A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Back in France after two long, pandemic-bound years at home, in Vermont. I spent most of my time reading, listening to the house brace itself against the wind, watching clouds hesitate in the sky before moving on sluggishly. I heard the birds sing through their routines and then fall silent as the sun began to sink. I heard the mail truck slow and then pass up my empty mailbox each day, and the fuel truck stop and back up with a warning beep, and then the gurgle of fuel oil being swallowed by the tank in the basement. I heard scratches, and little thumps, and muffled cracks coming from the attic as the cold air came through. I heard all that and sat with crossed legs like some aging prisoner who had given up on ever going free again. And then I got on a plane and took off from Logan Airport in Boston, and saw the earth receding like some dream I couldn’t make real enough.
When we landed (my wife and I) in Paris, and walked the customary mile with our carry-ons and stumbled up the stalled escalator, waited in long lines to go through customs and passport checks, and wandered another quarter mile to our gate to go down to Avignon, we were wrinkled, exhausted, our skin as pale as fog, our shoulders throbbing with the pain of lugging our stuff for the past hour. But the sound of French voices passing over me like a river current made me happy. We were in a crowd of African women in bright dresses holding on to kids whose eyes stared up at me with curiosity. I heard girls talking about their school, and men loping along with brief cases, their legs stretching out and catching the ground with a little jerk of their hips. We were a parade, a procession of souls rushing down a long dimly lit corridor toward our scattered destinations. We gazed at each other with mild approval, and then ahead again. It was rewarding to be among my fellow creatures, to forget myself in their flood of energy and fussiness, their eagerness to get home. I wasn’t alone any more, or left with my random thoughts by the hour. I was here, shuffling and jostling with other elbows and straw hats, with smells of lilac, lavender, sweat, and icy cologne. I was home in the world, just where I needed to be.
On the last leg of our car journey to our village, I was staring out the window at the browning fields, at the fruit stands under scrappy poplar trees. It was Provence and the rain had stopped, leaving behind all those Cezanne reds and olive greens exactly as he saw and painted them more than a century ago. The road was straight and was built on top of the old Roman highway Julius Caesar had ordered. The Romans were not very sensuous in their engineering; they believed in efficiency, and permanence. They would never understand or appreciate the curves of walls and odd, eccentric rooms that were built here since the Middle ages and celebrated the shape of the human body. The towns flew by and evaporated, and the hills opened their arms and whisked us east, into the foothills of the Luberon, the region dominated by two hefty, green-blue mountains full of wrinkles and shadows that have inspired writers and artists over the centuries. I felt a thrill ease through my muscles; I was coming back to a place I have lived in many summers for over thirty years. It was good. It was like the smell of coffee and tangy cheese, a sip of dark red wine, a scent of erotic self-indulgence in all the flowers bursting from window planters.
When we pushed open the door to our village house, an old familiar odor of sun-warmed plaster rose up to us as if to give us an embrace. My son had installed new windows and he and my daughter, who both live in France, painted all the rooms a deep white color. It reminded me of the sheets hanging on my mother’s laundry line, or the shirts my father wore to work. I was tumbling slowly through memory as I went around touching the utensil drawer, the light switch, the dusty bottles of whiskey and cordials on a shelf. I sat down in a numbed state and let my mind swim where it wanted to. Deep down, I felt a joy that hadn’t been in me in two long, lonely years. I felt bad for all the neighbors and friends I left behind, but so relieved to find myself waking up to the sound of voices in the stone street, the echo of children’s high-pitched chatter, the gruff voice of a grandmother as she pulled her tiny dog away from a rain spout.
It remained to take a walk to the bar at the other end of the village, and to continue out to the swimming pool. Beyond, lay the dark green hills full of briars and blackberry vines. If you squinted, you could see the edge of the Alps, but that was for another day. Instead, I wanted to smell the olive groves, and hear the wind rattling through apricot trees. Everything had bloomed and the first fruit had burst from the bud; the bees were too busy to notice me. Back in the house it was time to uncork a bottle of red wine from Bandol, a little treat I thought would welcome us back in Roman style. How fragile reality is. As sheer as pond ice, under which the past lies in a glistening remoteness. You dredge up shards of old faces that emerge soaked and strange from their other world. You can’t talk to them; memories are part of some deaf estrangement that preserves their saintly detachment from the living. But there is consolation in gazing into the pale, soft eyes of old departed friends, and feeling the delicate throb of their pulse as you hold a white, translucent hand in yours.
Below everything is the ancient world, laid to rest by countless ages and wars, by erosion and melting, wind and thunderstorms whipping over the craggy limestone hills. I liked to stand in the breeze and gaze out into the infinite haze of time and feel the breath of the Greeks on my cheeks. They form a tragic chorus to all our caried worries and premonitions. Nothing we do here has not been thought of or tried one way and another. The fathers lay side by side with the grandfathers, and the bony fingers touch the fringes of older ancestors, all of whom breathe a wisdom we could use right now. Perhaps that is why I am so in love with this land, this vast mausoleum of cultures and heroes, and warriors, and brave women. They broke the rock, made sturdy walls still standing now, and pitched roofs out of oak and poplar and poised all those slabs of stone on them, before turning to the red tiles that now roof the whole of this gnarled, memory-bound, complicated region.
We took our coffee on the parapet facing the weekly Sunday open-air market in Reillane, a quaint, compact village tucked away in the creases of a foothill, driven upland by the constant invasions of various warrior sects paid for by local bishops and warlords. It’s become touristy in recent years, but it still follows the old rules of clan life, and most of the tables are filled with relatives enjoying a Sunday lunch. I am glad to be among them, to hear their laughter, to observe their love for one another. Everyone opens packages of olives and sausage from the merchants below, and the kids gnaw on the pointed heels of baguets and dip their fingers in the black juice of the olive bag. The men smoke and sip at tiny glasses of red wine and look about with that contented gaze that tells you the world is still ancient and intact.
The young may be full of rebellious thoughts and wear T-shirts proclaiming the fury and outrage of the Doors, Rolling Stones, Smashing Pumpkins and whatever is new that I don’t recognize. But they are seated beside grannies and toddlers and are part of the matrix of family bonds. They can’t escape it altogether, although they are trying hard to be tough and independent. In the end, they all or most of them come home again, and lay aside their hash pipes and Maoist visions of perpetual revolution and sink their teeth into a crunchy salad laden with crumbs of smoked pork and slender, tart gherkins, and whatever else the chefs decide to toss into the mix. It’s hard to drift away from this tapestry of human life, with the figures moving about in a ritual dance of history. God bless them all, and may the slender legs of girls always dance gracefully and the boys hold their waists with desire and admiration. The rock may be slow to crumble, but the human spirit appears to be just as obstinate against change. And that is what I come for — this permanence that is more than pollen and bird flight, more than the wind, or the clouds hanging just above our heads. It’s an obstinacy borne of eternal longing, and an unquenchable desire to be fulfilled.
Copyright 2021 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who once again divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.