The Donora Geomancy

In 1948, nineteen people died in Donora, Pennsylvania,
During a weekend of heavy smog.

By reading the scattered patterns of seeds or sands,
By inspecting leaves or twigs, by tossing small things
In numbers and guessing, we might foresee
The first day of suffocation, the coughing
Furious throughout the thick, postwar inversion.

No one, then, read seriously a splash of stones.
No one murmured and looked up, terrified to moans
By the crossed and parallel handful. No one
Sang the prophecy of bone, Donora’s deaths
At the end of the history of ruined lungs.

Now we regather the ashes to carry them
Like icons, renege the lead of the waste future.
Now we pursue the smogged, discredited past,
The quiet struggle of zinc workers who perform
The gasp chorus before smother interrupts.

Donora locked in power’s smoke-filled room, hidden
In closets and under beds; Donora pulling
The sick to adrenalin’s miracle,
Pushing the old to the great divining
Of flowers scattered over a drop of coffins.

On the hillsides, the last, late cabbages in soot;
On the hillsides, sheep gone black where anyone
Could carry remnants from the wire works
In his fist, shake them loose upon the ground
Which bears no grass, and begin to study.

Five days of pollution’s narrowed throat. Five days
In the dry mist which rehearses the wheeze and pause
On the four-step staircase, the afternoons
Of the darkness funerals where mourners
Pay attention to the coughed prayers of neighbors.

And not prayer, but rain which scoured back shadows
Into the day. Not prayer, but zinc works shutdown.
And so short a closure, so short the rain, so few
Moved away in the following months, the world
Returned to its own assurances:

Belief in beads, belief in tumbled ash and bone,
Faith of the hundreds who recovered, the thousands
Who suffered unrecorded, who worked again,
Comforted by how the near-dead revived, how grief
Is not compulsory in the age of science.

:: Gary Fincke, Blood Ties (2001)

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