Pushcart XL: Tony Hoagland, “Song for Picking Up” (poem) from The Sun, #461

Every time that something falls
someone is consigned to pick it up.
 
Every time it drops and rolls into a crack,
blows out the window of the car
 
or down onto the dirty restaurant floor
— a plastic bag, a paper clip, a cube of cheese
                                                                     from the buffet —
 
there somebody goes, down upon
                                                               their hands and knees.
 
What age are you when you learn that?

~~ Complete poem available online at The Sun

It’s not just the image of someone on hands and knees – a deeply rich symbol, being down on one’s knees – that makes this powerful. It’s not just the reminder that moms and janitors pick up after us (and, by the way, they could be one and the same). It’s not just that we need reminding sometimes, that whenever we make a mess – whether it’s throwing strawberry hulls on the sidewalk, or trapping the vulnerable into no-win mortgages or drone-bombing some country that has despots and assassins but also farmers and babies and grandmothers just trying to survive – that mess will need cleaning up. We can clean it up ourselves, or we can just walk away knowing it will be cleaned up some day by someone, though perhaps not in a way we like, and maybe in a way that’s worse than the original mess.

It’s all that, this poem is, but it’s more because of that last stanza that snapped me to attention:

After that, then, no more easy litter. No more towels
on the hotel bathroom floor. You bend over
 
for even tiny bits of paper,
or, bitterly, you look back at your life — like Cain
 
upon the body of his brother.

Cain is another of those deeply-rich symbols, like being down on your knees. And, like knee symbology, we have many ways to go with it. Bended knee can refer to worship, to fornication, to the romance of “Will you marry me” or to hard, dirty labor, but all have their roots in subservience. We can dissect the mark of Cain as a symbol of evil or as a protective measure, see him as the bearer of evil into the world or look at him through the lens of forgiveness and atonement (I’m taking a mooc about the Talmud at the moment, and we just had a great discussion about the Jewish concept of T’shuvah, which, in my elementary understanding, encompasses concepts of atonement, forgiveness, and return from exile). He didn’t clean up his own mess, and look what happened.

But why should Cain be bitter? He was the cause, not the victim. Maybe, even causes suffer. Maybe even Cain deserves compassion. Now I’ve got a rabbit hole to explore.

It’s even possible some damn fools will come along and try to proclaim the mess to be the way it should be: embrace the mess. Watch out for those people. Chances are, they sell the mess, but never have to step in it.

Take-home: Imagine your mom on hands and knees picking up the mess you’re thinking about leaving behind. Makes it easier to live neatly.

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