V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




March of Dimes

Friday meant dimes for the bright, slotted map
Of America, filling the spaces
For states, capitals and cities whose names
We knew until twenty dollars sparkled
With our beautiful down payment for health.

Afterwards, once, when we were sent to scrub
Our hands with hot water, Paul Funovitz,
Laughing, licked the dime he hadn’t given.
He laid it on his tongue like a cough drop,
And we expected his legs to collapse.

        There were twins in New York who remembered
        The weather for every day of their lives. 
        Almanacs for the past, they recited
        The unsettled heat of polio days,
        How clouds went dark with terror in the west.


In Korea, the sins of Communists
Brought bullets and bombs to yellow children;
False prophecy exploded from grenades,
Tumbled from planes and erupted in flames.

On crutches, one boy lurched into first grade,
His braces sounding like spare change fingered
Inside a pocket.  He sat just in front
Of me, an enormous, uncovered cough.

Summer waited outside like the stranger
We’d been warned about.  Swimming was the thing
That could murder legs, fever the word for fear.

My mother, each day, inspected my stride.
She watched me wash my filthy hands, waited
For September to arrive like a cure.

        The tunnels to the arms and legs collapse.
        Shoveling begins.  By hand.  Overhead,
        The soft chatter of movement.  The healthy
        Are birds.  The eyes dry from longing’s weather.


Polio kept us from being afraid
Of a thousand and one ways of dying—
Under cars and trains, at the hands of men.
By the slow ways of failure and lost faith,
Or from fists and slurs and turning to run.

In July, a warning, our town darkened
By the first cases as close as the lightning
That seared our radios silent, the alarm,
By August, so local it named our street,
And we were kept inside, invalids of fear.

After church, among the women waiting
For their husbands in cars, the whispered name
Of a boy our age from six houses down,
The dark angel of crippling descended.
Families disappeared in Chevrolets

And Buicks and Fords; the story fluttered
From their windows, then flew past the shoulder
To snag on thistle for a day before
Tearing away to a neighborhood where
The names sounded like those of aliens.

        The Medusa of chance turned the future
        To stone with the sudden snakes of fever.
        The polio Jeremiah promised
        That God was charging for our hidden sins. 


The iron lung children arrived in the mail;
The braced boy and the wheelchair girl came late
To school and left so early they never
Blocked the halls.  When a polio father
Talked in church, he said his daughter had played
In her sandbox the morning she got sick.
“I’d built that thing,” he murmured, “and that night
I tore it apart, burning every board
Before I wheeled the white sand to the woods.”

“This man,” my mother whispered, “has met God,”
As my father sweated and wiped his face
With his white sleeve.  The light outside the church
Went out while I remembered the sand box
Under Laura Hertwick’s porch where she’d shaped
Her sand into a thick house where we lived
With our children who played just like we did.
“Look,” she said, touching my leg.  “There we are,
Upstairs in our room,” her promise pulling
Her father down the sand-slick steps to stare.


© by Gary Fincke


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