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Poetry and Medicine
October 26, 2011

Homeless in DC

Author Affiliations

Poetry and Medicine Section Editor: Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor. Poems may be submitted to jamapoems@jama-archives.org.

University of Maryland, College Park.

JAMA. 2011;306(16):1740. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.1334

His rotted back slumped against the slimy stones,
a festering dank wall, the cellar entry nearby,
viscous liquid in empty trashcans, nothing solid to rummage through,
greasy clothes, grime under his broken tobacco-stained nails,
oral cancer, visible cankers, a painful rectal abscess; he had
collapsed in his urine and stool. The smell blocked all sympathy.
No shoes, his bare feet and ankles blackened on cold, dead varicose limbs,
a large swollen belly from scrounged wormy starches, foul eructations,
his vision blurred by cataracts adorned with tears,
tarry lungs perfused a failing dysrhythmic, thankful heart
for the broken steam pipe under the up-heaved sidewalk. Winter
overhead. Above his tattered beret festooned with lice and fleas,
a bright sky, blue with white ocean clouds, cruel in their reflection
contrasting his miserable estate. He shivered in bursts, quiet exhaustion
between. Death wanted his life, but he could not cry out easily,
so he listened.
No samaritan with donkey or coin, no heels clicking, no coins jingling,
yet, inside, among the dark intestinal smells a small spark of life
glimmered, hopeful for the next yesterday to dream of.
His face was dispassionate, enduring. . .
his vigil outside Union Station.

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