Saturday, December 02, 2006


My friend Bill Sherling, who owns The Gnu's Room used book store in Auburn, Alabama, loaned me Ted Botha's book, Mongo. The term mongo, new to me, refers to any discarded item that is retrieved. Botha, himself something of a mongo hound, profiles people in New York City who regularly cruise the streets looking for useful (or not so useful) discarded objects. He interviews people whose apartments are packed with rescued items, methodical treasure hunters who have unearthed valuable loot in their wanderings, and book scrounger cart pushers who know just where they're likely to locate a pricey first edition or a packet of old magazines at 3 a.m. There's even a chapter on food scroungers, who have learned where the best castoff produce, tofu, or sweets are likely to be found.

This book reminds me of my own modest life as a mongo hunter in Hiroshima, Japan. There were occasional scheduled days in the neighborhood when "oogomi" (large trash) was put out for pickup. If you hit the narrow streets early on those days, you could salvage all sorts of useful stuff. Japanese houses and apartments tend to be small and cramped enough so that no one can afford to keep too much, so some pretty desirable items wind up on the curb. I had arrived for my year in Japan with only several bags,and I rented an unfurnished apartment, so I was a shameless scrounger. I found a bicycle, several useful tables, and a chair or two, all within several blocks of my apartment.
Poets tend to be verbal mongo hunters. I've just read Joel Brouwer's 2001 Whiting Award winner, Exactly What Happened. In it, he gleans poems from news headlines ("Kelly, Ringling Bros. Oldest Elephant, Goes on Rampage"), from the world of magic ("Houdini"), and Russian lore ("Krushchev's Shoe"). One good one is "The Plastic Surgeon's Wife," who
over the years was sculpted lovelier
and lovelier: lips pillowed, buttocks lifted
to a tight split peach. When her body

was flawless, pure leopard, he began
experiments. He tried time-release
injection--vanilla bean, lilac, rose--
Brouwer's second collection, Centuries, is a series of prose poems, each 100 words long. Here's half of one called "N"--showing the poet's mongo-loving lust for words:
So much that's not nice: napalm, nettles, nemesis, noose. Not to mention the basic no. Even the dictionary's blissful path from neck to nectar--a trembling fingertip fliding over her nipple, down around her navel--is choked by morbid vines from the intervening necro-root: -mania, -phagia, -philia. A few pages later, too fractious to define, six single-spaced columns of non-'s.

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