Knox County Romance

Stuff of the moon
Runs on the lapping sand
Out to the longest shadows.
Under the curving willows,
And round the creep of the wave line,
Fluxions of yellow and dusk on the waters
Make a wide dreaming pansy of an old pond in the night.

—Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), “Nocturne in a Deserted Brickyard,” 1916

Ever been in a brickyard? It’s a factory where bricks are made. Today there’s a computerized, robotic operation in Brampton, Ontario that makes 200 million bricks a year.

In Sandburg’s time, brickyards were smaller. They were numerous; they dotted the countryside. 

Abandoned brickyard in Ohio. Photo by Theodor Jung (1906-1996). Public Domain.

There would be a large building where bricks were formed, kilns to bake them into hard pavers or building bricks, square stacks of finished product, and a tall smokestack or two, or three. By night, moonshadows might mold the place into a mystic realm of keeps and turrets, standing sentinel over the sleeping countryside—or else brutal, stolid hulks suggesting somber reckonings in the chill moonlight. 

Charlie Sandburg knew all this. But he describes only a pond—the softest, most horizontal piece of the picture. Brickyards had ponds, formed where clay and shale were scooped from the earth. But the pond in this poem is a pond and nothing else—not an artifact of industry or a byproduct of production. It is a pool of water, swayed by breeze, by gravity, by the moon.

Moonlit Panorama” by j.edward ferguson is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The “brickyard” in the title gives us a setting but makes no demands on the “wide dreaming pansy.” Sandburg was a romantic.

He was also one of the the great American poets, a singer of plain people and their lives, a successor to Walt Whitman.

Carl Sandburg in 1955. Photo by Al Ravenna, World Telegram. Public Domain.

Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, in a three-room cottage at 313 East Third Street. He lived his first twenty years mostly in and about Galesburg. After brief service as a private in the Spanish-American War, he returned to Galesburg and he attended Lombard College. Besides glimpsing the life of the mind and acquiring a habit of poetry, Sandburg captained the Lombard basketball team in days when they stopped the game after every score to retrieve the ball from the peach basket. 

Even after leaving Galesburg, Carl Sandburg remained a Midwesterner, a son of the prairie.

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Galesburg had several brickyards. The greatest of these was the Purington Brick Company of East Galesburg. They made heavy bricks that paved the streets of Galesburg and other cities, even as far as Panama City, Panama. 

As time went on, cities quit paving their streets with brick. The Purington brickyard ceased production in 1974. If you drove through East Galesburg today, you would be hard-pressed to discern there was ever a brick-making factory there. Above the surrounding woods you may glimpse a tall chimney, now crumbling. That’s about all.

I know this, Dear Reader, because I do get back to Galesburg once in a while. Like Sandburg, I am a native. My birth took place in Cottage Hospital on North Kellogg Street, in 1945. By that time, the 67-year-old Carl Sandburg—winner of Pulitzer Prizes in both poetry and history, a recognized national treasure—was relocating to Flat Rock, North Carolina, where he would dwell the last twenty-two years of his life and produce a third of his work.

Sandburg’s birthplace. Photo by Robert Haugland, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Something of Galesburg made Sandburg who he was. Today, his birthplace is preserved as a sort of historic shrine. There is a small visitor center. You can visit the tiny cottage where the poet was born. You can see Remembrance Rock, under which lie the ashes of Sandburg and of Lillian Steichen Sandburg, his wife of fifty-nine years.

The place is worth a visit, if you’re ever in Galesburg. 

But Sandburg is only one memory that clings to the skirts of this old prairie city.

More next time.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

A Poem

Blood Quarrel

O purple splotch,
How dare you? 
 
Arriving by stealth
to the back of my hand,
claiming space, a fait accompli.
 
You are an intruder beneath my skin. 
I say again, How dare you?
 
Your coup unheralded,
even by minor pain,
suddenly you were just there.
 
In days of old this could not have happened. 
In days of old my forces would have marshaled 
thick skin and stout-walled capillaries 
against your onslaught. 
Had you attacked in strength—
the bang of a hammer blow, 
the tread of an opponent’s spikes, 
the slam of a door where my hand rested on the jamb—
I would have known it in that moment.
 
This noiseless, painless incursion is a new strategem,
the exploitation of brittle skin and numbed receptors,
but be forewarned: I am on to you.
 
You and your cunning ways, 
how you will linger 
flaunting your port-wine-ness in my face,
then six days hence decamp 
as silently as the Arabs, 
making me doubt my senses
until the next signalless foray.
 
How dare you?
 
But at last, these marches can avail you nothing; 
for I have received the cure
and simply wait for the finality 
of its deliverance.

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Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Bird of Passage

Chipmunk with nut. Photo by Gilles Gonthier, licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Once upon a weekend sunny, I was feeling . . . kinda funny . . . 
As I cruised the stories sketched upon my laptop’s memory core.
While I noodled, idly hashing over plots, there came a crashing,
As of someone wildly thrashing—thrashing in my stovepipe’s bore.
“’Tis some chipmunk brash,” I muttered, “thrashing in my stovepipe’s bore—
Only this and nothing more.”

And the steely, harsh, resounding echoes of the stovepipe’s pounding
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before; 
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some chipmunk brash that’s greeting from inside my stovepipe’s bore—
some brash chipmunk with his greeting from within my stovepipe core;—
This it is and nothing more.”
Poe. Public Domain.

Unlike Edgar Allan Poe, Gentle Reader, I cannot keep this up indefinitely. 

The part about fantastic terrors is true, though. 

Sunny Studio

The space where I hatch my writerly triumphs is not heated by the furnace that serves the rest of the house. So in this otherwise pleasant room, we have a woodstove instead. Its black chimney rises four feet, turns horizontal to shoot through the outer wall, and zooms skyward again, rising another ten feet outdoors to disperse the smoke above the roof.

Our sunroom

A frantic scrabble sounded forth from the two-foot horizontal run just inside the wall. 

Something alive was inside the stovepipe and, from the sound of things, wanted out. 

The stove and its pipe were cold, but I had plans to lay a fire there soon. That might smoke the occupant out—or else, gruesomely, cook it.

How had something gotten in there? Not through the stove: The firebox door was closed and in any case, we don’t have wildlife wandering through the sunroom. The outdoor chimney has a cap on top that ought to keep things out. It had failed in its duty.

William Bendix as Riley on the radio. Public Domain.

I wanted this new tenant evicted. But how to dismantle a stovepipe, I do not begin to know; much less how to put it back together afterwards. I would need to call for professional assistance, at about eighty dollars an hour. As the late Chester A. Riley would have said, “What a revoltin’ development this is!”

I sat and pondered. 

There came a great whump!, and from the edges of the loose-fitting firebox door rose a cloud of gray ash.

Time to relapse into verse. I’m sorry, Dear Reader, I can’t help myself.

Down the chimney a sparrow had come with a bound.
He was dressed all in feathers, from beak down to toes,
And stood amid soot which on all sides arose.
He spoke not a word but made straight for the light
With a flap and a flutter as he took his flight.

Fancy that—not a chipmunk at all.

 Small Bird

An English sparrow, or house sparrow. Male, to judge by his black bib. 

House sparrow. Photo by Lip Kee Yap, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

One of the commonest, almost the least of birds. The kind that, in olden days, you could buy two for a farthing at the temple in Jerusalem.

He stood on a bed of fly ash and blinked as the light struck him when I opened the cast-iron door. Then he flew up and bounced off the ceiling.

He bolted for daylight and bounced off a window. He tried again and bounced off another window. His little brain clearly was be-twittered.

His prison door, opened.

I went out through the wide-open door, hoping to set a good example. I came in and did it twice more, to make sure he got the idea. Then I stayed out, went around the corner, and looked in the end window from outside.

Left to his own devices, the winged warrior hopped across the tile floor, closing the distance to the open door, hop by hop, until he stood on its threshold. He hopped out, cautiously, to the low deck outside. 

One more hop, testing the alfresco, and off he flew. None the worse for wear, I hope.

Just another day in the life of a literary lion.

The Preachy Part

Close encounters with God’s wild creatures always leave Your New Favorite Writer a bit breathless. I’m glad the little guy slipped his predicament with all feathers accounted for. 

But on a deeper level, I stand in awe of the Creative Power that fashioned both a geezer like me and a striving sparrow, and put us together in one space for a few moments’ mutual instruction in the sketchy parameters of life.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Review: Where the Crawdads Sing

On page 153 of wildlife scientist Delia Owens’ novel Where the Crawdads Sing, nineteen-year-old Kya Clark—the “Marsh Girl” of a certain section of the Carolina coast—recalls a poem by “a lesser-known poet,” Amanda Hamilton:

Trapped inside,

Love is a caged beast, 

Eating its own flesh.

Love must be free to wander,

To land upon its chosen shore

And breathe.

Bits of Amanda Hamilton’s poetry recur throughout the book; and though the fictitious poet does not play a large part in the story, the six lines just quoted could well stand as the Marsh Girl’s personal manifesto. For Kya Clark’s story is one of isolation, of love frustrated, and of a huge conflict between hoped-for relation and indispensable freedom.

Abandoned by parents and siblings, spurned as “swamp trash” by the larger community, possessed of tenuous alliances with a handful of individuals, Kya raises herself. She marches to her own tune, responds to Nature in all its variety. She collects feathers, shells, leaves, and other wild things; eventually she builds a catalog of her collection. She delves ever deeper into her wetlands environment to go “where the crawdads sing.”

“Euastacus Clark, 1936, Spiny Crayfish” by David Paul is licensed under CC BY 4.0 

Crawdads (which you may know as crayfish, crawfish, freshwater lobsters, mountain lobsters, mudbugs, or yabbies) do not actually sing. But an imagined place where crawdads do sing is the author’s symbol for mystic union with Nature. The quest for that union turns out to be, after a host of disappointments in her relations with the human race, Kya’s only constant chord of survival energy.

Along the way she learns a great deal, becomes an acknowledged authority on the life of the marsh, and forms romantic relationships with two men (yes, a sort of love triangle)—one of which works out better than the other. However far life takes her, however, it is the quest to go where the crawdads sing that defines her.

Much else in this book will entertain and delight the reader: sudden death, mayhem, police procedures, courtroom drama, and the verses of Amanda Hamilton and others. At its heart is the story of the Marsh Girl, a remarkable woman who remains an enigma to the end. Speaking of which, do make sure you read all the way to the end. Even at that point, you may be surprised.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author