On being a man of litter and letters

By

I grew up not far from a dump. My wife, I'm sure, finds that deeply significant. She has spent years weaning me of careless messiness -- teaching me to put the Scotch Tape back into the second drawer, not to leave the grass clippers on the front step, and not, as she says, to "play ducky" when I wash my face, soaking everything within splash-range of the bathroom sink.

I confess to the benefit of her tutelage. Any unbiased observer, I'm sure, will find me a neater man than I was. Which is why, before I cede to neatness whatever tolerance for disorder I once had, I want to account for the place that dump played in my formative years.

It was no ordinary dump. In fact, it was nothing but a steep incline between an old clapboard house and the railroad track that bisected our rural New England town. But the Yankee folk who once lived there, no doubt mixing a philosophical distaste for the iron leviathans in their back yard with a practical out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude, pitched over the slope whatever had outlived its usefulness. So by the time I came along, a ten-year-old with a packrat instinct and a taste for gadgetry, it was a trove of bedsprings, rusted-out oil drums, shattered bottles, and washing-machine lids -- a whole Homeric catalog of wood, metal, glass, and rubber shapes. "I don't know -- it might come in handy," I would invariably reply when my mother, stumbling over some frightfully heavy shaft of rusted steel by the back steps, asked me questions beginning, "Why on earth . . .?"

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A lot of it, I had to admit, really was junk. But one day, sorting among the rubble under the spindly trees that had shot through the rubbish, I found a prize which probably changed my life. It was a baby-carriage frame, a springlike contraption rather like several tipped-over G-clefs. It bore two steel axels and -- most astonishingly -- four excellent rubber-tired and wooden-spoked wheels.

I carted it home in triumph. For years we had used the steep street leading up to the tracks as a racecourse, careering down it on red wooden wagons. But here, I saw, was the very stuff from which to build a proper racing-cart. Our driveway was promptly a litter of planks, saws, nails, and rope. At last, in a flurry of exaltation, I dragged it to the hill-top, grabbed the steering ropes, and let fly.

Now, no doubt a bright twelve-year-old might have suspected a fundamental weakness which, as I flew gleefully down the hill, had not yet occurred to me. It was not, I assure you, that I forgot a brake. That was kid stuff: you used your heels.

No, what defeated me was something akin to centripetal force. At the bottom of the hill I had to turn rather sharply into the driveway. And the poor, delicately-milled wheels, made to carry nothing more than a baby at two miles an hour, simply couldn't take the strain of turning. They quite literally exploded. I recall innumerable spokes flying about my head like bowling pins, the cart smashing down heavily onto its hubs, and a small, shocked boy clutching the steering-rope -- while a single rubber-tired rim, somehow still upright, bounced merrily on down the street.

In the following months, my father must have taken pity on me. I scavanged up some wire-spoked wheels, and he offered to help me build a Real Racing car. And what a car it was: a long oak-framed affair that would have made Bugatti's mouth water.It had a curved cowling of bent plywood, a seatback cut from a barrel, a sophisticated hand-and-foot brake system (Mother was by this time tired of finding my loafers with vast amounts of the heels worn off at steep and unusual angles), and a real steering wheel. We painted it royal blue, put a large silver "11" (my age) on the side, and took Whitney Street by storm.

The cart is long gone. The dump by now must be wholly overgrown. But the feel of those days remains. I'm aware that it all started as a random encounter between a curious mind and the thrown-out leavings of someone else's life --the happy conjunction of a need I didn't know I had with an object nobody thought was useful. But something clicked somewhere: looking at one thing, I saw another.

And that, as somebody once said, is the basis of metaphor. I no longer raid dumps and bring home barrel-staves: I raid conversations and books, carting off images, concepts, details, facts, statistics -- whatever the language happens to toss up.And again and again they come in handy: scraps of this, lying beside pieces of that, fuse in the process we so loosely call "inspiration." The mind seizes on a connection, ideas flow, the typewriter starts.

The French literary critics have a word for it: bricolage.m A bricoleurm is one who, finding the orts tossed aside by mere logic, fashions marvelous literary constructions out of what happens to be lying about.

Bricolage,m certainly, accounts for a lot of modern poetry --among things which most of us would leave separate. It is the basic thrust behind junk sculpture, musical improvisation, and, I suspect, some of the world's best dinnertable conversation and finest speeches. And I can't help thinking that even a Shakespeare or a Virgil knitted into their writing images which just happened to be at hand -- the result of a book read yesterday, a chance remark the day before. They must have known the value of junk. Perhaps they would have been able to tell us -- in an age increasingly awash with litter -- that one doesn't flee from junk so much as transform it, leaving behind the messy thinginess of the world while cherishing the mighty ideas of variety and randomness shaped by intuition.

Junka,m as Virgil would never have said, virumque cano:m I sing of trash and the man.

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