Posts Tagged ‘Florida’

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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“Girls’ weekend” and “death” really shouldn’t keep company, but a few weekends ago they did, and all things considered, it was nice.  This November, for the first time in 23 years, my high school girlfriends gathered without our friend Christine, who died at the tail end of last year.  The remaining eight of us weren’t exactly moping around all weekend, but our ninth friend, our sweet bubbly friend, she of the clear blue eyes and husky laugh, was never far from our thoughts.


Another death followed me around over the girls’ weekend.  Again, it was kind of nice.  My friends and I stayed at my at my in-law’s home in Florida, a home my dear father-in-law, who died two years ago, loved to share with his family.  Certainly he’s still around the place.  I kept expecting to hear his booming welcome every time I opened the door.  I wore his hat all weekend and that was nice too.

I had anticipated feeling the absence of these two beloved folks, so along with my sandals I packed a few poems about death.  But I felt presence more than absence.  The poems, dark and anguished, express emotions heavier than what I felt.


I left the poems on a beach ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.  The storm carved out chunks of sand dunes, ripped out stairs, downed poles, and deposited loads of trash on a much-diminished beach.  With so much litter on the beach, a little literary litter seemed an act of beautification.


I left two poems by Jane Kenyon, one of my favorite poets.  She’s a reluctant expert on loss, having suffered debilitating depression and then living with and dying from leukemia in her forties.  Both poems concern losing a parent.


The first,”What Came to Me,” I threaded through some sea grass looped around one of the remaining beach stairs.


The drop of gravy is a heartbreaker.


The second Kenyon poem, “How Like the Sound,” I attached to a downed pole.


Here she is once-removed from grief.  With a poet’s eye and a wife’s warm heart, she observes her husband mourning his mother:  “Not since childhood/had you wept this way, head back, throat/ open like a hound”:


“Oceans” by Marie Ponsot I poked through a root exposed by the cratered sand dune.


“Taste like talk fades from a stiffening tongue” is horrifying.


Finally, in memory of Christine and Big Joe, I stuck H.D.’s “Never More the Wind” on a sea grape branch.

you can hardly see it, but the poem is blowing in the wind in the center-left of the picture.


Sometimes the simplest words speak of the most difficult truths:  “Like a light out of our heart/you are gone.”





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