I love Sandburg’s Chicago Poems.

Everybody knows the famous “city of the big shoulders” poem. What you may not know is that Carl Sandburg wrote not just a poem, but an entire book of poems, about this city. A defining work of the Chicago Renaissance, the book is a perfect example of what literary scholars now call modern poetry. Concerned with the people and places he saw every day rather than mythology and other classical topics, Sandburg and other poets of the Chicago Renaissance wrote about the particular scenery, dialects, smells, and characters they encountered on the city streets. Chicago Poems is more than a pleasure to read as a book of poetry; it is a document of what Chicago was like in 1916. The poems have a delightfully populist bent to them, and some are even political, but there are also poems that are just plain fun.

Rather than overrun this blog with poetry, I’ll just post two that I think are often overlooked and that are particular favorites of mine.

The first, “To Beachey, 1912,” describes a flight of Lincoln Beachey, widely considered America’s first great stunt pilot. Beachey set an altitude record in Grant Park during August of 1911, according to The Chicago Daily News Almanac and Year Book. About 75,000 people sat in bleachers along the lakeshore to watch him (and others) at the  1911 Chicago International Aviation Meet, and Sandburg may have been among them. Sandburg may have also watched Beachey fly at the 1912 International Aviation Meet, where Beachey dressed in comical drag and performed numerous stunts as “Madam Lavasseur.”

Source: aerodacious.com

Enough exposition! Here is the poem:

RIDING against the east,
A veering, steady shadow
Purrs the motor-call
Of the man-bird
Ready with the death-laughter
In his throat
And in his heart always
The love of the big blue beyond.

Only a man,
A far fleck of shadow on the east
Sitting at ease
With his hands on a wheel
And around him the large gray wings.
Hold him, great soft wings,
Keep and deal kindly, O wings,
With the cool, calm shadow at the wheel.

The other poem is “Clark Street Bridge.” In it, Sandburg describes the site of the  Eastland disaster. Beautiful and haunting, its lyricism is as striking as its imagery. Interestingly, the bridge Sandburg would have crossed while going from River North to the Loop was the second bridge at this location–the bridge there today was completed in 1929, and the first one saw Chicago’s first civil disturbance, a beer riot, unfold. Still, I think these evocative words can yet catch in the hearts of those walking through the city on a misty, lonesome night.

DUST of the feet
And dust of the wheels,
Wagons and people going,
All day feet and wheels.

Now. . .
. . Only stars and mist
A lonely policeman,
Two cabaret dancers,
Stars and mist again,
No more feet or wheels,
No more dust and wagons.

     Voices of dollars
And drops of blood
. . . . .
Voices of broken hearts,
. . Voices singing, singing,
. . Silver voices, singing,
Softer than the stars,
Softer than the mist.

You can read the rest of Sandburg’s Chicago Poems right here, if you like.


I love Rogert Ebert.

Roger Ebert died last week. The internet probably doesn’t need one more navel-gazing reflection upon this great man, but I’m the kind of woman who goes to see midnight showings of The Big Lebowski at The Music Box, so fuck it, dude. Let’s go bowling.

In high school, I briefly entertained film school aspirations and wanted to be a cinematographer. Well, that never happened, but the dream was because of Roger Ebert. I read a review of his praising Sidney Lumet as a great director, so I went out to Blockbuster for DVDs and the book store for Lumet’s book. This is how I learned that everything you see or hear in a film is (or should be) intentional; for a purpose. Somebody is controlling not just what you see, but how you see. Mind blown!

Even before that, Ebert had opened my eyes with his writing. Having heard from somebody  that Being John Malkovich was his pick for 1999’s best movie, I begged my mother to take me to see it even though I was aware there might be “sexual situations,” something I would pretty much rather die than sit through with her. Ebert’s review in the paper caught my attention, and her suggestion (Toy Story 2) was not my speed. I had never seen anything like it. My parents typically favored moralistic action films and summer blockbusters, so it literally changed the way I thought about movies.

I did go on to take actual film classes. Here, too, Ebert changed everything, because he was not just a critic but a gateway for the average moviegoer to experience and understand film theory. He introduced me to the theory of multiple audiences, as discussed in A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood CinemaSeveral times, I went online and read his old reviews or flipped through his books to find references to ideas and critics I could use to understand something when the material in class was unclear; I ended up quoting him alongside Laura Mulvey in a theory class. I probably learned as much from him in those classes as from my professors.


As I remember him, in a photo from his blog.


For perspective, I grew up in the Chicago television market at a time when Siskel and Ebert’s show ran multiple times per week. It was what I watched after Saturday morning cartoons. (He later wrote, “If “Siskel & Ebert & Roeper” had any utility at all, it was in exposing viewers, many of them still children, to the notion that it was permitted to have opinions, and expected that you should explain them.”) There was never not Ebert. He was never not talking about movies. Realizing as a young adult that he was secretly a clever genius was like discovering the meaning of life inside the prize packet in a box of Cracker Jacks. Who knew? Well, everyone, pretty much, but it was astounding to me. Then I learned that he wasn’t just on TV, but he was also a journalist–possibly one of the best journalists of his time.

Talking of him as just a critic or journalist still doesn’t cover it all. He was an amazing writer whose work includes local history and travel writing in addition to a cookbook and his memoir. Later in life, his excellent blog showcased his engaging writing style and witty humor with posts on religion, philosophy, politics, and fascinating bits of random local flavor. His film festival, which is still happening this year, also deserves mention. Then there’s the way Roger Ebert lived his life.

Other critics, even those with whom he had disagreements, loved and respected him. This is because he always conducted himself with integrity and furthermore didn’t believe you must demonize somebody who you believe is wrong. Every week on At The Movies, viewers saw friendly (if heated) disagreements and respectful (though passionate) debates. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert frequently disagreed, but you got the feeling they might still get a drink together after the show and exchange birthday cards every year. If you haven’t noticed, that sort of thing is pretty rare on television these days. Youtube has a great stash of segments if you haven’t watched the show yourself. It also has a clip of the time Siskel and Ebert appeared on Sesame Street (further proof that Ebert was a great man). Don’t forget his inspirational and courageous battle with cancer, of course. On top of all this, he championed minority film honestly, genuinely, and unpaternalistically, sometimes drawing criticism in the process and bucked critical trends by taking genre films seriously. (“When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you’re not asking if it’s any good compared to Mystic River, you’re asking if it’s any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two. In the same way, if American Beauty gets four stars, then The United States of Leland clocks in at about two.”)

His criticism was truly constructive.

If you have read this far and consider it possibly the most boring blog post ever, here’s a reward–some hilarious quotes from negative Ebert reviews.

On Kazaam:As for Shaquille O’Neal, given his own three wishes the next time, he should go for a script, a director and an interesting character.”

On Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments. One of these involves a dog-like robot humping the leg of the heroine. Such are the meager joys.”

On Battlefield Earth: Battlefield Earth is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. It’s not merely bad; it’s unpleasant in a hostile way. Some movies run off the rails. This one is like the train crash in The Fugitive. I watched it in mounting gloom, realizing I was witnessing something historic, a film that for decades to come will be the punch line of jokes about bad movies.”

On The Twilight Saga: Eclipse: “Of Taylor Lautner’s musculature, and particularly his abs, much has been written. Yes, he has a great build, but I remind you that an abdominal six-pack must be five seconds’ work for a shape-shifter. More impressive is the ability of both Edward and Jacob to regard Bella with penetrating gazes from ‘neath really dope eyebrows. When my eyebrows get like Edward’s, the barber trims them and never even asks me first.”

On Freddy Got Fingered: “This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.”

On Baby Geniuses: “The movie involves a genius baby named Sly, who escapes from the lab and tries to organize fellow babies in revolt. The nauseating sight of little Sly on a disco floor, dressed in the white suit from ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and dancing to ‘Stayin’ Alive’, had me pawing under my seat for the bag my Subway Gardenburger came in, in case I felt the sudden need to recycle it.”