The poet on the garbage crew

In ‘Vantage,’ Taneum Bambrick digs for refuse along the Columbia River.


I become a part of this garbage crew

empty cans along

the Wanapum pool.

Peel condoms off rock

beside fire pits —

call them snakeskins.

I learn quick.

So begins Taneum Bambrick’s poem Litter, unspooling her experience as a young person, and a woman, on a six-person garbage crew in eastern Washington. She fictionalizes this period of her life in her first collection, Vantage. Circling the reservoirs of two massive dams on the Columbia River, the narrator uses litter grabbers to retrieve bodies from the water: pit bulls, goats, cats, king salmon, even people. She learns to clean trashcans with lighter fluid and a cigarette, to issue commands and to set beaver traps. Together, she and her co-workers navigate the sexism, classism, paternalism and intimacy that both build and corrode their relationships. In these poems, Bambrick offers an alternate vantage point on the working environment, and how we see the people who work within it.

The Columbia River divides the town of Vantage between working class and wealth. The original town — located near Hanford, one of the world’s largest nuclear contamination sites — no longer exists. In the 1960s, its 20-mile basin was drowned to build a hydroelectric dam, one of 60 cutting across the massive river, undoing its ecosystems. The waterway is misshapen by human ingenuity and its errors: Fish ladders and hatchery ponds are built to save aquatic populations. Beyond the dam, the region is carved by power lines, agriculture and I-90. The Yakama Indian Reservation lies to the southwest, and members of the Wanapum Tribe live in Priest Rapids Dam, roughly 25 miles from Vantage. At times, Bambrick alludes to the area’s longer history, reflecting on the erasure of Wanapum land as part of the dam’s construction.

Instead of showing a bucolic riverside, Bambrick’s poems focus on the landscape’s human architecture. Her work takes pastoralism and flips it, revealing its vulnerable underbelly. The theme of refuse turns elegiac in this environment. The remains of 27 elk that shot off the canyon’s rim to their death become a curiosity residents call Elk Splat: Whoever’d spooked the elk was the kind of person we liked to imagine as one-rich-kid. What we were better than. We see the bodies of women turned into objects by the gaze and language of men. The narrator herself jumps from the company truck — clipping her forehead on the open passenger door — and onto orchard grass to escape this gaze from a co-worker.

But the narrator’s own gaze is critiqued, too. She recalls a day when two men showed her and a crewmember the bloody bodies of 80 seagulls shot to protect salmon. Referring to our girl, they bring out the crown jewel of their collection — a heron with a hole blown through her chest by a hatchery cannon. When the narrator cries at the sight of one dead heron instead of the pile of dead seagulls, one man asks: What’s the matter… Didn’t you care about the gulls or were they too ugly? Her father tells her it’s hard to get funding to restore the sturgeon fishery: It’s an ugly fish, he says, it’s difficult to elicit sympathy for them.

Within a puzzle of forms, including the lyric essay, it’s the pitch and precision of detail in Bambrick’s prose poems that glean tenderness. In Gaps, during the drive to work, her co-worker asks her to turn off her loud music and pay attention to the morning, the stillness of the hill-cut light and the quiet on the highway. I’m not denying this is a shit hole, he says. It’s the last one though. He is asking her to recognize this job is one of his last options, and to offer him some grace.

Climate change is already flooding our communities. More severe weather means the environmental damage we’ve already wrought is likely to get more ugly and more complicated, more expensive and more violent, especially for low-income communities and communities of color. Bambrick could highlight these dynamics more: She doesn’t linger for long over how the displacement of one town compares to the displacement of Indigenous communities along the river. Some disappearances play larger roles than others. 

No place is more worth saving than the next: They’re all worth saving.

Still, in looking beyond pastoralism, Vantage tries to write a place out of destruction. Bambrick wants us to witness madness along with the redemptive moments woven through it — to see that highlighting violence could be an act of dismantling it. The attention she draws to one place could be drawn to many. No place is more worth saving than the next: They’re all worth saving. The seagulls and the heron, the wasps and the mice, the cyclist and the sturgeon, the workers and the elk. As Bambrick writes, any attempt to save the river can only come with our collective memory of what the river means.

I’m not denying it’s a shit hole. It’s the last one though.

Austyn Gaffney is a freelance reporter from Kentucky covering agriculture, energy, and climate change. Her work is featured in Blue Mesa Review, Brevity, HuffPost, In These Times, onEarth, Prairie Schooner, Sierra, Vice, and othersEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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