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,
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.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on September 7, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.
About this Poem
“Work Gangs” was published in Smoke and Steel (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1920).
Carl Sandburg was awarded three Pulitzer Prizes in his lifetime—the first in 1919 for his poetry collection Corn Huskers, the second in 1940 for his biography Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, and the third in 1951 for Complete Poems.
Date Published: 1920-01-01
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/work-gangs