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Unmarked Crossings: a poet and her journeys

Connemara, Carl Sandburg, and Me

March 12, 2010

After posting late yesterday afternoon, I decided to take a walk in the misty drizzle that had hung around all day. I first went to the goat yard, only to find it locked. I had forgotten that for all practical purposes, Connemara shuts down around 5:00 p.m. Walkers (human and canine) are encouraged to use the walking trails until dark, but the offices are closed and the main house is locked up. I decided to walk the short way up a winding drive to the main house to see if I could see the mountains.

Unfortunately, the mist was hanging over the Blue Ridge just as it was clinging to the ground here at Connemara. The trees, cedar, oak, and magnolia alike, were dripping, just about the only sound here late in the day, except for the distant sound of traffic below on Little River Road.

As I walked past the small white building that the Sandburg’s and Smyth’s (the former owners) used as a henhouse, I remembered what Sabrina Diaz, the education director here at Connemara had told me the day before. It is almost certain that that same building had housed slaves when the original owner lived here before the Civil War. Memminger had been the Secretary General of the Confederacy; it is known that he had slaves. When I looked into one-quarter of that building (it had four separate sections plus a ladder to access at least one attic space under the eaves), and saw how small it was, it was hard to imagine that it was likely an entire family would share that space at night, then go out to forced work for nothing for the estate owner. Just unfathomable.

As I walked past the henhouse to the main house and around to the granite outcropping where Sandburg did much of his writing in mild weather. He would put on a green visor (like bankers used to wear) and sit in the sun with a pad and pencil, using a pen knife in his pocket for sharpening as needed. There is nothing there at this time of year, but I could see how a serene, secluded spot would be ideal for a writer. As I walked back through the trees, many with limbs broken by the recent ice storm strewing the paths between them, I sent up a request to Mr. Sandburg himself that my writing would be meaningful and helpful and not just my own musings filled with my own angst. As I walked back down the old carriage road toward my cozy cottage, I couldn’t help but repeat as a mantra, those evocative words of The People, Yes: "Where to, what next?"

I rose this morning with great anticipation of the coming day. Coincidentally, I am here in residency at Connemara when there was to be screening of a rough-cut version of a new film, The Day Carl Sandburg Died, by a young filmmaker by the name of Paul Bonesteel. My car wouldn’t start (damp weather, I guess), so Connie from the NPS picked me up by the goat barn. We drove to the Flat Rock Town Hall, where a dozen or so other people were waiting for the screening. For the next ninety minutes, we all sat watching an incredible compilation of the life of Carl Sandburg, from his birth in my hometown of Galesburg, Illinois, but through his death here at Connemara.

I thought I knew a lot about Carl Sandburg. I was wrong. It is no accident that his most famous works are those that feature social issues—his own poetry and his biographies of Abraham Lincoln. I did not know about his Socialist ideology and how serious he was about helping the little man, the worker find a better life. He was watched by the government and, when returning from Sweden following the Bolshevik Revolution, was apprehended upon arrival back in the U.S. with a check for $10,000 and Bolshevik literature, which was taken from him, and a personal letter from Lenin sewn into the lining of his coat, which was not discovered. Who knew? Not me, that’s for sure. I only knew the Sandburg of poems and folk songs and Pulitzer prizes. One interviewee made the statement that Sandburg was lucky not to have suffered more, particularly during the McCarthy era.

Tonight I was the guest of honor at a reception and reading put on by the National Park Service and The Friends of Carl Sandburg at Connemara and held at the Hendersonville Chamber of Commerce. Once again, Connie drove down the winding road from the offices near the main road to my little cottage, where I waited in a driving rain. But what a wonderful evening! I felt so appreciated as a poet while the audience listened intently to my reading. I was then brought to tears as NPS Superintendent Connie Backlund was overcome with emotion when she said, “After such a long time waiting for this to happen, I realized last night that I was leaving the park knowing that there is once again a poet at home.” What an honor. What a responsibility to be the first. I only want to channel Sandburg and leave a piece of writing that, as I wrote yesterday, will be meaningful.
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