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Sermon to the Trash: A Poem By Richard Schiffman

Sermon to the Trash

By Richard Schiffman

Everything passes, said the Buddha,

and I saw it myself on the river– 
tennis balls and condoms, 
waterlogs and dead dogs, 
styrofoam battleships, 
the mastless schooner of a rubber sandal, 
subaqueous plastic bags
rippling their ghoulish curtains,
a belly down, drowned waterfowl
legs splayed, plucked clean by the waves. 
But what the Buddha didn’t say
is that everything returns
a few hours later, when the current flips direction,
shuttling eternally in the limbo of the tides.
For life is not a river, but an estuary.
And what is delivered undigested to the sea
is spat back by the sea, whole rafts 
of trash sailing upriver 
like salmon to the spawning ground.
I saw this as well– the same bloated and 
unidentifiable fowl returning like the Antichrist. 
The sodden tennis ball bounced back. 
The rubber sandal walked 
backwards upon the waters. 
The condom too was resurrected, a false prophet 
returning to the land of its extraction. 
As it is written– “Cast thy bread upon the waters,
for thou shalt find it after many days.”
Yet what Ecclesiastes failed to mention
is that man does not live by bread alone,
but by plastics and foam rubber and latex 
and spandex and synthetic polymers,
and, lo, every foul and unnatural thing
under the petrochemical sun,
which clogs the primordial waters
like unforgiveness in the heart,
to muck up the spawning grounds of love,
and choke the teeming rapture of the marshes,
and sore rebuke the eyes of the disposer.
Richard Schiffman is the author of two biographies and a widely published poet. He is also a journalist specializing in the environment who regularly contributes to leading publications including The new York Times, Scientific American, the Atlantic, and the New Scientist. His nature poetry reflects his love for the earth and his belief that understanding its threats are the only hope of saving it.  This poem was published in Schiffman’s new book, What The Dust Doesn’t Know, Salmon Poetry, 2017. Link here to learn more.
  1. Robert Burr Reply

    I think it takes the Mediterranean 75 years to be completely recycled. that’s a long time. How

    does anyone know if it works?

    A worthy poem. Thanks.


  2. Elise Dovletoglou Reply

    Very powerful piece. The painting of life as “not a river, but an estuary” is very relevant to issues of the environment. Pollution does not as easily flow out of our communities as we may wish to think it does. As soon as a piece of waste leaves our sight it is more blissful to think that it will end up somewhere it should, which is often not the case. We often fail to take note of just how much we use up in our day-to-day life, and how much of that will never be broken down. We have become used to a lifestyle of convenience and replicability- disposing of waste is a daily occurrence, and happens without a second though of where this material can end up. The Earth can only handle so much before it is pushed past its limit. As Schiffman excellently states, “man does not live by bread alone”.

  3. Nicholas Gigot Reply

    The imagery in this poem is particularly powerful. The line “whole rafts of trash sailing upriver like salmon to the spawning ground” presents a fascinating juxtaposition of the artificial and the natural, and the allusion to Ecclesiastes brings in interesting questions about the inevitability and immortality of trash.

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