Some Sandburg

19624868_sRecently, I came home with several books picked from a local rummage sale, including some selected poems by Carl Sandburg.

My previous exposure to Sandburg was limited to the bits and pieces included in various anthologies and literature textbooks, and I don’t believe I ever gave them much thought or credit.  This time, however, I was drawn in, eating up every word.  I’m not sure what made the difference–whether it was reading so many of his poems consecutively, or maybe I feel more of a connection having lived in the Chicago area for a while–but I basically devoured the whole book in one sitting.

I found the writing to be honest, human, occasionally gritty, deliberate without feeling contrived, relevant, and just fun to read.

This one was a favorite:


The working girls in the morning are going to work–
long lines of them afoot amid the downtown stores
and factories, thousands with little brick-shaped
lunches wrapped in newspapers under their arms.
Each morning as I move through this river of young-
woman life I feel a wonder about where it is all
going, so many with a peach bloom of young years
on them and laughter of red lips and memories in
their eyes of dances the night before and plays and
Green and gray streams run side by side in a river and
so here are always the others, those who have been
over the way, the women who know each one the
end of life’s gamble for her, the meaning and the
clew, the how and the why of the dances and the
arms that passed around their waists and the fingers
that played in their hair.
Faces go by written over: “I know it all, I know where
the bloom and the laughter go and I have memories,”
and the feet of these move slower and they
have wisdom where the others have beauty.
So the green and the gray move in the early morning
on the downtown streets.

I love the contrasting descriptions of the two groups of people, the “green and the grey”: the young working girls living in the present, marching forward in the morning–and the “others” who have been “over the way” and have the answers, the memories, the wisdom.

I also thought that while Sandburg’s poems are not necessarily “pretty” (they were, at the time, a departure from the “elevated” themes and forms of contemporaries) his writing is not without grace.


     Under the harvest moon,
When the soft silver
Drips shimmering
Over the garden nights,
Death, the gray mocker,
Comes and whispers to you
As a beautiful friend
Who remembers.

     Under the summer roses
When the flagrant crimson
Lurks in the dusk
Of the wild red leaves,
Love, with little hands,
Comes and touches you
With a thousand memories,
And asks you
Beautiful, unanswerable questions.

Needless to say, I am glad I grabbed the book, and am once again reminded that most things deserve a second look.

Another DC Post…

MandelaThe list of “sights seen” on my recent trip to Washington DC includes a substantial number of important texts, ranging from the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, to the first map to actually call this part of the world “America,” to one of the original Gutenberg bibles.  However, the text that made the greatest impression on me during our visit was much less notable, and certainly less known than the others.

I came across this text, called the Robben Island Bible (or Robben Island Shakespeare) at the Folger Shakespeare Library.  I became familiar with Folger during my undergraduate studies, and was therefore interested in visiting the research library, located near the US Captiol on Capitol Hill.  When my entrance into the building one morning, followed by two other college-aged girls provoked the woman at the desk to exclaim “Wow, this is a busy day,” I deduced that this research library was not exactly a highly-frequented tourist destination.

The woman then went on to describe some of the more notable holdings of the library, finishing with what she called “our treasure,” or the Robben Island Shakespeare, on loan from the British Museum.   Apparently, Robben Island is a small Island off the coast of South Africa that has historically been used to imprison political and other prisoners.  One of the apartheid-era prisoners of the 1970s, named Sonny Venkatrathnam, apparently had his wife send him this Shakespeare’s collected works disguised as a religious text during a brief period when prisoners were allowed one book.  Venkatrathnam read and shared his collection with his fellow prisoners, more than thirty of whom signed the book next to their favorite passage.

Among the signatures is Nelson Mandela’s, who signed next to the passage in Julius Caesar which says, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once.”

I found the story inspiring, both as a testament to the lasting and varied relevance of Shakespeare’s words, but also as another piece of evidence of people persisting in maintaining their humanity in situations meant to strip them of it.   Definitely a sight worth seeing.

The Writing on the Wall

I took my first trip to Washington DC a couple of weeks ago with my family.  We had a lovely time visiting good friends and seeing many of the “must see” sights. There is, as you most likely know, a lot to see in DC–so many interesting, notable, historical, important things and places…some of which, I admit, were honestly inspiring.

One of these, for me, was the Library of Congress.  Have you been there?  It is beautiful.  Obviously there are many lovely, marbled classical buildings in that city–but this one takes the cake.  So much, light, and color, and grandeur.

I suppose it is not surprising, all things considered, that I should favor a library (one of the worlds two largest at that), especially knowing that my own book passed through at some point (along with 20,000 others a day, but you know).  But one of my favorite things about the building was reading the writing on the walls, and ceilings, of the building.  Dozens of quotations from notable literary and historical figures adorn the Great Hall, and I recorded a few of my favorites which I thought I would share here–recognizing the possibility that these may seem much less weighty on your computer screen than they did painted into the frescoes–but you can take them or leave them.

Milton, Introduction to Church Government


Sir Philip Sidney, Arcadi

Holy Bible, Proverbs 4:7

Shakespeare, Henry IV, pt. ii, Act iv., Sc. 7

Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero Worship, “The Hero as a Man of Letters”

Emerson, Essays, “The Poet”


On Journeys

I first read Thoreau as a high school student, and while I have heard the teaching of Walden to high school students criticized (as the text is apparently un-relatable for teenagers), I found, being slightly off-center myself, that I related to his odes to nonconformity, and many have made a lasting impression.

“The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men,” he writes, “and so with the paths which the mind travels.  How worn and dusty, then must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”  I think I often find that my mind tends to travel the same rutted paths, and that occasionally I need opportunities to step out of them.

Recently, I made a weekend trip to Salt Lake City to attend an author dinner hosted by my publisher.  It was a short, pleasant trip and afforded me an opportunity to enjoy the familiar faces of family and friends, as well as to make new acquaintances.  I returned to Chicago feeling refreshed, especially in my perspectives, and have spent a few days thinking about the value of a journey.

I can think of several times in my life when a change of locale—the actually physical walking in different places—has offered a release from my usual thought patterns and perceptions, and I would assert that sometimes if not always, in order to change as a person, a journey of some kind is required.

Journeys in fantasy novels are nothing new; a “noble quest,” is something of a standard, and the genre is rife with examples.  In fact the greater “archetypal pattern”—as illustrated by Plato’s allegory of the cave—suggests that in order to gain a new view and see what the world really is, you have to leave your current position.  The characters in Journey to the Fringe, in order to see the true nature of their land and of themselves, have to leave the kingdom behind.  When they ultimately return to face what threatens Lyria, they come armed with the new knowledge and power.

So, this week as I am getting “back in the Chicago groove,” I am feeling glad of a chance to return with new eyes, and find that while I don’t believe that a “journey” necessitates a plane ticket or a perilous sea voyage, I do believe that I just might need one on occasion.  For the earth, as always, “is soft and impressible by the feet of men.”

Life of Pi and Puzzle Reading

I saw this article in The Atlantic this morning, and had to comment.  Life of Pi probably makes the list of my top 10 favorite books, that is…it would if I had a such a list.  As it is, I find such a concept flawed, because I feel that different books serve such completely different purposes, and comparing them is sometimes apples and oranges.

Some of my most favorite books are just great stories, the kind that pull me in, get me invested in the characters, and take me on a journey.  Some of my favorites are the kind of books that teach me something about the world or myself and make me want to be a better person, fight for change, or just see things in a different way.

Then, there are the puzzle books, as I like to think of them.  Life of Pi falls into this category for me.  It is one of those books that I can pull apart, analyze and dissect and try to put it back together to find meaning or perhaps draw conclusions.  I appreciated this article because Lee, who directed the film version, notices all the ways that people are trying to put together the pieces of this story–and how different their interpretations look culturally.

Sometimes it’s nice when a book gives you all the answers, but I suppose I appreciate it even more when I am left to find my own.  I think this is why my favorite book in the Bible is probably Isaiah.  I may not be able to figure out everything he his talking about, but then there is this certain excitement when I can make a few pieces fit here and there.

I recognize that this is pure insanity to many.  My husband is currently reading LIfe of Pi and he keeps asking me about this passage, or that one, and what they mean.  The other day I looked at him and said, “If you want to read something with a straight answer, you’ve got the wrong book.”  He’s still reading it, though, perhaps because he’s the determined kind of person who finishes things, but perhaps because there might be a small part of him that wants to come to his own conclusions, to be asked what he chooses to believe and why…and this book does it better than just about any other.

Happy Birthday, Pride and Prejudice!

Pride and Prejudice turned 200 years old this week. So, although this novel is perhaps not my preferred Austen (that would be Persuasion), it was the first of her novels I read, and is still a favorite.  I specifically remember sitting on my bed on quiet seventh-grade afternoons and reading through this story for the first time…and realizing there was a whole world of great books out there of which I had only just scratched the surface.

It is not a perfect novel, nor perhaps is it very weighty or profound, but there is something universal enough about the characters and issues that have “stood the test of time,” even so much as to become (I believe) part of our Western collective subconscious.  It has certainly become part of mine.

I chose this particular scene because (unlike some of you) I actually really liked the 2005 version.  I thought it transferred the story into digestible cinema (Austen fans probably find the miniseries digestible as well–but we’d be the minority) while retaining a central loyalty to the novel.  My contemporary self liked the everyday-life feeling of this version, and although Kiera Knightly as Elizabeth took some getting used to, she grew on me.  This particular scene, also, is really well-done (hardly cut!), and I like the contrast between the harmony of the dance and the conflict in the dialogue.


Ring Out the Old…

I read excerpts of Tennyson’s Ring out Wild Bells to my sons this January, hoping to inspire the spirit of the New Year (and segue into some goal setting), but after hearing the words, rather than catching a spirit of forward-looking enthusiasm, my six-year-old instead pronounced the song a sad one.  Admittedly, the wording is a bit dire, “the year is dying in the night” and all that, and he decided that the thought of letting go the old things wasn’t so cheery.

I found myself relating to this feeling, as I occasionally tend to favor old things: old buildings, old-fashioned names, old music, and so on. Anyone who knows me will tell you I am usually the last person to adopt the new technology—especially where my reading habits are concerned. My husband would probably rejoice if I would start downloading books instead of accumulating them by the boxload.  As it is, I keep bringing them home, the older the better—I love the smell and feel of them in my hands.

A few weeks ago I heard Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) interviewed.  When asked about his thoughts on the role of books in an increasingly technological world, his answer surprised me.  While admitting to being a virtual luddite, he was willing to acknowledge the benefit of having books available in the same way as other media like music, movies, games, etc.  The mere ability for kids to click on their favorite books and access them on various devices, he suggested, would help keep reading relevant for a new generation.

So, in spite of my own reluctance to “ring out the old,” I am once again recognizing that there is value in “ring[ing] in the new,” and am deciding to venture more regularly into the technological world…starting right here.