by Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass
Let me work.
Brian Turner Comments:
Sandburg’s “Grass” was published in his 1918 collection Cornhuskers, in the shadows of WWI. It may be useful to note that Sandburg volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War twenty years earlier, in 1898, with the 6th Illinois Infantry (when he must have been about 29 or 30 years old). Still, all of this lies ancillary to the poem, which is timeless and speaks with a voice that resounds through the centuries. It is the voice of the grass itself which compels me, reinforcing the theme through repetition of phrase (Pile them high / And pile them high / And pile them high; Shovel them under / Shovel them under; and so on) as well as individual notes within the music (the middle syllables of Austerlitz and Waterloo repeated in under, cover, Verdun, conductor, for example).
The poem finishes in the reader. And what’s more—it actively engages the reader to become a part of the poem, even if only through the oblique angle created by the passengers. It opens up the possibility that we might be complicit in the erasure of history. That is, we all might be passengers on that train—passing by the obscene waste, the accumulated turpitude and ruins of war, battlefield by battlefield, war by war. Sandburg recognizes that in order for the grass to do its work the act of witnessing itself must be erased. Silenced.
An awful silence exists between the passenger’s dialogue (“What is this place? / Where are we now?) and the final couplet (“I am the grass. / Let me work.”) And the silence which follows this admonishment is even more devastating. This is what I mean when I say the “poem finishes in the reader.” And between the silences, when the Grass does speak—Is the tone sardonic? Is it a tone of resignation? A combination of these? And the work of the grass itself—Is it a grim effort toward healing? Or the mortician’s inexorable duty? …Nature seems to be exhausted from the work we humans offer it, again and again. The poem leaves us with much to consider.
I’m reminded of when I was in Basic Training in Ft. Benning, Georgia, and we practiced bayonet drills. We were taught the following call and response:
Drill Sergeant: “What makes the grass grow green?”
Recruits: “Blood. Blood. Bright red blood makes the grass grow green.”
Sandburg’s “Grass” seems to ask of us all—Well? Will you let me do my work?
About Brian Turner:
Brian Turner served for a year in Iraq with the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Second Infantry Division. His book Here, Bullet (2005) won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books and a New York Times “Editor’s Choice” selection. Turner received a Lannan Literary Fellowship in Poetry in 2006 and an NEA Fellowship in 2007. He is also the recipient of the Northern California Award for Poetry, the Maine Literary Award for Poetry, and the PEN Center USA Literary Award in Poetry.
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Friday, April 9, 2010
Brian Turner on Carl Sandburg's "Grass" (from Poetry Daily)
This is from Poetry Daily--Brian Turner's reflections on Carl Sandburg's "Grass":