A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I was pacing around the house for days, distracted by almost anything I saw — an ashtray full of pipe tobacco ashes, a bird erasing its shadow on the window, the wind making the trees chatter like novelty jaws, the rumble of a truck on the road. I knew all this was the way my mind kept me off the real subject, which was how I would feel come 20 January. Would I be happy, really happy, or would I smirk cynically and say it’s just more daffy rhetoric to get us past the Capital riot. I didn’t want to smirk, I wanted to feel some loosening of my tension, some easing of stomach muscles like that small, ecstatic burst of relief when the car goes down a sudden hill. So the days inched forward, and I watched the headlines shift a little like someone muttering in his sleep, admitting very little certainty about the world. When I woke this morning, the sky was its usual leaden putty color, and the cold outside was as bony as a priest’s handshake.
When Biden took the dais after being sworn in, he set his jaw and looked steadily into the TV camera, as if he knew I was sitting there. I felt his voice move along my arms, and breathe on my forehead. I had the feeling I was talking to the vice principal after my teacher turned me in for the usual recalcitrance as class-clown. I stared, and perhaps half consciously refused to give in to what I knew would be soothing words, reassurances, avuncular sincerity. But I couldn’t help myself. I knew this man had suffered, had wept in his desert for forty days after his first wife and child died in a car crash. And that he turned to stone with grief when his son Beau Biden died of cancer. He had been there; he was a father in the truest sense of that term, the kind of father we hardly ever know in America -warm, open, loving, not afraid to hug us, to pull out some change from his pocket and send us off to the candy store when we were about to fall apart.
Little by little, this Bible salesman was in the door and sitting opposite me telling me about the wonders of the sacred word. He peeled off the veneer of those words and showed me the dry blood that still lay there caked to the page, the bitterness that nothing could wash away. He made me think I had never really thought about faith, or what the deep past had to say about the ghosts and terrors of my mind. I grew anxious and felt the bile of doubt rise in my gorge because I was fighting him. I was trying to tell myself that this was just happy talk, someone who wanted me to follow him toward some dimly imagined sunrise. I was angry at myself. Of course I was. I had bought the Brooklyn Bridge from better looking strangers, and played the lottery when the odds were so remote no one could ever win the big prize. I wanted to yell at him, tell him to leave the house, shut the door and not answer the doorbell no matter how long he stood there in the cold wind. But I kept listening. I had been lied to by the best of them, and was told to believe a gangster’s vision of America and to hate any kind of optimism that might include another race, another culture that didn’t believe in white Christianity.
But he kept up his patter, and invoked those threadbare words like freedom, bravery, dedication, a willingness to be absorbed into some undefined unity, when we all knew that we were a nation of hard-edged individuals. How could we possibly fall in love with an abstraction like America, when we were looking over our shoulder at the approach of any footsteps. We were taught to hate trust, to spit on anyone’s offer of friendship when we didn’t know much about him or her. Best to stay on the qui vive, keep a hand on the butt of a concealed pistol, narrow our eyes to keep from betraying our hunger for love. Intimacy is a terrible risk, a reckless gamble with our emotions. But he kept talking, staring deep into the camera’s eye to look for me. I had moved to a more distant chair, and let the mid-day putty light obscure my face. It was winter, and the snow was moving its obese inertia over the rooftops. Already the first flakes were drifting down like so much ash from our incinerated illusions.
There was no poetry in Biden’s language, no sudden flights of liberation from the plain-colored world. He just kept holding my hand in his grip and telling me that the world as he knew it, those back windows of houses in Delaware along the Amtrak route to his house in Wilmington, where ordinary souls spoke over their supper about how to get up enough money to the pay the electric bill, how to get Johnny to go back to school, how to find the money to put granny in a nursing home. It was that light from a dim overhead lamp in the dining room that bathed him in working-class gloom and persistence. He kept talking, his blue eyes moving around like morning glories on a fence after a spring rain. He was intentional, he had purpose He was old and crepey-faced, and his hair was so thin his scalp showed through like an old bar sign left on in the dead of night. He had me, and he knew it. He was a master at pulling the doubters in to his union hall, a man fully capable of speaking to the grim, unromantic daily life of the masses. He had eaten of stale bread, and tasted the lukewarm chicken soup from the pot. He had walked the railroad tracks and heard people arguing bitterly in their bedrooms. He knew the rotting nature of poverty and the dull, disintegrating poison of lost hope. He had some of the dark anger of Walt Whitman, who could charm a winter tree back into bloom with his dreams and turn on his heels and find despair tearing at the entrails of the ordinary man.
Biden had the prosaic mouth of Carl Sandburg singing about Chicago, and the acidic vowels of Robinson Jeffers writing out his anger against the thieves stripping the wilderness for profit. He knew all the cutthroats who came to Congress to pimp for their masters in industry. He had heard the jingle of moneychangers in the temple but was sly enough to keep his own counsel. He could be mistaken about people like when he savaged Anita Hill in the Senate hearing vetting Clarence Thomas. He rued that day long after. Or when he fought ferociously against school busing until he couldn’t stomach his own prejudices. He had taken a lot of wrong turns, this ordinary organ grinder, and knew when to shut up, when to let himself break open and be devoured by some larger truth he had been resisting. Now he was talking to me. Trying to get hold of my collar and pull me toward him. He was holding me with a powerful hand and wouldn’t let go.
There I was, pinned to my chair, uncomfortable, forgetting to uncross my legs and let the blood flow in my leg veins again. I may have forgotten to swallow. I winced at his lack of imagination, but marveled at his faith, his profound belief in an abstract America he had been serving most of his adult life. So I stoop up as he came to his final comments. I knew he was done when his voice shifted gears and went lower. He was no longer holding back his emotion; he had won me over and he could lower his persuasion almost to a whisper. He had put his plow into the dry stony earth of my disbelief and was sowing a crop of corn under the dark sky. He was sure it would rain and that the seeds would sprout, that the roots would begin to make for a newly conceived reality. After the rituals were concluded and the benediction was read with such fervor and honesty, I had suspended my disbelief for the moment. I was drinking at the well of hope, of redemption, of foolish expectations that things would get better. Everyone was doing the same. Even the hardened newscasters were a little hoarse in their willingness to believe him, and weren’t talking on autopilot. He had come to us, stood in our company, touched our arms, hugged us, told us he was there to do all he could to restore democracy, and that our job was to believe him, maybe even help him get this country past the Trump era and back on the glory road.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who lives in Vermont.
Copyright 2021 Paul Christensen.