I’ve been going nowhere with a poem I’ve been trying to write, about, of all things, a dirty bar of soap, since this blog began. I had this vague idea about dirt as unavoidable, in a concrete way, of course, but also in a more figurative way, with “dirt” standing in for, um, global injustices. War, for example. The few lines I had put together felt wooden and unsurprising, as if I were assembling a puzzle from a picture on a box. In other words, I was stating the obvious even to myself.
Today I sat down to free write for 30 minutes. I did what my seven-year-old daughter, Grace, tells me to do when she asks for a story and I protest that I don’t have one to tell; she says, “Just say something. Then follow your words.” Her first grade teacher was on to something; this works. Don’t plan; just begin.
I began with the insistent image: dirty bar of soap. And then I meandered. I’ll share an excerpt from my travels:
Dirt dried in the grooves… Bar of soap is dried out, too. Old, unusable, like a piece of soap you’d find in a beach house in May, after many months of that house being closed for the fall, winter, and spring. The soap left in the metal dish in the stall shower, or outdoors in the shower attached to the back of the house and boxed in, for privacy, with fencing. The soap is so dried it has long cracks in it, as if wood. Wet it, and it takes a long moment to activate, to feel slippery in your hand. Slippery is something you’d read in a poem about sex, and this will be one about a dirty and dried bar of soap… Funny, dirty goes with sex. Sex goes with slippery, too, but slippery doesn’t really go with dirty. Dirty is gritty; I see that word and I feel grime in my hands, grit, fine sand, dust. A kind of dirty that starts with the soil, with particles, not with, say, the juice of dripping fruit that has dried on your hand, or chocolate…, or paint… Dirt is less processed a mess; it hasn’t been transformed into something else first before it gets on you, and you feel it.
It blows on, rubs on, sifts, floats down. It could be mud that later dries. It could then dissolve off, in the water of the tub, and then drain out along with. But still it wants to stay: it settles on the bottom of the tub, in a line of silt toward the drain, up high on the tub walls around the bubble line. To get rid of it, use more water. Spray with direction and force. Or find something clean, like a cloth or rag, to swipe at it, rub it down, rub it on to the cloth — transfer.
There is no getting rid of it, ever. Just as no energy is ever created or lost, neither is any dirt…
We collect dust, dirt. Even as we sweep it from the front hall out the front door, dirt from the garden or sidewalk is jumping onto sandals and riding back in.
We try to get it out, as far from the house as we can, by filling the sink or tub with water and soaking it off us. Water pulls some away from our skin… and delivers it down the pipes, under the yard, under the road, down to the parkway, through town via a network of pipes and pumps, to tanks, and back, somehow, to earth, dumped in cleaned loads onto hills, in rivers, on the banks. It creeps back. It creeps back always.
It remains too. Under our nails. In the corners of rooms. Along the thresholds of doors that open in from the outside. In the grooves between the worn floor boards. In the incised word “Dove” in this bar of soap. It’s in my hand; I pick it up, turning the tap. I clean you, child, with the dirty.
I like what I came across as I roamed: the words “transform” and “transfer” appearing in adjacent paragraphs, and the discovery that no dirt is ever created or lost. Dirt sloughs off; dirt creeps back; dirt remains.