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Old snow. It’s like the linens piled up in a corner of a thrift shop, the kind passed down from grandmother to mother and then to a daughter who regarded them as useless mementoes of another time. So off they went to a charity that passed it along to a thrift shop, where someone picked through the bin looking for old placemats and pillowcases and stopped at one to admire the embroidery in one corner, with lavish swirls and puffy initials. In a muddy hump behind my garden is a patch of linen-pale snow, with a few twigs posing as needlework. A bird had hopped across the surface and left behind its signature of cuneiform footprints.
Everything rhymes in this world; you have only to use your imagination to pair off the most disparate and incongruous twins of random nature. Take the high-voltage towers that run along one edge of Austin, Texas. I might never have guessed that such industrial clutter could ever be dignified by a sacred object until my friend, the poet John Campion, pointed out that these were Hopi kachina dolls, avatars of the messenger spirits who linked human and divine worlds. The landscape was transformed instantly into a vast evocation of the Native American imagination.
So I look at my property with renewed expectation each time I trudge out in my snow boots and winter coat and stare at the incidental events that lay at the gates of the insect world, the underground kingdoms of hibernating animals awaiting the first throb of spring. As I get older, the trite reality that made me yawn as a younger man suddenly reveals itself as an unpredictable dimension of miracles. My wife came to me with her water glass this morning and showed me a large winged insect that had landed there. It had two sets of wings, a striped thorax, long antennae now drooping lifelessly in front of its tiny head and bulging eyes. My Webster’s 2nd Unabridged has a colored plate showing all the varieties of American insects. As far as I can determine this was either a syrphus or a robber fly. Either way, it is like some lustrous ornament you might find on a Faberge egg.
How did it get inside, my wife asked? She was delighted with her discovery and took phone pics of it, and stared at all the details of this strange, otherworldly creature. Here in the dead of winter, in the ice-bound mortuary of early February, something has flown through the zinc-matte air to find its way up into the bedroom and to risk a drink of water. It was a messenger come to tell us something, I mused. It could easily have been some odd angel-winged stranger knocking on our door and asking for a glass of water. Either way, we were not in familiar reality, to be sure.
I’m convinced that the world as I know it is just a film stretched over a surreal landscape, a place known only to Greek mythology and Chinese polytheism, to the sculptors of the Dogan people in West Africa, who took nothing for granted and assumed the entire world was one continuous thread of kachina magic running from amoebas to manta rays to the swirling galaxies of the universe.
Imagine Monet’s eyes as he looked out over his pond at Giverny as he sat there with brush in hand, a palette loaded with blobs of incandescent paint, and his vision filling with the wonder of all those hues and shades of light beginning to vibrate in the morning sun. He was no longer sitting in a remote corner of rural France, he was in the company of the painters of Lascaux, the mystics who brooded over the walls of a pharaoh’s tomb before illuminating them with images of another world. He was holding hands with Alice as she walked through the looking glass and explored an unknown universe. Timothy Leary had nothing on Monet’s ecstasy, no matter how he tried to take flight from his launch pad of LSD and psylocybin. Monet was a brother to Hieronymus Bosch as he painted the epileptic visions of St. Anthony.
I am only a humble pedestrian on this path trod by so many gifted voyagers of the unseen. My artifacts are not the traces of gods and saints, the revelations of mystics in the throes of divine communication. My epiphanies arise from a few twigs dropped by a bird foraging for seeds in a scraggly pine tree. Newton would probably laugh at me from under his apple tree if he saw me crouched over trying to read the garbled language of a dead leaf. At least I was looking, I would tell him. How many of my fellow mortals ever bother to question their literal eyes and try to peer through some tear in the veil cast over the mundane world?
I am sure I am not the first one to think that children hunched over a piece of paper with a crayon or marker are reading some strange language they will forget the moment they grow older. My daughter once painted a monster on our medicine cabinet in the bathroom. I was startled by the strangeness of this image, a kind of platypus with long bill and one eye, and a fat, rather lethargic body staring off into some landscape only she could explain. But many years later I came across a similar creature daubed in manganese on a cave wall, a transcription of the same hallucinatory vision. The mystic who scrawled this strange orphan of a wandering asteroid or exoplanet worked alone, as if he bequeathed no legacy to the future. He might have been on peyote for all I know. My daughter went to work cold sober on her rendition of the same creature, seated primly on the carpet of the bathroom in rural Texas. But it was the same vision!
So, out on my patch of dirty snow equipped with no more than a stout pair of walking shoes and my trusty jacket, I was prepared to lean over the shoulder of some invisible force arranging the rhymes of the universe in the dark blue shadows behind the house. But if you come prepared, you wont be favored, I’m afraid. You must happen upon something without intention. It must surprise you; it must leap up at you like a jack-in-the-box and reveal a fragment of the eternal circus playing on the edges of sanity.
Imagine Beethoven leaning down into his keyboard tapping out the ethereal music he heard, even though stone deaf by now. He couldn’t hear the birds in his garden; he was slow to recognize the low-throated call of his wife at the foot of the stairs. But he heard something else, a vast interstellar orchestra vibrating in the lingering illumination of the Big Bang. He could only capture a few strains at a time, but he knew that if he could but trace one melodic pathway with his fingers, he might just glimpse the majesty of the divine imagination at work. I’m always puzzled to recall that Ludwig’s surname was beet garden, a homely and unromantic patch of ground reserved for winter vegetables, and to my taste at least, an unsavory food once cooked up in a stew pot. But there it was, a man given the lowly moniker of a kitchen patch and provided with sufficient genius to sit on the same park bench with Einstein and Plato, Dante and Confucius, and move the tracker on the Ouija board, and listen in to the celestial monologue rolling end to end of the universe.
My grandfather complained to his doctor once that he kept hearing symphonic music as he sat in his easy chair. He was annoyed that he could not be spared the pestiferous sounds of violins sighing like the wind, or the roll of a tympanum and clash of cymbals every now and then. He heard the thump of the double basses, he said, and the trills of flutes and piccolos, and took a gulp before he said, I hate it. It was beautiful but it wasn’t mine to enjoy. The doctor pursed his lips, as I recall from his telling this story over dinner one night, and said, you are among the very favored few in this world to overhear the inspiration of Mozart and Verdi, sir. You have been given a divine dispensation to listen in to what the rest of us are denied.
Well, there you have it. An ordinary, hard-working machinist like my granddad, who lived his entire working life behind a lathe making ammunition for the federal arsenal at Rock Island, Illinois, the son of an iron smelter from Norway, and the dutiful husband of a woman who routinely killed the rattle snakes in the barn on their homestead in New Mexico with an iron skillet. He alone among the common clay of our family was provided with a visa to be entertained by the gods. If that isn’t a mystery, nothing is. As the poet once said, I hunt among stones, and what lies among them are all the secrets of the cosmos.
Copyright 2022 Paul Christensen.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.