Tuesday, May 08, 2007

"Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes"

At the stoplight waiting for the light
nine a.m. downtown San Francisco
a bright yellow garbage truck
with two garbagemen in red plastic blazers
standing on the back stoop
one on each side hanging on
and looking down into
an elegant open Mercedes
with an elegant couple in it
The man
in a hip three-piece linen suit
with shoulder-length blond hair and sunglassed
The young blond woman so casually coifed
with short skirt and coloured stockings
on the way to his architect's office

And the two scavengers up since four a.m.
grungy from their route
on the way home
The older of the two with grey iron hair
and hunched back
looking down like some
gargoyle Quasimodo
And the younger of the two
also with sunglasses and long hair
about the same age as the Mercedes driver

And both scavengers gazing down
as from a great distance
at the cool couple
as if they were watching some odourless TV ad
in which everything is always possible

And the very red light for an instant
holding all four close together
as if anything at all were possible
between them
across that small gulf
in the high sea
of this democracy.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
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I discovered this poem through the blog of Gabriela Sellart who left a comment on this blog last week. Gabriela is an English teacher in Buenos Aires and taught this poem to her students, who were then assigned to write a short response essay on it. She put up some of the different and interesting responses from her students, which I can’t but marvel for the creativity and thoughtfulness shown.

Personally, I too like this poem very much, though it may seem just a little bland. Perhaps, some of you may have guessed by now my taking to social issues, through the choices of some of the poems I share, or more likely, the nature of my comments I leave behind here and there.

In this poem, two garbage collectors in their truck are waiting at the traffic lights along with a hip, young couple in a Mercedes. A descriptive contrast is set up between the two, as is suggested by the title of the poem. The couple are in fashionable clothes; the man in his “hip three-piece linen suit”, the woman all dolled up in probably the latest trend for the season.

As Leon (one of our puisi-poesy contributors) would say, the long phrase “hip three-piece linen suit” when read is an emphasis that sharply distinguishes from the plain (one piece) plastic blazers of the garbage collectors. Moreover, note how the young architect is also similar in appearance to the younger garbageman – both with long hair and sunglasses; the difference: the Mercedes and the clothes. This highlights the “gulf” between them, just as one is standing over, looking down (ironically enough), while the other sits comfortably in his open topped Mercedes.

The subtle handling of these little details of similarities and differences marks the craft of this poem, which leads on to the final stanza where all four individuals are held together “for an instant” at the red traffic light, equal and yet not quite equal; “as if anything at all were possible” (for the two garbage collectors), and where “everything is always possible” (for the young couple), just before they go / zoom off to different destinations.

PS. One could off course read the poem differently from this socially inflected light

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Side reflections

While all are subjected equally to traffic laws, there are the unspoken ‘laws’ of class and social differences that separate people. Indeed, I would honestly acknowledge my own privileged position, having enjoyed the many benefits of a good university education, for whom there are those both in my country and other parts of the world are deprived. It is then through poetry such as these (which I learn to appreciate through the education I received) that reminds me of the necessary ‘sympathy’ with one’s fellow men, according them the same dignity and the humanity both they and I share (whether rich or poor, highly paid professional or a garbage collector).

In Malaysia and Singapore, or at least from what I heard, some parents warn their children to study hard least they end up becoming garbage collectors. Undoubtedly, a kind of social stigma exist in the perception of the 'dirtiness' or 'unfit' nature of such jobs [which is not easy to shake off]. But, where we would we be, if it were not for these people who help clear the trash and decomposing waste. Could we imagine having a mountain of rotting rubbish whose stench stink to vomit-inducing proportions near our homes? [some areas in Malaysia suffer from a lack of an efficient waste collection system]. Indeed, garbage collectors are integral to society, and should be accorded the necessary respect they deserve; more so now that we become more conscious of the importance of environmentally safe waste disposal [sadly, Malaysia still doesn't exactly practice it well enough], and the need to recycle some of the endless resources we humans consume [I think, sanitary engineer will become a vital profession in the future ;)]


PS. I won't be able to reply to any comments as fast as I would like to, as I am without a fixed internet access.

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19 Comments:

Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

Just a note on craft. First notice that the two men on the truck were on their way home, and the couple were on the way to the office.

Notice also the younger garbage collector's similarity with architect, but to contrast with the "young blond woman"... there is the older man, "with grey iron hair / and hunched back / looking down like some / gargoyle Quasimodo". We would imagine the young woman to be opposite, but can we see more?

7:38 PM, May 09, 2007  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

Sorry, I read the line "on the way to his architect's office" and thought that the man was an architect. Which leads me to another thought. Notice that the poet doesn't directly say who is being compared to whom. We are left to assume--as I did--that the man is an architect, maybe, or he is an architect's client. Even the younger garbageman is said to be the same age as the Mercedes driver, and though I automatically first assumed that it was the man driving, it could have easily been the woman instead....

Mix and match, and see what meaning we can find!

7:49 PM, May 09, 2007  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

i like this very much, DI. a photograph of a single moment yet there is so much in it. and it could have happened here, exactly like this too, couldn't it?

7:38 AM, May 10, 2007  
Blogger enar arshad said...

this scene i am sure is often repeated daily but unnoticed by many.

10:31 PM, May 10, 2007  
Blogger Gabriela Sellart said...

After saying thank you, just a short comment:

I particularly like the comparison to the gargoyle. An image in extintintion, to which I have always felt attracted. Architects/artists in the past managed to turn a practical device into an ornamental/artistic object.
Anyway, since I first real this poem, whenever a see a garbageman I picture a gargoyle. (no medieval buildings here in Buenos Aires)

12:53 AM, May 11, 2007  
Blogger msiagirl said...

Hello D I, (may i call you DI like Sharon) - I've only read one book by Ferlinghetti and it's called A Coney Island of the Mind which I took backpacking with me, so it is a little bit battered. But it is a great favourite of mine. The Beat Poets are the original Slam Poetry guys aren't they? They are so louche and cool.

Anyway I think he was definitely bringing in social inflections and pointing out the gulf that is growing wider and wider between the great unwashed and the preppy elite. I like it they are "sunglassed" - these people just don't want to see each other despite their proximity. Ferlinghetti is great at unusual juxtapositions and wry comment, i love the repetitions and rhythm - there are some poems in my book written to be read along with jazz musicians!

3:41 AM, May 12, 2007  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Gabriela, I am the one who owe the thanks. :)

Hi Msia girl, yes, most certainly you can call me DI. Most pp don't quite like the idea of calling me idiot, haha, or perhaps it's because my moniker is too long, hahaha. Thanks too for your comments. The sunglasses bit is so true... I hadn't realise this fact beforre. But, I guess with the ozone thinning, pp would need sunglasses all the more, especially us in the tropics. You know, I visited your blog before... I think, it was when you commented on Machinist's sharing of a Mary Oliver's poem, if I recall correctly. Anyway, since you are Malaysian, but living in the UK, we could love to have you guest blog for us some time in the future... I'll keep this in mind, though currently, I'm up to my neck with things,

Enar, I agree with you. Many times, I too find myself 'missing' or forgetting these people, but I try my best. What is sad to see is some stuck-up arrogant person treating people in these public service areas disdainfully as lesser persons. Anyway, speaking on behalf of the others, it would good to have you buest blog for us sometime, though I'm too busy at the moment to arrange something. Please do let me know or remind me if I forget to get back to you at a later date. Off course, a better way, is to go through Sharon, whom I heard, is a distant relative of yours... such a small world! :) Hope to meet you when the opportunity arises. :)

10:43 AM, May 14, 2007  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Msia girl, apologies for missing out on Sharon's invitation. I currently don't have a fixed internet access, but we try to coordinate among ourselves. I'm one of the administrator, as is Sharon who will be doing more, I hope, since my hands are a bit tied now.

Enar, you're invited too, so write to Sharon, and she'll see how to include you in. :)

10:53 AM, May 14, 2007  
Blogger enar arshad said...

thanks for the invite.hope we can work out something.yeah it is such a small world after all.but sometimes we put great distances between us like the characters in the poem.

10:41 PM, May 15, 2007  
Blogger msiagirl said...

Thanks DI! You are right, I don't like to call you an idiot! I'm sure it is ironic but it seems impolite of me. :)

No probs,invited twice, am honoured twofold, as the other post was far far down. I'll just email a little one to Sharon, and she can decide when to schedule it in. You sound pretty busy - thanks for paying my blog a visit!

2:39 AM, May 16, 2007  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

msiagirls choice is up now. enar - hope you want to play too!

and DI don't worry, will help all i can

11:48 PM, May 16, 2007  
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7:20 PM, February 20, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This poem sucks because I have to memorise it for my stupid english assignment. And, I don't believe in bright and colourful garbage trucks because they stink real bad and have bird shit on the sides.

5:39 PM, May 31, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this poem is all about democratic issues within society

3:21 AM, November 17, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This poem intrigues me, as many take the garbagemen for granted, and are unaware of the major social divide between the well-of and the not so well-of.
No offense if your parents are garbagemen or women. They do great things. :)

2:02 AM, February 01, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This poem intrigues me, as many take the garbagemen for granted, and are unaware of the major social divide between the well-of and the not so well-of.
No offense if your parents are garbagemen or women. They do great things. :)

2:03 AM, February 01, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

lol I typed twice sorry :)

2:03 AM, February 01, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey x

6:10 PM, August 11, 2015  
Anonymous vani said...

what do we mean by the phrase"as if they were watching some odourless tv ad in which everything was possible"

12:46 AM, March 08, 2017  

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