A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The day is as gray as raw silk, and hangs from the sky as if someone were in a hurry to get the curtains hung. The absence of any shadows means we are not quite observant enough, that we might be losing some fragments of memory we will never get back. The sky has no clouds, the sun is loafing behind an invisible mountain and will not be disturbed. I move around in a living room with my crossword puzzle, but I can’t bring myself to sit down again. My late father’s grandfather clock has stopped ticking; nothing I do can get it to creak and click and grind its raspy chimes again. The fatigue in that corner of the room is crushing, as if an old and ailing patient was no longer eating the soft food I brought it. Even the ants who invaded the house since the last cold spell don’t seem all that eager to live; they don’t run away when I lean down with my murderous thumb. Poor critters, I pity them. They have been roaming around mindlessly for days without water or food. They are half blind, and have forgotten what they came for. The gray air stifles innovation in all of us; I feel sorry for the dust, which lies under the couch like so many discarded dreams.
The weather forecast is for more cloudy days ahead, with temperatures ranging in the fifties, sixties further south. It’s a zone that may be good for weeds to grow in, but provokes no emotions. I stare out the window at the grass, with its bureaucratic tedium, its predictable expanses dotted with dandelions and a gopher mound or two. It reminds me of what it is like to sit in a waiting room listening to the idle chatter of people who have nothing much to say but don’t want to think about what the dentist will do to their broken teeth, their cavities. The phone rings, but I am hesitant to answer it. The scammers have been filling up the empty hours of the day calling to offer extensions of warranties, posing as cops, as helpful advisors of my spiritual life. There it goes again, another urgent call from someone sitting in a room with a fan, hearing the far off sounds of New Delhi traffic as he prepares to sound chipper, compassionate, ready with an offer I can’t refuse.
I remember watching my mother read in her oversized kitchen, turning pages and picking a thread of celery from her teeth. The white vinyl chair was not comfortable; her arms kept sliding off the armrests and she would rearrange herself. Outside, the rain-soaked grass lay there like stretches of time she could not turn into experience. She would look up at me as I leaned against the kitchen sink and smile, but without any need to talk. There was nothing to say at this hour. She would die soon but neither of us knew that. Right now, the precious hours were dissolving in the pale afternoon light, just as the rain began again. She hardly ever watched TV during the day; she preferred the weeded prose of Will and Ariel Durant’s history books, which covered every moment in time from the Sumerians to the noise and clutter and disharmony of the Industrial Revolution. I don’t know what she remembered from her reading; I didn’t ask. She might think I was being condescending. So I watched as she sat idly, hours before it was time to start supper.
She lived in Slidell, Louisiana, low country full of marshes and the occasional alligator. It was David Duke country, and the evangelical ministers who preached to the aging couples who lived here implored them to worship a stern, white creator, and to obey the narrow-minded dictates of Louisiana politics. Even my parents, world-travellers and reasonably educated souls, would pull all the levers to seat the right wingers, the brutal racists who had been bred to plantation culture and knew hardly anything about the outside world. All these tract homes lay scattered under the loblolly pines and were built in a flood plain, but no one was brave enough to stop the developers from carving up the rest of the plundered wetlands. So the houses flooded, and the roads cracked and heaved, and the roofs peeled off in the hurricanes, and the poll stations welcomed in the same voters for their predictable choices. The ancient earth beneath the cement slabs on which white culture perched itself lay buried in a mythological trance, dreaming of magical worlds torn from the unconscious and flung to the desolate future.
To walk in the sultry air of Slidell was to feel the power of some orphaned reality brooding on its losses. Mosquitoes hummed in the air around your ears, and crawdads labored in the oozing yellow clay, making tunnels that ranged around like some mathematical equation signifying the impenetrability of nature’s mind. My visits home were always short, timed to predict the slightest change in my mother’s quicksilver moods. When she had reached the end of her wits with the kids pawing at her dresser drawers or sneaking into her pantry for a snack, we were off again, sailing back to our freedom and chaotic independence. Behind us would be my parents waving indifferently as we rounded the corner.
The gray sky read like some papyrus scroll that had been washed clean by a spring downpour, with only a few hieroglyphs remaining like ghosts. If you can’t remember your dreams, you are reading this papyrus in the morning over your coffee, trying to puzzle out the apparitions that had seemed so lively, even disturbing in your sleep. The language of intuition is frail, easily broken by the waking mind. Perhaps that is the hidden sorrow of morning, that we cannot grasp what the other side of reality tried to tell us. It was like hearing a mother’s voice when she was no longer alive, a phone call answered before it even rang. My father laid out her treasures from her sewing room and let people buy what they wanted for a nickel or a dime. All her precious bolts of cloth, her sewing kit, her White sewing machine, her doilies and place mats, her carefully hidden presents to be given out on birthdays and at Christmas, her costume jewelry, her dresses, many of them made from her own hands. Out on the dusty curb, where neighbors shyly approached and my father, already into the first stages of dementia, made his one-word responses as coins were offered. He finally let everything go for free, and the scrounging and hoarding of decades was blown to the winds. He had dismantled the sacred temple of a woman, and all her power and authority were reduced to chaff, to worthless abundance.
He was forgetting about his marriage of fifty-five years. He carried around disconnected pictures of his wife’s smiling face as he gave her a bottle of French perfume from one of his trips abroad; he heard her laughter. He remembered their pillow talk, her love-making, her dangerous mood swings, her anger as she lashed out at him, her rage against the government for wasting all that money on the military, the useless wars that were fought in her lifetime. All that had to be broken up like old teacups and saucers, junk from the china closet, so that he wouldn’t have to bear up under the scorching heat of her tongue. The sky lay over him like a suffocating shroud, a terrible obscurity of the sun and the shadows of late summer, the precision of days when the gray sky was blown away and the blue depths reappeared with their jewel, the sun, burning like a diamond at the center. Memory was of no use; he gave away her lamps, her chairs, the rugs she had vacuumed thin, the shoes that were lined up on the closet floor, the heels repaired, the leather frayed, straps repaired by the shoemaker over the years. She wore everything out, and left only the exhausted shell of her life behind.
The rain was different for my wife, who loved the sound of thunder and would go out into the yard and dance with her three children. The wilder the noise overhead, the more she liked it. It meant freedom, a time of miracles, something unpredictable and frightening, but in a good way. I would stay inside, gazing apprehensively at the circle they made, sensing some reawakening in them of a time long ago, some ritual that had passed out of use before there was an America, a sprawling democracy, towering cities, long stretches of coast crowded with beach houses. Before that, there were dances to celebrate the seasons, and the spirit of nature was alive and on the surface, part of some epic jubilation only the believers could see. I wish my mother had seen it, but she was folding her pillowcases in the sewing room, carefully putting her ironed dresses on hangers and locking the door to her treasure house before she could grasp what the rain was trying to tell her.
Copyright 2021 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who lives in Vermont.