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
oven-loin mitts...
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!”

Originally Published: January 23rd, 2008

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.   

  1. January 23, 2008
     J.E. Stone

    Actually, I'm not sure that plumbers, electricians, sheetrock guys, painters, and the other types that I habitually put under the label "contractors" are all or always liars. I've been hanging around contractors for a while as the contractor who built our house is a great guy, his subcontractors are mostly great guys, and I find their world kind of fascinating--particularly as we've had our own mystery problems with water: leaky skylight and weird toilet.
    My theory is that contractors live in an alternative universe, which occasionally intersects with our own. At times, the hole in the space/time continuum opens and you make contact with the other side: they answer their phones, or they actually show up at your house. The good ones are really fascinated by the work they do, with finding the answer to puzzling problems. Because plumbing and wiring and painting are not as straightfoward as we would like to think they are. There are multiple ways of approaching a job, and multiple ways of working through a problem, and multiple ways of finishing it. Their sense of time is totally different from our own, and is driven by some sort of circadian rhythm that may or may not have to do with the cycling of our own Sun.
    When contractors are not, for example, working on your project, they are at work, busily, in some other sector of the space/time continuum, and they are, in fact, deeply engaged in what they are doing. Their priorities are not your priorities--their priorities are sometimes driven by money, sometimes by friendship, sometimes by the way a particular job holds their interest.
    So, in some ways, they are much like poets. Do you finish every poem that you start? Or do you sometimes leave it lying in pieces on your desk? Do you sometimes think, starting a poem, that the poem is far more valuable than it ultimately appears to be? Do you think sometimes, after having started a poem, that perhaps you should have gone a different route?

  2. January 23, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    More confidence art than lying. In principle--outside of the subjective realm of quantitative and qualitative ethical and moral arguments--language is a lie in the strict sense that it is not true. You say tomato, I say tomato. You say "causal determinism" and I say "shit happens." In the end language is really just a lot of fancy barking. Against every statement its contradiction may be advanced with equal justification.

  3. January 23, 2008

    It's time for you to visit the toilet museum. Seriously. It's in Watertown, Mass., and we're going to go there soon (our little guy is approaching toilet-training time).
    Daisy, didn't you and I have a friendly dispute about plumbers in the print magazine last year?

  4. January 23, 2008
     Don Share

    No such discussion would be complete without mentioning that Geoffrey Hill has said - according to Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian - that "public toilets have a duty to be accessible, poetry does not."

  5. January 23, 2008

    J.E. Stone--There has got to be at least a short series of poems on this subject. Thank you for explaining! It all comes clear now. I wish someone's house would flood when I don't get poems written, though. It would make me feel important.
    Steve--yeah, you're right, I'm fixated on plumbers. It's because my toilet is, well, perpetually in the toilet. Thank you for the museum tip. That sounds very cool. We're thinking of putting a poster of Duchamp's Fountain in Maisie's room when she gets to the age your boy is...good luck with that...

  6. January 24, 2008

    Don--I just had a vision of toilet manufacturers and plumbers dividing into camps over accessibility v. difficulty. Reviewers would say things like "The flush repays how hard you have to work for it" and "just because the water is perfectly clear, doesn't mean it's not profound..." and "this toilet works on so many levels..." etc. Daisy

  7. January 24, 2008
     Don Share

    Daisy, where the metaphor collapses is that nobody would say that toilets make nothing happen.
    I apologize for being potty-mouth and hereby resume my customary dignity.

  8. January 24, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    I like Don's bit about Geoffrey Hill. However, I am thinking of the reality. Public toilets, in the classic sense, are a thing of the past--at least one you would actually use, or be able to use; even if you had that daring or desperate feeling. There are only captive consumer toilets in America. It has been privatized. Like poetry. And in that sense mirrors just about everything else about the culture--that dirty suspicious word as taboo as poo.

  9. January 24, 2008

    I hear Frontline is planning a show on "Captive Consumer Toilets."

  10. January 24, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    Captive Consumer Commodes would be better. For the sake of alliteration and for the closeness to commodity, It is a brilliant way to control people, not that there were venetian blinds drawn to conceive of such a thing. You can't control the language, but you can control the commodes. And if you control the commodes, you control the people.