“The Garbage Keepers” by Dorothy Barresi

Dorothy Barresi


Where is their calm, their rest?
Ghosts drink milk
to keep their collars clean

a ragged man tells me, grinding his teeth
between lights at Adams and Main.
He breaches the curb
with his ten thousand clattering
things in a shopping cart.

Is there, I wonder idly to my friend John, walking with me,
a shriveled Vietnam
somewhere in that mess,
or a sinister mother
archived in the spindrift avalanche of cast-off
encyclics from the phone company,
charity blankets,
a spawning run of soda cans? What cause?

Do noises of the air command him?
That’s just your problem, John says.
Where you see mess,
he sees universe
saved for a day
beyond use.
He sees the secret love in things—
every string connects
to every necessary eggshell. Well, I say,

isn’t that romanticizing
tragedy a bit? Reagan’s legion
left babbling on city streets, lost,
turned out,
become avenging angels
of our shopping sprees?
Redeemers of our irredeemable, irreducible stuff?

Sure, my friend shrugs.
At least Reagan got his.

Yeah, I say—isn’t it romantic?
Nancy spooning pablum.

I toil not, neither do I spin. I’ve forgotten
who said that
then, or if we said it at all,
though we should have;
we were no longer grinning.

Once, John said in a distant voice,
I felt a wire of my mother’s hair
grow up out of the ground
to wrap around my ankle
and hold me still
so I could see.

Oh, I said. And as he turned down his street, I shouted,
Call me! Meaning
for God’s sake, don’t leave me on this earth alone
too long.

Then, end of the day. Twilight
setting its jewels into the horizon.
There is always earth trouble, I told myself,
mid-brain, deep-brain
fear, but which was this? What
fresh disaster, this using and leaving-off
use without cease
and for what? For what?

Later that night, in the Times, I read
about a man who died
unnoticed in the bushes off the 101 Freeway.
By the time he was found,
a wood rat had dragged his skull
some thirty feet off
to use as a nest.

“A wood rat can pull amazing weight,” the young coroner
was quoted as saying, who found
fourteen babies
socketed in that stone human cup,
worm-pink, squirming for milk.

from Rattle #20, Winter 2003
Tribute to Italian Poets

Note: This poem has been revised since it first appeared in Rattle, and was published as it appears below in Barresi’s book American Fanatics. We thought it would be interesting to share it both ways now:


For the ragged man grinding his teeth at Adams & Main

and for the ten thousand clattering things in his shopping cart,

phone books, coat hangers, soda cans, floor mats that say Volvo. For noises of the air
command him.

For Vietnam, for a cock-bastard father
archived in that spindrift avalanche.

For a day beyond use, for he has saved the world within worlds,

one string connecting
every necessary eggshell,
redeemer of our irreducible stuff.

For I toil not, neither do I spin.

For the street we are on right now
and the curbs we are about to breach.

For his small, hard, distracted wave goodbye when he turns his corner,
a charity to me—

for Christ’s good sake,
don’t leave me here alone
I could say but I keep walking.

For the dead man in the Times
who went uncollected for months

in bushes along the 101 Freeway. For the coroner’s report,
and for James H. Armbruster, Jr., Los Angeles County Deputy Assistant Coroner
who filed it so capably.

For a wood rat had dragged the skull thirty feet away from the rest of the body
to couch a nest in dusty weeds.

“You’d be surprised what a rat can haul under the right circumstances,”
Mr. Armbruster said.

For fourteen babies
socketed in that human cup,

worm pink, squirming for milk.

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