THE RAIN STORM
I’m writing these words as a thunderstorm crashes over the house. Great empty wine barrels are tumbling to a stone floor, rolling noisily to the horizon and then disintegrating into gray smoke. These are the old vaults that once stored the prized Greek libations from Sicilian vines when there were vast feasts in heaven and the warriors, the foes, the jesters, musicians, goddesses all mingled together at the long tables and washed down their regrets and bad memories in peals of laughter and woozy reveries.
What a time it was. The heroes were all seated in sandals, homespun tunics, cross belts, quivers and bows piled up at the front door. A harp played under the roar of laughter; the minor deities were at the lesser tables, the great gods lolled about pulling the loose flesh from the legs of roasted mutton, venison, wild boar, a bear or two, the haunches of a camel, alongside platters of ripe peaches, plums, pouting and sweaty globes of tomatoes, sweet lemons from Amalfi, truffles, goat cheese from Masilia (Marseille now), Phoenician chickpea paste, mounds of tabouleh reeking of garlic and olive oil, Turkish candy. The olives were wrinkled or glittering with oil and garlic flakes, and they formed tiny Vesuvius mounds on all the tables. Platters kept coming out of the vast kitchens and were laid under the gaze of Zeus and Hera, the petulant stares of Hephaestus and Hecate, and all those who, like Ajax, were mere mortals and guests on their best behavior. God help the commoner if he should refuse a beggar a chine of moist pig meat only to find out it was none other than Ares in disguise!
But then, it was only a late Spring rain, and the heavens were now empty. The echoes that rang out over the fields and bounded off the nearby peaks were the signs of cosmic loneliness when Greece gave up its mythology and Byzantium replaced it with mournful lamentations over Christ and the martyrs. Human consciousness seems to have shrunk more and more through the long, war-torn, strife-blistered centuries. Now, instead of divine thunder overhead, we hear moans of mortar shells landing on school roofs and maternity wards. Or the staccato bursts from Payton Gendron’s A17 assault rifle, the one that thundered into the aisles of the Tops Supermarket in Buffalo. The dead fell heavily to the ground, as others rushed to hide in the dark. One father hid his daughter in a cold bin in case he was shot and couldn’t protect her. The rhetoric afterward was almost as hot, burning in the throats of relatives and survivors, but some already knew such wild anger would scald the evening newscasts, but after a few weeks of repetition and numbing, die away into the echoes of all the other mass shootings. Some 200 or more such mass shootings have already occurred this year alone.
But in the twilight of the rainstorm, the once barren, winter-starved landscape became so green my eyes were drunk on all the energy pouring from the earth. Puddles spread like so much molten silver; branches hung low, laden with slow-moving waterfalls of broken glass. The spindly saplings suddenly darkened and began to look like girls staring in the mirror at their sudden loveliness. The earth was black and swollen, beads of sweat forming on the tips of grass blades, as if a womb were convulsing with painful fertility. I felt my own body writhe and suddenly fall backward in time; my arms were long, my legs tense as bamboo shoots. I was young again, but only in a half-note of a moment. I dare not take myself for real. It was important to try my feet on the spongy, unreliable ground, and check to see that I was not going to fly away into a low-hanging cloud of illusion. I must hold onto the terrifying world, with all its gore and sadistic malice, and not let this deluge of spring unwind me from my bones. I walked with Proteus as he led the way into the invisible sea before us – where he would change at will into a fish, a bird, a streak of gold, a shadow, and still look back at me smiling.
The gods are not gone. They hover in the ambiguity at the corner of my eyes. I thought heaven was empty, but given how the ground flourishes in such abundance, I am reassured that nature can think on its own, but takes some inspiration from the sky. Standing there in the mud, with my feet sliding around, I can almost believe that a divine force pervades what we are. I’m not a religious man; I have left behind my childhood Catholicism, my altar boy purity, my wayward attempt to reach the priesthood. All that is behind me, like some worn down path that I may have been one of the last to plod along. Old priests are all that remain, it seems. Old nuns hold firmly to their vision, and I am grateful. But I went off into the seeming void of my atheism and thought I would never behold the backyard as a dazzling display of diamonds and rubies, as a smoldering, seedy, but fertile paradise awaiting new poets to celebrate it.
I smell the cordite in the air, the odors of war and death, as I stand here, my face glinting with a bit of stardust. I know I am given to certain dreamy expectations that I will be touched by some celestial hand. I know it will never happen. My heart may ache for it, if only because I find the world so wounded and tortured with human evil that I want to escape. So I create my private fantasies of what lies beyond mere eyesight. I sometimes whirl around as if the great palaces of the gods were towering over me, and that a draw bridge has been let down to allow me to flee. But then, I am just as quick to recover, draw a breath from the damp heart of spring and continue my vigil at the edge of the yard.
But I also know this: that I stand at the threshold of the real as if I were among the first Greeks to imagine Zeus, and before him, Uranus. I can see the vague outline of these figures and would offer my services to re-invent them. Perhaps that is the truth I long for – that the gods never quite disappear, but simply dissolve from memory when there is so much distraction created by the modern temper. The Salem witch trials come to mind; the old pinch-penny divines of the Puritan era, Increase Mather and his son Cotton, bent over taking notes as they grilled girls about their sexual fantasies, eager to condemn these innocents to the ordeals of the well and the crushing weight of stones on their chests, but all the while reaping the erotic jewels from their confessions. The Cathars are another story, worshipping an impossible standard of purity and viciously destroying any and all deviations from its terrifying unreality. Or Hitler with his insane need to destroy all the Jews of the world, and to resort to a final solution when he was running out of time to complete the task. I stand in the moist grass thinking how many times has the real world been laid waste to preserve a flimsy illusion some tyrant had imposed upon his desperate subjects.
Let the thunder pound again with its giant mallets on the taut skin of the tympani. I’m ready to be frightened at the unlimited power of the sky to dash all these papery assumptions and to leave the earth pristine and savage, able to reproduce itself every spring and to allow all those who are strong enough to go on living. The air is laced with the faint odor of fresh mint, and the starker perfume of mold. Life and death, innocence and the rind of visionary splendor still left to a man as old as I am. I go back to the house to make coffee and to sit in my study chair and think about the mind of the sky, if indeed it has one. Up there, beyond the flux of weather and continual change, are vast planetary bodies hanging in the dark, whirling around one another and the sun. The cosmos is so vast and impenetrable that it is hard to imagine how mere mortals can seek to limit it to a few dogmatic assumptions and threaten anyone with death who dares to doubt them. But there it is, and that is how we live now. Poor, deluded Payton Gendron bought his assault rifle, his suit of armor, his Go-Pro camera, his computer, and plotted for months how to remove the presence of blacks from the nation. He fed his sickly imagination on the deceptions of Tucker Carlson and all the other hate-mongering peddlers of fear and loathing, and then drove to Buffalo to execute his plan. I pity him, but I know he is from a long line of such persecutors.
The thunder that roared over me an hour earlier was meant to remind me that heaven hangs over us, and the great wine barrels that tumble from their lashings in the storerooms are all about liberation, about how the vine and the sunshine and the humble crafts of fieldworkers can bring about a deep cleansing of the soul. Greece was born in a ray of sunshine, and prospered in the meadows of the Aegean, and offered beauty as the highest truth. Perhaps Plato was right when he said his own poetry could not copy nature adequately; he was afraid to dilute the truth of creation to serve his own ego. He burned his manuscripts in the back yard and went to work trying to save young men from falling too easily into the trap of believing that the truth could spring from the intellects of corrupt rulers.