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Rubbish Day

Rubbish Day

by Jo Bratten

On Tuesday nights I double-bag the rubbish,

tightly wrap the bones and fat in rags, tuck

them deep in so the rats can’t smell them;


tie the tops in triple-knots. The bags go

out before dawn and all Wednesday long

I wonder if my nasty little secrets are strewn


along the street. The rats have rooted out

the shame of others: the unwashed yoghurt pots,

browned avocado halves, unopened bags


of rotting fruit; I step over the wadded

tissues, the blackened tampon dredged

in coffee grounds; step around night sweats, break


ups, impotence, casual ingratitude, shattered

faith, final demands for payment. I’m rounding

the corner home, praying my pavement’s clean.




I encountered Rubbish Day online a few months ago and it has been rolling around in my head ever since. I’m grateful to Jo Bratten and Fly on the Wall Press for permission to share it here. As ever, what follows isn’t intended to be a comprehensive reading of the poem (not that such a thing exists!) but just some reflections, informed by my work as a clinical psychologist. 


I love that this is a poem about rubbish. This metaphorical recycling of possibly the least ‘poetic’ topic you could think of is proof, if ever you needed it, that anything can be the subject of a poem. There’s a brilliant blend of humour and threat here. Bratten seems to be poking fun at the ridiculousness of etiquette and the lengths we go to in order to fit in – even our waste has to be clean. I love those images of the mixed-up refuse, blended in with meanings and imaginings, hopes and fears. And though it’s peppered with allusions, the poem stays grounded in the physical: much of our domestic waste, after all, is concerned with bodily needs and functions. Bratten draws attention to the body as vessel – its own bag of ‘bones and fat’ – scrutinised and sanitised. When concealment is the norm, it becomes habitual, internalised. What happens when we can’t conceal, when our animal selves (even this wording has certain connotations) are in full view?


One of the things I think works so well in this poem is the movement between public and private. Through this shifting perspective, an ordinary, routine task become super-charged with threat. At a quite literal level, the prospect of your household waste strewn across the street is definitely cringe-inducing. I find myself imagining what might be found in my own bin, what it might say about me. What I fear it might say.


And what about my psychological or emotional “refuse”? What memories, feelings or experiences do I bag up and triple tie? What do I allow to go to waste? What parts of myself would I sooner discard? What would I most dread people seeing?


Right at the centre of the poem, squashed deep with the yoghurt pots, is that little word – “shame”. It’s such a weighty, potent word isn’t it? But it’s dropped in so lightly, like litter in a bin. We often think of shame in its visceral, visible sense: that hot wave of self-consciousness in moments of humiliation. Bratten’s poem speaks to the more everyday, internal manifestations of shame. How it lurks just beneath the surface, prodding and pricking. It speaks to the private realm of shame management – the lengths we go to in order to keep parts of ourselves out of sight. ‘Rubbish Day’ is concerned with how we move through the world in our everyday lives, how we carry our bodies and relate to ourselves, how fear can sometimes be closer than others may realise – or perhaps even closer than we might allow ourselves to realise. Even in our everyday habits and rituals, the poem reminds us, we’re attuned to the expectations around us, what we must do in order to keep our “pavement clean”.


The murky backwaters of shame can be among the most tricky – but also fruitful – to navigate in therapy. As Rubbish Day reminds us, people are good at keeping shame under wraps. I remember taking part in a workshop during my training in which we were asked to write down a shameful memory on a slip of paper. The facilitator then collected a handful of these folded notes and, in mock nonchalance, proceeded to drop them, “forget” about them and wave them around in front of the audience. This was all done in a safe context, with the assurance that the notes would not be read or shared (which they weren’t). But I remember the palpable anxiety in the room, the nervous laughter. The exercise was meant to demonstrate the sensitivity needed in working with shame and the pitfalls of assuming someone feels safe just because we’ve reassured them that they are. As Bratten reminds us in this poem, things can go wrong, bins can overturn, rats will find a way.

So how do we work with shame in therapy? Well, it depends who you ask of course – different approaches have their own take on this. One therapeutic model that tackles the issue head-on is compassion focused therapy (CFT). In CFT, shame is understood within an evolutionary framework as stemming from our inherent interdependence. We are programmed to seek out and nurture attachments with one another, and to be sensitive to signs of rejection or judgment. As we grow up and move through life, we learn what keeps us safe within relationships and social groups. We internalise beliefs about ourselves and scripts for navigating the social world. These are not just cognitive templates but deeply emotionally charged, sculpted by experiences of security and insecurity, care and rejection. For some people, particularly those who’ve been on the receiving end of hostile, punitive or isolating treatment by others, negative self-beliefs and unrelenting personal standards can mean that shame is a particularly familiar feeling. In its extremes, it can contribute to mental health difficulties such as PTSD and depression.

Shame, within this model, comes in two interrelated forms, internal and external. External shame crops up when we are judged (or believe ourselves to be judged) negatively by others. Internal shame is when we judge ourselves negatively. Shame is distinguished from guilt in that it relates not just to specific actions and their consequences but to our evaluation of and relationship with ourselves. And unlike guilt, which often motivates us to repair and make amends, shame is a threat-oriented mindset and usually leads us either to close down and withdraw, or sometimes to retaliate in anger.

Part of the work of therapy then is understanding where shame comes from – both in terms of the neural wirings that predispose us to it, and the particular individual circumstances that might have shaped a person’s self-perceptions and safety strategies. In other words: how have you been shamed in the past, and how have you had to protect yourself? But it’s not uncommon for people to have a really good understanding of why they can be so horrible to themselves but to struggle to actually interrupt and alter these patterns of thinking and feeling. Sometimes, patterns of self-shaming are quite entrenched and habitual. Sometimes, a shaming inner voice can become quite frightening and powerful, to the point where a whole other layer of self-protection develops to keep it at bay.

The good news is that there are things that can help. In CFT, this involves practices designed to help us cultivate a more compassionate relationship with ourselves. This means working not just at the level of ideas but also with the threat-charged body, so used to triple-tying its “nasty little secrets”. Grounded in a science of the nervous system, CFT teaches techniques to help tone up the body’s soothing capacities and cultivate feelings of internal safety. This is very much a process: self-compassion may be difficult, unfamiliar, frightening even. It might start slowly, with the seed of an intention. But even the act of considering self-compassion, however remote feelings of warmth or tenderness might actually be, can be an important and, ultimately, transformative step.

CFT often involves working with the creative imagery and, for me, poetry can be part of this process. I’m speaking from personal experience here and I don’t know of any research that supports this (let me know if you do!) but when I’m reading or writing a poem, often I sense a physiological shift. To use the language of Bratten’s poem, it feels almost like a kind of untying. I’m struck by the thought that poems ask of us a kind of listening that’s similar to what goes on in therapy; a quality of presence and attentiveness. Mindfulness, if you like - which is one of the key ingredients in CFT. Like therapy though, it can be messy. After all, poetry isn’t just a balm or comfort-blanket; it’s about the bones and fat and sweat and prayers of being human.

This human-ness feels important to what I’m trying to get at, I think. “Writing, if nothing else, is a bridge between two people” writes Ocean Vuong. Whether a poem is published online for anyone to see or kept in a locked notebook, it reaches out – through the unspoken, the difficult, the taboo – to, well, someone. Real or imagined, individual or collective, there is an audience; someone to be present with, someone to hear. Shame is a great silencer; it grows in isolation. The connective power of poetry feels to me like it works against this.

There’s also, often, an internal dialogue that may play out in poetry. Bratten’s poem speaks to and from the perspective of a watchful, anxious self – leaning into and amplifying its fears. It reminds me of a technique in CFT in which a client is invited to inhabit and speak for a particular part of themselves, to invite that voice into the room and then, typically, to respond from another perspective. This can be helpful when there’s a lot of internal conflict around; when a person comes to fear or dislike certain feelings or vulnerable parts of themselves. The technique helps to bring to life our multiplicity and invites an experiential awareness of different feeling-states, needs and defences. There’s often a bit of theatrics or “role-play” involved (switching chairs etc.) which also makes me think about the craft of poetry, its rituals and formalities. Perhaps there’s something about being both inside and outside, protagonist and director, which opens up creative doors: the possibility of saying something new, of telling a different story, of relating to ourselves in a different way.  

Thanks again to Jo Bratten and Fly on the Wall Press, and warm thanks for reading.




Rubbish Day is published in Jo Bratten's pamphlet Climacteric (Fly on the Wall Press)

Dr Kristin Neff (lots of excellent resources here!)


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