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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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If I had any sense I’d be in the kitchen right now, chopping and endlessly washing mixing bowls and spatulas. Instead I’m sitting at the computer. I’ll pay for it tomorrow with panic and exhaustion, but meantime, here’s a few poems for Thanksgiving.

 

At the grocery store I left Czeslaw Milosz’s”Encounter” in an empty aisle  where I would encounter no one, next to one of Paul Newman’s products.

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O my love, where are they, where are they going–  sounds like a lovelier version of what my husband and I say to each other after the too-quickly-grown-up kids leave home after the weekend.

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(The words that got cut off in the picture are “at dawn.” Sorry for that.)

 

Outside another grocery store (because one grocery store is never enough for Thanksgiving preparations), I left e.e. cummings’ poem in an abandoned grocery cart. Maybe it was mine. (Poem is to the right of the “Ayar” ad, on the seat of the grocery cart.)

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i thank You God for most this amazing/day could be the start of dinner time grace. Little kids might like the twisty-ness of the lines.

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Still at the grocery store, I put Emily Dickinson’s “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” by a credit card machine at the check-out.

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I’ve long had a few lines of this poem committed to memory

I’ll tell you how the sun rose,–

A Ribbon at a time–

 

and this, one of my favorite images from any poem, ever

The Hills untied their Bonnets–

 

The beauty of that, when I see it and when I read it here, fills me with gratitude for the world as it is and the world as only a poet can see it.

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Finally, I left Wislawa Szymborska’s “Vietnam” at Starbucks. Where I was sitting for over an hour, once again not cooking.

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What does the agony in “Vietnam” have to do with Thanksgiving? It’s a reminder. As we gather with family and friends to enjoy a bounty of food and the comfort of safe shelter, let’s remember those who have none of those things. Let’s give our thanks for what we have and leave space in our hearts for victims of war, for refugees losing hope–

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And in the last few minutes before I give myself over to cooking, let me thank all you dear readers and commentators. I am so grateful for your readership and support.

 

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

 

 

 

 

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