A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The hills have turned so green it almost seems the world could melt into an emerald blaze, a conflagration of jewels and diamond-crusted creeks. The birds are celebrating some mysterious feast day above me, chanting out hymns and pagan prayers to the rapturous clouds. The nests are filled, the osprey tower has a new resident in its aerie, with two slender heads raised up to gobble whatever provender may have been found in the nearby swamps. Everyone’s hungry, eager, panting with desire. The world swings closer to the sun and is baking in the polluted skies, but the same vigor and renewal are bursting out of every bud, every shaggy-headed weed, each tire rut trembling with spawn.
To walk down this way is to step off from reality and drift into hazy remnants of myth, vague tendrils of the world’s memory. I am illiterate in nature, unable to speak its language, unlettered in its brilliant hieroglyphs. But that doesn’t mean I am not happy; I’m in a state of wonder, like some farmer from a primitive corner of the arid world who has come into the city and gazes at the towers, the oncoming traffic, the swirl of dust from the curbs, the glittering windows of the store fronts, the roar of traffic hurtling toward the limits of existence. I remember a quip from a famous writer who said she preferred to travel in countries where she didn’t know the language, because her hunger for the unknown was partially appeased by languages you couldn’t grasp.
So here I am, a stranger in a world that has no use for me. But that hosts a constant circus of bright colors, aromas pushed up out of the enigmatic clay, a dizzying cacophony of birds talking across boundaries, warding off predators and unscrupulous interlopers looking for a free lunch. I dream of a Chinese hotel on the seedy edge of Kowloon where no one sleeps, the lights blaze, the smell of woks frying up dinner at all hours. I can’t understand a syllable of what is being said, and I am in heaven. I smell the hot iron passing over a shirt, a child yelling for more soup, an old man trying to talk but can’t through all his soggy coughs and clearing of his throat. No one is thinking in some lonely recess of the mind, but living, lifting baskets, tuning in a radio, reading yesterday’s paper under the bluish glare of a neon tube in the ceiling. Heaven is a crowded tower of dark stairways and open doors, of energy flowing out of every crevice and cranny of the halls and wandering passageways. I’m hungry, I want someone to pass me a bowl of sweet and sour soup so I can rest my weary back against a tiled wall and savor every moist sliver of ginger, every delicate leaf of bok choy.
So much is contained in the narrative of spring. Nature can’t stop talking to itself, grumbling over the fitful rain, the slow begrudging wind with its indifferent moods. Over the hill is a kingdom of disappearing dreams, hazy in their decomposing images, their dying thoughts. You can’t get there; each footstep toward that graying edge of the world simply pushes the boundary backward ahead of you. You are one of Zeno’s paradoxes, coming halfway toward vision and never reaching it because you can only traverse half the distance each time you try. Vision slipped away for good when Eurydice fell back into the underworld and left Orpheus standing on the narrow steps, crying out for her vanished soul. She was the bride of Hades now, eating pomegranate seeds for all eternity while the poets above all beat their heads with words trying to remember what it was like when the gods were real. All the lute remembers are the fragmented chords of the song, which the robins complete in perfect harmony in the branches.
I look at my watch as if it were a comedian telling jokes in a smoky cabaret, lampooning time and its feeble measure of experience. He has a lot of stories to tell, as I gaze down into the dial. I know that its soul is somewhere at the end of a country road, waiting for a bus to come along and drive him into town. There’s a woman there, waiting in a fourth-floor walk up, standing in front of a two-burner stove heating water. She keeps looking down into the stained pavement to see if he’s come. My watch is late, as usual. It hardly knows what the real time is, anymore. But it wears a tan coat and has pulled down its felt hat at a raffish angle and is enjoying his reflection in the window. A foolish and unreliable friend, who has no reason to be leaving except to sit at the tiny table in her kitchen and chat with her. She’s all he has in this world, the only thing that isn’t time. He knows how fragile his information is, how thin it becomes with every minute ticked away into oblivion. Poor watch, it can’t even tell lies. It is telling little jokes instead, snickering and patting his pocket for cigarettes.
They say the road is as long as your imagination, and as wide as your willingness to believe. The more you open yourself, the more the road disappears and gives you a dimension in which there is no purpose, no goal or end. You are merely there, in the world, among the chattering birds, the scamper of woodchucks in the ancient maple tree. You don’t want to let everything slip away, but it is the smell of freedom coming off the damp fields that tells you this is the season of creation, this is where you are when the earth wants to rebuild itself and grow vast kingdoms out of the mere mud and weeds that abound. You should start walking and watching carefully as the hills slide away, as the earth goes backward and grows cold behind you. Everything is in front of you, the clean bright newly painted fences, the horses browsing the grass in front of the porch, the girls inside painting on tiles and laughing at their clumsy handiwork. Everyone is beautiful in the spring; no one limps or languishes in a dark room. We’re all out here walking toward nowhere, happy to be alive.
When someone starts to play on the piano, it becomes a flower in the mind, a small, delicate pink blossom that wasn’t there before. The notes are bees floating over it, and the earth it grows in is as sweet as the first kiss you ever tasted in the dark, with your hat sliding off your head into the shadows. You know this is the moment when love enters your soul and takes its seat at the back of the narrow room. You hear your footsteps walking away, and you look back at the face that is faintly illuminated by moonlight. Nothing will come of this fragile, disintegrating joy, except that you will remember its apparition as you age. The bus arrives and a stranger steps down to walk away into the steep side street, gazing at his watch before knocking at the door. Such a sweet voice greets him, and pulls him toward her, and her smile is as radiant as numerals on his wrist. He is time and he is loafing on the stained, dog-eared edge of the new century. He has no purpose other than to make his lover laugh, as he tells her how aimless things are. He doesn’t believe in destiny, he says, only pleasure and forgetfulness.
I’m not the only one staring through the hedges, gazing at how spring makes even dull people dream and get drunk on their own longings. At this hour, no one is laboring to make a living. It’s time to be blissful, to celebrate the birthday of the world, to blow out the candles and be kissed. It’s time for foolish wishes and promises, and to give gifts that evaporate in your hands. It’s time to enjoy the deep breaths of nothingness as the night surrounds you. All this will end when summer arrives, and you will see the devastation of the roses, the wilting irises, the fading luster and innocence of the primrose. There’s only one cafe still open on the corner, and you step in. Its ceiling lights are glaring down, and the man wiping the counter has a paper hat on, an apron tied around his waist. He asks if you want coffee and you say yes. You sit on the stool at the end, and there is the road again, the one that roams away into the sparkling universe.
Copyright 2021 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a writer and poet who lives in Vermont.