No Time for Tricks ~ No Taste for Treats

With goblins, ghoulies, and ghosties skulking along the edge of consciousness. and with every horror movie that refuses to die — Psycho, Vertigo, Rebecca — being pulled from its grave, it must be Halloween.

While more sensitive little ones delight in dressing up as princesses or pirates, blood is dripping and body parts are piling up for the vampires, zombies, and other unspeakable creatures of the night who seek to displace chainsaw-wielding psychopaths as the epitome of evil terror. 

Apparently, there’s gold in them thar dismemberments. From neighborhood haunted houses to Universal Studios’ famous Halloween Horror Nights, everyone  is trying to take a bite out of the consumer.  Since we love to be entertained, and we love to be scared when we know it doesn’t count, the witches’ brew of  Dia De Los Muertos skeletons, decorated graves, black cats, and whacked-out pumpkins makes Halloween our perfect holiday. All those sugar highs are lagniappe.

In a season dedicated not only to thinning the veil between life and death, but also to ripping it asunder, one of the most unlikely purveyors of horror is the American poet, Carl Sandburg

Sandburg isn’t much in favor these days. He’s too common, too plain-spoken.  In his own time, he wasn’t considered particularly literary. Today, he might well be left out of most symposia and cocktail parties.  But his vision was sharp, and he understood people. Like Whitman before him, he acknowledged his debt to the workers and builders, families and business people who knit this country together.

After decades of ignoring his work, I began thinking again of Sandburg after the devastation of Hurricane Ike.  Standing in the midst of tossed boats and shredded houses, the words which resonated were his: the introduction to the gripping Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind.  “Yesterday” was gone, indeed: along with Bolivar Penninsula,  a goodly portion of Galveston, and the security of people up and down the coast.  “What of it?”  asked the woman named Tomorrow.  “Let the dead be dead.”

Whenever I’ve pitted Sandburg against Faulkner on the nature of time, both past and future, Faulkner always won.  Sandburg felt too bleak, too resigned, too dismissive of the possibilities inherent in life.  When Faulkner gave Gavin Stevens the line, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” the tone seemed to me quite different: more attuned to my own experience of reality.But both men are communicating truth, and it’s Sandburg’s truth I consider today.

In recent months, as economic devastation, social upheaval, and political crosscurrents have surged their way through our national life, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about Sandburg. He couldn’t have known, when he published his works so many years ago, what form his beloved country would have taken years hence. And yet his words are chilling, nearly prescient: as sharp and timely as though he meant to speak them precisely to us, the countrymen and women he never would know.

A Lincoln scholar, a lover of history, a straightforward man of integrity who could touch the hearts of his contemporaries,  Sandburg should speak to us today. Let the thrill seekers crowd into their theatres, and the living dead prowl their haunted houses.  Let the role players smear their blood and the would-be vampires try for a second bite. This Halloween, I’m tired of tricks, and I don’t need the treats that are being offered. I’d rather see my country clear-eyed, hear the poet speak, and share his unmasked words with those who dare face our own unnerving horrors. 

Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind

Carl Sandburg ~ 1922
The woman named Tomorrow
sits with a hairpin in her teeth
and takes her time
and does her hair the way she wants it
and fastens at last the last braid and coil
and puts the hairpin where it belongs
and turns and drawls: Well, what of it?
My grandmother, Yesterday, is gone.
What of it? Let the dead be dead.
The doors were cedar
and the panels strips of gold
and the girls were golden girls
and the panels read and the girls chanted:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation:
nothing like us ever was.
The doors are twisted on broken hinges.
Sheets of rain swish through on the wind
where the golden girls ran and the panels read:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.

It has happened before.
Strong men put up a city and got
a nation together,
and paid singers to sing and women
to warble: We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.
And while the singers sang
and the strong men listened
and paid the singers well
and felt good about it all,
there were rats and lizards who listened
…and the only listeners left now
are…the rats…and the lizards.
And there are black crows
crying, “Caw, caw,”
bringing mud and sticks
building a nest
over the words carved
on the doors where the panels were cedar
and the strips on the panels were gold
and the golden girls came singing:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.
The only singers now are crows crying, “Caw, caw,”
And the sheets of rain whine in the wind and doorways.
And the only listeners now are…the rats…and the lizards.
 

The feet of the rats
scribble on the doorsills;
the hieroglyphs of the rat footprints
chatter the pedigrees of the rats
and babble of the blood
and gabble of the breed
of the grandfathers and the great-grandfathers
of the rats.
And the wind shifts
and the dust on a doorsill shifts
and even the writing of the rat footprints
tells us nothing, nothing at all
about the greatest city, the greatest nation
where the strong men listened
and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.

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Feeding Bodies, Sustaining Souls

Many years younger, fairly well-traveled but still impressionable, I arrived in Berkeley during the 1970s: a relatively peaceful decade sandwiched between the tumultuous events of the University of California’s Free Speech Movement and the slightly less shattering Livermore earthquake.

Despite the unfortunate closures of the original Fillmore and Fillmore West prior to my arrival, there were consolations to be had. Afternoons, I lingered at Caffé Espresso, breathing in the scents of eucalyptus and French roast. Weekend trips across the Bay allowed for exploration of San Francisco’s tourist sites (Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach, Chinatown) as well as increasingly confident forays into neighborhoods filled with fabulous architecture, tiny galleries, and expansive views.

Atop the Berkeley hills, views were as varied and compelling as anything available across the Bay. To the east lay Mt. Diablo, wheat straw dry or dusted with sunlit snow. To the west, San Francisco’s skyline shimmered by day and sparkled by night. In season, tendrils of fog twined their way around and through the Golden Gate, wrapping the Bridge in silence and the easy breath of dreams.
(more…)

Reclaiming Independence

Few of us remember our first birthday, or even our second. Those celebrations were less for us than for our parents, joined perhaps by a few siblings or other relatives. Presents mattered less than the party itself, with its cake and ice cream, memories, smiles, and photos to share.

By our third or fourth birthday, we began to participate in our own celebrations. We asked questions: “What time was I born?” “Why did you give me this name, rather than that?” “Can I have strawberry cake this year?” (more…)

Fiddlesticks, Footsies and Spoons

Stern. Reserved. Strict. Perhaps even judgmental or cold.

So she appears in this photograph from an indeterminate time and an unknown place, but as she herself might have said, appearances can be relieving [sic].

To her cousins, she was a caution.  To my mother, whose great-aunt she was, Rilla was just slightly dangerous, a force to be reckoned with, a strange, self-possessed woman whose refusal of rules and wicked sense of humor made her a favorite among the children.

She returned the children’s affection, although she often scandalized more conventional relatives with her baby-sitting techniques. Confronted with a passle of bored children, she was capable of sending them to the back yard with a stack of 78 rpm records and a hammer, essentially saying, “Have at it.” From what my mother recalled of the unfolding events on one such afternoon, “It was fun.” (more…)

Published in: on January 19, 2014 at 6:25 pm  Comments (112)  
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Circles of Commerce, Circles of Life

Like all great migrations it began slowly, in fits and starts, ebbing back toward the known, the comfortable and familiar before once again surging forward into uncertainty.

Driven by curiosity as well as by commerce, enticed by rumor or persuaded by reason, traders and caravaners, mountain men, shopkeepers and scouts followed in the footsteps of men like Zebulon Pike, overcoming first one obstacle and then another as they created the collection of loosely-bundled routes we know today as the Santa Fe Trail. (more…)

Published in: on January 13, 2014 at 7:55 am  Comments (78)  
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