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Archive for August, 2017

 

Grass

by Carl Sandburg

 

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.

Shovel them under and let me work—

I am the grass; I cover all.

 

And pile them high at Gettysburg

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.

Shovel them under and let me work.

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

What place is this?

Where are we now?

 

I am the grass.

Let me work.

 

 

This is the third post in my Cemetery Series, poems I left at a peaceful cemetery in northern Michigan a few weeks ago. I’m getting around to them one by one even though I placed all of them on graves on the same day.

 

I don’t even know if I like this poem. A battle for a noble cause (Gettysburg) is side-by-side ones that seem pointless now (Ypres, Verdun, et al), and I left it on the grave of a very young man who died for the great cause of the last century, the fight against tyranny and hate.  But I guess that’s the point. The grass don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong.

 

Sandburg was surely thinking of the bodies of men. I read this and I’m thinking of the body of a beautiful young woman, Heather Heyer, who was fighting evil with peaceful protest instead of a sword, a gun, a grenade.

 

The poem sounds like a protest folk song from the sixties. You can just hear Joan Baez or Judy Collins singing

 

What place is this?

Where are we now?

 

In fact poet Carl Sandburg was also a folk musician. He used to accompany his poem readings with a guitar, and he also sang. You can listen here to one here.

 

Sandburg (1878-1967) goes in an out of fashion, but he’s a quintessentially American poet with a quintessentially American life. Born in Illinois, his parents were Swedish immigrants who worked hard to provide for their seven children. His father was a blacksmith’s helper for a railroad, his mother cleaned rooms at a hotel.

 

Sandburg left school after eighth grade and started working at age 13. His resume reads like a Walt Whitman poem:  shoe shiner, dishwasher, hobo, milk truck driver, porter, house painter, soldier, brick layer, farm laborer, hotel servant, coal heaver. He attended college but never graduated. His long public career included work as a journalist, film reviewer, poet, editor, writer of children’s stories, and most famously, biographer of Abraham Lincoln.

 

He was a favorite of Marily Monroe (a fascinating story), spoke before both houses of Congress, and appeared on What’s My Line?  Take a few minutes to watch him on that show—he’s so charming, disguising his deep voice as a child’s to fool the panelists. (Also charming:  how literate and educated the celebrity panelists are, how elegant and respectful. Sigh.) At the end of the clip there’s a touching tribute to Sandburg’s efforts to build a foundation in honor of journalists who died during World War II.

 

 

In light of the new proposed immigration standards, it’s worth quoting Sandburg’s reflections on one of the themes of his life:

“My father couldn’t sign his name,” wrote Sandburg; “[he] made his ‘mark’ on the CB&Q payroll sheet. My mother was able to read the Scriptures in her native language, but she could not write, and I wrote of Abraham Lincoln whose own mother could not read or write! I guess that somewhere along in this you’ll find a story of America.” 

 

 

 

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Shameless plugging


Today is the thirteenth anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis (all good here) and a day I’m going to do something I’ve always thought I shouldn’t. Give up my anonymity and promote something I’ve written. Makes me feel like I’m wearing a push-up bra and shimmying my way into a bar, but it’s not really that big a deal and I hope you don’t mind.

 

So here’s a link to a piece I wrote for Easy Street Magazine. While you’re at the site, take a gander at the other pieces there. . . some wonderful writing.

 

Excuse me as I find my way to the disco dance cage. Shimmy shimmy.

 

 

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Disposal

by W.d. Snodgrass

 

The unworn long gown, meant for dances

She would have scarcely dared attend,

Is fobbed off on a friend—

Who can’t help wondering if it’s spoiled

But thinks, well, she can take her chances.

 

We roll her spoons up like old plans

Or failed securities, seal their case,

Then lay them back. One lace

Nightthing lies in the chest, unsoiled

By wear, untouched by human hands.

 

We don’t dare burn those cancelled patterns

And markdowns that she actually wore,

Yet who do we know so poor

They’d take them? Spared all need, all passion,

Saved from loss, she lies boxed in satins

 

Like a pair of party shoes

That seemed to never find a taker;

We send back to its maker

A life somehow gone out of fashion

But still too good to use.

 

 

 

Little Pearl D. Deiwiler, on whose grave I left W.D. Snodgrass’ poem, died at age seven, much too young to have acquired the worldly goods listed in the poem—the dance gowns, spoons, dress patterns, lace underwear, clothes bought on sale. My bad, I didn’t do the math.  I was too taken with the name “Pearl,” such an old-fashioned name and a good match for these lines:

a life somehow gone out of fashion

but still too good to wear.

 

Poor little Pearl, so young. Poor Pearl’s parents.  Like the communal speaker in this poem, they were left with only the worldly goods of the deceased and the painful question of how to dispose of those things that hold memories but not purpose. The unsentimental would toss, but me, I still have doilies from my mother’s linen chest that probably came from her mother or mother-in-law, never used by her, maybe never used by them. I will pass them to my daughters who presumably will have just as much trouble getting rid of items that have outlived their usefulness.

 

The poem makes me wonder what story my possessions will tell about me when I’m dead. Hopefully not as sad a story as “Disposal.”

 

William DeWitt Snodgrass (1926-2009) was born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. His father was an accountant, his mother a homemaker with a domineering personality who Snodgrass later blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the death of his sister from an asthma attack.

 

He began his studies at Geneva College but left to enlist in the Navy at the end of World War II. When he got out he went to University of Iowa where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and master of fine arts degrees.

 

He earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for his first collection of poetry, Heart’s Needle. The collection was about losing contact with his daughter because of his divorce, and includes these lines, moving in their simplicity:

 

Winter again and it is snowing;

Although you are still three,

You are already growing

Strange to me.

 

Snodgrass taught at several universities, including Wayne State, Syracuse and University of Delaware, seemed to struggle to make a living, and saw his reputation as a poet rise and fall. Married four times, he had two children with two different wives. He died of lung cancer when he was 83.

 

For a longer and more insightful biographical sketch, link here for his obituary in the Independent. Brits always write the best obits.

 

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I went to my favorite cemetery (doesn’t everyone have one?), a hilly retreat in northern Michigan, and there I  left a handful of death-related poems. I’ll feature them one by one, beginning with Theodore Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane.  I leaned the poem against a stone arm, nestled in some stone greenery.

 

Elegy for Jane

(My student, thrown by a horse)

by Theodore Roethke

 

I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;

And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;

And how, once started into talk, the light syllables leaped for her.

And she balanced in the delight of her thought,

A wren, happy, tail into the wind,

Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.

The shade sang with her;

The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,

And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

 

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,

Even a father could not find her:

Scraping her cheek against straw,

Stirring the clearest water.

 

My sparrow, you are not here,

Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.

The sides of wet stones cannot console me,

Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

 

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,

My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.

Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:

I, with no rights in this matter,

Neither father nor lover.

 

 

 

What lush images of this long-ago Jane, Roethke’s maimed darling, his skittery pigeon. In life and in death she is inseparable from the beauty of nature, and the beauty of this poem lies in those associations.

 

Theodore Roethke (1908- 1963) was born in Saginaw, Michigan, the son of German immigrants. His father ran a floral business, and Roethke spent hours and hours in the greenhouses, which he would later call “my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth.” When he was fourteen, his father died of cancer and his uncle committed suicide.

 

He went to University of Michigan where, according to the Poetry Foundation’s biography of him, “he adopted a tough, bear-like image (weighing over 225 pounds) and even developed a fascination with gangsters.” This is one of my favorite details of any poet’s life, ever.

 

Roethke earned his bachelor’s and master’s degree at Michigan, and later briefly studied law and did other graduate work at Harvard. During the Depression he was forced to quit and take a job teaching at Lafayette College.

 

He had manic-depression and had to be hospitalized at times to treat it. Despite his mental illness and heavy drinking, he is known as one of the greatest poetry teachers ever (once climbing out on a window ledge to inspire his students) and one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.

 

He married a former student, Beatrice O’Connell, who stayed with him despite not knowing of his mental illness when she married him. He taught at Michigan State, Bennington, and most famously at University of Washington for the last fifteen years of his life. He died of a heart attack in a friend’s swimming pool in 1963, and is buried in Saginaw, where his childhood home has been turned into a museum.

 

You probably read Roetke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” back in high school. It’s still a favorite of mine and a good one to memorize.

 

Link here for Roetke reading “Elegy for Jane.” (The way he says the last two words of the poem confuse and fascinate me.)

 

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