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 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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Birth of a 4th-Grade Radical

Once upon a time, a petite, sloe-eyed little girl whose primary gift is the ability to melt adult hearts upon contact and whose nickname is “Princess” determined to take on her school district’s move from Halloween Party to Harvest Festival.

Like every child above the age of five, she emails and texts regularly. In the process of chatting with her cousins, she discovered each of them attends a school where Halloween parties are allowed. In their emails, her cousins told delicious stories of pre-Halloween activities: pumpkin carving, bat origami, spider-web draping and skeleton-making. All of this, of course, is simply a precursor to The School Party, a celebration of a day that on the Scale of Childhood Preferences may be second only to Christmas or Hanukkah.

For the Sloe-Eyed Princess’ cousins, there will be sugary cupcakes and candy, “Cauldron Punch”, “Grave Robber Gumdrops” and “Casket Cake”. One cousin is to narrate a class performance of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. Another is writing a poem that, while still under wraps, seems to involve a few body parts and a Brave Prince.

Best of all, each of the Little Sloe-Eyed Princess’ cousins will be given the freedom to dress in traditional Halloween costumes. At last year’s parties there were pirates, bed-sheeted ghosts and baby dolls, a Tinkerbell and a chain-gang prisoner. (The prisoner has parents who tend to watch a lot of early films. A lot.) There was the obligatory skeleton, a couple of vampires and an improvised ghoul. Everyone had fun, no one seemed to be traumatized, and everyone agreed the teacher dressed as a punk-rocker deserved her prize. (more…)

Published in: on October 29, 2010 at 3:24 pm  Comments (15)  
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Start Where You Can Start, Do What You Can Do


Whether you’ve been day sailing in Galveston Bay or managed an offshore jaunt to another Texas port, everyone has to come home. Tacking or reaching through the Gulf, moored buoys mark the shipping lanes and jetties.  Chirping and moaning across the waves, their bells, whistles and horns speak an ageless sea-language, and patterned flashes of light make them easily recognizable even for the night watch.

Slipping through the bay, there are day markers to look for – numbered red triangles and green squares on posts – or smaller red and green buoys.  If you have a chart (you DO have a chart, don’t you?), you know what to look for. When you find it, you know where you are.

Probably the most well-known aid to navigation in Galveston Bay is Marker #2. Attached to a scarred post that’s been replaced a few times, the red triangle alerts boaters to the beginning of the Clear Creek channel. A traditional navigational mantra reminds boaters to keep “Red, Right, Returning”.  Coming in from sea, the prudent skipper keeps red markers on the right, green on left, and the vessel in between for safe pasage.

Because Galveston Bay is so shallow, it’s always safest to enter the channel where the markers begin.  Sometimes folks will cut into or out of the channel between markers 2 and 4, where the water still is deep enough to carry smaller boats. But generally speaking, boats line up and take their turn, counting down the markers through the Channel into Clear Lake.

At least they did before Hurricane Ike.  Now, an eye for debris, a compass course or great familiarity with the channels are the only sure guides to safe passage because many markers apparently are gone, washed away in the surge. I say “apparently” because channel markers have begun to pop up in odd places –  a green marker in a pile of debris at Lakewood Yacht Club, a red light on a pier in Seabrook shipyard.

Last week, I was startled to find Marker #4 propped up against a fence on Second Street in Seabrook, just across from the Post Office. Surrounded by piles of debris and household goods that had been brought out into the sunshine to dry. it seemed less a guide to navigation than a memento mori for a way of life. (more…)


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