Reading Eliot in the Rain
I sit out on my balcony, with an old copy of the collected poems of T.S. Eliot. The book is a rather unattractive edition, in a dark teal with a picture of an aging Eliot on the front. The dust jacket has been covered with that plastic that librarians use to make sure that the cover will not stay in place, and will crinkle loudly whenever it is adjusted. The words are difficult, and do not always scan easily. Across the street, a neighbor locks his car doors with a jarring squawk of the remote, making me jump and lose my place.
Time present and time past are both perhaps present on this balcony. I am surrounded by things that are mine, and yet not mine. This book is a used edition that I got at a bookstore; though there are no markings in it, you can tell that it has been read often. I am seated comfortably in an old blue armchair donated to me by my parish priest. Since it is chilly outside, and drizzling rain, I have wrapped myself in two warm blankets. One is a bright blue fleece, a gift from my grandmother who got it for donating money to one of her many charities. The other is a thick brown blanket, with deer on it; it was given to me by my best friend, and yet it always makes me think of my grandfather, now dead for fifteen years. This balcony is attached to my room, in a house that I am leasing from someone I have never met. What I own is what I do not own.
Between the stanzas of the poem I meet one walking whom I had known; some dead master, both one and many. The thinning white hair, the glasses (are they his, or Eliot’s?), both familiar and strange. The college professor who encouraged me to write the first story I ever put to paper, and the poet who guides me through these lines; it does not matter which. He is gone forever beyond recalling. I turn towards him to speak the words of thanks, but my hand meets only the chilly air of a California winter. A bird calls through the rain, the lament of the disconsolate chimera.
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark, and my father (who looks so much like his father) spends a day walking through the empty house he was raised in, before it is torn down for farmland. I have the cold of Scandinavian ice in my spirit, an inheritance from ancestors I never met who spoke a language that I do not understand. And what they had no speech for, when living, they can tell me, being dead: the communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living, especially if that language was Norwegian.
The fog is in the fir trees. The rain comes and goes; sometimes the clouds are a grey sheet, completely featureless. Now and again they break apart, and are blown by the wind, forming and reforming as the sunlight spears through the brief apertures. A blast of wind shakes the bare branches of the trees, and sends a shower of leaves cascading from the roof, scattering onto the driveway. While the light fails on a winter's afternoon, in a secluded cul-de-sac, history is now and California.
A plane descending breaks the air, and time reasserts its presence. My ancestors and the professor take their places beneath the yew tree once again, my father is in Texas, and I am here on a balcony in an old arm chair that makes my legs go to sleep because it has no footrest. The rain is still falling, with that faint scattered roar that seems to fill the senses, and it is time to go back inside, but I cannot bring myself to leave. I close my eyes for a moment, inhaling the scents of rain, smog, and jasmine. There is a stillness between the drops of the rain, and the voice of the waterfall can be heard in the rush of water in the gutter. It is enough. And all shall be well.