("Windows," by Carl Sandburg, in Carl Sandburg: Collected Poems, Paul Berman, ed.)
Tiger is the name of the barn cat that lives at Connemara, the home of Carl and Lillian Sandburg for the last 22 years of the poet and writer's life. A hospitable cat, welcoming guests easily from the red barn she scouts, she makes us feel at home, as if we have come to visit the Sandburgs, see Lillian's prize goats with their soft and docile faces, peruse the 14,000 volumes of books in the Sandburg home, or sit on the front porch and think and talk and think some more, enjoying the view of the lake and the mountains beyond. And we do feel at home.
My first experience with the American journalist, poet, folk singer, and hobo Cal Sandburg was as a child. His six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln contained in my mother's library of mostly devotional books (many of which I read at some point) intrigued me but proved too fulsome a history for a tween to crack. But I remember its heft, the feel of it in my hands, and the weightiness of its many words. I wondered at a man who could write so many words about one single man. I looked at his picture, his shock of white hair, and thought him a word-god, transcendent.
He wasn't, of course. Walking through his house, left much as it was the day he died, I sense his ordinariness, his humility, his modesty. I can imagine sitting in his front room visiting, the furnishings plain and simple, the man unpretentious. He might read me a new poem or even sing me a song. The only thing unusual about his home was his sharing of it with 14,000 books. Everywhere you bump into words, rub up against history. There he sits, I imagine, in a cluttered study, banging out the words to a new poem, typewriter on an upended orange crate, because "if such was good enough for General Grant it's good enough for me." Pulitzers are relegated to a hidden cabinet, no "how great thou art" wall of commendations and awards to be found. No car in the garage either, as he said that a car would keep him from walking, and in walking you get to meet people. And people were his stock and trade, the very voices of his poems.
On a granite outcropping beside his home, there is a single bench chair, and I imagine him sitting there, paper and pen in hand, thinking over his life and the life of others he knew. He said once that "[i]t is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and ask of himself, 'Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?'" There, at the bottom of Little Glassy Mountain, I might ask myself that too and, turning back to the house, ask myself what I will leave behind.
I would like to have known the man. I doubt our politics would align (as he was a socialist of sorts), and yet he championed the rights of the ordinary folk and seemed to live his life with some modesty and humility, a voice for the common man. He also held to no organized religion and, though it was not a major theme of his work, did at times rail against those he thought misappropriated Jesus, as in his vituperative lambasting of the evangelist Billy Sunday in his poem of the same name, saying "I won't take my religion from a man who never works/except with his mouth and never cherishes a/ memory except the face of the woman on the/ American silver dollar." Surely, had he read the poem to me on the porch of Connemara, I may have nodded in agreement to parts of it, because much has been said and done in God's name with which He may not be pleased.
Nature had a way of smoothing over his rare venom. Even in many of his poems not geared toward children, a gentleness is evident, as in "The fog comes/ on little cat feet./ It sits looking/ over harbor and city/ on silent haunches/ and then moves on." I imagine him playing with grandchildren, watching Edward R. Murrow on television (the only thing he ever watched), sitting at a modest table having breakfast with Lillian and his girls, watching birds out the window, and retiring to his office upstairs, cluttered and discomfiting to me, anyway.
Here, on the eve of Christmas Eve, I wonder if he knew the One who came for him, for every man, the one of whom he wrote
I've been out to this suburb of Jerusalem they call
Golgotha, where they nailed him, and I know if
the story is straight it was real blood ran from his
hands and the nail-holes, and it was real blood
spurted out where the spear of the Roman soldier
rammed in between the ribs of this Jesus of
Was he a friend of this man? Did he know the One who haunted all the lives of the people he met, the places he saw, the words he wrote? At Connemara, I can hope that he knew more than the dark, dark night from a rail car window, with only slashes of light. I can hope he knew the God-Man who came to save.