Archive for February, 2013

poem is on side of the dumpster

poem is on side of the dumpster


Confessions of a Recycled Shopping Bag

by John Yau


I used to be a plastic bottle

I used to be scads of masticated wattle

I used to be epic spittle, aka septic piddle

I used to be a pleasant colleague

I used to be a radiant ingredient

I used to be a purple polyethylene pony

I used to be a phony upload project

I used to be a stony blue inhalant

I used to be a family-size turquoise bottle

I used to be a domesticated pink bubble

I used to be a pleasant red colleague

I used to be a beaming cobalt emollient

I used to be a convenient chartreuse antidepressant





If you dread the “Paper or plastic?” question every blasted time you go to the grocery store, or even if you’re set in your preference and reply automatically, poet John Yau offers another way of looking at that dry debate. Environmental concerns aside, what would you choose to carry your eggs to the car:  the humdrum descendant of trees or a bag with past lives as numerous as Shirley MacLaine’s?


Clearly Yau has departed planet Earth and has taken up residence in a wonderland where plastic recycling is the domain of poets, not chemical engineers. In real life, plastic bags are made from oil and later recycled to make everything from playground equipment to building materials.  “Confessions of a Recycled Shopping Bag” reverses the process: the plastic bag is the end point of multiple and trippy transformations.


The transformations remind me of word ladder* puzzles, the kind in which you create new words, changing one letter at a time, to get from “cat” to “dog.” (Answer: cat, cot, dot, dog). Far looser rules of rhyme and rhythm drive the movement from masticated wattle to convenient chartreuse antidepressant. Nearly every kind of rhyme—-end, internal, slant, assonant, consonant—-is used to mutate one image into the next.  Looking for the different rhymes in the poem, I was reminded of another type of puzzle.  So pleased was I to find the connecting sounds that I felt as if I had just discovered a backward diagonal word in a word search.  Here’s a few:






colleague/emollient and then emollient/anti-depressant


With images as silly and startling as a domesticated pink bubble, the poem has what George Orwell (describing Edward Lear) once called an “amiable lunacy”; or what I’d call a cross between Cole Porter and Demitri Martin:  Porter’s verbal gymnastics and Martin‘s ear for the absurd.


Fun and absurdity aside, the poem makes a sly statement about consumerism, our unremitting need for dispensable products and dispensable product replacements when the dispensable products become useless.  Why was effort and energy expended to create a purple polyethylene pony?  Who needs one of those anyway?  “Recycled” puts a nice environmental spin on what is unnecessary to life and harmful to the planet. Even the one living organism in the poem, the pleasant red colleague, sounds like someone who doesn’t do essential work, a paper-pusher, a yes-woman.  It’s as if Porter’s “You’re the Top” has been re-written as a paean to the lowest of the low.


I taped “Confessions” to the side of a dumpster in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  Florida, home to the largest number of retirees in the country and the fourth highest population of immigrants, is a fitting spot for a riff on past lives and second chances, just the place to go if you want to reinvent yourself or just decompose.


On top of the dumpster was an enormous television, a pile of men’s underwear, and an empty pizza box.  Perhaps one owner discarded all three, having consumed the pizza, outgrown his underwear and upgraded to a flat screen.  Maybe Yau will come to the rescue and recycle these discards with the same “amiable lunacy” he recycled the plastic bottle.


Broadsides Reading Series: Nov 30th by Center for Book ArtsPoet John Yau was born in 1950 in Massachusetts a year after his parents emigrated from China.  After studying at Boston University, he graduated from Bard College and got his MFA from Brooklyn College.  His poetry has earned him multiple awards and grants, including one from the French government that made him a chevalier (a sort of knight).   He’s taught at universities across the country and also works as an art critic and curator.  For many years he was the arts editor of The Brooklyn Rail, and now edits Hyperallergic Weekend.   He lives in New York City.



*Another lover of nonsense, Lewis Carroll, invented word ladder puzzles.



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I was just at the post office mailing my Valentine’s Day cards, and there I met the friendliest woman on the planet.  In five minutes’ conversation we covered the Pope’s resignation, all the Charlie Brown characters we could remember, her favorite candies, recent films we’ve seen, and who she’s sending Valentine cards to.  After a while I asked her,  “Are you always so friendly?”  “Yes,” she said, “I have to be.  Every day is a gift, that’s how I look at it.”  She told me her husband died two years ago.  “And look at me,” she said, “I’m pretty young for that.”


She’s on my mind, that bubbly stranger.  I don’t know her name but I dedicate this Valentine’s Day post to her.  She lost the love of her life but she hasn’t lost love.


So here’s my annual Valentine’s Day poem-spending spree:


Costco had a jewelry booth for Valentine’s Day and that seemed like a good place to leave Ogden Nash’s “A Word to Husbands.”

poem is on display table above the apostrophe

poem is on display table above the apostrophe


Whenever you’re right, shut up” is excellent advice for any lover, not just husbands.



Pottery Barn was selling a few Valentine’s Day gifts by the register.  When the salesperson’s back was turned, I folded up “24th September 1945” by Nazim Hikmet and stuffed it in the silver heart box.



Hikmet was a Turkish poet and wrote the poem in prison.  In spite of the date in the title, the poem is timeless, and a good one for lovers who hope that the happiest days are still ahead.  

before I folded it up

before I folded it up


On a little path that runs by a creek, a woman I’ve never seen leaves quirky arrangements of twigs, flowers, rocks, pinecones, leaves and whatever else is nearby.  She does her work in secret and so do I.  As a way of introducing myself to her, I left Nikki Giovanni’s “A Poem of Friendship” by one of her “installations” that wasn’t covered by snow.

poem is to the left of the pole

poem is to the left of the pole


It rained heavily the night after I left this poem, so I hope it’s still there for nature lovers to find on a romantic or platonic stroll.




Teenagers have so many ways to be miserable and so many ways of hiding that misery. I left Jack Gilbert’s “The Abandoned Valley” at the entrance of a local high school as a reminder that Valentine’s Day is a great holiday to reach out to people who are lonely.

poem is the little white square to the right of the furthest righthand door

poem is the little white square to the right of the furthest righthand door


The image of a well might not be familiar to today’s high schoolers, but “being alone so long” is to most.




Allan Ginsburg found Walt Whitman in the grocery store, so I figured he might belong in the drug store too.  I put Whitman’s poem “As Adam Early in the Morning” on a shelf  at Rite Aid loaded with diet products.

poem is on middle shelf in front of Alli

poem is on middle shelf in front of alli


“Be not afraid of my body” says Whitman, and I hope dieters won’t be afraid of their own.  No one should have to buy a product that makes them shit in their pants just to get someone to love them or so they can love themselves.  No body type is unlovable!




For years poet Ted Kooser sent out postcards with a new poem every Valentine’s Day.  One of them, “For You, Friend,” I left at a candy store.

poem is in lower right corner of the side right windows

poem is in lower right corner of the side right windows

lovely Judy will help you

lovely Judy will help you


If anyone’s looking for the best chocolate on the planet and you live near Inkster, Michigan, this is the place for you.



Finally, I left a Valentine poem for my own valentine in pretty much the same place I left one last year, outside his office:

poem is to left of Comerica sign

poem is on window to left of Comerica sign


For you, dearest heart, Robert Bly’s “A Man and a Woman Sit Near Each Other.”




Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!  Spread some love!





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poem is taped to bike rack

poem is taped to bike rack



by Jack Gilbert


Imagine if suffering were real.

Imagine if those old people were afraid of death.

What if the midget or the girl with one arm

really felt pain? Imagine how impossible it would be

to live if some people were

alone and afraid all their lives.





I heard someone say on the radio the other day that today’s college students have significantly less empathy than they used to.  The speaker was referring to a 2010 University of Michigan study that tracked college students’ empathy from the 80s and 90s to now.  Lots of factors have whittled away empathy:  rampant consumerism that turns our gaze to products instead of people; Facebook and other internet follies that reduce human beings to images; violent movies and games that de-sensitize us to others’ suffering; less face-to-face interaction and outdoor play; and poor parenting that focuses too heavily on achievement and not enough on contribution.


Poet Jack Gilbert’s “Games” is a pithy invitation to empathy.  Which is why, after hearing that disturbing statistic on our national empathy levels, I left the poem outside the student center at Michigan State University.  Also because the poem is short and therefore more likely to be read by busy students, and because I hoped its title might pull in young readers the way shiny objects attract magpies.


Certainly the title drew me in.  I was confused how “Games” related to the rest of the poem.  A game is a distraction, a playful activity we indulge in from time to time.  A reader in 2013 can’t help but associate “games” with “video games,” particularly when the subject is suffering.  Video games turn pain, blood, fear and death into pleasure.  But I don’t think Gilbert’s poem refers to video games.  It was written some time before 1982 in an age when kids played innocent games like Donkey Kong and Pac Man.  Violent video games like Mortal Combat didn’t come around until 1993.


Still, a couple images in the poem are strangely relevant today.  There’s actually a real “game” called Midget Tossing.  Even in the virtual world (there’s a live version too, unfortunately) such a competition can only be accomplished with a nuclear-level meltdown of empathy.


More striking, this season of “The Bachelor, ” a game show for prostitutes as far as I’m concerned, features a contestant with one arm.  I haven’t watched the show, but any suffering the one-armed woman has experienced as a result of her disability will no doubt be used to make it difficult for the bachelor to eliminate her.   Underneath the veneer of empathy she may elicit from the television audience is the less attractive appetite for melodrama and entertainment.


Perhaps “games” refers to the game of imagining other people’s suffering.  Perhaps “Games” suggests taking a break from our own lives to pay attention to other people’s.


The repetition of “imagine” in the poem calls up John Lennon’s version of that activity.  Lennon invites the listener to imagine that all things that separate people and cause animosity have disappeared:  religion, nationality, possessions, greed, and hunger.


Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do

No need to kill or die for and no religions too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace.


Merely by imagining a worldwide brotherhood, Lennon says, peace will come. The whole process is a cinch:  It’s easy if you try.


Gilbert makes no such claim. His poem makes Lennon’s song look glib.  He asks us to imagine other people’s pain and then tell us


Imagine how impossible it would be

to live if some people were

alone and afraid all their lives


If we look full-on at the face of suffering, it’s hard to go back to our nice little lives.  But even as he tells us that paying such close attention makes life impossible, Gilbert quietly asks that we try.


Thinking about attention and suffering reminded me of French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil.  And then I realized Weil not only shares with Lennon a too-early death, she shares his glasses and a passing resemblance.  See for yourself:

John Lennon by pmtape          sw009 by Faversham Stoa


Weil wrote, “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, ‘What are you going through?’  It is a recognition that the sufferer exists not only as a unit . . . or a specimen from the social category ‘unfortunate,’ but as a man exactly like us. ”


Simone Weil (1909-1943) died from an overload of empathy, along with a healthy dose of tuberculosis.  She was 34 years old when she refused to eat more than people living in occupied France ate.  She starved herself to death. Talk about it being impossible to live when we imagine other people’s suffering.


“The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle,” she wrote. In her own cuckoo-cuckoo crazy way, she worked hard at giving others that kind of miraculous attention.


She was born to a wealthy secular Jewish family in Paris.  Well-educated and brilliant, she took a job operating heavy machinery at a Renault factory.  She wanted to align herself with the workers, with the poor.  She fought (not well—her weak eyesight made her an unreliable sniper) in the Spanish Civil War and worked for the French resistance.  She worked and wrote on behalf of the poor and oppressed.  She was a socialist who spoke out against the suffering caused by the powerful Soviet bureaucracy on the weak and incurred a written attack by Trotsky.


Weil had mystical Christian experiences and was drawn to the Catholic faith, but she never converted.  She was suspicious of organized religion and the suffering it caused through the ages.  She believed her vocation was to remain outside the church.


Poet Jack Gilbert lived outside the mainstream as well.  He was born in Pittsburgh in 1925.  He failed out of high school, and worked as an exterminator until he was mistakenly accepted to the University of Pittsburgh because of a clerical error. He spent the 1960s in San Francisco but didn’t drink or do drugs.  All his life he was a traveler.  He spent many years in Europe, living simply and touring as a lecturer on literature for the State Department.


Gilbert didn’t publish much and didn’t give many public readings.  He published his first book in 1962 and his second twenty years later in 1982.  He died last November at age 87.


Gilbert seems to have had a big appetite for life, but little for fame.  In a Paris Review interview when he was 80, Gilbert speaks about what was important to him:


Being alive is so extraordinary I don’t know why people limit it to riches, pride, security—all of those things life is built on. People miss so much because they want money and comfort and pride, a house and a job to pay for the house. And they have to get a car. You can’t see anything from a car. It’s moving too fast. People take vacations. That’s their reward—the vacation. Why not the life? Vacations are second-rate. People deprive themselves of so much of their lives—until it’s too late. Though I understand that often you don’t have a choice.



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