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Poetry and Medicine
December 15, 2010

Haitian Darkness

Author Affiliations

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

JAMA. 2010;304(23):2566. doi:10.1001/jama.2010.1694

When I take our picture hesitantly
              at your request,
self conscious of snapping away your dignity,
your hair messed, my eyes tired,
like best friends documenting a visit to some landmark
instead of your body desecrated by HIV,
you smile for the first time
more buoyant than my strained grin
at having to prop you up for the pose.
Do you sense we are leaving
—this team of naive volunteers
dropped into a quakezone of promises broken
since the days of slave-ship sugar money?
Surely you did not want to see
your once perfect face sucked into bones
by the virus that should have a more wicked name
than AIDS
—like malaria or dengue.
Or is it a distraction
from everything too sad to discuss?
Like some tree sprite
fading away to the spirit world
you stared at me night after night
from deeper away than dementia,
in the harsh two-bulb incandescence
that kept the rats at bay
from our little tent of purgatory.
Maybe you want at least one tangible
nonrubbled memory of you to remain
for your speechless mother,
methodically brushing your thick humid hair
oddly upwards.
Deep in your eyes, Sivelia,
I imagine I can see the darkness ahead,
pulling at everyone on this way-station island
pounded down by sun-driven heat
into the hell of donor distraction
and volunteer fatigue.
You cross that threshold
while my hands,
empty of cure,
cradle only kindness.
Understand that I will return
—that's our picture agreement,
             our bond
to peel back the black skin of Haiti
and expose the deeper darkness beneath
to a healing tropical sun.