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Poetry and Medicine
August 27, 2014

Polio Water

Author Affiliations
  • 1Boise State University, Boise, Idaho
JAMA. 2014;312(8):849. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.4990

Stagnant and foul, what pooled
in oily, iridescent clouds
in puddles, in ditches,
in gutters along the curbs,
in rain-filled pails
left outside overnight,
was something to be shunned.
At school, we’d seen
the suddenly vacant desk,
then two, then three, a warning
that something like the wind
we couldn’t see except
by its effects—leaves stumbling
in circles, the twisted trunks
of trees—could catch us
if we played too hard
and take our breath away.
Under our parents’ frowning,
vigilant gaze, we stayed
out of the midday sun, took
naps after school every day.
And whenever we found it
standing, skinned with pearl,
we ran off shrieking
“Polio water! Polio water!”—
the only name we had
for the cold iron seeping
into us, stiffening our legs.

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