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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.

  4. Denise McHarris Reply

    Love this poem!

  5. Stuart Cowan Reply

    Richard Schiffman’s poem speaks truth as he informs, shocks and rebukes in one compact breath. This poem isn’t just well=creafted — it’s a classic, deserving of widespread readership. How mindlessly we live, untethered to the reality of the fate of the detritus of our lives. Rivers don’t always end up in such sorry shape, and much of the time our trash does “disappear from sight.” But that’s not the point. It (the trash) does not disappear from earth. And what will that mean two centuries down the road?

  6. Alisha Aggarwal Reply

    This poem reminded me of just how much “stuff” we all have in our lives. Anything we do requires so many small objects. There is no other creature that needs so many external things to live. The poem’s imagery reminds me that we need to limit how much excess we have, and treat all of the “stuff” we have as though it’s a prized possession. Plastic, especially, takes hundreds of years to biodegrade, and should be treated as such.

    While trash that we produce seems to leave our minds as soon as it leaves our vicinity, it’s inevitable that we encounter it again. Whether through plastic remnants in a fish we eat, or through witnessing a glaringly ugly sight of trash in a river. It’s essential we become conscious of this through every step that we take.

  7. Mike Raab Reply

    Great poem! “For life is not a river, but an estuary” !!! totally agree and love how you fit that in. I really like how you presented ideas from Buddhism and the bible and then flipped them on their head. Also, I really like how you rhyme within the same line. After reading your poem I wrote a haiku…

    The earth is trapped
    Full of plastic everywhere
    What do we do now?

  8. Emily Lee Reply

    This poem needs to be read and seen by more people. We like to stay in our little bubble and an idea of convenience makes people blind to what impacts they are creating. Honestly, it’s much easier to order a cup of coffee at a cafe with plastic cups they provide, rather than bringing my own mug cup. And most of the times in the past, if I did not see a recycle bin in the street, I didn’t care to properly recycle the plastic cup. We need to be more proactive and educate people how our behavior will eventually lead us to a place where we can no longer come back.

  9. Jake Brenner Reply

    I really like this poem! In particular, I like the religious imagery throughout the poem as it calls into questions one’s own morals in the context of waste production, as Nicholas mentioned. The emphasis on the condom as a “false prophet” in particular in relation to the religious imagery is quite powerful, as it comments on human hedonism as a driving force behind environmental degradation. I believe that humanities and the arts are often left out of academic environmental discourse, and this poem proves that poems and other art forms can powerfully convey environmental messages.

  10. Charlotte Silverman Reply

    I love this poem and how it reminds us that the earth has a tipping point and that our wasteful behaviors will eventually come back to hurt society “when the current flips directions”.

  11. Emilie Eve Weiner Reply

    Amazing how poetry never fails to make an ugly thing beautiful. Sometimes powerful words like these are all we need to reach an audience! For those who have never seen a river like the one Richard Schiffman describe, this piece relays an important image, one that is best if it stays in the front of people’s minds rather than the back. Spread the word!

  12. Liz Davis Reply

    The image says it all and then the poem ignites the flame. There is no “away” with garbage. This is why there needs to be a shift in perception to trash not being waste, but rather a resource. The imagery and the allusion of this poem is so strong. I admire it greatly as it embodies the fight against waste.

  13. Sky C. Reply

    This poem is inspiring. I’ve always been into writing and studied Enviro Studies but hadn’t read many creative pieces that blended the two this well!

  14. Hannah Wolfe Reply

    This is a beautiful poem and really makes you think about our relationship with waste and stuff. I think it is inspiring how you were able to blend artistic poetry and current environmental issues. It goes to show everything is connected and no disciplines stand alone. This was a truly enjoyable read.

    • Nora Morsh Reply

      I completely agree, Hannah. Environmental poetry is always the most beautiful mix of disciplines. Like this poem’s subject matter is a mix of the human and the non-human, I think so is poetry. Poetry really is just a human retelling of the natural world. Glad to see it told in such a wonderful way here.

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