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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The Power of the People

Never mind the traditional excesses of Thanksgiving, the horrors of Black Friday or the panic of the pre-Christmas rush. For afficionados of the sport of people-watching, the up-coming holiday season is the best season of the year. With crowds of impatient adults and captive children navigating the stormy seas of covetousness and retail madness from now until New Year’s Day, amusement should be easy to find.

In fact, I’ve already been amused. During a swing through our local Target store, I found myself waiting in the checkout line behind a child and his mother. The boy appeared to be about three, and he was fussy.  Hanging on to his mother’s skirt with both hands, he circled around and around until he found a comfortable spot, sandwiched between his mother and the cart. 

Peeking out from the folds of her skirt, he looked past us to the vibrant displays of candy and merchandise across the aisle. Using one hand to point to something, he tugged on her skirt with the other to gain attention.  Busy sorting through her purse, his mother ignored him while the rest of us started paying attention. (more…)

Published in: on November 18, 2012 at 3:40 pm  Comments (95)  
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The Sandburg Season

In the heart of Kansas, there’s a certain sweetness to Halloween celebrations, touched though they may be with autumn’s poignant tang. Corn shocks and smiling jack-o-lanterns abound, heaped atop hay bales and spilling from wagons pulled by broomsticked witches.

Still, goblins, ghoulies and ghosties skulk around the edges of consciousness,  not to mention old plots that insist on rising up from their graves – Psycho, Vertigo, Rebecca.  Hitchcock’s Birds wheel through the air, and while little ones delight in becoming princesses, pirates or talking pumpkins, blood drips and body parts pile up as vampires, zombies and other night-creatures seek to displace chainsaw-wielding psychopaths as the epitome of evil terror. (more…)

Published in: on October 29, 2012 at 11:27 am  Comments (78)  
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The People, Yes…

One of my amusements during the holiday season is people-watching.  Particularly in situations where crowds, lines and captive children are the norm, amusement is easy to find.

During a Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving swing through a local grocery, I landed behind a child and his mother in the checkout line.  The boy might have been three or four, and he was fussy.  Hanging on to his mother’s skirt, he circled around and around until he found safety, tucked between her and the cart.  Turning to look past us to the vibrant displays of merchandise across the aisle, he pointed to something, tugging on her skirt to gain attention.  Busy sorting through her purse, his mother ignored him – a mistake she would come to regret. (more…)

Published in: on November 27, 2009 at 2:39 am  Comments (11)  
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