A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
There’s a willow tree rooted in moist ground just above a little pond. Its fronds hang down stippled with buds, like the elaborate African plaits some adoring mother had worked on for hours over her daughter’s patient head. It is waiting for something, this comely tree, as if the mail truck might stop at her roots and drop some important package off sent from an admiring eagle. If trees could talk, and I’m not at all sure they can’t, you might hear the expressions of a blushing girl telling her uncle, “You shouldn’t have.” What’s inside the package? Numerous clippings from a journal published in Russia about how nature keeps pushing its knee against the half-frozen crust of Siberian winter until it cracks and the insects begin to move about. Other articles depict the last moments of a czar as he fumbled for his worry beads and felt the lumps of emeralds in his pockets. A third article is all about how Spring lugs its paint box into the blind world and begins to touch up the iron-gray barbs of certain shrubs that have gripped down against the icy wind for months. Now there are red bruises along the fragile twigs that appear to be swelling open. Maybe it’s a sign of benevolence from some force without a name.
I smell the earth for the first time as I take a walk, my first in many months of being housebound. I feel good, and my knees are like a colt’s knobby legs as I step over the roots of an ancient maple tree. I’m going along under an invisible mesh of bird song; the robins are back, and the swallows are peeping out from canopies of scrub oak. The earth is torn open here and there, as if the coyotes were digging up moles or gophers. The scene is one of profound expectation, under the slabs of cement-colored clouds. Ruts in the mud are infinitely detailed with the tread of winter tires. I gather someone was staring at the fuzzy horizon of the marsh and the car drifted off the center of the gravel road. The mud oozed with sweat, and a worm was groping around looking for something.
We are all waiting at this moment, though we don’t know what form spring will take as it arrives in its vast phosphorescent chariot. College girls have inched into the thawed edge of Lake Dunbar in their bikinis. The water is shallow and they appear to shiver as they wade in up to their ankles. It’s still chilly out, with a light breeze coming over the icy lid of the lake, with its dingy ridges barely glimmering under the rags of last winter’s light. A few more feet ahead and the ice begins, gnawed at and crumbling, but still powerful enough to seal off the wonders of darkness and stillness that lay underneath. The girls laugh and tease their male companion, a willowy teenager with long black hair who slips off his Bermuda shorts and sweat shirt and boldly strides out toward the ice ledge. He takes a deep breath and plunges into the water and comes up pushing his hair back from his face. He has been baptized in the stark cold murk and stands up again. The water cascades down his sides, and the girls are trying to coax themselves to also submerge but it is too cold. They flirt instead. The beach is a huge muddy arc behind them as they look off into the mysterious abstractness of the ice.
All the summer lake houses are battened down at the foot of a steep grassy hill. It will be months before the first boat people arrive. Inside these dark dwellings the dust is slowly spreading its veil over the dining table, the windowsills, the jars of preserves lined up in a pantry. A wolf spider moves along on delicate long legs and finds a struggling moth to consume. An inner tube lies limp and forlorn against the garage door. Summer is an ancient echo, like the last clinks of a wine glass before a volcano froze Pompei into a tableau of mundane life. A deck of cards lies scattered on the floor, with the king of hearts staring up into the bleak uncertainty of the moment. But soon, like the creak of an old grandfather clock, change will come and pry open the vaults of memory and feed warm breezes into the stairwell, the coat rack, the stack of newspapers that haven’t fluttered since they were piled there last September.
It was in the dark green house that a girl studied the face of her old grade school friend who had come back from college. He was tall and awkward, and he kept stealing glances at the blond hair of the girl playing cards at his feet. She knew he was curious, and she felt the tingle of emotion playing along her arms. She looked up with wide-eyed candor into his face and he broke into a lopsided grin and asked if she wanted to share a glass of lemonade. Love unravels flowers this way, petal by petal, asking questions that only the feel of a hand or the brush of someone’s lips against your own can answer. The lemonade was too sweet, and the ice cubes were harbingers of the dead season lying in wait. The smell of jasmine or violets leaked through the widow and entered her mind, and told her to give in. She stood and took his hands in her own and whispered that she was glad to see him. He leaned down and stared into her eyes until she felt light-headed. It was all she needed to be brought out of her childhood and given this bright sun-burnished edge where something deeper was about to happen. She didn’t know what, but it was good, it was on fire, it was dangerous and forbidden, but necessary.
The earth crunches under my feet as I walk back to the car. The lake lies there like an immense gray disk. I was almost going to say, “Silent as dots on a disk of snow.” Emily Dickinson taught me a lot about metaphor, but this one always made me crunch up my brow and worry that I wasn’t smart enough to crack it. But then it occurred to me that the disk was a sun dial, and that snow on such a dial would melt first around the brass numerals, thus “the dots” that appear on the white face of eternity, the hours marking the feeble measure of an impossible dimension. The woman lived in the halls of genius and walked among the wizards and goddesses of wisdom, and was comfortable having tea with them in her somber afternoons. The car knows the way home by now, we have come here so often, my wife and I. The dark, brooding lake houses all give way to soggy woods and the scrimshaw of telephone wires crisscrossing the pale, pearl gray sky. The heart sobs at the cusp of spring, as if it knows that the season is bursting open the seed pods, and tugging at the flower bulbs, and leaving you idle in your thoughts as you watch.
Along the main road, the cars are all full of mindless intensity as they rush against the future. It’s all one can do when the seasons collide in this murky weather. The definition of life falls apart as the wind teases the fine tendrils of meaning until there is nothing left of a frail synonym or a shy noun hiding among the rows of words in the dictionary. I miss the Bedouins about now, the boys holding their hats open to catch coins from the balconies while the girls danced to the tinkles of a mandolin. So much for my childhood memories of growing up in Beirut, when spring was brought to life like the torn and ragged scenery of an old theater. There was that lingering odor of mothballs as you wandered out of the car and over the spongy matted grass to the front door, and let yourself in to a living room that had known many evening fires and late suppers. The milky light of day drained through the windows and the moody hill of muddy grass and weed knots loomed like the face of an angry god as you stared out. Soon, the angels will descend and plant wild flowers and stir the wind with their vast linen wings and begin to sing in a thin violin register to call the birds to order and to demand love be guided into the world. I’m waiting, anxious as a teenager about to plunge neck deep into the gelatinous half-frozen lake slush and cleanse my soul of despair and doubt. With my imaginary snare drum and cymbal I wake the slumbering lake edge to decorate itself and to come marching over the ground to celebrate the resurrection of the world.
Copyright 2021 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who lives in Vermont.