Featured Poem: “White Trash” by Sam Taylor

Sam Taylor

White Trash 

Walking toward the river, I saw—

well, I didn’t know what I saw.

I’d never seen so many—how many? 

ten? twelve?—snowy egrets 

at once, in a single tree

overhanging the river, then realized

it must be trash of some kind

as if from a great flood, but still strange, 

as there had been no flood

that great, not here, or recently,

and even if there had been, why

were these paper towels or plastic bags

in no other trees, only deposited

in this one tree, as if anointed, 

and besides, they looked so white, 

more like pieces of the sky

that had flooded downward and then receded up, 

or as if memory had left them, 

forgotten them there 

like beauty scars. Twice surreal 

was the tear in the waking fabric—

once that they were there,

and once that trash could be so beautiful.

It reminded me of toilet paper

I’d seen streaming down the trees

of the high school a few months back—

May, some graduation rite—

they looked, in the sweep of headlights,

like the binding ties of Apollinaire’s

rain. And just like that, 

decades pass. The tragedy of childhood 

is its plasticity, that it will assume any shape 

impressed upon it, a word like “never”

dropped one part per billion 

into the heart’s clear water. 

can seize and bend it into a hideous, 

oil-scaled, black swan. The toilet paper 

hanging from the trees in the morning 

were an annunciation,

a violation of a deeper rain

I didn’t participate in clearing.

It was the first night I’d ever spent 

away from my mother’s house.

All her efforts to shield me 

from the world’s assault 

could not have predicted the corner 

from which actual threat would come.

There was said to be a prison 

somewhere beyond the Florida holly.

the tall barbed wire. And that was 

fear—a mad convict with a knife

who’d cut into your flesh like melon

as if your own life wasn’t waiting 

to destroy you. Your life which could be

in secret slowly engineered

to be a steady instrument of torment.

And the conversation was as innocent, 

that is, as creepy, as a doll house

all slit open in its backside

for hands to reach into the underloins 

of the puppets—about

how all the girls the night before 

in their barracks before bed 

had picked which boys they would marry.

I was sitting at a picnic table 

in the cafeteria with a friend 

I’d met the day before,

and the girl telling this 

who had found him to tell him 

he was her picked husband,

said no one, when my friend asked 

who had picked me. We asked, she said,

but no one wanted to. Birds are shot 

out of the sky every day, 

and it’s no big tragedy.  

Some of them are carried back

in the jaws of faithful dogs

and others flake apart 

into the swamp. I can see now 

many things I couldn’t then.

The cast of the girls, for example,

in their bunk barracks—

night gowns and nail polish,

early hormonal washes

like underwater bees

buzzing before the dawn—

the sea-swell I was blind to then, and so I had to be nothing

on those paper sands, a parasail

camouflaged the color of the sky.

Or, how easily all this might have meant 

nothing more than being a work of art 

unnoticed for centuries,

instead of the meanings that swarmed me—

‘no one likes me,’ ‘no one will ever 

want to marry me,’ 

‘I will never be happy.’  

I didn’t know I was building 

the house I would live in

and need to escape, for years,

how I began that very instant,

furiously, where no one could 

stop me. When I returned 

in the yellow schoolbus, two days later,

to my mom and dad, 

they would have seen I was safe, 

returned whole, unharmed, and not seen

the lantern turned off in my eyes,

or the hands slit through 

the doll house, like the apartment 

building on the news

after the hurricane, its backside 

torn off, living rooms exposed

to the tidal eyes

of history. While we were sleeping 

that first night, the girls had snuck out, 

led by their teachers, Mrs. Hadley, 

Ms. Breeson, and toilet papered our bathroom

and the oaks outside our barracks.

It rained later in the night. The trick

was you had to clean it up.  

I didn’t see why we should, or why 

Mr. Brown and Mr. Strait 

led the boys out the next night 

to trash the girls’ side. If I went with them—

I truly don’t know—it was as a shade only, 

reluctant, my spirit’s eyes closed, 

gathering no memory.  

So, all of that is what I saw in one second

when I saw the trash anointing the tree

and then a few seconds later, I realized no

it was not trash, but two egrets amid trash,

and then wrong again, the whole tree

was filled with white egrets—twelve or thirteen,

many of them babies, in their blinding color,

gathered in their single family tree 

where the flooded sky had left them.

Sam Taylor is the author of three books of poems, Body of the World (Ausable/Copper Canyon), Nude Descending an Empire (Pitt Poetry), and The Book of Fools: An Essay in Memoir and Verse (forthcoming, Negative Capability). A native of Miami and a former caretaker of a wilderness refuge in New Mexico, he currently tends a wild garden in Kansas, where he directs the MFA Program at Wichita State. His work has been recognized with the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, among other awards, and his poems have appeared in such journals as The Kenyon Review, AGNI, and The New Republic.

Comments are closed.