Jeanne Emmons's poem "Polio Water in 1955" was the James Hearst Poetry Prize winner in issue 291.2, Spring 2006.
Notes from the author:
On April 12 1955, the results of the field trial for the Salk vaccine against polio were announced. I was in the first generation of children to receive the vaccine. I grew up in rainy Beaumont, Texas, where we always played barefoot; the pothole-bespotted streets held plenty of “polio water,” and the humidity quickly rendered soggy the cards my brother clipped to his bicycle. My poem recalls a time when the polio scare was at its height. It depicts the innocence of children. There is the “know-it-all” friend who erroneously believes polio is contracted from oily puddles. There is the confident brother tooling up and down the street on his bicycle, riding no hands, heedless of the risk of falling, much less the threat of iron lungs or leg braces. And there is the “I” of the poem, who naively believes her friend’s misinformation, stepping back from the puddle with visions of her legs cut off. After all, “polio” and “oleo” are rhyming words, and, though the oily, iridescent swarms on the surface of the puddle look beautiful, they may harbor death. As the child grows up, she will learn that the dangerous is often lovely, and the lovely dangerous. The world will always go on dancing with terrible, beautiful rainbows.
Polio Water in 1955
upon the anniversary of the approval
of the polio vaccine, April 12, 2005
I was five and in the street, after a night
of hard, warm rain. My bare feet swept
through puddles, splashed and stomped,
My brother wheeled back and forth
on his bike. That girl, my playmate,
watched him lift his hands and pump,
then stand on the pedals, coasting.
He had fastened a playing card to the frame
with a clothespin, so that the blur of spokes
snapped against it, flipped and whirred.
When he went by, the pitch of that flicking
rose, and when, at the end of the street,
he slowed, it fell, and then he made his turn.
As he came back, my playmate turned and saw
how I stood in muddy water, an oily film
squirming around my ankles, full of light.
Don’t touch that she said. It’s polio water.
I went still. She was seven. She knew things.
The puddle flattened. I looked down and saw
only the stumps of my legs, as if somebody
had cut me off dancing. I stood back,
recovering my feet, first one and then the other.
But the water went on waltzing in the light,
went on swimming with terrible, beautiful rainbows.
Illustration by: Vlad Alvarez, who was born in El Salvador, Central America and now lives in West Chester Pennsylvania. He attended Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and graduated with a BFA of Graphic Design and Illustration. Vlad is featured in issue 299.2, Spring 2014 which is the top image. The second illustration was created for Fort Worth Weekly.