I just read a poem in some journal, I forget where, in which there was a plumber who wasn’t just a plumber, he was also a dreamer, or something. Well, he certainly wasn’t fixing pipes. Plumbers in poems never have their hands in a toilet, have you noticed?
Toilets show up in poems often enough. Frank O’Hara’s poem “Memorial Day 1950”:
…I hear the sewage singing
underneath my bright white toilet seat and know
that somewhere sometime it will reach the sea…
Lines which—and I mean this—this is a perfectly sincere moment in this blog entry—thrill me.
Cathy Park Hong’s excellent recent book Dance Dance Revolution also has a poem about a toilet. The speaker is a former Korean revolutionary, now tourguide, at a hotel in a futurist city, who speaks an invented language which is a mixture of English, Korean, Latin, Spanish and various other pidgins and patois, to describe the washroom at the hotel:
Behole de toilet gurgle o flush kaputs en zip second,
de porcelite not clam cold but warm lika
Reflect en hows y whys en de day’s events.
O tink, fist proppim chin, bout Being—yes sentient
being, ye may ponder, sense o essence?
(“The Washrooms of St. Petersburg”)
But plumbers in poems are never just plumbers. And they never lie! It’s 1999. I’ve just bought the house I’ve been renting since 1995. There’s water coming through the ceiling in my combined dining/living room from the bathroom above. The first plumber I call says that for him to fix the pipes it’ll cost me $3,000 to go through the bathroom floor (thus ripping out the pretty pink and blue tiles that came with the house; “you can’t get them done anymore, it’s a shame,” he says, his eyes all aglow with vicious nostalgia). The next guy says he can go through the ceiling from the living room and not touch the bathroom floor; it’ll cost $735 and he’ll put the sheetrock back in after he’s done fixing the pipes. Possibly he isn’t lying. Possibly he is just expensive. Because the next guy says he’ll do the same for $300, but I’ll need to call his buddy to put in the sheetrock and his buddy will probably charge about $100. So I hire guy # 3 and he climbs on a ladder and goes through the ceiling and says “oh, this isn’t as bad as I thought” and charges me $175 (and his buddy, though he takes a couple of weeks to get around to me, charges me $125 for the sheetrock). So I’m like wow, honest plumber. So I bring back guy #3 for more plumbing difficulties over the next couple of years, and then, being a plumber, finally he can’t stand his own honesty and says the only way to fix my toilet is to rip it out and get a new one because they don’t make the parts I need any more. So I bring in another plumber who says “oh, yeah, I can get this part for you at Home Depot, I don’t know what that guy was talking about.” And fixes the toilet permanently (so far) for $75. But then another time this new plumber promises to come and never shows up and never calls and I can never reach him again and that’s that for that plumber too. Anybody know a good honest plumber in Philadelphia?
Of course, most people spend their lives lying. It was a non-plumber who did the evilest thing anybody ever did to me, and it involved a lie. A couple months ago I’m at Victoria’s Secret buying my first post-nursing bras. Normally I just run in and grab my size in either black or beige in Body by Victoria, but after nine months of pregnancy and 10½ months of breastfeeding I’m not sure my old size will fit. So I’m standing in an endless line (the only place women take longer than in public bathrooms is lingerie changing rooms) and Jim is wandering around up front with Maisie amongst the slithery underthings, pointing at various Second Skin Satin and Miracle and Pout numbers, saying “bra” to try to teach her an important word, and she’s pointing too and going “goggg!” which usually means “dog.” I finally get to the front of the line when Jim stops by with Maze hanging upside down in his arms, which naturally she likes to do for the fun of the blood rushing to her head, and asks if I think I’ll be much longer. That’s when a dressing room opens up—but just then the woman behind me in line says oh, is that your baby? she’s so beautiful! and while my head is swelling in mommyish pride—zips ahead of me and into the dressing room with her fistfuls of bras to try on and locks the door! Now this isn’t strictly a lie, because Maisie is beautiful, but it basically has the substance of a lie because a) it’s delivered with the intent to deceive, b) Maisie is bright red and upside down so it’s kind of hard to tell and c) the woman would have said it even of an ugly baby.
Though of course there are no ugly babies.
Poets are the biggest liars around. Two words. Tell me you never said them. “Great reading!”
Daisy Fried is the author of Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice (2013), My Brother is Getting Arrested Again (2006) and She Didn’t Mean to Do It (2000), all from University of Pittsburgh Press. She was awarded the Editors' Prize for Feature Article from Poetry magazine in 2009.