“Man is born with rainbows in his heart and you’ll never read him unless you consider rainbows”

July 6, 2012
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This post is sponsored by a trip to my parents’ house—on a non-descript island in the Detroit River, among the postindustrial, downriver suburbs of southeastern Michigan, where I have found four books heldover from my high-school years as a resident of said home: D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, T. J. Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life, Carl Sandburg’s Poems from the Midwest, and The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Were I to know then what I know now:

  • that Women in Love could not be more rife for celebrity baby names (Birkin) and maxims: “Your democracy is an absolute lie.”
  • in a more or less tentative stab at adult self–becoming, I had at some point highlighted the following in Clark’s essay on Olympia: “Prostitution is a sensitive subject for bourgeois society because sexuality and money are mixed up in it. There are obstacles in the way of representing either, and when the two intersect there is an uneasy feeling that something in the nature of capitalism is at stake.”
  • The O’Hara poems with folded pages are “Oranges,” “After Courbet,” and “In Memory of My Feelings,” which in no way do I sanctify as the Frank O’Hara poems I would turn to today in time of crisis (“and the poet takes up the knives of his wounds to catch the light”)

But Carl Sandburg: Stalker of Wheat, Player of Railroads. Carl Sandburg runs through the smooth muscle of any Chicago list, haunting revisionist histories with “Onion Days” (“Mrs. Gabrielle Giovannitti comes along Peoria Street every morning at nine o’clock”), and caterwauling over ethnographic analyses with “Child of the Romans” and “Mamie.” Crazy Carl (“indubitably an American in every pulse-beat”—H. L. Mencken), the grand old Swede, was a lifelong Social-Democrat (who married Lillian, the sister of Edward Steichen—who once, too, came and left Michigan) whose Chicago Poems took on the city from German saloon to shovel, from the Halsted Street Car to the Polish folk-home. Even the heat—Carl knows:

In a Breath
TO THE WILLIAMSON BROTHERS

High noon. White sun flashes on the Michigan Avenue
asphalt. Drum of hoofs and whirr of motors. Women
trapsing along in flimsy clothes catching play of sun-
fire to their skin and eyes.

Inside the playhouse are movies from under the sea. From
the heat of pavements nad the dust of sidewalks, passers-
by go in a breath to be witnesses of large cool sponges,
large cool fishes, large cool valleys and ridges of coral
spread silent in the soak of the ocean floor thousands
of years.

A naked swimmer dives. A knife in his right hand shoots a
streak at the throat of a shark. The tail of the shark
lashes. One swing would kill the swimmer . . . Soon the
knife goes inot the soft underneck of the veering fish . . .
Its mouthful of teeth, each tooth a dagger itself, set row
on row, glistens when the shuddering, yawning cadaver
is hauled up by the brothers of the swimmer.

Outside in the street is the murmur and singing of life in the
sun—horses, motors, women trapsing along in flimsy
clothes, play of sun-fire in their blood.

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