Pushcart XL: Lucia Perillo, “Yellow Claw” (poetry) from American Poetry Review, #43.4

For weeks a backhoe has been working
where the shore drops into the bay: it claws
then lifts a yellow clawful
of rubble. Other times
the claw’s being used as a sledge.

At first, what interested me most was the proliferation of contrasts. Man and machine; destruction and construction; dirt and food; thought and action; visible and invisible. That fit with Perillo herself: after obtaining a degree in wildlife management, she worked for the US Fish & Wildlife service, where, as she reports, “[I]t was an animal damage control facility, meaning that it researched ways to kill animals to keep them from destroying livestock or agricultural crops. We killed coyotes; we killed birds. I killed lots of things. So I graduated with this degree in wildlife biology to go off and study wildlife, and I end up killing wildlife. So it was really a weird time, a troubling year in my life.” Killing to prevent killing. Destroying to save. And then, Perillo earned her MA in English, and wrote her way to a Macarthur “genius” grant in 2000.

Contrasts.

How strange a translation is the world
of the mind behind the world!

So it’s no surprise that the man in the backhoe is thinking of mashed potatoes and gravy when he digs his claw into the earth, perhaps feeling the soft resistance of comfort food against fork, making the earth his nourishment.

But wait, there’s more.

With the last few lines of the poem, another element appears: that which is sublimated, converted, somehow disguised. The forbidden, and the permitted. That which is experienced through imagination, substituting for that which is experienced through reality.

Maybe the contrasts aren’t so much contrasts, as they are different sides of the same coin.

Photons, neutrinos, the governing waves –
mashed potatoes and gravy:
ever since the doctor forbade it
how he craves the salt.

For some reason, I flashed on the Jade Rabbit. Remember, a couple of years ago, China’s version of a lunar rover failed, and “wrote” a message to us all: ” I’m aware that I might not survive this lunar night.If this journey must come to an early end, I am not afraid…. I’ll tell everyone a secret. Actually, I’m not feeling especially sad. Just like any other hero, I’ve only encountered a little problem while on my own adventure. Good night, planet Earth. Good night, humanity.” Yes, I’m one of the sentimental saps who cried when the robot died, not because of the loss of valuable scientific information or the destruction of thousands of hours of work, but because, even though I knew the message was written by someone safe on Earth, even though I know machines don’t have minds (at least, not yet), I couldn’t help but project the words into the mind of a machine, and be moved. Soul, and technology. Rationality, and fancy. Are they so different?

Maybe all of us, who accept the salt-craving as the price for surviving our lunar night, felt the same kinship with Yutu. But if not, I’m sure we all understand the hunger of the backhoe operator operating the yellow claw, looking over his shoulder for the yellow claw bearing down on us.

If it’s turtles all the way down, maybe it’s yellow claws all the way up.

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