“The Things We Forget” by Jana Bouma

Jana Bouma


My dentist warns that my gums are letting go; they’re
threatening to set my teeth adrift on a current of words.
So I’ve bought myself an electric toothbrush, 
and my teeth, now, after brushing them 
are so clean that they are a wonder, 
and every day I trace them with my tongue, 
relishing their smoothness. And when I spit into the sink 
and turn on the faucet, all that roughness 
goes spiraling down the drain, through the pipes, 
into that long, tentacled river flowing continuously 
beneath our feet, carrying away all that we do not want 
to think about or see again, 
uniting stream with stream of effluent from my kitchen, 
my bathroom, the neighbor’s kitchen, and bathroom, 
every kitchen and bathroom in my small town, 
in the neighboring city, in a thousand cities 
across a continent. 
Away it all goes but leaves behind trace after trace 
in the pipes-become-channels-become-
subways that men can walk within and do 
walk within, looking for the leaks and the corrosion 
and the clogs that would flood a city street 
or back up into your basement if there were not 
someone         willing         to disappear 
into the street’s round, dark openings, 
to descend into a chamber knee-deep 
with the excrement and the sluice that we’ve all 
tried to forget, that we all have forgotten 
as soon as it leaves our sink or bathtub, and Mike Rowe 
has made a television series, an entire career 
out of the work that such men do (and such women),
unclogging the sewers, digging a river’s worth of silt 
from inside the dam, shovelful by shovelful,
stripping the feathers from bird carcasses,
carrying away the excrement of enormous animals, 
because hard work 
                                   is beautiful 
no matter the muck that you do it in, 
and the men and women who do it are, yes,
the women with fingers raw from turning seams in the coat factory, 
the men with faces blackened by the forge’s fire, 
the husband and wife toiling, bent over the long rows of strawberries, 
their infant bundled under a tree at the field’s edge, their ears listening 
for the sound of approaching sirens. 

from Rattle #84, Summer 2024


Jana Bouma: “I love that poetry brings to our awareness the things and the people that we seldom think about, or that we actively avoid thinking about. For years, I tried to write this poem with that very intent until, one day, a visit to the dentist’s office provided me with that one ‘other thing’ that made the poem work, and the poem came pouring out.”

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