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Unmarked Crossings: a poet and her journeys

Connemara, Carl Sandburg, and me

Yesterday I traveled back the way I haven't gone for nearly seven years--from Kentucky to North Carolina. I lived in Chapel Hill for a couple of years and, when returning there from visiting friends in Kentucky, would travel I-75 to I-40 past Asheville, then on to Chapel Hill. My last trip to Kentucky, in June of 2003, I stayed. I had bought a house, was starting a year's commitment as an Americorps VISTA volunteer, and was in the midst of studying for an MFA in Creative Writing through a low-residency program at New England College. At the time, I would never have supposed I would be coming back to North Carolina as a poet.

Due to a rockslide along I-40 between Asheville and the Tennessee border, Eastbound traffic must find alternate routes. Having consulted Mapquest and Google Maps, I chose directions from the latter, which routed me along two-lane roads for nearly seventy miles. As I drove along, enjoying this new route and the beauty of the mountains (except for those hairpin curves and switchbacks, or course), I couldn't help but think how much life has changed for me since my last trip over the Smokies. I have an MFA degree now. I teach college-level writing, and my career (if one can call it that) as a poet has moved forward somewhat. I have lost my mother, however, and that loss is hard to accept for anyone. I have been moonstruck and star-crossed where my love life is concerned. But there I was, crossing another range of mountains, literally and figuratively, on my way to spend three weeks as the inaugaral poet at Connemara, the last home of the late poet, Carl Sandburg.

Sandburg and I share a hometown (Galesburg, Illinois) and a Swedish heritage. My father was Swedish, his mother having immigrated to America prior to marrying my grandfather, who was born in the U.S., but whose older siblings immigrated as children. I knew I was Swedish from the time I could understand anything about heritage. My family did not eat traditional Swedish food, but I remember my mother donning an aluminum pie plate stuck through with lit candles, to bring us children treats on St. Lucia Day (December 13).

I first became aware of Carl Sandburg as a schoolchild in Galesburg. It was exciting to a child who wrote her little poems to learn that a famous poet was also from her town. When I was around ten, we children began collecting pennies in what was called the "Penny Parade," to help with the renovation of Sandburg's birthplace on Third Street. It was about that time that Galesburg was named an "All-American City." I can still sing the entire song that was written for the occasion, but part of it goes: "Mr. Lincoln spoke, Mr. Sandburg wrote, in Galesburg, Illinois!" Those events, along with the 1959 centennial celebration of the Lincoln-Douglas debate, which took place in Galesburg, seem simultaneous in my memory. I don't know if Sandburg was a part of that centennial celebration, but if he was, he may have seen a ten-year-old cowgirl (complete with cowboy hat and boots), astride an ugly old, Roman-nosed paint horse that was much too big for her, but that made her feel like Dale Evans.

Today, after meeting with the folks from the National Park Service, which is the organization that now owns, operates, and oversees Connemara, I had the opportunity to tour the main house here. My small memories of Sandburg had consisted of his writings--poetry and prose--and an album of his singing folk songs. Before the tour, visitors are encouraged to watch a video of an Edward R. Murrow interview of Sandburg from 1954. Something about that scratchy, black and white TV recording that stirred up memories and tears. Did I remember watching the program on television back then? Possibly. I would have been five at the time and I remember watching that particular show. What touched me was seeing and hearing this man whom I have known about my whole life, but who I had never met. His Swedish accent very much intact reminded me of relatives. His appearance was so like people I know, who are also Swedish (in fact, one may have been his relative--another Sandburg). He was so intent on doing good with his writing; that was apparent in his answers to questions.

The house has been kept as nearly intact as humanly possible, thanks to the foresight of Sandburg's wife, Lillian (AKA Paula). His thousands of books line bookshelf after bookshelf, many with little slips of paper where he had marked something that was important for him to find again. The house is a lived-in, loved-in sort of place. But perhaps the most telling detail of seeing his house was that his two Pulitzer prizes were not anywhere to be seen. However, on his desk, looking out toward the range of the Blue Ridge Mountains he loved, there is a plaque given to him by the NAACP for his concern for and writing against racism and prejudice, along one given to him by a Girl Scout troop for his caring about children. He cared. That's what made him such a great poet and writer.

In a second short video I watche prior to touring the house, Mrs. Sandburg is being interviewed about her husband. She is asked if Sandburg felt that his books on the life of Abraham Lincoln were his greatest accomplishment. She replied that he always felt that his book of poetry, The People, Yes, was equal in importance because he was trying to convey a message about his feelings toward mankind. He cared. It's that simple.

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