Carl Sandburg

Slabs of the Sunburnt West

Into the night, into the blanket of night,
Into the night rain gods, the night luck gods,
Overland goes the overland passenger train.

   Stand up, sandstone slabs of red,
Tell the overland passengers who burnt you.

Tell 'em how the jacks and screws loosened you.
Tell 'em who shook you by the heels and stood you on your heads,
Who put the slow pink of sunset mist on your faces.

Panels of the cold gray open night,
Gates of the Great American Desert,
   Skies keeping the prayers of the wagon men,
   The riders with picks, shovels and guns,
On the old trail, the Santa Fe trail, the Raton pass
Panels, skies, gates, listen tonight while we send up our prayers on 
the Santa Fé trail.
           (A colossal bastard frog
           squats in stone.
           Once he squawked.
           Then he was frozen and
           shut up forever.)

Into the night the overland passenger train,
Slabs of sandstone red sink to the sunset red,
Blankets of night cover 'em up.
Night rain gods, night luck gods, are looking on.

March on, processions.
Tie your hat to the saddle and ride, O Rider.
Let your ponies drag their navels in the sand.
Go hungry; leave your bones in the desert sand.
When the desert takes you the wind is clean.
The winds say so on a noisy night.
           The fingerbone of a man
           lay next to the handle of a frying pan
           and the footbone of a horse.
"Clean, we are clean," the winds whimper on a noisy night.

Into the night the overland passenger train,
And the engineer with an eye for signal lights,
And the porters making up berths for passengers,
And the boys in the diner locking the icebox —
And six men with cigars in the buffet car mention “civilization,"
 "history," "God."

Into the blanket of night goes the overland train,
Into the black of the night the processions march,
     The ghost of a pony goes by,
     A hat tied to the saddle,
     The wagon tongue of a prairie schooner
     And the handle of a Forty-niner's pickax
Do a shiver dance in the desert dust,
In the coyote gray of the alkali dust.
And — six men with cigars in the buffet car mention "civilization," 
"history," “God"

Sleep, O wonderful hungry people.
Take a shut-eye, take a long old snooze,
    and be good to yourselves;
Into the night the overland passenger train
And the sleepers cleared for a morning sun
    and the Grand Canyon of Arizona.

           A bluejay blue
           and a gray mouse gray
           ran up the canyon walls.

A rider came to the rim
Of a slash and a gap of desert dirt —
A long-legged long-headed rider
On a blunt and a blurry jackass —
Riding and asking, "How come? How come?"
And the long-legged long-headed rider said:
"Between two ears of a blurry jackass
I see ten miles of auburn, gold and purple —
I see doors open over doorsills
And always another door and a doorsill.
Cheat my eyes, fill me with the float
Of your dream, you auburn, gold, and purple.
Cheat me, blow me off my pins onto footless floors.
Let me put footsteps in an airpath.
Cheat me with footprints on auburn, gold, purple
Out to the last violet shimmer of the float
Of the dream — and I will come straddling a jackass,
Singing a song and letting out hallelujahs
To the doorsill of the last footprint."

And the man took a stub lead pencil
And made a long memo in shorthand
On the two blurry jackass ears: —

"God sits with long whiskers in the sky."
I said it when I was a boy.
I said it because long-whiskered men
Put it in my head to say it.
    They lied . . . about you . . . God . . .
    They lied. . . .

The other side of the five doors
and doorsills put in my house —
how many hinges, panels, doorknobs,
how many locks and lintels,
put on the doors and doorsills
winding and wild between
the first and the last doorsill of all?

"Out of the footprints on ten miles
of auburn, gold and purple — an old song comes:
These bones shall rise again,
Yes, children, these bones shall rise.

"Yonder past my five doors
are fifty million doors, maybe,
stars with knobs and locks and lintels,
stars with riders of rockets,
stars with swimmers of fire.

"Cheat my eyes — and I come again —
straddling a jackass — singing a song —
letting out hallelujahs.

"If God is a proud and a cunning Bricklayer,
Or if God is a King in a white gold Heaven,
Or if God is a Boss and a Watchman always watching,
I come riding the old ride of the humiliation,
Straddling a jackass, singing a song,
Letting out hallelujahs.

"Before a ten mile float
of auburn, gold, and purple,
footprints on a sunset airpath haze,
    I ask:
How can I taste with my tongue a tongueless God?
How can I touch with my fingers a fingerless God?
How can I hear with my ears an earless God?
Or smell of a God gone noseless long ago?
Or look on a God who never needs eyes for looking?

"My head is under your foot, God.
My head is a pan of alkali dust
your foot kicked loose — your foot of air
with its steps on the sunset airpath haze.

           (A bluejay blue
           and a gray mouse gray
           ran up the canyon walls.)

"Sitting at the rim of the big gap
at the high lash of the frozen storm line,
I ask why I go on five crutches,
tongues, ears, nostrils — all cripples —
eyes and nose — both cripples —
I ask why these five cripples
limp and squint and gag with me,
why they say with the oldest frozen faces:
    Man is a poor stick and a sad squirt;
    if he is poor he can't dress up;
    if he dresses up he don't know any place to go.

"Away and away on some green moon
a blind blue horse eats white grass
    And the blind blue horse knows more than I do
    because he saw more than I have seen
    and remembered it after he went blind.

"And away and away on some other green moon
is a sea-kept child who lacks a nose I got
and fingers like mine and all I have.
And yet the sea-kept child knows more than
I do and sings secrets alien to me as light
to a nosing mole underground.
I understand this child as a yellow-belly
catfish in China understands peach pickers
at sunrise in September in a Michigan orchard.

    "The power and lift of the sea
    and the flame of the old earth fires under,
I sift their meanings of sand in my fingers.
I send out five sleepwalkers to find out who I am,
    my name and number, where I came from,
    and where I am going.
They go out, look, listen, wonder, and shoot a fire-white rocket 
    across the night sky; the shot and the flare of the rocket dies to a 
    whisper; and the night is the same as it always was.
They come back, my five sleepwalkers; they have an answer for me, they
say; they tell me: Wait — the password all of them 
heard when the fire-white rocket shot across the sky and died to 
a whisper, the password is: Wait.

"I sit with five binoculars, amplifiers, spectroscopes
I sit looking through five windows, listening, tasting, smelling, 
I sit counting five million smoke fogs.
Repeaters, repeaters, come back to my window-sills.
Some are pigeons coming to coo and coo and clean their tail feathers 
    and look wise at me.
Some are pigeons coming with broken wings to die with pain in 
    their eyes on my window-sills.

"I walk the high lash of the frozen storm line;
I sit down with my feet in a ten-mile gravel pit.
Here I ask why I am a bag of sea-water fastened
to a frame of bones put walking on land — here I
look at crawlers, crimson, spiders spotted with
purple spots on their heads, flinging silver nets,
two, four, six, against the sun.
Here I look two miles down to the ditch of the sea
and pick a winding ribbon, a river eater, a water
grinder; it is a runner sent to run by a stop-watch,
it is a wrecker on a rush job."

           (A bluejay blue
           and a gray mouse gray
           ran up the canyon walls.)

Battering rams, blind mules, mounted policemen,
trucks hauling caverns of granite, elephants
grappling gorillas in a death strangle, cathedrals,
arenas, platforms, somersaults of telescoped rail-
road train wrecks, exhausted egg heads, piles of
skulls, mountains of empty sockets, mummies of kings
and mobs, memories of work gangs and wrecking crews,
sobs of wind and water storms, all frozen and held
on paths leading on to spirals of new zigzags —

An arm-chair for a one-eyed giant;
two pine trees grow in the left arm of the chair;
a bluejay comes, sits, goes, comes again;
a bluejay shoots and twitters . . . out and across . . .
tumbled skyscrapers and wrecked battleships,
walls of crucifixions and wedding breakfasts;
ruin, ruin — a brute gnashed, dug, kept on —
kept on and quit: and this is it.
Falling away, the brute is working.
Sheets of white veils cross a woman's face.
An eye socket glooms and wonders.
The brute hangs his head and drags on to the job.
The mother of mist and light and air murmurs: Wait.

The weavers of light weave best in red,
    better in blue.
The weavers of shadows weave at sunset;
    the young black-eyed women run, run, run
    to the night star homes; the old women
    sit weaving for the night rain gods,
    the night luck gods.

Eighteen old giants throw a red gold shadow ball;
they pass it along; hands go up and stop it; they
bat up flies and practice; they begin the game, they
knock it for home runs and two-baggers; the pitcher
put it across in an out- and an in-shoot drop; the
Devil is the Umpire; God is the Umpire; the game
is called on account of darkness.

           A bluejay blue
           and a gray mouse gray
           ran up the canyon walls.

Good night; it is scribbled on the panels
of the cold gray open desert.
Good night; on the big sky blanket over the
Santa Fe trail it is woven in the oldest
Indian blanket songs.

Buffers of land, breakers of sea, say it and
say it, over and over, good night, good night.

           Tie your hat to the saddle
           and ride, ride, ride, O Rider.
           Lay your rails and wires
           and ride, ride, ride, O Rider.

The worn tired stars say
you shall die early and die dirty.
The clean cold stars say
you shall die late and die clean.

The runaway stars say
you shall never die at all,
never at all.