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Denise Duhamel

Susan Spotless [by Denise Duhamel]

Denise DuhamelAn Indian canoes a river, the industrial skyline behind him puffing toxic smoke. He kneels, his hands changing paddles, and spots a floating piece of newsprint as accusatory music speeds up. The fringe sways on his jacket’s sleeves as he keeps moving at a slow, steady pace. Once on shore, he steps over litter-strewn rocks. Just a few more paces and a freeway forces him to stop. A close-up of his profile—braids, a thick silver necklace. A voiceover telling us he has a “deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country.” A car whizzes by, a hand throwing fast food garbage out of the passenger window that lands at his feet, bouncing up to splatter his pants. French fries, a bite of burger someone was too full to eat. The Indian turns to the camera, a tear passing two under-eye wrinkles on the way to his cheek.

In 1971, I was ten. I soaked up the PSA that haunts me to this day. I never litter and if a trashcan is full, I crumple up my rubbish into my pocket or purse to dispose of later. In 1974, I wrote an impassioned letter to President Nixon, founder of the Environmental Protection Agency, begging the U.S. to ban aerosol cans—and they did! I thought anything was possible. In fact, I thought my letter postmarked from Woonsocket, RI, led the charge. Cultural appropriation—the “Indian” in the commercial was Italian—and Watergate aside, I had a sense that the powers-that-be would do the right thing when it came to the environment. I had a sense that everyone loved America, even that descendent of slaughtered Indians.

In 1971, I had no idea of indigenous activism, of the occupying of Alcatraz, of Indians wanting their lands back. I had no idea Pepsi and Dixie cup manufacturers subsidized the Keep America Beautiful campaign which worked against the failed “bottle bill” demanding beverages be sold in reusable containers.  I had no idea Keep America Beautiful wanted to guilt-trip the public into thinking pollution was an individual’s responsibility after environmentalists drove a pickup truck full of used bottles and cans to Coca-Cola headquarters. So there I was—and here I am almost fifty years later—with my righteous guilt, a brimming recycle bin, and cloth grocery tote. The mills in my hometown have all moved to China, leaving widespread unemployment and the foul Blackstone River, which the EPA cites as "the most polluted river in the country with respect to toxic sediments.” No crying Indians canoe there now, though in the 1600’s three tribes—the Nipmucs, Wampanoags, and Narragansetts—made it their home.

In 2015, Purge 3: Election Year was filmed in Woonsocket’s depressed downtown. The dystopian movie imagines a US government granting one night a year in which all crime is legal—not just for corporations but for the rest of us too. Domino’s Pizza and New York Lunch, who had to send their employees home, lost a lot of business the two weeks Main Street was shut down. Timeless Antiques and Collectibles, Brook’s Uniforms, and Kiwi Mart fared better as the crew wanted to rent their storefronts. Variety called Purge 3“a squalid B-movie political horror film that plays to our most reptile-brained basic instincts, and also to our cartoon-noble ideals, and by the end you can’t separate the two…”

In the year I was born, in another Keep America Beautiful PSA, a little white girl Susan Spotless sings “Please, please don’t be a litter bug because every ‘litter’ bit hurts.” What a false sense of power she and I possessed. I didn’t realize the jingle’s cloying flattery—that sincere children could save the world by simply asking our parents to keep a trash bag hanging from the radio knob in the car. After all, Smokey the Bear reminded us “only you can prevent forest fires.” And so we thought we did. We sang the “please, please don’t be a litter bug” as we jumped double-dutch, unaware of corporations and their love of plastic.  Surely our hearts were pure, spotless as Susan’s white headband and dress. Even now I can’t always articulate the duplicity—the forces against the likes of earnest Susan Spotless and me.


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I left it
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for the pleasure
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ten hours later
to the greatness
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"After You've Gone"
on the piano
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as I enter
in the dark


from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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