A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
It was hot yesterday, so hot the sun stung my forearms as I walked along at the antique market in Bonnieux, a village hanging on the side of a bluish mountain squared off here and there with old vineyards and austere stone houses. The sky was nearly cloudless, and so dark in its blue depths you had to stare up at it from time to time. It seemed unreal, almost like some huge silk canopy dyed in India and hung out to dry. The merchants were tired and fed up with the thin crowds that had come to gaze and amble along without buying. The smarter ones had found strips of shade to put there folding chairs into, and to sit with an old paperback on their lap, a cup of tea from a thermos, some stale-looking cookies waiting in a chipped dish. I hardly got a nod as I passed by. The heat had drained everyone of the desire to talk. So, there lay the past, sprawled out on blankets, the legacies of thrifty grandmothers who had let go these tea pots and wine glasses in the twilight of old age. No one wanted to keep them; the steak knives were in their original cases, the candlesticks had no more desire to illuminate a dining table while guests looked at one another in the glow of their golden light. There they sat, morose and cut off from the living, waiting to be bought by a tourist and taken home to the relentless alienation of someone else’s culture.
Something hardens in each of these objects until they are encased in a kind of invisible amber; you can’t animate them anymore. They have departed with the ghosts of laughter and clinking of crystal, the coughs and the scraping of chairs on the tiles. Provence is littered with such sounds that have no home anymore. You hear them as you stroll along, the wind rattling the brittle leaves of the plane trees, the stones rutted from cart wheels that had rolled here for centuries, pulled by old nags daydreaming as they moped along. The women have faces shaped by many winters, their lips pouty and uncertain whether to smile or retreat into their ancient privacy. A man walked ahead of me, limping slightly, testing a bunion on the uneven cobbles as he climbed a ramp into the plaza above. When he got there, he looked about and headed for the cafe for a glass of wine. I followed along, and then veered off to make my way among tables spread with old silver services, vases of no particular charm, linens that had been illuminated with baroque needlework initials. We mingled together, the living and the dead, in this gathering of relics, with our voices murmuring and the breeze lifting the corners of tablecloths. I could hear whispers of German, Dutch, some syllables of Italian, a rare English-speaking voice here and there asking about prices. Everything was marked up in the closing weeks of the tourist season; no one wanted to pay such ransoms for things that had crumbled into oblivion.
We were like ants traversing infinity, with the hills staring down at us with stolid, unsmiling patience. We were just passing through, mere ephemera in the theater of eternity, as the molecules of time shimmered and glistened over us. I had a glass of cold white wine; my wife sipped at a Perrier with a slice of lemon. We had little to say, but enjoyed the shade and the velvety texture of people talking at a distance. There was nothing here for us. We had our share of knickknacks and oil lamps long missing their wicks; we had bargained for the ink blotter and come away thinking we had saved a few euros, when in fact the merchant was smiling to himself at our naivety. Nothing comes away easily from the gravity of history; you pay more than you should to possess some orphaned memory that you place carefully on a shelf where it continues to disappear slowly.
On the way home, the dry fields were lying there without growing. Their fertility had curled up and fallen from the stems. The only harvest left was the grape vines dark with clusters of grapes. The baskets were piling up in the vineyard barns, and the men with gnarled fingers were having their late lunch and watching the sky for any sign of rain. I could smell the tangy fruit on the wind, and knew the Roman gods were still lingering in the air, advising tacitly how to bring forth the mysterious elixir of the stony soil.
The crushing momentum of modernity keeps goading the young to dance faster, to consume more, to stay in step as they left school and entered the vast, anonymous deserts of work. They lunged forward to grasp the future by its slippery wrists, while the earth turned on its dry pivot and the stars drifted in a trance of indifference. I felt my way carefully down the narrow road, always on the look out for some reckless twenty-year old from Marseille tearing around the next bend, showing off for his girlfriend. We were teetering on the edge of the moment, and he was trying to turn his life into a beam of light. He had no sympathy for me, as I patted the accelerator with my toe and felt the caress of each dip in the road. I was happy going this slow, easing along like some Galapagos turtle out for a leisurely inspection of his domain. Once we reached Apt with its burnt-crust houses and faded tile roofs, we could relax a little. It was afternoon, a time when every family sat quietly after a big dinner and sipped on sweet wine as the old men fell into their first snores in the living room.
The bar we passed was hosting another boules tournament in the parched sand. The old farmers were clicking their iron balls in one hand and dabbing their foreheads with a rag. Their heavy paunches showed an adoration for Bacchus. When one of them, an obese eighty-year old, squatted down and let fly a boule into the air, the others looked up and watched as it came down and sent an offending rival’s ball into the shadows. Game won. The men stooped over and got their balls and went to the other side of the piste to begin again. The ritual would never end. It was like the rain that came delicately in April, and the wind that rose in late August, and the first chill vein of the air come tickling at shirtsleeves to announce the end of fertility in the world. Death stalked the air around the setting sun. The silent retreat of mortality into its slumber was marked by sharply etched shadows, a feeling of remoteness in the weakening light.
It was then, in this museum atmosphere, that you heard something urging you to go home to your house to read, to think, to hear the voices that cannot stop talking in the dry wind. The barns were full of hay; the tractor was wheeled up to the shed and put under a ragged wooden roof. The tools that rang out their music all summer long were now slumbering again. A dog sat in the sun watching the birds peck grain from the tire ruts. Walking up the narrow street to our house, you could smell the makings of a salad, the pungent odor of oregano and lemon mixing in a bowl, the tongue-curling odor of a ripe tomato being sliced on a breadboard. The cold ham was neatly arranged on a platter. Pickles were piled up in a small bowl, and olives were spilling out of a plastic bag onto a dinner plate. The kids were milling around the kitchen hoping to get a handout from the old woman turning potatoes in the skillet.
Time holds everything in its ghostly hands, like someone touching the hot wine glasses on a merchant’s table. They gleamed in each facet of their cut patterns, like diamonds. A girl hardly knew her future or how things would end when she had grown old. She was immortal as she stood there in the cool afternoon breeze, smiling and touching her hair. She would fall in love one day, she would dance with all of nature when it was throbbing with energy. She was one of its daughters and would be honored with marriage and children. But that lay far ahead of her, like some meandering path in the hills, where every foot crushed the stiff curls of sage and wild oregano. The blistered rocks would be covered in a mantle of light snow come winter, and the smell of some aged red wine would fill the night air with the breath of an ancient god.
Copyright 2021 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.