Thursday, May 02, 2019

Poetry Friday: Earth Day, Eco-anxiety, Prettiness

I don't know if you, Gentle Reader, have noticed, but I try to write positive things about my adopted country of Haiti. There is so much here that is beautiful and worth celebrating, and the vast majority of coverage of Haiti tends to be negative. I try to leave the criticizing (and admittedly, there are things to criticize) to others. (I'm not always successful. I grumble about the electricity situation frequently, for example, most recently here.)

Lately, though, I have been struggling, along with everyone else who reads the news, with eco-anxiety. And although the average Haitian person makes much less trash than the average American (1.5 pounds per person per day in Haiti versus 4.4 pounds per person per day in the United States; sources here and here), the trash here is much more visible than in the States. We don't have public trash receptacles everywhere like in the US; we don't have high-tech waste management; we don't have municipal trash pickup; we are an island and don't have extra space. And those are just the explanations that I, a total non-expert, came up with off the top of my head.

On Earth Day, my husband and I visited an area where a lot of trash has been dumped, and I wrote about it. I hesitate to share what I wrote because I don't want you to think Haiti is somehow guiltier about this than the United States. Please reread the last paragraph. And I will follow up my landfill/hell poem with a haiku about something lovely, just to make myself, and perhaps you, Gentle Reader, feel better.

Rivière Grise, April 22nd, 2019

On Earth Day
we wanted to go for a walk.
We ended up in Gehenna,
on the banks of the Grey River.

Might as well say
we ended up
on the banks of the River Styx.

It had rained all night
and the road was covered with mud.
On either side:
piles of earthquake rubble
piles of styrofoam
piles of plastic
piles of empty cans.

Goats and pigs
nosed around,
and white egrets sat sentinel
atop the mounds.
People picked through the refuse,
seeking treasures.
Smoke rose from
burning heaps of trash.
The air smelled of ashes,
decay and despair,
fire and brimstone.

As far as my eye could see,
these broken, discarded ruins
spread out before us,
eternal landfill.

“What branches grow
out of this stony rubbish?”
asked T.S. Eliot.
Well, a few.
Bright pink chain of love
and purple hallucinogenic datura,
sometimes called devil’s trumpets.
Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal.

Finally we came to the river.
It was dry-season low,
choked with garbage.

I thought of Achilles clogging
the yellow River Scamander with dead bodies,
and how finally the river god rose up,
scolding him for his mad killing spree,
and I imagined a spirit of this grey river doing the same.

I lifted my camera to make an image of the murky water,
and sure enough, from the smoky distance
an angry dreadlocked figure strode forth,

Yelling what, I wondered,
awaiting the spirit’s arrival
at the car window.
Berating the poverty that caused this hellscape?
Cursing those who treated this valley as a dump?
Prophesying a post-apocalyptic future
when the whole planet would resemble this scene?

No, he was yelling at me,
selfish, bourgeois me,
for taking a picture.
I felt ashamed for
seeking prettiness
on Earth Day.
Is looking at beauty
just the art of ignoring the ugly?
Can there be heaven when
there is so much hell?

We drove
away from the Grey River,
hoping we weren’t too late
to get back to the land of the living,
drove fast,
not looking back.

Ruth, from

And here's the haiku, based on this photo I took this week:

Popsicle colors
Pink and white ice cream petals
Sweet afternoon treat

Ruth, from

Each Friday in April, I shared links to my daily blog posts. Here are the last four posts from National Poetry Month.

Jama's hosting today's roundup, so there's bound to be good snacks!


Linda B said...

There is a part of me that doesn't know how to respond to your poignant, crying out poem, Ruth, and though it is not your experience, every time I drive to our airport & see the mountain of our landfill growing higher, sometimes I think it will obscure the view sooner than later of our beautiful mountains. Then I go home and look for more ways to discard less, to find other ways to be better. Believing in beauty like 'ice cream petals' helps and both poems can enrich our lives. Ignoring either scene is not something we should choose. Thanks for a beautifully thoughtful post.

Kimberly Hutmacher said...

Ruth, your poem is so poignant. I think we can all do better. Admittedly, it's much easier for us in America to do better, because we have more resources and technology. I have a friend from Finland, and she tells us all the time about how they have hardly any garbage at all. It's what happens when a country as a whole makes a decision and they have the leadership for follow through.

jama said...

Powerful, poignant poem, a crying out for action. Your vivid images are devastating and sad. There is a feeling of hopelessness, too -- how can this problem be managed in a place lacking the resources?

"Is looking at beauty
just the art of ignoring the ugly?
Can there be heaven when
there is so much hell?"

You make some strong, thought-provoking points. Thank you for writing about something you obviously feel passionately about and that directly affects your everyday life, reminding us to be more conscious and proactive no matter where we live.

Alice Nine said...

I hardly know what to write... our hearts cry out for so many reasons, I live in a "recycle city" No plastic bags in any store. No Styrofoam for food take outs. I have been issued five containers (gray, blue, green, yellow, and tan) to sort things into and different days / weeks for putting them on the curb. During the processing of one meal, I usually put something in all five. And then on pickup days, I've watched two of them dumped into the same truck at the same time. I try to have less trash... but the jar I just opened had a plastic wrap on the outside and a foil seal on the inside... and the bread is wrapped in two different plastic wrappers. I think we really recycled more in our homes when I was a child. We washed and dried bread bags to use again. Washed out the milk cartons to serve as freezer containers. Had a thermos in my lunch box that I used for several years. Used cloth dinner napkins and hankies (I remember my mom ironing hankies that dried on the clothesline so they would be soft)... and oh, yes, cloth diapers. And our kitchen appliances never had to be replaced... you could actually find parts and repair them. Our cooking utensils were stainless steel, not plastic. I am still using the ones my mother used. And what about today's toys? And technology tools? Oh no... I think I'm writing a post in your comments. Blessings to you, Ruth!

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

It may be difficult for most to see, but I think beauty can come from ugliness. And action can come from disgust. It is good to appreciate, but it is also good to take note. Your poems and posts always make me do both, Ruth.

Molly Hogan said...

This is a powerful and heartbreaking post and poem, Ruth. I spend so much time by my local river and am deeply disturbed when I see trash casually left behind, but it's nowhere near the scale of what you describe seeing. In a related vein, I've also been wondering recently if recycling, for all its benefits, has actually had a negative impact in some ways--if perhaps we feel complacent because "Oh, I recycle", so instead of trying to find ways to reduce our material use, we pat ourselves on the backs for our trash sorting. We forget that the best course is to reduce or eliminate usage, not to find a conveniently reassuring icon. I can see that the trash issue is even more complicated for an island nation with limited resources. Thanks for including with your haiku and the beautiful photo to provide some balance.

Mary Lee said...

We must look and we must bear witness. Thank you. And we must look away from time to time to heal our hearts and remind us what we're working for. Thank you.

Cheriee Weichel said...

The Philippines is returning mislabeled garbage back to us here in Canada. It's a global problem that we must examine locally I think. Everything is over packaged in major grocery stores. We were just talking the other day about how to get companies to reduce the excess.

Kay said...

This is such a powerful post and poem. Thank you for sharing your heartfelt reaction to what you see along with your knowledge and understanding of Haiti. I spend last Saturday taking part in the biannual river clean up in my recent home county. Twice a year, volunteers pick out thousands of pounds of trash from the rivers in our community. It is getting better, but still people through out trash alongside the roads and rivers--and we have trash cans everywhere and trash pick up and more. The reasons are very different in our two communities, but both share the problem of trash. I don't know what the answer is (I try to reduce the amount of trash we create, but it's such a small effort), but I hope that beauty can grow out of it one day.