Things you know but can’t say,
the sort of things, or propositions
that build up week after week at the end of the day,

& have to be dredged
by the practical operators so that their grosser cargo
& barges & boxy schedules can stay.

The great shovels and beaks and the rolling gantries
of Long Beach, and of Elizabeth, New Jersey,
can keep their high and rigorous distinction
between on-time and late, between work and play.

“Since you excluded me, I will represent you,
not meanly but generously, with an attention
that is itself

a revenge, since it shows that I know you

better than you have ever known yourselves,

that if I could never have learned
how to be you, nor how to be
somebody you’d like to be very near, nevertheless

you could not do without me, or keep me away.”


Copyright © 2015 by Stephen Burt. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 15, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets. 

About this Poem

“I was thinking about the commercial ports and harbors that have to be dredged so that they can stay commercially viable, and thinking that they resemble the mind, which fills up—as we grow up—both with practical information of no lasting resonance (timing for school closings, doctor’s appointments, when to get your car inspected) and with things you realize—about yourself and about other people—that you can’t say out loud; they’d offend, or make other people feel terrible, or make you look like a hypocrite, or require way more time to explain than other people ever have in an informal setting.

These two kinds of things—practical data and unsayable truths—might gradually fill up the minds of adults, making us like old ports that have to be dredged. Or like new ports, which also have to be dredged: like container ports—like the Port of Elizabeth, New Jersey, which we used to drive past, or the Port of Oakland, which if I recall correctly inspired the AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back.

These ports and their machines decide what comes into the country and what can’t be brought in; and what if the excluded, the never-unloaded, the dredged-away, had a better view of us than we have of ourselves? If you’ve already been excluded, you don’t have to worry about social proprieties, about not telling the truths that will get you kicked out (because you’ve already been kicked out): that’s not a new insight (it’s a variation on the idea I vaguely associate with Hegel—the slave knows the master; the master does not know the slave) but I hope I’ve made it at least a bit new in this poem, which (like most of what I’ve written lately) has one foot in gossip and youth (it’s a poem about mean girls) and another in the peculiar restrictions of adult lives.”
Stephen Burt