Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Trash, Issue 37, January 2014)

Allison Cobb
from Plastic: an Autobiography

The picture of the albatross carcass bursting with plastic appeared in National Geographic in October 2005. Beside it ran the photo Susan Middleton took of the pieces she extracted from the bird’s stomach, arranged on a white backdrop in an oval, “like an egg,” she said someone once told her.

A few readers wrote in to point out that a white shard in the lower right of the photo said VP-101, the name of Christman’s WWII Navy squadron. The magazine assigned a researcher to find out more. Louis Dorny, a naval historian, called the plastic piece “typical” of Navy ID tags attached to equipment, like a toolbox, or a bombsight.

Bombsight. The word fuses sense, monsterish. As if the bomb itself had sight and could seek its own target. Or it gave the bomber power to see like a bomb. Which would be what? A falling, blurred, a blast, maybe light and flame, and then what?

The bombsight in fact required the bomber to see the target with his own eyes. Then he could enter altitude, speed, and coordinates, and the machine would release the bomb at the right moment. It was supposed to give airplanes the power to destroy small things on the ground from very high in the air.

It never worked well, so pilots had to dive close before dropping their “eggs,” which is what Christman called them in a letter home to his family: Next week we are going to drop some 100 and 500 lb. eggs with T.N.T. guts.

how the egg of a bird is crystalline, made of layers lined with minuscule air canals so the chick inside can breathe; how the thickness of each egg’s shell meets exactly the pressure each incubating bird will bring to bear

Each plane that flew to Jolo Island in the Philippines on December 27, 1941, carried three five-hundred-pound eggs.

Dorny considers the disastrous bombing raid “the first, most obvious” place a piece of equipment like a bombsight might have been swept into the water. As he put it: “many men lost, and mass confusion… lots of loose ends.”

Lots of loose ends. I never saw the photo of the albatross chick in National Geographic. I first encountered the piece of plastic in a 2006 Los Angeles Times article by Kenneth Weiss, who devoted two sentences to it. It stayed in my brain, this relic from WWII found inside a dead bird some sixty years later. This persistent little bit of death in life. It became an itch or splinter, contaminant. But I ignored it. I was writing a book at the time about a cemetery. I was trying to have a baby. And I was sick, I had to finally admit, sick from fear. Sick from fear and sick from grief at life in poor, sick New York, in a world so filled with illness. Sick of never being able to think past that blank in my life the morning I sat on the subway below the World Trade Center and felt the train shake from an impact and heard a noise and wrote “a thing that flies” in my notebook. A thing that flies. That beautiful September morning.

So I stayed there and swayed in my life between the no and the yes. Mostly no. Mostly no was winning. I spent all my time in a cemetery.

Then I moved across the country, and as Claudia Rankine writes, rephrasing César Vallejo, “any kind of knowledge can be a prescription against despair.” I started to think about this plastic bit. I wanted to know more. So I contacted Kenneth Weiss the reporter and asked for his source. He directed me to Curtis Ebbesmeyer, the oceanographer. Ebbesmeyer sent me to Dorny.

“Lots of loose ends,” says Dorny.

Ebbesmeyer makes this guess: The piece of plastic got sucked into the Kuroshio current off the Philippines and spent sixty-some years circling the North Pacific before an albatross plucked it out of the water, perhaps with nutritious flying fish eggs attached, to feed to its chick.

It is the oldest piece of plastic from the ocean to which Ebbesmeyer has been able to assign a rough date. He and Dorny both presume it was made of Bakelite, but that is another gap—the piece of plastic has since been lost.

This is what Susan, the photographer, reported to me in an email:

With regard to the bird’s stomach contents, the last time I saw them was when I was carrying them around in a baggie and showing them in conjunction with presentations I did in Hawaiian schools in early 2006 … On Molokai I realized I did not have the baggie. I contacted the school but after a search nothing turned up. It seems that perhaps the janitor disposed of the bag, assuming it was garbage.

Garbage. The word once meant the waste parts of an animal.

A thing that flies. I wrote the phrase in a notebook just before coming above ground to find the World Trade Center in flames, paper and debris cascading. A thing that flies. I wrote it before I had any idea that the tremor on the subway train came from the impact of an airplane running into the building above me. I found the phrase again months later, looking through old notebooks for poetry material. I had forgotten completely I wrote it just before. The moment that can now be called “just before.”

The notebook is gone now. I can’t find it. It’s not in any boxes of the journals I have kept since high school.

Lots of loose ends. The piece of plastic could have come from anywhere. The VP-101 existed from 1940 to 1944. It lost planes off the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, as the squadron retreated South along with the rest of the Pacific fleet. The piece could have disappeared anywhere within a million-square-mile battlefield of water. Maybe Christman rubbed this bit of stamped plastic in his fingers as he sat waiting for his crew to fuel the plane and load the bombs. Maybe it hung from the life raft that burned so badly they couldn’t use it. Or maybe it never had anything to do with Christman, his crew or his airplane. The connection is, in that sense, false. I made it up.

But how else exist? How else but to feel a way across the bleeding gap—the gaps—what’s left—blanks. How else live, which means “remain, continue.”

When we packed to move cross country I decided to get rid of them. All the journals for twenty years. I put them outside, four boxes, by the trash on Twenty-third Street in Brooklyn. That night it rained. I lay in bed and thought of them, the notebooks, outside getting wet. I got up and carried them back. They moved in the truck cross country. But not that one, from fall 2001. That one is gone.

Maybe I threw it out in some kind of fugue state. I have always associated the word “fugue” with death, with funeral. Now I learn it means flight, the act of fleeing. A thing that flies. Airplane or albatross. A person.

The notebook has maybe disintegrated by now, or it sits mummified with hot dog buns and newspapers in some neighboring state that absorbs the trash of New York City. And what about the albatross chick? Susan doesn’t know what happened to its body after she took all the plastic out. It decayed, she imagines, in the hot Kure sun. “Flies, ants, and ghost crabs consumed the flesh in short order,” she writes me, “eventually exposing the skeleton, and then that too, disintegrating … lots of calcium carbonate on Kure, from bones … coral … algae creating all that white sand.” Dissolved also, the airplanes that sank in sea water, the bodies of Christman’s crew mates Pettit and Waterman. Or maybe their bones remain out there sinking slowly through sediment layers on the ocean floor.

What still exists, we know this—the plastic bits from inside the bird’s body. Maybe they sit in the landfill on Molokai. Or maybe they’re back in the water—washed down a storm drain or blown from a trash bin. The plastic will outlast the bones, the sand, this writing. How long? No one knows. Five-hundred years? A thousand?

Decay means this: to turn into food for something else. Tiny living beings break the chemical bonds that hold a substance together, transforming it into simpler molecules they can use for fuel. These creatures are called decomposers.

Paper presents a challenge. It consists of cellulose—long chains of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen that make the tree strong enough to stand upright. Only certain creatures—bacteria, fungi and single-celled swimmers that are neither—have enzymes that can break apart these complex chains and turn them into sugar. They live in the guts of termites and ruminants. They move through water and soil.

Molecules that form in long chains are called polymers, which means many parts. Cellulose, skin, hair, silk—all polymers. So is DNA. And lobster shells. And protein. The first plastic—celluloid film for movies—came from cellulose, the most common polymer on earth. The first synthetic polymer made in a lab using heat and pressure was Bakelite.

Now all industrial plastic comes from laboratory-fused polymers. The bonds take so much energy to make that they would never form outside a factory. Plastic molecules didn’t exist until about a hundred years ago. Decomposers don’t recognize these lab creations as food; they lack any way to break them apart and absorb them into their bodies.

So plastic becomes refuse: “a rejected thing, waste material, trash.” Of no use to any living thing, it lasts.


The photo of the albatross chick:

David Liittschwager and Susan Middleton, “Hawaii’s Outer Kingdom,” National Geographic, October, 2005.

Bombs with T.N.T. guts:

Elwyn Christman letter, January 8, 1939, from the files of Lance Christman (file 100).

Egg lined with miniscule air canals:

Ali Smith, “On offer and on reflection,” in Artful (New York: Penguin Press, 2013).

“Any kind of knowledge can be a prescription against despair”:

Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2004), 55.

Information about the piece of plastic:

Kenneth R. Weiss, “A Plague of Plastic Chokes the Seas,” Los Angeles Times, August 2, 2006.

Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano, Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man’s Obsession With Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).

Email correspondence with Kenneth Weiss, January 2011.

Email correspondence with Susan Middleton, February 2011 and January 2013.

Email correspondence with Louis Dorny, March 2011.

Email correspondence with Curtis Ebbesmeyer, March 2011.