Mar. 21, 2012

Garbage Truck

by Michael Ryan

Once I had two strong young men hanging off my butt
and a distinctive stink that announced
when I was inching down your street
at the regal, elephantine pace
that let my men step down from me running
to heave your garbage into my gut
then fling the clanging metal cans
to tumble and rumble, crash and leap
back to sort-of-where you'd lugged them to the curb
before another oblivious night of sleep.
Did you think life was tough?
I reveled in it, all the stuff
you threw out, used up, let rot,
the pretty packaging, the scum, the snot,
vomit and filth, everything you thought
useless, dangerous, or repugnant:
I ate it for breakfast. I hauled it
out of sight. And what did I get?
You were annoyed by my noise.
You coughed at my exhaust.
Your kids stopped playing in the street
to pinch their noses and gag theatrically
with no clue how sick they'd be without me.
I was the lowest of the low, an untouchable,
yet I did what I did and did it well.
Now I am not laughable: a "waste management vehicle"
denatured robotic sanitized presentable.
My strong young men are gone. I have no smell.
I'm painted deep green to look organic and clean.
Your "residential trash carts" are matching green
injection-molded high-density polyethylene
that barely thuds when I lower them to the ground
after I've stabbed and lifted and upended them
with twin prongs that retract into my side
so not to scratch anything or scare anyone.
Who can complain? Right there on your street
I mash and compact and obliterate your waste.
You need never give it a second thought.
It's safe it's easy nobody gets dirty.
It's how you want your life to be.
But life's not garbage. Garbage is life.
Look what you've got. Look what you throw out.

"Garbage Truck" by Michael Ryan, from This Morning. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1963 that Alcatraz, the infamous federal penitentiary in the middle of San Francisco Bay, was closed. The main reason behind the closure was that "the Rock" was simply too costly to operate — the most expensive of any state or federal prison — given its isolation. Now it's a part of the National Park Service. Many of the gardens maintained by prisoners were preserved, including 15 species of roses that survived in the barren environment through 40 years of neglect. About 500 people visit the gardens every day.

It's the birthday of poet Nizar Qabbani (books by this author), born in Damascus, Syria (1923). His mother, who was illiterate, sold her jewelry to raise money to publish his first anthology, Childhood of a Bosom (1948), and he went on to become the most popular Arab poet and to publish more than 20 books of poetry. Much of his poetry was influenced by the tragic deaths of two women he loved. When he was 15, his older sister committed suicide rather than be forced into marriage with a man she did not love, and he turned his attention to the situation of Arab women. He wrote romantic, sensual poems and poetry demonstrating the need for sexual equality and women's rights. Many years later, in 1981, his second wife, an Iraqi woman, died during the Lebanese Civil War when the Iraqi Embassy was bombed. Qabbani was grief-stricken and frustrated with the political and cultural climate of the Arab world, and he lived in Europe for the rest of his life.

It was on this day in 1965 that thousands of marchers, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (books by this author), left Selma, Alabama, headed to Montgomery, to protest the disenfranchisement of black voters. They had attempted the march twice before, earlier in the month, but the first time they had been badly beaten by state troopers and deputies, and the second time they were ordered to turn back. This time, under court order, they were allowed to proceed, and by the time they reached the state capitol in Montgomery, there were 25,000 marchers, many answering King's call for people across the country to come and join. One of the people marching at the front of the line, arm in arm with Dr. King, was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, King's friend and colleague. Heschel said: "For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."

It's the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, born in Eisenach, Germany (1685). He came from a musical family and was talented enough to get a scholarship to study music. And as a teenager, he was an accomplished organist and held a series of posts at various churches. One church council informed him: "Complaints have been made to the Consistorium that you now accompany the hymns with surprising variations and irrelevant ornaments which obliterate the melody and confuse the congregation. If you desire to introduce a theme against the melody, you must go on with it and not immediately fly off to another." Then he was reprimanded for playing the organ for "a strange damsel." Not much later, he left Arnstadt, married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach, and went on to a distinguished career as a composer, organist, and champion of German music.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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