A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature: over 400,000 monthly users
We watched the snow piling up in Boston streets. The air was a scrim of crystals tumbling out of the nothing above. The streetlights were dim, down to the power of guttering candles. Nothing was spared the tyranny of the silence. Even the cars were submerged in idle daydreams, with their canopies of ice tufted like meringue on their roofs. A plow came by and troweled more amnesia onto them, until the vestiges of modern angst lay like the rubble in a battlefield. This was the city Alzheimer imagined in his notebooks on dementia, an unending blankness as broad as the Great Plains. Here infinity unfolded its ruler and found its reach too short to measure the dissolving world. Not even Harvard, the great fortress of American self-awareness, could withstand the dissolving edges of reality. The redbrick buildings leaned into the wind like drunks stumbling out of a bar. The Yard, where Emerson invited Walt Whitman for a stroll, shriveled into a blank page. Emerson gave the white-bearded bard a dire warning not to publish his new addition to Leaves of Grass, the “Calamus Poems,” with its sexuality celebrated by a man no longer willing to hide his homosexual desires. Whitman ignored his mentor, and the poems appeared in the next edition, black print on white pages, footsteps in the snow. The ice covered their conversation, and Boston went on quietly aging under the ancient beech trees.
We were the benefactors of a truce with the polar winds here in central Vermont. Somehow the storm hugged the coast from Maine to Virginia and dumped a Sahara of snow dunes and desolation onto the prim white villages. We were tucked into our woolens and gazed forlornly at our temperature gauges to find the needle just a hair above zero. My hands tingled and then went numb struggling over the old snow to the car to go get the newspapers and some breakfast things. But the Times bin was bare; the snow had prevented the trucks from bringing up the papers this far north. Shelves were bare, as if we were headed into some catastrophic siege. But they were just rearranging things in the store. The mind was so tuned to devastating news that it was hard to be persuaded that nothing untoward was coming. I came back to inhale the aroma of smoky bacon, and to whip up our omelet, which I soaked in barbecue sauce for a new flavor. Biscuits were in the oven, baked beans bubbling away in a saucepan. Peace reigned over our kitchen, but I lamented the lack of my fat newspaper to mull over.
The day proceeded to turn over heavily, with the sun appearing to be bolted to a chink of sky between morose gray clouds. Poor Boston, poor humble Providence, all those rivets of history to our genesis as a nation graying in the ancient countryside. The dull red barns were, as the poet Robert Bly once remarked, sailing like ghost ships in the blur of snow. I gobbled up the local paper in five minutes, glanced at the obituaries looking for a familiar name, read the details of lives that had been spent toiling away modestly at nursing jobs, dairy farming, car garages, snow plowing, house painting and roofing, until old age caught up and slowed these honest workers. They struggled to lift a foot off the pull of gravity and found one day it was too much and succumbed. The frozen earth opened its rib and took them in, one by one.
A house in such troubled times is like a fragile ark; it creaks, and complains in its joints deep in the recesses of the basement. The windows frost over and go blind, and the world, such as it is, recedes little by little behind opaque cataracts. At night, when the supper I ate wakes me up with heart burn or the jitters, I think of all the threats bearing down on us — inflation, Putin, the rumbles of Parliament as the Brits try to deal with Bojo, the prime minister; the darkened windows of restaurants here in my little town, the fulminations of the virus and its repertoire of transformations into new menaces, and roll over to a cool patch of the mattress to coax myself back to unconsciousness. Dreams are no better than my frets, alas. I am in a dark tunnel in the bowels of a cave somewhere in the wilderness of the Rockies, coming upon a campfire and some drifters mumbling their thoughts to one another. This dream has many variations — I’m hunted by a rogue band of state police, or terrified by a roar further down the cave path I’m on, and I wake up again. Not happy, not joyful, but at peace to find myself no longer twitching under the blankets. The dark seems to comfort me, little strings of light coming down through the curtains from a tired moon.
But for some odd reason, February changes my mood. It’s the birth month of my father, who narrowly made it into the age of Pisces, like me. He was proud to have been a poet in his college days, and to win all the contests, and attract a bevy of pretty coeds to his room. He was handsome, as good looking as F. Scott Fitzgerald, if you can believe an early photo of him done at a studio. He wrote well, and some of his lines of poetry were actually pretty good. They were a bit musty, since he read only the rhymed verses of the 19th century for his inspiration. He thought my unrhymed verse was just scribbles and typewriter doodles. He would throw a page of my work onto the ottoman and be done with it. He would wear a smug expression that said he was the better writer. Oh well, I said nothing, and would go off to tuck this page among the others that were curling in a corner of my dresser drawer. I loved Dylan Thomas back then, and Robert Frost, and the desolate loneliness of Robert Lowell. I read them with pure devotion. I dare say my dad would have tossed their books aside as well. These weren’t the Whittiers and Wordsworths that were his touchstones.
But his faith in himself was a consolation to me. Someone had to believe in himself, I reasoned. I clearly had no such ballast in my hull. I was a creature of the wind and the summer rain, the grassy hills at the foot of the imagination. I had no allegiance to tradition; I was just a wanderer in the rolling hills, looking for the first steely glint of ocean over the next ridge. If I found it, I would sail away to the horizon and never come back. But that shore always receded at my next footstep. It was a magical sea I wanted to float on, and to feel the tug of mysterious currents drawing me ever onward into the jeweled night sky over India, into the dissonant music of the Bedouins as they camped in the Gobi desert. I could never fully escape the rootless culture of the suburbs where I was brought up. I learned much later that this sea I imagined was merely my own mind, with its tortured longings.
Boston is wrapped in ghostly robes and broods at the cradle of democracy. The spirits of that revolution against tyranny have ceased to inspire this citadel of self-assurance. You walk its streets in warmer times and marvel at the luster of green paint on the doors of gentlemen’s clubs and posh haberdasheries, at the bulging stands of the news dealers. You might climb a flight of stairs to a cheap cafeteria and find yourself among the office workers, all waiting patiently for their lunch orders to be called. The women’s skirts are deeply creased from all the hours of sitting at desks answering phones and typing letters. The men are on their second week wearing the same suit, with the knees bunged, and the loafers getting seriously scuffed. The faces are tired, maybe from too much coffee, too much competition for the few sops their masters offer to keep things humming. These are the middle ranks of humanity looking around at the others, gobbling down their food in the ten minutes remaining to their lunch break. No one here could handle a butter churn, or milk a cow, or fish for trout in a now polluted stream. No one here to change a wagon wheel or grease an axle. Or feed a horse, use a curry comb on its dusty hide. Just numbers and computer programs to attend to for eight long tedious hours.
Now all this humdrum of machines is insulated under a foot of thick forgetfulness. The city is closed, the oyster bars idle, the cars parked at the expired meters turning into white whales. A cop comes along and remarks on the three citations stuck to a window wiper. He laughs, moves on. He’s the last of the young men patrolling this empty street, keeping order in an inert corner of the republic. The town crier is out of work, or we would hear him crying “Hear ye, hear ye!” as he rang a bell and woke the sleepers from their last dreams.
Copyright 2022 Paul Christensen.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the South of France.