A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I have a modest stash of red wine in the house, and a canister full of my favorite pipe tobacco, Peterson’s “Night Cap,” a pungent oriental mixture with a dash of Perique and gobs of Latakia from Syria. Smells like bacon as I puff away in the easy chair. The steady percussion outside the window is from the roof melting, a pleasant sound like some squirrel nibbling on an acorn. The bugs are waking up; stink bugs have crawled up the windowpanes and stand there like little Giacometti sculptures. Nothing deters them from their reveries. A mouse has found our bag of almonds and is stealing one at a time to avoid notice. We are eager to catch the little critter and put him outside.
The earth is still asleep, deep in a winter paralysis with its skin wrinkled like the paint on an old clunker at the junkyard. Crows sail overhead peering down and hoping to spot some stain of mortality thrown up by a rushing car. A fat robin stood on the edge of the road as I passed today; it’s a winter robin, not the harbinger of spring that everyone longs for. They come later, and gather in the trees to tune up their mating songs. The work of spring is a few weeks away, and between now and then will come mud season, a sloppy, pudding-brown waste of clay and stones that lies there like a tormented battlefield. You could almost cut up the gray sky into igloo bricks it is so heavy and immobile over the house.
Washington is quiet, even plodding with its Senate hearings on new cabinet appointments. The bright floors are polished and eternal where the senators walk between sessions. The aides walk faster, with arms laden with file folders and cell phones. They are always late to something and can’t talk to the stray reporter hoping to get a scoop. A custodian is amused and looks at them flying by on high heels and loafers; his work is done. He has gathered a few mounds of dust and will draw them into his dustpan and be finished for the day. The ceilings glow with the sleepy light of courtrooms and accounting offices. Time stretches out into infinity with its transparent body, and the wind, exhausted from having carried the frozen sky into everyone’s front yard, barely teases a twig to move.
I make coffee in the kitchen from an espresso machine and cut a sliver of zest to dangle in the cup. At about ten in the morning this is how one struggles up the hill to get to the noon light. The mailbox is empty, thank goodness. My breakfast consisted of an English muffin sprinkled with olive oil and herbs and thatched with strips of smoked Gouda. Tastes good, but after the first half of the muffin, I’m tired of chewing. I want an egg but that’s too much work. I like being in the kitchen with its crystalline morning glare It makes you young to stand there with your hands on your hips, your eyes gazing as if for the first time at a certain cracked teacup left on a shelf. It’s beautiful in its way, marred and vulnerable, like a girl growing up with a single parent. You wonder who will marry such a creature with her delicate hands and long legs, her bright, all-seeing eyes. If I were young again, I might propose to her on her front porch and promise her mother to be good to her for the rest of my life. But I am old and can only admire the inexhaustible fertility of the world.
It is a relief just to breathe again without a shudder. The past has been very hard on us, with the terrible vengeance of a disease we can’t control, a government in tatters from the lies and treachery of a tyrant eager to become a New World Putin. He’s gone and the fields outside rise over the swells of rock like a woman’s evening gown, a testament to the lasting power of desire. Music drifts in on the wind, a delicate breath with notes floating in it from some throat that lies beyond the horizon. It is telling me to expect the first buds to appear on the broken-wristed ends of a shrub, with its fingers hanging down crusted with scabs of last week’s snow.
When I lie down at night to read, with the wall lamp hanging over me, the book lying there full of silent thoughts, I begin to roam around among my memories, wondering which of them will come with me in my dreams and pull me down a dark path. The old summers are piled up like the scenery from abandoned plays, the paint beginning to blister off the plywood. But they can be dragged out to stage center again, flooded with overhead gels, and a girl might come out of the wings to recite a poem with her hands outstretched, her dress swaying as she speaks. I am standing there with my heart pounding, hoping the summer will last forever. I am in no hurry to leave town for the future. I just want to taste her mouth, hold her in my skinny arms, whisper to her how much I need her. But she leaves to a patter of applause and I am left there in my wrinkled white shirt, my baggy trousers, my shoes beginning to hurt from the hours I have stood there. Another summer moves on the sleeveless arms of the stagehands and is propped up precariously for the next scene. I’m on. I come out to an empty hall and clear my throat, and raise my hands to say what I really don’t mean. I am asleep, and summer is a decaying recollection, a faded glory without roses or convertibles to commemorate youth. I don’t know what to say and walk off in a deadly silence. I’ll wake up in the morning knowing the ice is melting, that the road is salted and sandy, and that all the cars moving east are headed to town for the day’s work.
The roof used to be festooned with long glittering icicles. Now the ice has shriveled to blobs of chrome, like the toes on a Jeff Koons sculpture. The rabbit that comes at night to eat our table scraps has wandered off to another neighborhood, I fear. I don’t see his jittery tracks in the snow. We may have insulted his sophisticated tongue with the pile of brussel sprouts we left him. Down the road might be a mound of sweet corn or a scatter of walnut pieces left over from a cookie recipe. I’m sorry to lose him. He and I may not have talked much but we had an understanding, some tacit covenant to be good to each other in these gravestone gray hours of winter. My father’s ghost makes its rounds each night in a soggy trench coat and slouch hat, gazing up at my bedroom window. I wave but there is no response.
Spring with its tentative caress of wind and sweetened night air is too shy to come to the door. It prefers the rigid crust of earth in the side yard, and the rotting log I left half-buried among the stumps of dead forsythia bushes. The moon hangs in all its uncertainty in the western sky late at night, half its body eaten away. In a billion or so years, I am told, it will feel the earth release its grip and let it slip away to drift to the end of space. I will be sorry to see it go, having grown so used to its cold breath on my neck and its chilly hands holding me when I am lonely. This is the sister I never had, the one who eluded my father’s longings to pamper a girl with kindness and long serious talks. He only had boys, and regretted how my mother possessed them. He was alone, a man in the shadows of the hall thinking about something, not daring to enter the kitchen where there was animated talk and bursts of laughter.
The house I grew up in was an ancient temple once occupied by the Greeks. A statue of Athena stood in the middle of the floor, and men would bring lamps of scented oil and light them in her honor. She towered over the heads of such worshippers, and rarely smiled. Her owl was on her forearm gazing into the infinite darkness, grasping the paradoxes of human existence in its huge, unblinking eyes. The ruins of Egyptian pyramids lay half-exposed in the back yard, among the other stumps of time. When I left for college, the stone walls became thin, papery partitions painted in pastel colors, and the silence that ruled over the mystery of life became the blurry voices of the TV. Spring lay there like an abandoned god, barely moving until the flowers begged it to rule over them again.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who lives in Vermont.
Copyright 2021 Paul Christensen