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Poetry and Medicine
April 22/29, 1998

Identifying Dead Artists

Author Affiliations

Edited by Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor.

JAMA. 1998;279(16):1238BA. doi:10.1001/jama.279.16.1238

He (Ibn Battuta) thought Kilwa was one of the most handsome cities he had seen in all his travels.—Basil Davidson, The Search for Africa: History, Culture, Politics

Black threads of smoke unravel
from fraying seams of city streets
and into the early morning sky
as I labor nights in the Emergency Room,
one of the few places
still left standing in urban war.
Those times when I need a respite
from frontline battles, I imagine
the heavily armed policemen at the entrance
guarding this austere palace's few treasures
worth saving—children's artwork,
anonymous and untitled,
prominently framed on cracked walls.
I learned the name of the young artist
who painted my favorite picture
after pronouncing him dead,
when his mother,
like most of the mothers here
who are already familiar with the ritual
of having to identify young artists' bodies,
screamed,Kilwa, and pointed
to a painting that had her child's
fingerprints on a gold sun
illuminating idealistic imaginings
of an oversized ruby swing set and seesaw
and a smiling pair of ebony stick figures
standing together in waist-high, emerald grass
with nothing in their hands.

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