter fallow. Trees are naked and stoic on the hillsides, and the ditches are alive with small black birds looking for edible crumbs dropped by the wind. We are edging into winter, and the feeling is not unlike being in the front car of a roller coaster where it slows and hesitates before the first steep descent awaits you. You can almost feel yourself ready to scream, to hold up your arms and surrender to the shattering glass of the air and the rush of fate about to devour you in its icy breath. But we’ve been here before and the cold is an old friend, a neighbor, someone who rarely waves as you come outside, but is there, aware of you, keen to touch your neck and turn the blood in your fingers into gelatin.
Our only consolation is the low-flying squadrons of geese that come along in a tangle of overlapping monologues and gossipy chatter. The leader is willing to give up her authority the moment some other goose edges nearer, and the continual rotation of point persons is a joy to watch. If only human nature were like that. Democracy hangs over us in a graceful procession of beating wings and webbed feet dangling down. The crusted weed heads point up like shards of steel, and the once supple mud is now as dry and inflexible as a sermon.
I am beginning to believe democracy survived a profound crisis, and is about to show that a flimsy idea proved itself as durable as the trunk of an ancient maple tree. The woods are desolate ghost towns scattered along the gravel road I sometimes walk to shake off a mood. Nine months of isolation and brooding have made us cantankerous, easily put on edge by a wrong word or a plate of boring food. The early dusk adds to our misery, and the feeble glow from the porch light is like some insincere effort at cheering us up. We prefer our privacy, our silence, our stale thoughts to any such attempt at chitchat. Silence is how the soul thinks, how it comes to the edge of its dark domain and lets us touch its long, gossamer robe. We are not visited by its strange smell very often, its delicate manners. We hardly know what to say when it comes this close to consciousness. But when someone speaks, we are suddenly astonished at how alone we are. And the day grinds on against our temples with its long, uneventful grayness. I hear the clock ticking in the corner, and the cough of the furnace in the basement, the gurgle of steam in the pipes along the wall. Things go on without you, as if you were merely part of the shadows that creep toward night. That’s when I get up and find an abandoned apple in the fridge and bite into its alien sharpness and stare out into the abstract daylight.
The year grows old, as if all of nature was worn out with flowers and birds and warm wind, and raindrops, and the crunch of a squirrel biting into an acorn. The work is done, and the furrows are empty. The branches hold up their arthritic fingers as if to catch a ghostly butterfly. The limbs rattle if a car comes along too close to the edge. The leaves are matted and heavy with rot, and lie there in a sacrificial pose where they fell. Above, the vaults of heaven are mossy with cloud froth, like the stagnant water of a rocky inlet. You are asked to dream as you stand there, to close your eyes long enough to imagine yourself floating over the rooftops as you head out into the long muddy stretches of fields as they lower down to Otter Creek. Your own feet dangle below you, and your wings are bony, fragile armatures of a few feathers, some snowflakes clinging to you like crushed diamonds as you climb higher.
You open the mailbox and find a bill from the doctor’s office. There are boxes you can tick if you have moved recently, or want to change your mailing address. Below is a short paragraph reminding you that in thirty days your payment will be declared late and that a fine of five percent will be added to your balance. An envelope is enclosed for our convenience, but requiring a stamp, unlike a credit card offer. The last part of the page tells you you owe the doctor eighty dollars and four cents for your examination. You can pay by check or by credit card, and the appropriate blanks are provided for you to fill in. The examination lasted seven minutes, as I recall, and I was told all my functions are within a normal range for a person of my age. I am seventy-seven, a man without any real pains or worries, except for growing older. I am as agile as the board flapping against my neighbor’s barn. I am subject to the study of certain birds, robins mostly, who eye me for a possible nesting sight come spring, but as long as I can move, I’m safe from any woodpecker’s insistent prying. Ants go around me, and the wind finds little to pull loose from my scalp or moustache. I am a fixture of the late autumn weather, a creature able to withstand the first shudders of north wind coming over the hilltops. I am ready for winter and the grip of skeletal fingers pulling at my collar and looking for some purchase on my neck.
But six weeks will pass with their deliberate, niggling momentum and the capitol will be covered in bunting, with chairs arranged neatly in a vast chevron of power and hierarchy, and Joe Biden will place his delicate hand on the bible his wife is holding, while John Roberts reads the simple, indestructible words of the oath of office to which Biden will answer, I do. Then the balls will begin at dusk, and the orchestras will play waltzes, and the tables will groan with food as guests hold a drink in one hand and a plate in the other. Everyone wears tuxes and evening gowns, and the rooms are lit with warm, orange light as the ship of state sways in deep water and moves forward to the next morning.
I go back into the house and walk around as if I had some important function to carry out. But I am only a few feet from the door when I am seized by the desire to press my head against the panes of the bow window and gaze out as if I were suddenly able to see spring blossoming on the gaunt trees. I am in a spell cast by the somber light I stand in, made to invent images of the coming year as if I were a magician. I have no wand, only my eyes to guide me toward the other end of the house were the road goes off to town. I see cars moving along with darkly purposeful intensity as people return to work in the hardware store, the supermarket, the lumberyard. I’m not with them. I am an old man with my irrepressible imagination conceiving of days that do not exist, of flowering apple trees, the tumble of sunlight falling over the cliffs of the sky into the world of love and hope. I am hoping I am right as I compose my picture of Eden here in the shivering outskirts of town, with the trees standing mute and useless all around me. I am as idle as they, and a farmer would as soon prune me back as pass me by on his rusty old tractor. Even the crows are gone, my aloof friends in this lonely world. Someone bring me a cup of coffee and sit with me. I need to talk after my hours of mumbling thoughts.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who lives in Vermont.
Copyright 2020 Paul Christensen