Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Trash, Issue 37, January 2014)

Ted Mathys
Wastepickers and the Seduction of the Ecopoetical Image

1. Trashing the Image

Several years ago, I spent a summer in New Delhi working with low-caste wastepickers who live in and near landfills and recycle for a living. Engaging with the on-the-ground complexities of humans gleaning in trash led me to interrogate how I deal with the current environmental moment in my own poetry and to radically reevaluate some of the more resilient claims made by proponents of the political efficacy of an innovative ecopoetics.

One of these claims is that through the use of discipline-busting associations, stark juxtapositions, and a flattening of received hierarchies, linguistic and otherwise, poets who use formal innovation to push beyond traditional nature poetry can alter perception in a way that translates into environmental change. I call this the “perception hypothesis” and spell it out in greater detail below.

I want to suggest that proponents of the perception hypothesis are rightly skeptical of circumscribed imaginaries like “nature” and “wilderness,” but that the effort to flatten the hierarchies between subject and object, between the pristine and the profane, is particularly encumbered by poetry’s traditional relationship to image-making. Poetic images, photographs, book covers, and other cultural artifacts that purport to critique the current ecological condition – i.e. Chris Jordan’s award-winning photographs of decomposing albatross carcasses with bellyfuls of trash from the Great Pacific Gyre; the image of a goat nursing on blue-green antifreeze dripping from a car in one of my own earlier poems; the flock of birds and horse on the cover of Juliana Spahr’s book This Connection of Everyone with Lungs that turn out, upon closer inspection, to be roving over a garbage dump in São Paulo; the photograph from the Christian Science Monitor at the beginning of this piece – these sorts of images often earn their affective heft and sizzle by working an insidious bait-n-switch: they suggest something here does not belong, and in suggesting as much, collapse back into the same dualistic “nature over here, humans over there” thinking that they seek to upend.

This is particularly problematic in relation to wastepickers. Trash is often defined by what it is not – it is unwanted, discarded, leftover, apparently useless to she who throws it away. Yet wastepickers confound the idea of trash as inert residue of consumer society, redefining it as a living, mutable, transnational, temporal process by which humans, to greater and lesser degrees, recognize and extract value and utility from matter. And as a process, trash is interwoven with rapid urbanization, energy consumption, climate change, international movement of toxics, and other major environmental challenges of our time.

How we think about wastepicking, then, is crucial for contemporary art and poetry engaged with the ecological conditions of the present. Because trash, and other environmental issues, turn on processes that are smeared across time and space, I think we might need to give up on the idea of static juxtaposition and horizontal free association doing the work, might need to move away from thinking and seeing in cross-section and toward thinking and seeing in procession.

There’s a long history of such poetry of axiomatic progression, which I’ll call “iterative.” It might include nursery rhymes and cumulative poems like “The House that Jack Built” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “Visits to St. Elizabeths,” in which the poet proceeds by adding a line to the previous stanza to create a new, slightly altered stanza in a chain process that could proceed more or less indefinitely; Wallace Steven’s experiments in perspectivism in poems like “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and “Sea Surface Full of Clouds”; or formal mathematical experiments like Inger Christensen’s visionary “Alphabet,” a book that marries abecedarian progression with the Fibonacci sequence to move from microscopic existence to colossal destruction and back again. The point is that poetries of iteration, which train the mind to think in process regardless of what they depict, might be sites of cultural production that are useful for environmental action.

2. Trash as Process

A plastic water bottle that is thrown away by a tourist at the Taj Hotel in New Delhi will, after wending through a complex international network of wastepickers, sorters, aggregators, middlemen, large formal recyclers, and traders, most likely end up as a fiberoptic cable in China.

An old, barely operable PC donated to a good cause by an elementary school in Nebraska may, after being purchased by an American e-waste broker and sold to a Nigerian importer in contravention of domestic and international law, end up at the port city of Lagos where, after clearing customs, it will be taken to a warehouse yard which doubles as retail outlet, and either sold to a vendor who will fix it up and hawk it at one of the city’s four electronics markets, or it will languish at the warehouse until it is sent to a city dump, where informal recyclers will treat the circuit boards in acid baths, burn the exteriors off the wires, and smash the cathode ray tube monitor with hammers to extract the copper yoke.

In New Delhi and São Paulo, in Cairo, Jakarta, Lagos and most of the world’s other megacities, wastepickers form the backbone of a complex international grey economy in recyclables that transgresses political and ecological boundaries. Wastepicking is a big, dangerous business; those who work in it face ambiguous legal status and are often subject to structural violence. They live in slums and in makeshift huts on public lands – by airports and rail lines, near landfills or peri-urban swamps, on dirt patches or medians – those interstitial ziggurats of late capital that nobody else wants. More importantly, wastepickers are unacknowledged, informal municipal employees working in green jobs, providing inexpensive raw materials for industry, as well as waste collection, energy conservation, and beautification for urban centers that have traditionally eschewed formal waste collection.

Wastepicking is also intimately tied to the global economy. Prices for scrap and recyclables are tightly integrated with international commodity markets and often travel in the same direction as the virgin materials they replace. When, for example, housing values and the cost of oil fell during the recent recession, so did the price of scrap metal, paper and plastic. From April to December 2008, the price paid for plastic used in beverage containers decreased in New Delhi by 40 percent. Wastepickers experienced a shock to their incomes, and many in Delhi were forced to sell off their reserve assets of copper wire, stop sending remittances back to their villages, and cut back on “luxury” foods, such as milk and meat.

As a graduate student in international environmental policy in 2009, I received a summer fellowship to work with Chintan Environmental Action and Research Group, an environmental justice outfit in New Delhi that organizes wastepickers and helps them defend themselves legally, advocate for political rights, work in safer conditions, get the police off their backs, and gain access to education for their kids.

In a nutshell, I was brought on to research the potential climate benefits that Delhi’s 167,000 wastepickers provide on a daily basis by diverting waste from landfills – where methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is produced – and by conserving energy through recycling. At the time, Chintan was embroiled in a political fight over the city’s proposal for a massive new waste-to-energy facility that would jeopardize the wastepickers’ access to trash. Chintan knew that the wastepickers were providing a free municipal service to a city that had all but abandoned formal trash collection, but they also suspected that the climate benefits of supporting informal recyclers would far exceed those of a waste-to-energy plant. The perverse irony of the situation was that, under the rules of the Kyoto Protocol, the European and Indian funders of the waste-to-energy plant would be able to earn carbon credits for making “clean” energy, while essentially privatizing the trash-as-commons as it had been practiced in India for decades. The fight turned on cumbersome notions of formal and informal economies, legal and illegal practice, clean Western ecological discourse around saving the climate and the messier reality of entrenched sociocultural practices around wastepicking.

My charge was to find out if there was a way to stop the waste-to-energy plant from qualifying for Kyoto funding, and if there was a way that the wastepickers themselves could earn carbon credits for their work. The answers, sadly, were no and no. I did manage to show that wastepickers in Delhi alone are responsible for saving upwards of 800,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere each year, which is roughly 4 times the savings that would come from the new waste-to-energy plant, and as much carbon as is stored in 700,000 acres of forest. Chintan ultimately published the research and used it as an advocacy tool at the Copenhagen climate negotiations to show that the UN needs to start wrapping its head around the global informal sector. But to arrive at the estimates, I had to literally follow the trash from cradle to grave and back to cradle again as it moved through the complex wastepicker network. Here’s how:

Delhi is a megalopolis with very little formal trash collection. Instead, residents, maids, and servants bring trash to neighborhood aggregation spots called dhalaos, which are open-sided concrete sheds that serve as disposal units. There is commonly at least one dhalao in each neighborhood, and some areas also have metallic bins or open sites for dumping. There are thousands of dhalaos and open sites in Delhi, and wastepickers work in most of them, meticulously segregating the waste into recyclables and organic materials and collecting recyclables for later resale to small kabaris, which are small aggregators who deal in several recyclable streams. Small kabaris sell to large kabaris who deal in one or two streams and are sometimes on the books and pay government tax. Large kabaris ultimately sell to formal, legal recycling operations. There are also cycle kabaris who ride bikes around neighborhoods yelling out what type of recyclables they buy, and residents and wastepickers seek them out for transactions. In addition, roving informal recyclers purchase cardboard boxes and other recyclables directly from businesses and mark them up for sale to kabaris; wastepickers go door-to-door in neighborhoods, either by pre-arrangement with households or simply by blindly knocking on doors and asking for trash; and people commonly throw trash on the streets, so wastepickers collect from streets. Women conduct most of the collection and segregation work at the bottom of the pyramid, and men control the top. Some version of this system is in place in most of the major wastepicking cities in the world.

And the landfills? Wastepickers do scavenge in all three of Delhi’s dumps, but the proportion of wastepickers working in dumps to those who work elsewhere in the city is relatively small. And this is why I began to find it disingenuous when photojournalists would show up at the dumps and take pictures of women in brilliant saris sorting through trash with birds circling and cattle roaming. The seductive photos aim to heighten viewers’ perceptions of the ecological condition of late capital, but given the above description of the wastepicking reality, they are certainly false, potentially regressive, and lead to a way of thinking about trash that is ecologically questionable.

3. Bulldozer and Bird:
The Perception Hypothesis

Marcella Durand articulates a version of the perception hypothesis in her excellent essay “The Ecology of Poetry.” Durand recounts how Juliana Spahr responded to the introduction to the inaugural issue of the journal ecopoetics with the challenge that “such poetry, the poetry of ‘walks,’ smacks of old-fashioned nature poetry, a poetry that, [Spahr] says, does not include the ‘bulldozer’ with the ‘bird.’”

Although Durand warns that including the bulldozer with the bird can produce a poetry that expects “deep yet instant change in human actions toward the environment, while making no deep and intrinsic change within its own poetic structure,” she agrees with Spahr’s basic proposition. That is, she agrees that there is a need for the bulldozer and the bird to collide and coexist in the figurative language of contemporary poetry. Durand writes that whereas biologists or mathematicians might be bound by disciplinary constraints, poets are uniquely suited to cross boundaries, to associate, juxtapose, and confront the messy collisions of the present:

Experimental ecological poets are concerned with the links between words and sentences, stanzas, paragraphs, and how these systems link with energy and matter – that is, the exterior world. And to return to the idea of equality of value, such equalization of subject/object-object/subject frees up the poet’s abilities to associate. Association, juxtaposition, and metaphor are tools that the poet can use to address larger systems.

Durand’s perception hypothesis concludes with the idea that this multidimensional quality of poetic production will lead to “increased perception, and increased change.”

The political reasoning that drives the perception hypothesis seems to be that aesthetic works that too neatly cordon off birds from bulldozers, mountains from cell phones, humans from trash, essentially fall prey to the wilderness trap that has dogged us for decades. This trap results from the dualistic idea that where humans are is everywhere that nature is not, and it leads, William Cronon argues in “The Trouble With Wilderness,” to a propensity toward environmentally irresponsible behavior in everyday practice. If contemporary ecological art is to be urgent, the thinking follows, it cannot hold on to false categories like “nature” and “wilderness”; it must assimilate the bulldozer and the bird equally, must cross disciplinary boundaries and use juxtaposition, association, and so on to create heightened perceptions of the present that will lead to increased change.

4. Albatross Poetics

I find much to admire in Durand’s essay, but I can’t shake the feeling that the urge toward “increased perception” in this way often leads to a type of image-making in contemporary photography and in poetry, that earns its affective chops through juxtapositions and associations which set the presumptive innocence of animals, the integrity of certain landscapes, and the nobility of the poor against the excesses of consumer culture, with all of its resultant oil spills and garbage dumps. Consider the following images:

The image on the left is from the series “The Midway: Message from the Gyre” by photographer Chris Jordan. Jordan’s series documents albatrosses on Midway Atoll, a remote cluster of islands in the North Pacific, that have died as a result of the Texas-sized funnel of garbage swirling in the Pacific known as the “Gyre.” The nesting chicks are fed lethal quantities of plastic by their parents, who mistake the floating trash for food as they forage over the ocean. Of the series, Jordan writes:

For me, kneeling over their carcasses is like looking into a macabre mirror. These birds reflect back an appallingly emblematic result of the collective trance of our consumerism and runaway industrial growth. Like the albatross, we first-world humans find ourselves lacking the ability to discern anymore what is nourishing from what is toxic to our lives and our spirits. Choked to death on our waste, the mythical albatross calls upon us to recognize that our greatest challenge lies not out there, but in here.

Jordan’s photographs are shocking, highly stylized, and frankly beautiful. And his artist statement makes evident that the perception hypothesis drives his thinking – his art acts as a “macabre mirror” in which a morality play is enacted between “we-first world humans” with our consumerism and toxic waste on the one hand, and the innocence of nature on the other.

The image on the right is the cover of Juliana Spahr’s collection of poems This Connection of Everyone with Lungs. Christopher Arigo describes the cover in a recent essay:

…at first, the faded-out green seems to depict a flock of birds flying across an empty plain of sky, juxtaposed against the title and the word “poems.” Then the eyes move down to the silhouettes of a horse and numerous vultures and suddenly one realizes that this is a photograph (altered) of a garbage dump with the hazy backdrop of a skyline. On the back cover flap, the notes say that this is a photo of ‘Sebastião Salgado, a garbage dump in São Paulo, Brazil.’ … One of the side effects of this much waste is of course the omnipresent flocks of birds, scavengers and otherwise, which ecologically speaking may not be such a negative consequence, but the photo also seems to gesture towards the clash of human encroachment and the natural world.

The slow reveal of Spahr’s cover relies on the shock of recognition when the flock of birds and the horses become a site of clash between humans and nature. One irony of Spahr’s cover is that a good portion of the book itself proceeds exactly along the lines of productive, iterative poetry that I find useful. Still, the seductive cover, like Jordan’s photographs, makes for good art and creates heightened perceptions of the present in viewers, but it is heightened perception made possible by the vilification of trash and the sense that something in the image does not belong. The problem, of course, is that as soon as one of the terms does not belong, we are back in the wilderness trap, thinking in temporal cross-section, rather than in networked iterations of cause and effect. And adding the third term of wastepicker to the image complicates matters further – here the human is neither part of “we first-world humans” nor some idealized, natural, noble creature, but a normal informal worker in the global economy. The composed, striking image that suggests that the human does not belong in the landfill is the most pernicious sort of art.

The images above are photographs, but I believe the logic extends to poetic imagery as well. In On Photography, Susan Sontag famously wrote that to photograph is to “appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power.” Sontag writes that this desire for appropriative knowledge exists in language, too, but that “print seems a less treacherous form of leaching out the world, of turning it into a mental object, than photographic images.” This, she argues, is because images in prose and in painting are “interpretations” that do not purport to furnish transparent evidence of reality, but offer instead “handmade visual statements.”

Poetry also makes visual statements through its heightened relationship to imagery. Of course, describing what exactly an image is in poetry is notoriously difficult and historically contingent, and my aim here is not to account for a complete theory of poetic image. But, as W.J.T. Mitchell and Brian Glavey write, many 21st century critics “stress the etymological relation between image and imitation. Words and images share the common condition of all representation, woven together into a mediated web of signs and simulations.” It’s this mediated web that I think Marcella Durand is referring to when she notes that experimental ecological poets are concerned with how language systems “link with energy and matter.” And I think that the types of juxtaposition, association, and metaphor that create the ecologically suspicious quandaries of belongingness in photography also create them in experimental ecological poetry.

5. Poetry’s Mattering Process

When I first arrived in Delhi, I couldn’t see the wastepickers. Sure, I saw them on the streets and in dhalaos, and I had seen them in photographs and read about them in articles. But their system of organization, their home lives and work lives, and what they were or weren’t doing for the environment was completely opaque. And had I not learned how to see the wastepicking system, it would have been extremely hard to make the case against the proposed “clean” energy plant.

Serge Latouche has written that in the roughly fifty different languages with terms for the informal economy most position it in relation to normal activities, defining it by what it is not, and often negatively. It thus “appears to the economist as a-typical, bereft of its own logic or identity” apart from that identity conferred by its perceived abnormality, even though peasants, wastepickers, day-laborers, craftspeople, and other informal actors make up the majority of workers in the world. Formal economic analysis has so much difficulty accounting for the informal because of its inability to “read” the logic of informal within its formalized narrative of modernity. The informal is thus viewed as residing “elsewhere, outside the terms of reference and normative imperatives” of dominant discourse. The informal, the wastepicker, has become “the other of the grand society.”

We can’t rethink trash and its relationship to the human environment unless we can start to better read the logic of the informal. And we can’t see the informal economy unless were are trained to see iteratively, to see in process and progression. Poetry is one place this training might happen. Paradoxically, iterative poetries need not feature traditional environmental tropes, and I believe they need not even be contemporary. Take, for instance, the first few stanzas of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Visits to St. Elizabeths” (1950):

This is the house of Bedlam.

This is the man

that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is the time

of the tragic man

that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is a wristwatch

telling the time

of the talkative man

that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is a sailor

wearing the watch

that tells the time

of the honored man

that lies in the house of Bedlam.

The poem’s title refers to the Washington, D.C. hospital in which Ezra Pound was confined from 1945 to 1958. Bishop visited Pound on numerous occasions at the hospital, and her poem innovates on the traditional narrative thrust of a cumulative poem by turning each stanza into a “visit.” The speaker’s tonal contours and stance toward the man change with each iteration, creating an ambiguous emotional topography in which he is described variously as “tragic,” “talkative,” “honored,” and so on. That he “lies” is also no accident. He lies in the bed, static, holding forth, the same man visit after visit. But he, like the poem, is also a liar, making any static perception of the man or truth about his character, contingent and fleeting. As the poem cumulates and undercuts itself repeatedly, its “time” also changes. Stanza three introduces time as era. Stanza four collapses time back to the marked, daily time of the wristwatch, and then immediately shuttles back to telling the historical time of the talkative man. Beginning with stanza five, when the sailor puts on the wristwatch, time in the poem flowers – the sailor gets caught up in delusional reverie, time pauses and hiccups as the sailor winds his watch and “ticks” when the man who lies gets tedious, and so on.

It seems odd, even to me, to claim a Bishop poem from 1950 that operates by a seemingly straightforward formal maneuver as ecopoetically useful today, but it features many of the elements of iterative poetry that I believe can train us to better confront the spatiotemporal and process dimensions trash and other current environmental issues. It proceeds step by step through a mental construct; interrogates images and perceptions by visiting them repeatedly; has no predetermined terminus (i.e. no mental “landfill”); and clarifies categories with new information as quickly as they are created. If we are to start making choices that are less environmentally suicidal, we need to see and think in this way, and iterative poetry is one site of cultural production that is uniquely suited to help us do so.