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Poetry and Medicine
October 13, 1999

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Edited by Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor.

JAMA. 1999;282(14):1312A. doi:10.1001/jama.282.14.1312

In Tom's oil painting, "Sunset From the Bridge,"
a phlegethon-red Merrimack spilled
between sheer brick and inlaid panes of fire,
as if it were the blood of a chimera
half machine, half human. Was Bubbi's
milled fingertip in that lurid race?
Hot vinyl sucked my thighs. I couldn't move.
Beside me, my cool mother leafed through Life.
I stared at Tom's inferno, mesmerized.
Would I get a booster shot? Water
colors were different: cakes in a flat tin.
My water went from Kool-Aid pink to red
then mud, then picked-at scab. My paper warped.
But oils floated. Burned. They bruised the sand
where the Merrimack and the Atlantic
tongue-and-grooved beyond the breakwater
we called the Black Rocks. It combed kelp snarls
from the combers and, at low tide, harbored
families of snails in tide pool grottos.
I'd watch the liverish heads extrude from coils
like end-daubs of umber from rolled-up paint tubes
and pretend I was down there with them,
safe for the moment, enchanted, elsewhere.
Red was for sickness. Fever. A rash. Cuts.
A red line meant blood poisoning. You could die.
A red throat meant strep, and a shot.
Penicillin bloomed on bread in strange blue roses.
Tom arked white tablets in his closet, neighborly
thou-shalt familiars my mother called
the Mycins and the Cillins, and jet black
fingerpaint linament in wintergreen. I fished
a lifesaver from my pocket, a cross
between a host and a Goodyear, but sweeter.
Everybody knew black was for gangrene,
the last cake in the box, and what you got
when, like mad, you stirred everything
straight into the water. Soon I'd be flayed
to muscle like the hanged cautionary man
in Tom's operatory, and he'd stand
backlit by plate glass and a suburban street,
raising a flask of urine to the light
interrogating the yellow-orange globe
in a trompe l'oeil tableau vivant The Last
Of The Great Uroscopists as he plumbed
my waste my secrets my disease my death
and prepared to issue without explanation or option
his papal Recipe You need a shot.

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