To about 50 poets I write: “I am working on an essay on debris. Specifically, lines poets throw away. My goal is to build a glowing city out of garbage. I am thinking about the history of ruin and repair. I am thinking about rescue. Sometimes I imagine it like holding the body against my body so it never turns into a ghost. There will be some mysticism here. And there will be some foul play. Will you send me a line? Even if it's a word or two? You will, of course, be carefully cited.”
I think the project begins as most projects begin: with that thing called “Hope” laced with fever and blindness. I had this idea that through this act of rescue, I could make a kind of prayer poem. I had this idea what poets shed could be sewn into a skin the world could wear when the world got too cold. “Dear Poet,” I write. “I have come for your trash.”
Some promise me their lines and never send. Some can't stop sending. Many ignore me. Ariana Reines sends me a photo of a dumpster named LIBERTY which solves the whole riddle before I even begin writing, but I carry on. One poet tells me he’s keeping his trash thank you very much. A few send me edits, asking me to tweak their dreck. Some regret saying yes. Josh Bell writes, “It’s about time!” It is sometimes funny, and sometimes sad, but mostly it feels shameful. It occurs to me I might be begging for garbage. The lines pile up one on top of each other like a big mistake. I look at them out of the corner of my eye. They couldn’t really care less about me.
Many of the lines refer, it seems, to the body and what has not happened and what is missed, and many of the lines refer it seems to not knowing and failure, an inability to decipher, a question not asked, and things off in the distance.
Many years ago, when I lived in New York City, there was a store in the East Village called Obscura that I would often visit. It still exists but now it lives at a different location: http://www.obscuraantiques.com/ It had, I remember, a dark green awning, and on the side of the awning it had once read Live Plants Corsages. Which is to say, Live Plants Corsages had been painted over or scrubbed off, but it was still very much legible like a body under a thin sheet. The store was filled with taxidermy, and old dentist trays crammed with teeth, and broken dolls, and bone dice, and medicine bottles, and antique safety pins, and Russian flight goggles, and lace gloves too small to ever fit anyone I’ve ever known. Everything in the store was in a state of exile, as each thing was removed from what once kept it. But there everything still was. Safe and sound, and I guess bewildered.
In retrospect, I must’ve gone there as often as I did because it gave me comfort. I felt a sense of belonging. “Live Plants Corsages” became a tiny prayer I would say to myself because it summoned up for me this idea of a home where everything was in exile, but in exile was where everything belonged.
Halfway through my trash collection, my son breaks his arm and then soon after the doctors find a dark spot inside my husband. A poet friend writes, “it occurred to me this morning that maybe when you asked the universe (poets) for their trash you got some stuff that maybe wasn't the most useful right now… i do NOT NOT NOT mean to imply that you are at fault for ANY of this in any way, but I wonder if saying a prayer or making a request for the poets/ universe to take some of your worries AWAY or to send you healing and blessings... i don't know -- just thinking...”
And I write back, “Thank you for your note. It fortifies me. I should print it out, fold it up tiny tiny, and eat it. And it's funny (ha ha horror) because I was thinking about the debris / the lines / and how as I was writing this lecture the doctor found a dark spot inside my husband that needs to be biopsied, and then I started thinking about human tissue, and what do they even do with human tissue after it's been biopsied, and how do we know what to keep and what to discard / and how will the boys and I live on this earth without him / and maybe we (our bodies) throw out so much of what we need, and maybe the stupid world does too. My great-aunt (a holocaust survivor) never threw out a single newspaper. Or a plastic bag. She said she was slapped by a Nazi as a baby and something froze inside her. I am writing this essay and panicking about my husband and trying to stay calm for my boys and what I really want to do is throw out everything I own and keep everything all at the same time.”
I start researching how human tissue is disposed, and I remember how the great poet Heather McHugh after losing her father told us that the weight of her father's ashes was the same as his birth weight.
I start thinking a lot about this photo of an albatross. Its intestinal filled with marine debris.
And then I begin to think about how much it reminds me of Joseph Cornell’s “Pharmacy.” Colored sand, speckled shells, maps, newspaper clippings and cork live inside this miniature apothecary like medicine for the imagination. As I study these two images it seems almost impossible to tell the difference between the poison and the pill, between the cure and the kill.
Walter Benjamin writes, “Here we have a man whose job it is to gather the day’s refuse in the capital. Everything that the big city has thrown away, everything it has lost, everything it has scorned, everything it has crushed crushed underfoot he catalogues and collects. He collates the annals of intemperance, capharnaum of waste. He sorts things out and selects judiciously: he collects like a miser guarding a treasure, refuse which will assume the shape of useful or gratifying objects between the jaws of the goddess of industry. This description is one extended metaphor for the poetic method, as Baudelaire practiced it. Ragpicker and poet: both are concerned with refuse.”
William Faulkner says kill your darlings. I say, keep your darlings alive until they’re 192 and search under their fingernails every morning for poems. Name all your darlings and always takes attendance. Bring them warm milk when they ask for warm milk. And brush their hair with the finest combs.
When my brother was 5 he jammed his finger in a door, and his fingernail turned black, and fell off. He saved it in a tiny glass vial for 12 years.
In 1996 this same brother participated in The March of the Living. Along with over five thousand other Jewish children, he marched through Auschwitz, Majdanek, Birkenau, and Treblinka. The march is a march of remembrance. The march can also be read through Benjamin’s Angel of History, as one large face “turned toward the past.” They “would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.” But they must keep moving.
My brother told me a story about a quiet, shy boy who he marched beside. He remembers this boy, upon their arrival at Auschwitz, taking a child’s shoe from a mountain of shoes, and shoving it into his pocket. My brother remembers the boy not knowing why he had done this, as if the task of collector was thrust upon him suddenly, strangely. He was compelled to save something, keep something. The story continues that the boy carried this shoe with him for the duration of the march, occasionally turning to my brother, nervously, because not only did he not know what possessed him to lift the shoe from its last resting place, but he also did not know what, at the end, to do with this shoe. I imagine the shoe being carried from one camp to the next like a “wrong” visitor, without use or meaning. The boy becomes many things at once: collector, destroyer, architect, and finally a new architecture that marks an inerasable trace: the boy’s hand reaching out to take the shoe is its own monument. If the hand lifting the shoe up were to be frozen in time and space, like a piece of steel or a block of wood, it becomes for us a wake up call that the collector is complicit in destruction (or prying), yes, but also in a destruction that makes a new and redemptive architecture, and a new dwelling place for a new language. However criminal the lifting up of the shoe may seem, the act returns the shoe into a wandering exile. We have to deal with it again, which reminds us that history really has no final resting place. And isn’t to remind, after all, the task of the writer? Benjamin writes, “To articulate the past historically means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”
As writers, how do we seize hold?
A few weeks after hearing this story and telling it and retelling it, I was told that this story was impossible: the shoes at Auschwitz are behind glass. I began to wonder if in the crisis of witnessing, my brother imagined the shoe being lifted. I called him up:
Remember the story you told me about the boy who stole a shoe from Auschwitz?
I was told it was impossible. The shoes are behind glass.
No. When I was there I remember there was nothing between us.
Are you certain?
Maybe they put them behind glass later.
Or maybe he took it from Majdanek. It was a long time ago. I forget. It was a strange time. Yes, it was Majdanek. Wait. It’s blurry. Can you call them? Can you ask?
Dislocation becomes even in its telling. Like the shoe, my brother’s testimony, at the moment it turns back on itself, at the moment it is dislodged, becomes wounded, paralyzed, and simultaneously asks for a moving on.
The story about the shoe is wounded. And like the shoe itself, the story is now taken from its grave and put back into circulation. My brother’s story now wanders back and forth, in exile, between the imaginary and the real. It is cut off from the comprehension of its surroundings. “Can you call them,” my brother asked. Can you ask?” This request, at the time, seemed very odd. Who exactly would I call? What could I possibly ask? For a moment, I actually considered calling up Auschwitz, and in searching for a number I was struck with the absurdity and the grotesqueness of the task, as if there was a single answer to end my searching. And who exactly, in god’s name, I wondered, would answer?
Here is a photo of the shoes at Auschwitz.
Here is a photo of the shoes at Majdanek.
My son’s cast is off now, but my son wants to keep it. My therapist suggests we fill it with candy, seal it up, and then beat it like a piñata. It’s florescent green and waterproof and it’s bent at the elbow like a boy’s arm. Not like a boy’s arm, like my boy’s arm. But it’s hollow now. I don’t know what to do with it. It’s on the dashboard of my car, and the late summer sun beats down on it day after day. It emits a fine green dust.
As the poet's trash slowly starts trickling in, I throw out 10 year old makeup, two outdoor chairs (seats caved in), a trampoline, my favorite coffee mug (broken / in pieces) and a pair of sneakers. I give away my sons crib and changing table. He no longer needs them. Those things are in the past.
My grandfather, a holocaust survivor, died two Julys ago. My mother gives me his favorite wool cardigan. It’s the color of a forest in winter. I wear it sometimes. As if I am where my grandfather’s body belongs. I find three breadcrumbs in the pocket. I keep them in small tin can on my bedside table. This sounds like a fairytale, but it isn’t.
Here is the poem I made out of poet trash. It doesn’t belong to me.
You say, the moon is a stone in a blue frock. And I say, I know
So little and I say, I was colder than you and you say, all I know
Their guns were made out of goodbye wood, you say.
You say, the blizzard. I say, there are some really cool people here.
The crow says, let’s go deeper into the wet blue yarn. The crow says, be absolutely present for one another.
But there’s a baby on your chest, you say,
the arrow with your name on it
for what I do not need. I do not ask the crows. What is more painful
Than asking? A noose for two weeks straight, you say.
Sometimes you pass a pile of feathers in a field
And look up at the empty sky.
You had no use for the things scattered around me.
The dumpster’s name is Liberty.
Fish now fills the fox
Thank you to the following poets for sending me lines: Ariana Reines, Rachel Zucker, DA Powell, Jenny Browne, Jennifer Militello, Aaron Kunin, Traci Brimhall, Jericho Brown, CA Conrad, Josh Bell, Ben Lerner, Eduardo Corral, Terrance Hayes, Kirsten Kaschock, Mark Leidner, and Nick Flynn.