‘The Trashpickers, Madison Street’ is written by Naomi Shihab Nye, an American poet, and writer of Palestinian origin. According to Nye, the primary source of her poetic endeavors has always been local life, random characters strolling on the streets, her own ancestry sifting down through small essential daily activities.
A dedicated metaphorical thought-picker, Nye has often wondered at the ideas and mechanics behind throwing things away and the finding of valuable pieces of stuff and how a section of society decorates their lowly households from that thrown away trash. This poem explores that aspect of life, the people who pick them up in the early morning and the sidewalks of big metropolitan cities, often overshadowed, unseen yet present, and somehow important.
Explore The Trashpickers, Madison Street
In ‘The Trashpickers, Madison Street,’ Naomi Shihab Nye describes a scene from the early morning when trash pickers murmur while picking rags and sort the things that could be used further.
At the beginning of the poem, readers can visualize the trash pickers carefully picking up all the trash one by one, checking inside each trashcan, and talking with each other while listing the things they find. It is astounding that some people see things thought of as “trash” in a completely different light by others who pick up that castaway stuff. Old nails, old paper, crooked skillets, and more like objects find new importance having been picked up.
Trash offers glimpses into someone’s existence and simultaneously speaks a lot about the old owner. It also hints at the condition of the new owner who picks it up. Reading the last stanza, one can understand that the poem is not simply about trash pickers picking up trash. It has deeper layers where the poet observes the things well-off people leave behind, the lasting effect it has upon people and the earth, and how the poor people who pick up those trash stuff weave dreams around those rejected items.
You can read the full poem here.
On the edge of dawn’s pale eye,
Their colorless overcoats drift and grow wings.
In the first stanza of ‘The Trashpickers, Madison Street,’ Nye paints an early morning urban scene. She depicts how the day is about to begin. The trash pickers of Madison Street are looking inside trashcans, curious about the findings of that day, that is, the thrown-away items they will discover amongst the trashcans. They collect trash up out of necessity: some for money and some for food and other items. Their “murmur” is as soft as the rags they pick; their “language” somehow softened due to their hard way of living.
In the following lines, Nye describes how their colorless overcoats drift in the morning breeze as they look through the items in the trashcans. It seems to the speaker as if they grow wings like angels. The growing of wings can also have several other associated meanings. It reflects their joy in finding some useful things, or simply the speaker describes them as angelic since they toil to keep the environment clean.
They pull a creaking wagon, tinfoil wads, knotted string,
on a shelf where nothing is new.
The picking up and dumping of trash for recycling is painted by the poet in this stanza in ritualistic terms. She describes how the pickers carry the trash in their wagons to take them to the landfill. This place is like a cave where waste items are once again turned into useful stuff worthy of being owned and giving them a place in their world again. Old nails used multiple times are taken by the trash pickers. It seems as if they respect a used thing that has gone through sacred ceremonies before.
Old paper is recycled and reborn as newer envelopes, and that makes the pickers happy whose houses are filled with used stuff. They are glad to have the old things. Even though “nothing is new,” on the kitchen shelf, the crooked skillet finds its home, its “first kingdom.” In this way, the things that are used before find a new meaning in the trash picker’s household.
They dream small dreams, furry ones,
and their love, more like moss than like fire.
The last stanza of ‘The Trashpickers, Madison Street’ is completely dedicated to the trash pickers, the humans who collect other people’s castaway things, to keep the environment clean and, most importantly, for survival. They have small dreams, the poet says, small hopes of finding something usable amidst the mess. They use stuff passed between many hands. Their hearts, in search of tiny happiness, are like “compasses fixed to the ground,” which means their minds point at no overarching dreams, and they remain somehow close to the ground.
The last line, especially, has resonated with several readers with its stunning sheer poetic beauty. Those poor pickers’ love is like moss—the moss that grows over dry places (the places where love flourishes), spreads and survives. Mosses grow in dry places, a sign of life. They can grow even in often missed and unused places. Unlike fire that burns bright but has chances of burning out soon, mosses survive longer, just like the trash pickers’ presence which is often unacknowledged or looked down upon. Like mosses, they grow and endure despite everything.
Nye’s poem ‘The Trashpickers, Madison Street’ consists of three stanzas; the first two stanzas have six lines each, and the last one is of four lines, thus a quatrain. There is no fixed rhyme scheme in the poem. It is written in free verse. The lines intricately flow one after the other. The third-person speaker of the poem is perhaps the poet herself, speaking from an objective point of view. She elaborates upon the activities of trash pickers in the morning. It seems she records their actions from an omniscient distance. Besides, the poem has no fixed meter either.
Nye’s ‘The Trashpickers, Madison Street’ contains the following literary devices:
- Metaphor: In the last stanza, the poet compares the heart of the trashpickers, the main central subject of the poem, to “compasses” that are fixed to the ground. It is to say their hearts don’t point towards anything unattainable or over-reaching. Their legs are fixed and stuck to the ground.
- Enjambment: With the use of punctuations, thoughts of the poem’s lines spill onto the next without any break. It happens when the lines are enjambed to convey the speaker’s chain of thoughts; for instance, this device is used in “They pull a creaking wagon, tinfoil wads, knotted string,/ to the cave where sacraments of usefulness are performed.”
- Simile: It occurs when two things are compared using “as” or “like.” In the poem, the “language” of the trashpickers is compared to the softness of “rags”: “They murmur in a language soft as rags.” It also occurs in “their love, more like moss than like fire.”
- Alliteration: The repetition of similar sounds at the beginning of closely placed words can be found in “lifting the lid,” “Rejoice in the rebirth,” “finds its first,” etc.
Naomi Shihab Nye writes extensively for children, and her poetry emerges from personal experiences or daily, everyday situations she observes in the world. She has taught poetry in both known and remote places, traveled professionally, and gained varied experiences. Thus her poems feel humane, so perceptive and observant upon the often missed and unheard annals of life. The lyrical cadence and the beautiful imagery work together in the simplicity of her poems. In this way, Nye creates excellent pieces of heart-touching poetry, such as the poem ‘The Trashpickers, Madison Street’.
Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem ‘The Trashpickers, Madison Street’ describes instances from the daily lives of trash pickers and their actions. She explores their emotions and ways of living and tries to see the world through their eyes. During twilight, the trash pickers pick up trash in their wagons and take them to the recycling “cave.” They scan through the trash of the day and find stuff for themselves that they find useful.
The trash pickers found old nails, used paper, crooked skillets, and other used stuff in the trashcans across Madison Street. They handle the things in a ritualistic fashion and take them to their homes where “nothing is new.”
Nye writes this poem in free verse. It means there is a regular rhyme scheme or meter. However, readers can find some instances of internal rhyming. Besides, the poem is written from the perspective of a third-person omniscient narrator.
The tone of the poem is sprinkled with admiration for the trash pickers and a sense of awe at the way the simple way of their living. Nye’s persona seems to be elevated to the level of pure happiness after watching their simple daily scenes of life.
The following poems tap on the themes present in Nye’s poem ‘The Trashpickers, Madison Street’. You can explore more Naomi Shihab Nye poems as well.
- ‘Blessed are the Poor in Spirit’ by Alice Walker — In this poem, Walker discusses a question of her own, a thought that many others have contemplated throughout history.
- ‘To a Poor Old Woman’ by William Carlos Williams — In this piece, the speaker describes the experience of an old woman eating a bag of ripe plums.
- ‘kitchenette building’ by Gwendolyn Brooks — This moving poem alludes to the racial wealth gap in Chicago in the early to mid-1900s.
- ‘After the Last Bulletins’ by Richard Wilbur — This poem describes the human race’s ability to discard what they once deemed necessary.
You can also read about these blissful poems about happiness.