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The Story of This Blog

I run twenty-one miles a week on the backroads around my house. Because of my work schedule, I have to run in chunks of seven to ten miles at a time, which is a bit hard for a nonathletic person like me, so I’ve come up with various strategies to take my mind off of what I’m doing. I count the different kinds of birds or flowers or grasses or trees. I carry binoculars for locating birds and have trained myself to recognize their voices and habits. I talk on the phone to distant family members and friends whom I rarely get around to talking to otherwise.

On especially long runs, even these distractions get boring, so this winter I started playing a sick, depressing game of building alphabets from the roadside trash. I made up rules for myself. I had to follow the alphabet’s order. I had to actually see a letter—not guess or surmise it from the visible part of the trash—for it to count. No slowing or stopping to look more closely. No stopping to turn a piece of trash over to see the other side. No touching at all! I had to read on the fly.

It was, as I say, a sick, sad game. So much trash. I fantasized about returning after my run with a box of trashbags and picking it all up, but I never found time. My mother-in-law used to pick up roadside trash on the road near her house. She wore gloves and then threw them away with the trash when she got home. Afterwards, she told of how all the people passing in their cars must have looked down on her, an old lady, out picking up trash. She scrunched her nose talking about it. Yech! she always said.

Spring came, burying the trash in weeds. That made the game harder, more dependent on fresh trash, longer lasting. I was on J one day—Js and Vs were always the hardest letters to find—and had been jogging along for miles without seeing even the Juicy Fruit wrapper I’d seen the last time I’d run there. Up ahead, I saw a square of paper sticking up like a tombstone out of the freshly graded borrowditch. On it was one word: TIME. It occurred to me that it would be much more fun to collect whole words than single letters, so I wrote down TIME in my little bird notebook and jogged on. Soon I had grand, subway, rub, natural, ice, aqua, buried (of a cable), light, wet, ones, bud, sonic, key, stone, mountain, and dew and decided to make a poem. It has always bothered me how advertising and brand names undo words. Light doesn’t mean light. Mountain has no real connection to a mountain, nor dew to actual dew. My poem, I decided, would reclaim these words’ real meaning. I would redeem the trash words.

My rules were few. What linguists call structure-class words (pronouns, helping verbs, articles, conjunctions, etc.) and inflections (verb forms, plural forms, etc.) are allowed. So is dividing up a word into its parts— subway into sub and way and bud from budweiser—only when I actually saw just that part of a word as I jogged past. Homophones—such as bush from busch—were off limits. Once my poem got going, though, I threw out all my rules and just concentrated on making it work as a poem. Writing it made me cry. Don’t know why, exactly, except that it felt holy, somehow. Like some songs. Or, very rarely, prayer. I decided to do this routinely when I ran.

I told my poetry workshop about my trash redemption project, and someone immediately scoffed. I should have picked it up, not simply written down words and played with them. And she was right. But if I did that, I couldn’t run. And, for all the trash my mother-in-law picked up, she never made a discernible difference. We live inOklahoma’s poorest county, among benighted people who routinely litter. I recognize their various brands as I run. Within five miles of me, there’s a Bud stretch of road, a Natural Ice stretch, a Keystone Ice stretch, a Coors stretch, a vodka stretch, a Clamato stretch, even an Ensure stretch.

Here, in any case, are the words I have collected on my various runs and the resulting poems. Let me know what you think. Or, fiddle with my roadside trash words—or, even better, your own—and send me what you manage to redeem from them, and I will post it. You will be surprised at how satisfying it is. You may even cry.

One more thing: the title resulted from trying to take pictures of the trash for the blog’s masthead and realizing that I had photographed a Walmart bottle labeled PURIFIED. It had held water.

2 Comments
  1. hello, i just wanted to say that I very much enjoy reading your poems on roadside trash. it reminds me of a great exhibition i saw last year at wellcome collection in london, dirt: the filthy reality of everyday life. here is the link: http://www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/exhibitions/dirt.aspx

  2. Wow. Wish I could see this exhibit. I realized, when I read your comment, that my impulse to start this project was perhaps influenced by an exhibit that once really impressed me. Coincidentally also in London, at the Tate: Mark Dion’s displays from his shallow archeological digs along the Thames. I loved that he categorized according to color or shape or size or sameness rather than the more usual principles, such as that older is better–making animal bones = plastic bottle cap = ancient pipe bowl. The resulting taxonomies were so satisfying–like bird books or Pokemon or those maps that say where what is produced. Also, that he arranged everything in hutches with drawers reached right into the child me rooting through street gutters and people’s trash and the hills and canyons and drainditch behind my house for things to put in my treasureboxes. My parents called me Packrat Pat for bringing home and storing so much junk, as they called it. I still do. When I emptied my little running pouch this morning, it had in it various bird feathers, a cow (I think) molar, a rusty lock washer, a bright blue little jar, the chrome cap off of something, a socket from a socket wrench, a hunting knife with a chewed on wood handle, and a plastic bag full of wild onion starts. Anyway, I’m glad you like my poems. Thanks for reading and liking them.

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