The impeachment hearings in the Intelligence and Judiciary committees lifted me up cautiously, and suspended my disbelief ever so briefly. I was fragile hanging there in the air above my television, I was almost in a state of consolation. I could have extended a finger and felt the soft caress of an angel's wing I might have walked away for a second and found a cup of coffee smoking in the kitchen. I saw something in the golden illumination of the oven that looked like a chicken roasting, with small potatoes, a few melting onions, some stubs of carrot, sprigs of rosemary turning a light brown. I could smell cinnamon in the air, and out the window, I saw geese making a lazy chevron in the sky as they headed for a pond. I wanted to smoke my pipe. I wanted to sit down and compose a poem and not even think of how difficult it is to publish it. I hummed a tune whose words were long forgotten. All this because I fell into the drugged state of believing that things might be changing for the better.
lt wasn't long before the sour taste of reality began to fill my tongue. The vitriol of Doug Collins, the nasal insinuations of Jim Jordan, the denunciations of Devin Nunes kept pullling me back down into my old paralysis. I had felt love for a moment. I had just seen the face of my wife when I first met her, a comely face framed in blond hair, with her blue eyes sparkling, her delicate long-fingered hands toying with the edge of a book of poems. We had briefly talked about a poet I knew, Dabney Stuart, whom I recommended to her as a topic for her research paper in our modern poetry seminar. She had a way of looking at me with a mixture of humor and sincerity that made my heart float like a serene otter.
But that tingling event was fifty years ago, and I couldn't retrieve it from the gray winter air of my living room. I wanted to kiss her as I remembered her in that moment. I wanted to believe that democracy was still alive and lying there on the altar of power in the huge rooms where the hearings were taking place. I wanted to walk down the aisle and cast my vote for freedom, for the Constitution, for the promise of the future. But the voices I heard were saying I was not to be admitted into the proceedings. I didn't belong. I was naive, impressionable, unfinished as a work of the republic. I wasn't yet a fully obedient citizen with the hunger to accept the diminishing rights of my perishable life.
So I ignored my ephemeral elation. I told myself that the age was devouring more than my own hopes. It was causing what Michelle Goldberg calls "Democracy grief." This is a new illness, a malady without remedy. It has to do with the news, with the steady, unrelenting despair that pours into our ears each time we turn on NPR or CNN or stream the commentary from CBS news on Apple television. I'm weary of it. I want to get drunk on fantasy, to let Christmas rent my soul for a while and fill it with the sugary notes of Christmas songs. I want to be stupid. To sucker for any sort of hope just so long as I can forget that there is anyone on earth like Jim Jordan. I don't want to see his comb-over, or to watch the heavy jowls of Devin Nunes work while he listens to Adam Schiff lay out the facts and details of Trump's machinations. I don't want the shills to keep interrupting Jerry Nadler as he bangs his gavel and calls for order. But the sugarplums are nowhere to be found.
Visions are not edible, alas. I would love to wave my hand in the darkening air of afternoon and produce a plate of hot pigs' ears dusted with pastry sugar, but the plate is empty and lies there in a forlorn shadow on the shelf of the kitchen. I can't make magic. I have no gene inherited from Merlin. My forest is not enchanted, but barren. The ruins of established religion lie all about me when I go to town. The great stone buildings are cold and empty, and it would be a painful errand to kneel in a pew and try to bring a god to the surface of my consciousness. I can't do it. But I want to. I am starving for inspiration, for a smell of a garden after it rains. I want to hold a flower in my hand and give it to my wife as she sits by the window. I want to talk in rimed couplets to a stranger, and have him swoon at my eloquence. But I'm shy and introverted and pass him by as I go into the hardware store for some nails.
All t he great well-wishers of our past, the thinkers and epic poets of the American Renaissance, could speak so clearly of what we needed in our lives. "I believe a kelson of the creation is love," cried Whitman. "The Soul selects her own society, then shuts the door," said Emily Dickinson. "God bless Captain Vere!" cried Billy Budd a moment before being hanged. "I prefer not to," said Bartleby the Scrivener as he gazed out a window at a brick wall. I walked with Thoreau to his cabin many a day when I was a kid reading all the masters. I was a teenager when I read, "I had not thought death had undone so many," holding a page from The Waste Land in my trembling fingers. I was an adolescent with the shadow of a moustache when I first read, "I see the boys of summer in their ruin," by Dylan Thomas. Or noted all those men "lunching on Calvary" in Howard Nemerov's poem. "The open road leads to the used car lot," said Louis Simpson in one of my favorite poems of my twenties.
If I had a church, more like a chapel, to retreat to in my darker moods it was the used bookstores I haunted in Philadelphia, Chicago, Cincinnati. I had given up my Catholic faith long ago, and now turned the yellowing pages of discarded books from rural libraries. I could see smudge marks where someone had underlined a word or made a comment in the margin. "He who holds this book holds me," said Whitman. I was holding some ancestral citizen's erasures and dog ears from an era where optimism and trust were taken for granted. I was holding a ghost whose breath was still present in the creak of the page as I turned it. I had filled my unconscious with this mosaic of American prayers. I breathed in the departed spirits of the men and women who had read these words before me. How I ached to meet them.
But there I stood before an open cabinet in the kitchen searching for a piece of chocolate before returning to the rap of Nadler's gavel, the sound of men clearing their throats. Pages were running around, and aide was leaning down to whisper into the ear of one of the mighty, his hand over his mouth to avoid being lip-read. I studied the aloof expressions of women sitting behind the panelists as they gazed out into the bleached light of the TV cameras. What were they thinking, I wondered. Did they feel history passing over them like the wings of the Holy Ghost? Were they being anointed with the sacred oils of wisdom and memory? Or were they thinking about supper and the soft, alluring obscurity of nightfall? What was I thinking?
After the last rap of the gavel, and the sudden scraping of chairs, the stooped postures of photographers who had been crouching for hours, I was left with the same emptiness as Greeks may have felt when the oratory of Demosthenes had ended with a rustle of his toga, the dry rasp of his sandals on the marble floor. The brilliant Hellenic sunshine poured out of the sky and into the faces of those who had come to have their famished hearts filled with the manna of freedom. I couldn't help but feel that I was also there, milling around in the stone amphitheater, my own robe dusty from the long walk from the narrow streets of the city. I couldn't deny that the hearings had awakened in me some ancient emotion I couldn't name. But the round, sonorous phrases that poured from the mouths of Democrats all those long afternoons were no different from when Pericles walked in the shadow of the Erechtheion, under the columns of the Parthenon, and looked around him at the glittering marble institutions that had given birth to the western soul. I was there, I stood beside him, I was part of the living wind that blew the hair of the Congressmen who were fighting for democracy today as they came down the steps into the waiting cars.