And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities…
Carl Sandburg, from “Chicago”
I take the long way to Penny Markt for romaine lettuce and a baguette, back behind the hill and past the dairy farm and Italian villa on the edge of the golf course. I’ve come this way because today is sunny and I’m extraordinarily busy. My day began with a meeting at 8:00 AM, and it won’t really end until my senior small group leaves around 9:00 PM. Or when I finish the mountain of dishes, a good half-hour later. A long Monday, with just this hour for walking and groceries, so I seize it feeling too busy not to go for a walk.
The green hills don’t disappoint, today exploding with apple blossoms that fall in graceful showers around me with each breath of gentle spring breeze. I might be in heaven, I think for a fleeting moment, or I might simply live in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. This, I remind myself for the thousandth time, this is home.
As I walk I’m thinking about the poems my students wrote last week, “city poems” inspired by Carl Sandburg’s 1914 mixed-message ode to his hometown. Sandburg personifies Chicago throughout the poem, creating of his native city a burly, bare-chested young man who is at various times “wicked,” “brutal,” and “crooked,” a “husky, brawling” youth that would frighten as quickly as inspire. Halfway through the poem, however, Sandburg changes his tune. Chicago is all of this, he admits, but look again. Is anyone more alive? A better fighter? Cleverer or with more self-awareness? This is my city, Sandburg seems to claim, all of him.
“And it’s only when you know a place, really know it,” I told my students, “That you can manage this. Places are like people, when you know them.”
I briefly sketched what sort of personifying poem I could write about Paris–having visited for only twelve hours–pouring on details of a baguette-clutching, wine-swilling, haughty mime, bringing shudders from the French students.
“I don’t know Paris,” I admitted. “It’s not a person to me. It’s flat, like a map. No layers. People have layers, and so do places, when you know them. And you know places that most people don’t. Pick a place. Make it a character.”
With a few understanding nods, students began their poems by jotting titles on their pages: “Bishkek,” “Calhoun, Georgia,” “Dubai” and others I’d even heard of. Word by word, people climbed out of the pages. Old and young, rich and poor, naive and threatening, innocent and criminal. Not all of them ended with Sandburg’s defense, but every poem expressed the deep knowing that comes from calling a place home, if only for a little while.
But sometimes knowing is a journey, not a destination. I sit down and reread my poem, “Kandern,” written a few years ago. It’s not wrong, exactly; when I wrote it, this was what I knew of this place I’d come to live. Now I’d write a different poem. “Knowing comes in layers,” I reflected more than four years ago, back at the beginning of this season. I haven’t gotten to the bottom of this place, of any place, just like I haven’t gotten to the bottom of any person. There will always be more to know. There will always be more home to have.
I round the corner behind the dairy farm, still under the canopy of apple trees, and pause. This is a beautiful place, a place I’m just getting to know, even after five years. But there are other places, other years. The journey from home to home, so familiar now, continues again soon, taking us both back and forward.
“We shall not cease from exploration,” wrote T.S. Eliot. “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” In two months we’ll be in Virginia; in three we’ll be in Washington. Those places where we started.
We’re excited to know them again.