Work Gangs

- 1878-1967

Box cars run by a mile long.
And I wonder what they say to each other
When they stop a mile long on a sidetrack.
  Maybe their chatter goes:
I came from Fargo with a load of wheat up to the danger line.
I came from Omaha with a load of shorthorns and they
    splintered my boards.
I came from Detroit heavy with a load of flivvers.
I carried apples from the Hood river last year and this year
    bunches of bananas from Florida; they look for me with
    watermelons from Mississippi next year.
 
Hammers and shovels of work gangs sleep in shop corners
when the dark stars come on the sky and the night watchmen
    walk and look.
 
Then the hammer heads talk to the handles,
then the scoops of the shovels talk,
how the day’s work nicked and trimmed them,
how they swung and lifted all day,
how the hands of the work gangs smelled of hope.  
In the night of the dark stars
when the curve of the sky is a work gang handle,
in the night on the mile long sidetracks,
in the night where the hammers and shovels sleep in corners,
the night watchmen stuff their pipes with dreams—
and sometimes they doze and don’t care for nothin’,
and sometimes they search their heads for meanings, stories,
    stars.
  The stuff of it runs like this:
A long way we come; a long way to go; long rests and long deep
    sniffs for our lungs on the way.
Sleep is a belonging of all; even if all songs are old songs and
    the singing heart is snuffed out like a switchman’s lantern
    with the oil gone, even if we forget our names and houses in
    the finish, the secret of sleep is left us, sleep belongs to all,
    sleep is the first and last and best of all.        
  
People singing; people with song mouths connecting with song
    hearts; people who must sing or die; people whose song
    hearts break if there is no song mouth; these are my people.

More by Carl Sandburg

Honky Tonk in Cleveland, Ohio

It's a jazz affair, drum crashes and cornet razzes.
The trombone pony neighs and the tuba jackass snorts.
The banjo tickles and titters too awful.
The chippies talk about the funnies in the papers.
     The cartoonists weep in their beer.
     Ship riveters talk with their feet
     To the feet of floozies under the tables.
A quartet of white hopes mourn with interspersed snickers:
        "I got the blues.
        I got the blues.
        I got the blues."
And . . . as we said earlier:
     The cartoonists weep in their beer.

Wilderness

There is a wolf in me … fangs pointed for tearing gashes … a red tongue for raw meat … and the hot lapping of blood—I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.

There is a fox in me … a silver-gray fox … I sniff and guess … I pick things out of the wind and air … I nose in the dark night and take sleepers and eat them and hide the feathers … I circle and loop and double-cross.

There is a hog in me … a snout and a belly … a machinery for eating and grunting … a machinery for sleeping satisfied in the sun—I got this too from the wilderness and the wilderness will not let it go.

There is a fish in me … I know I came from saltblue water-gates … I scurried with shoals of herring … I blew waterspouts with porpoises … before land was … before the water went down … before Noah … before the first chapter of Genesis.

There is a baboon in me … clambering-clawed … dog-faced … yawping a galoot’s hunger … hairy under the armpits … here are the hawk-eyed hankering men … here are the blond and blue-eyed women … here they hide curled asleep waiting … ready to snarl and kill … ready to sing and give milk … waiting—I keep the baboon because the wilderness says so.

There is an eagle in me and a mockingbird … and the eagle flies among the Rocky Mountains of my dreams and fights among the Sierra crags of what I want … and the mockingbird warbles in the early forenoon before the dew is gone, warbles in the underbrush of my Chattanoogas of hope, gushes over the blue Ozark foothills of my wishes—And I got the eagle and the mockingbird from the wilderness.

O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.

Poems Done on a Late Night Car

I. CHICKENS

I am The Great White Way of the city:  
When you ask what is my desire, I answer:  
"Girls fresh as country wild flowers,  
With young faces tired of the cows and barns,  
Eager in their eyes as the dawn to find my mysteries,
Slender supple girls with shapely legs,  
Lure in the arch of their little shoulders  
And wisdom from the prairies to cry only softly at the ashes of my mysteries."  
  


II. USED UP
Lines based on certain regrets that come with rumination
upon the painted faces of women on North Clark Street, Chicago

          Roses,  
        Red roses,
          Crushed  
In the rain and wind  
Like mouths of women  
Beaten by the fists of  
Men using them. 
  O little roses  
  And broken leaves  
  And petal wisps:  
You that so flung your crimson  
  To the sun
Only yesterday.  
  


III. HOME

Here is a thing my heart wishes the world had more of:  
I heard it in the air of one night when I listened  
To a mother singing softly to a child restless and angry in the darkness.