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Maggie Gordon

GARBAGE A. R. AMMONS (1993) Garbage is a book-length poem by A. R. ammons, written in late spring of 1989. It is one of a series of long poems Ammons composed during his prolific career and certainly one of the most outrageous. The manner in which the poet interprets the visible world through the prism of his never-resting, larger-than-life speaker-self suggests that his major precursors are Walt Whitman and, in a somewhat different sense, Wallace stevens. Garbage is also akin to John ashbery's long poems in its tendency to absorb disparate portions of ordinary experience and furnish a transcript of seemingly unrehearsed and uninterrupted mental process.

The central symbol of the poem is a mound of rubbish seen off Highway I-95 in Florida. An enormous landfill induces the poet to examine modern practices of waste disposal and, eventually, to reconsider human relationship with nature. The geometrical shape of the garbage dump appeals to him as a hierarchical image, among other things, with the top corresponding to unity, the base to diversity (as a poet, Ammons is fascinated with tracing connections between the one and the many). Garbage is also a poem about old age—at 63, Ammons contemplates his retirement, poor health, and inevitable death. Fittingly enough, the poem is dedicated to "bacteria, tumblebugs, scavengers, / wordsmiths—the transfigurers, restorers." Garbage received the National Book Award in 1993.

Garbage is written in an improvisatory mode. In a method similar to that of Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965), Ammons writes on a wide roll of adding machine tape and tears off sections of it in lengths of a foot or more. Although aware of the arrogance that goes with trying to get something right the first time, Ammons decides that the poem should attempt to do just that—to be a more or less an immediate transcript of his continuous meditations on the subject of human waste, even if this means that some passages will have to appear as abstract, prosaic, or dull. On a few occasions, Ammons almost apologizes for his lack of brevity, explaining that "what I want to say is saying"; he digresses, takes detours, hits dead ends, but he always manages to return to his primary subject. As a result the poem boasts a music of its own, undergoing a series of rhetorical rises and falls in a kind of continuous verbal stream. The colon remains Ammons's favorite punctuation mark, providing linkages between phrases and sections. There is also a great range of tone and vocabulary in Garbage; the poem is both serious and funny, urbane and folksy, profound and witty, filled with technical words, such as lecithin, and strikingly imaginative phrases, such as roseate rearend. Eventually the poem adds up to 18 sections of unrhymed, heavily enjambed two-line verse units. Each section runs several pages and is written in a language that sometimes sounds like a conversation with hypothetical readers and sometimes like a conversation the poet might be having with himself.

Ammons begins his poem in medias res. An inner voice chides him for wanting to lead a simple and quiet life while the world is waiting for a great poem of the age. The time has come to recover "values thought lost." The poet then asserts that garbage, symbolized by the mound of waste he had seen recently among the flatlands of Florida, must be the poem of our time because it keeps us from dangerous delusions. He intends to write a scientific poem, asserting that nature dictates our values, all values, and that it is a place where we both begin and complete our earthly existence. The grief of failure, loss, and error makes us approach nature with humility and seek spiritual renewal in it. The mound is the "gateway to beginning" because only there does the real change occur.

Throughout the poem Ammons reflects on his own vocation, language, art, and its relationships with human existence. He likens the garbage mound to a poetic mind, in which language and its inexhaustible energies constantly replenish themselves and take a new shape. He says that life, like art, should make shape, order, meaning, and purpose. He offers essential suggestions to humankind: Do not complain too much, count your blessings, take action, and keep the mind "allied with the figurations of ongoing." Overall the whole poem is a celebration of human life and its relationship with nature; among other topics Ammons explores in his multifaceted poetic commentary are food, beauty, ugliness, holiness, fear of death, matter and spirit, and joys of transcendence.

Garbage contains a strong environmental message, as Ammons questions the practices of disposal of organic and inorganic waste and their consequences to the planet at large. He is aware of the dangers of pollution, arguing that it shuts us in "as into a lidded kettle." He anticipates global crises that bring and will continue to bring nations together at international conventions, such as those held in Rio de Janeiro and Kyoto in the 1990s. Above all, he makes us conscious of the reality of garbage, which grows around us, strives for our attention with its appearance and smell, and, ultimately, encompasses us as well.

The poem also shows Ammons as a superb nature poet. The main characteristics of his verse—visionary range, meticulous observation, sensible descriptions of places and people (more of places than of people)—are all present here, emphasizing the poet's conception of nature as a benign, generous, scrupulous, and inexorable force to which we are all subjected. Like his famous shorter poem "The City Limits" (1971), Garbage affirms the recuperative radiance that informs all things even in the landscape of waste and death, which is, for Ammons, the very heart (or bowels, perhaps) of the natural world. Notwithstanding its focus on the lowly, dirty, and smelly, Garbage is still a poem about praise, celebration, and redemption. Like Sphere (1974), one of its book-length predecessors, the poem achieves a truly cosmic vision through a resourceful interlocking of nature and art.

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