by Stanley Plumly
Those humid hours that lingered on for days.
The body stretched in breathlessness for days.
In Ohio dies caniculares
meant something: virus, Sirius, Dog Star days.
Whatever it was was like catching cold.
Bad headaches, swelling, fevers, chills for days.
(The boy in braces for the March of Dimes
lurched toward the lights of the camera dazed.)
When the night sky cleared of vapor: there
in Canis Major the stars that fixed our days.
We knew if we died we could join these stars.
For the girl in the iron lung dies were days.
We knew if we survived Labor Day, then school:
another year of colds and growing pains for days.
My parents grew up in the 1930’s, before a polio vaccine had been developed. Childhood disease and death were a very real threat to the well being of communities and families in their childhoods. Poliomyelitis or Polio as it more commonly referred, is almost an inverse to COVID-19 in some ways of who it impacts and when. COVID-19, though it can infect all age groups, appears to have the most serious complications in those over age 65, and is currently most prevalent in Northern hemisphere during colder temperatures, whereas polio is a childhood disease that struck during the heat of the summer months.
Plumly deftly remembers the child hood phantom that for his generation was polio. How terrifying it must have been to watch a brother, sister, friend in the neighborhood, cousin or school mate, go from active healthy boy or girl, to suddenly in a fight for their lives. And then for those stricken to the point they couldn’t continue to breath on their own, an eternity of living in an iron lung.
Polio is a difficult poem to interpret unless you understand the latin words dies caniculares. It refers to the roughly 30 day period when the greek astronomers predicted the hottest weather based on the position of the Dog Star in the night sky; July 20 to August 20. Dies = Days. That it also means dying or the process of death in English is where the poet is trying to get us to join his childhood world.
I saw a Sixty Minutes broadcast a couple of years ago that told the story about the last remaining technicians that know how to repair iron lungs and keep them in good working order. Only a few polio patients that require iron lungs were/are still alive. It had become an oddity, novel, something that once was commonplace, both the people and the parts to keep iron lungs working.
Is it ironic or simply the random course of nature, that a new phantom is haunting our winter months, and the thing that is in shortest supply is the modern version of an iron lung, respirators, to help the sick, fight the good fight in living? Though this new phantom has begun in the depths of the cold of winter, it will change our days ahead, well into the rising of the Dog Star in our summer skies.
The Iron Lung
by Stanley Plumly
So this is the dust that passes through porcelain,
so this is the unwashed glass left over from supper,
so this is the dust in the attic, in August,
and this is the down on the breath of the sleeper
If we could fold our arms, but we can’t.
If we could cross our legs, but we can’t.
If we could put the mind to rest.
But our fathers have put this task before us.
I can neither move nor rise.
The neighborhood is gathering, and now
my father is lifting me into the ambulance
among the faces of my family. His face is
a blur or a bruise and he holds me
as if I had just been born. When I wake
I am breathing out of all proportion to myself.
My whole body is a lung; I am floating
above a doorway or a grave. And I know
I am in this breathing room as one
who understands how breath is passed
from father to son and back again.
At night, when my father comes to talk,
I tell him we have shared this body long enough.
He nods, like the speaker in a dream.
He knows that I know we are only talking.
Once there was a machine for breathing.
It would embrace the body and make a kind of love.
And when it was finished it would rise
like nothing at all above the earth
to drift through the daylight silence.
But at dark, in deep summer, if you thought you heard
something like your mother’s voice calling you home,
you could lie down where you were and listen to the dead.