Where we live I can see the lights of cars at 6 a.m., people headed for the hospital, no doubt, for their shift.
In Appleman’s poem, it’s garbage men, doing their job while the rest of us are still in our warm beds.
The poet begins with a parenthesis, separate for now from the working world, the cold world out there. The garbage men are running from house to house! What would make them run? Half asleep, he makes some guesses.
When he wakes fully up, when dawn is coming, and the colors begin to be visible, he sees them still at it.
I thought of the “flattened rainbow” of houses the way they might look on Google maps, the way the garbage men might think of them, rows and curves of houses. All day, he says, people will throw away their cans, dead Christmas trees, damp Kleenexes. All things that are Caesars.
You have to hear the echo of Jesus saying, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”
What’s thrown away are the material things, the “things of this world,” like the coins in the Bible story.
The final stanza is a blessing on the garbage men, who after this first run of the year, will get to go home, knowing that we all have confidence that they’ll come again, day after day.
I think it’s no accident that the last line has the words “bide” and “second coming.”
Another Biblical nod that ennobles the garbage men at their task.
There are more lofty poems we could find to begin the new year.
But this is the one I want. In the relentless crisis of 2020, we depended upon —and continue to depend upon — those who work the shifts while we’re asleep, those who keep the machinery functioning, the lights on, streets safe, snow plowed, ambulances running.
We’ve depended on the doctors, the scientists, the teachers, the parents. May you too rest “in beds like great warm aproned laps.”