When I was in high school, I’d spend my weekends rummaging through the book swap at the local dump, convinced that one man’s litter was another man’s literature.
The books were housed in an old musty shed under a large sign that said Free Books, which I liked to think of as a command – all those trapped classics staring at me like puppies at the pound.
My friends used to make fun of me for reading so much. What are you up to this weekend, they’d ask. Vonnegut, I’d say. Maybe Hemingway. They’d always try to convince me to come out with them instead and get wasted. C’mon, they’d say, let’s go get trashed.
But even then that struck me as an unpleasant image, and I preferred to use more environmentally friendly expressions. I’d walk up to the cutest girl at the party and say, I’m gonna get recycled tonight. I’d grab a can of Natty Light and yell, Dude, I’m so composted right now I can barely stand up.
In college, I had a professor who’d made millions off writing trashy novels under a pseudonym. He’d published over twenty books of poetry and translations, as well, and never made more than a few bucks off any of them.
I spent my junior year of college abroad and still remember – almost twenty years later – the sight and smells of those piles of trash throughout the alleyways of Kathmandu. One morning, I came upon a handful of puppies buried underneath all the banana peels and soggy rice – their bodies still warm, necks not yet stiff. Though, it was the strangeness of language that haunted me most – that the word litter could refer to both the newborn puppies and the strewn trash at the same time.
A few years later, when I first started teaching, I used to run in the early mornings before school. The streets were always empty aside from the one woman rummaging through recycling bins for cans and bottles. We developed a friendship of sorts, and she would yell halo! every time I ran by.
And it was the strangeness and beauty of language, again, that compelled me – that this process of digging through old bins and searching for stuff worth saving could be called redemption.
Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters. www.ben-berman.comSee other articles by Ben Berman