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Poetry and Medicine
June 23/30, 1999


Author Affiliations

Edited by Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor.

JAMA. 1999;281(24):2266G. doi:10.1001/jama.281.24.2266

for a retired physician

At dusk, I lead him through the unattended yard,
guide him with a light touch to his arm over weeds
no longer profound: purple foxglove, yarrow, lobelia,
senna, wild alumroot. I knew how to use these,
he tells me. Not many do these days. After 18 years
away from this place, he remembers the names,
but can't distinguish the silvery fuzz on the leaf
of one plant from the lacy white shoot of another,
now just stalks and sticky weeds invading
the grass, killing it at the roots, like silent cancers.
All day I have waited for him to explain once again
the body's intricate balance of fluids, how it is like
the ocean's perfect balance of water, air, and salt,
and the lungs, alveoli expanding like a prodigal tree,
its claim to each year green and sure-rooted,
and the heart, four-chambered lion, he called it,
but instead he says, do you know the odor of contagion?
Do you know what it's like to finger-shut the eyes of the dead?
He removes the caduceus from his tie, its winged snakes
dull and tarnished from years of wear, and tosses it
into the weeds. As we turn to go, the still, gray air clots
with gnats around our heads, hubs of quicksilver consuming the air.