A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
We are all living in this bright diamond we call winter, staring out from facets of its luminous body at the shriveled world of ice and rags of snow. The crows are foraging for pill bugs in an idle field, a balding hillside with tufts of last summer’s hair still curled around rocks and bits of stardust. The cars go by like ghosts, their lights pale and fading in the foggy air. The town is drifting in the frozen afternoon, breathing out a mist of pure silence that even a mystic would admire. Nothing stirs but the wind that rattles rain gutters and pulls on the hinges of blistered shutters. A pair of boots has been left out on a patio of gray flagstones, the mud still clinging to their heels like forgotten promises.
The cards we received and put up on the mantelpiece have been packed away in a box, along with photographs of children laughing in a yard. Mortality is a quiet guest standing obscurely in the background, his hand on someone’s shoulder. You never know who will rise and answer a phone call and never come back. We already miss some of the people who are living through these crumbling last hours of the year; their health is frail, their limbs are slow to move when they stand up. We are at the far end of this orbit, slanted toward the sun where its rays are blunt and fail to warm us. I heard the ticking of the walls last night as I lay awake, and felt the trembles of the house as the wind picked up. Night had begun to fill the valleys with an ocean, which wrinkled with starlight and the rachitic crackle of tree limbs. We are a long way from the season of apples and trumpet vines, the smell of nectar coming off the marshy ground below us. It’s all a fading memory, but a good one, reassuring in that we once had it to waste and discard like children.
I cross my legs to hold up the newspaper I am reading. The words bore me. I have read them before, countless times. I can’t remember when I was startled by a revelation from some ambitious young reporter thumbing through the yellowing documents in a file cabinet. Who imagines a world beyond the stale fears of the coronavirus and the off-tune Spike Jones inanity of Trump’s rhetoric? I grip the chair when I see a news show begin with the same old headlines. So many deaths, so many newly reported cases, so much fear at what Trump will do when he faces the desolate wasteland waiting for him after January 20. I want to imagine a village in the heart of Africa, a small quiet settlement of clay houses up on rickety stilts, placed on the ground to imitate the night sky’s strange geometry. I want to know the names of the children running down the path to fill their bent cans with water for their mothers to cook with. Surely there is music in their voices, and in their fingers. Their feet splash in the mud, their smiles are as brilliant as shards of ivory. I will not meet them in this life, but they are there, shimmering in the burnt sunlight of afternoon. I wish I could hold their hands and talk to them in their own language. I am longing to escape the monotony that has come to stand for reality in this moment.
I remember coming home from school with my book bag limp with dog-eared books and tablets, and a lunch box with a half-eaten sandwich of baloney and American cheese, and a smear of mustard making the food stink in my mouth. I remember standing in the dark hallway watching as my mother peeled a potato at the sink, blotting it with a paper towel, and putting it in a bowl of other sweating potatoes for tonight’s dinner. A pound of ground beef still lay on the counter in its cellophane sleeve. There were string beans in the fridge that she will take out soon and snip off the ends, then drench in cold water. The meat will simmer in oil and she will add diced onions and a garlic or two, some salt and pepper, small pieces of red pepper from a jar that were limp and tasteless. My mother’s moves are slow and deliberate, and her hair has grown thin enough I could see the pink scalp underneath. She is alone at this hour, preoccupied, not expecting to see me or feel obliged to take out the jar of milk and prepare a sandwich. I am just there, part of the glowing white tiles around her. I am her son, but not a living presence just now.
What does she live for, I wonder, as I stand there. How does she shape the hour as it melts down the wall and falls over her fingers? What is there to expect from her good wishes, her intention to follow the twisting, disappearing moral path to high ground? Her feet are whispering over the linoleum in carpet slippers; her ravishing Italian beauty has faded away and left behind a soft, decaying silhouette of forgotten desires. She was slender, elegant in her photographs, the world hovering over her with stern looks and disapproving stares as she tried to escape. She was caught in her womanhood, her obligation to give her mother her pay envelope each Friday. She would be given a few coins to spend on her own, and would buy a Coke and a doughnut at the corner store, or go to a movie with an old school friend. And sit in the park to think about her life, what there was of it before she married and lay on some iron gurney enduring her labor pangs. Motherhood fit her like an iron mask, a heavy carapace to conceal her screams.
There she was in the kitchen under the failing twilight of the window, with the alley below still pocked with rain puddles and an abandoned tire. The patch of woods beyond stood in all its scrappy glory, with an avenue on the far side carrying city buses and fuel trucks, the occasional bakery truck full of supermarket bread. And beyond that? What lay beyond the brick fronts of row house and the sloping black roofs of empty factory sheds, and the crumbling warehouses that were once full of new tires and bumpers for the dealerships nearby? This was her realm, the shabby next morning after a dream of castles and knights on white horses, and the sound of an orchestra playing for a nobleman on his wedding day. Poor mom. I didn’t know her well enough to talk to her, to reach down into her heart and decode the misery, to encourage her to go to an evening college and learn a profession to free herself from drudgery. I didn’t know who she was, because she too was living inside a diamond as hard as ignorance and despair. She died before I could reach her.
But that was then, a far away world covered in cobwebs and old steamer trunks, pairs of my father’s worn-out shoes, his patched suits hanging from the rafters in the basement. He had known the world and came home with a garment bag holding his new suit. His shoes glowed with fresh polish, and his hair was slicked back from his high forehead after getting a trim at the barbershop. He was grand, and smelled of cologne, and his deep voice was like a bassoon in a wind ensemble. He commanded respect, and a bit of fear when he spoke. My mother had a martini ready for him when he opened the door.
When you grow up, the bedrooms of childhood shrink and the stairs leading to them are too narrow to climb. You must give up your longing and wander into the city, embrace the difficult world as it comes at you in blinding flashes and car horns, and police sirens. You are never home again, not in the old familiar sense of a mother making dinner, a father coming home to sit alone on the couch with his high ball, his eyes baggy after a day of writing reports for the government. The new world is made of freshly laid asphalt and smart cement curbs defining a suburb newly sprung from the imagination of city planners. You are strong and can handle the pressure, the competition for promotions, the lust for status, the joy of being praised for your brilliance. You touch the gold-framed world of imaginary success and go on vacation to a national park with the wife and kids. You are all elbows as you push away the boundaries. You are not your mother peeling potatoes at the sink. You are the creation of a fragile American dream that will not fade until you are older.
You listen to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and feel the pulse of some other reality flow through your veins. You are dancing in the bedroom in front of the mirror, your hair gray, your clothes limp around you, your heart struggling to keep up with your burst of passion. You know winter creeps over your head, and fills the sky with shredded steel clouds and mica hillsides, and birds whose wings creak as they migrate south over your memories. Who will join you in this solemn hour? The gypsies are dancing in Hungarian villages, wildly flinging their arms around each other, laughing so hard they stagger to keep their balance. The zither flies through the notes like a meteor blazing across the summer sky. Remember to rejoice, no matter what happens.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who lives in Vermont.
Copyright 2021 Paul Christensen