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Recorded for Poem-a-Day, June 17, 2017.
About this Poem 

“'Watershed' is a found poem drawn from two sources: a New York Times Magazine January 6, 2016, article by Nathaniel Rich entitled, 'The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,' and excerpts of the narratives of survivors of near-death experiences as catalogued on www.nderf.org."
Tracy K. Smith

Watershed

 

200 cows         more than 600 hilly acres

            property would have been even larger
had  J not sold 66 acres to DuPont for
                      waste from its Washington Works factory
where J was employed        
                                                did not want to sell
            but needed money   poor health         
mysterious ailments

Not long after the sale cattle began to act
deranged     
                          footage shot on a camcorder
grainy               intercut with static         
Images jump repeat      sound accelerates        
      slows down          
                    quality of a horror movie

the rippling shallow water       the white ash
      trees shedding their leaves 
                                                      a large pipe
discharging green water      
                                                  a skinny red cow
hair missing      back humped  
                                               
a dead black calf in snow         its eye
      a brilliant chemical blue    

                                            a calf’s bisected head       
      liver     heart    stomachs    kidneys           
              gall bladder      some dark      some green                  

cows with stringy tails         malformed hooves           
      lesions      red receded eyes        suffering   slobbering       
                  staggering like drunks

It don’t look like
                               anything I’ve been into before

                                   

I began rising through the ceiling of each floor in the hospital as though I were being pulled by some force outside my own volition. I continued rising until I passed through the roof itself and found myself in the sky. I began to move much more quickly past the mountain range near the hospital and over the city. I was swept away by some unknown force, and started to move at an enormous speed. Just moving like a thunderbolt through a darkness.

 

R’s taking on the case I found to be inconceivable

It just felt like the right thing to do
                                                                   a great
opportunity to use my background for people who
                                really needed it          

                                R: filed a federal suit 
                                         pulled permits  
                                             land deeds    
                                                     a letter that mentioned
a substance at the landfill     
                                                 PFOA          
                               perfluorooctanoic acid

a soap-like agent used in
                                              ScotchgardTM
                                                                         TeflonTM

PFOA:                 was to be incinerated or
                              sent to chemical waste facilities     
                                    not to be flushed into water or sewers

DuPont:
                 pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds
                          into the Ohio River    
                 dumped tons of PFOA sludge
                          into open unlined pits 

PFOA:
               increased the size of the liver in rats and rabbits         
                                  (results replicated in dogs)
               caused birth defects in rats      
               caused cancerous testicular pancreatic and
                             liver tumors in lab animals      
               possible DNA damage from exposure 
               bound to plasma proteins in blood     
               was found circulating through each organ       
               high concentrations in the blood of factory workers   
               children of pregnant employees had eye defects          
               dust vented from factory chimneys settled well-beyond
                            the property line
               entered the water table
               concentration in drinking water 3x international safety limit
               study of workers linked exposure with prostate cancer
               worth $1 billion in annual profit
 

(It don’t look like anything I’ve been into before)      

 

Every individual thing glowed with life. Bands of energy were being dispersed from a huge universal heartbeat, faster than a raging river. I found I could move as fast as I could think.

 

DuPont:
               did not make this information public
               declined to disclose this finding       
               considered switching to new compound that appeared less toxic
                        and stayed in the body for a much shorter duration of time
               decided against it
               decided it needed to find a landfill for toxic sludge
               bought 66 acres from a low-level employee
                        at the Washington Works facility
 

(J needed money         
                                         had been in poor health     
a dead black calf              
                                         its eye chemical blue          
cows slobbering               
                                         staggering like drunks)

 

I could perceive the Earth, outer space, and humanity from a spacious and indescribable ‘God’s eye view.’ I saw a planet to my left covered with vegetation of many colors no signs of mankind or any familiar shorelines. The waters were living waters, the grass was living, the trees and the animals were more alive than on earth.

                                   
D’s first husband had been a chemist
                                                                          When you
worked at DuPont in this town you could have
everything you wanted
                                       DuPont paid for his education          
secured him a mortgage           paid a generous salary 
even gave him a free supply of PFOA

 

He explained that the planet we call Earth really has a proper name, has its own energy, is a true living being, was very strong but has been weakened considerably.
 

                                                              which she used
as soap in the family’s dishwasher       

 

I could feel Earth’s desperate situation. Her aura appeared to be very strange, made me wonder if it was radioactivity. It was bleak, faded in color, and its sound was heart wrenching.

 

                                                Sometimes
her husband came home sick—fever, nausea, diarrhea,
vomiting—‘Teflon flu’

             an emergency hysterectomy
                                                                   a second surgery          

 

I could tell the Doctor everything he did upon my arrival down to the minute details of accompanying the nurse to the basement of the hospital to get the plasma for me; everything he did while also being instructed and shown around in Heaven.
 

Clients called R to say they had received diagnoses of cancer
         or that a family member had died

                  W who had cancer had died of a heart attack

            Two years later W’s wife died of cancer

They knew this stuff was harmful
            and they put it in the water anyway
 

I suspect that Earth may be a place of education.
 

PFOA detected in:
                                American blood banks    
                                blood or vital organs of:
                                                                            Atlantic salmon
                                                                            swordfish
                                                                            striped mullet
                                                                            gray seals
                                                                            common cormorants
                                                                            Alaskan polar bears
                                                                            brown pelicans
                                                                            sea turtles
                                                                            sea eagles
                                                                            California sea lions      
                                                                            Laysan albatrosses on a wildlife refuge
                                                                                          in the middle of the North Pacific       Ocean
;>


Viewing the myriad human faces with an indescribable, intimate, and profound love. This love was all around me, it was everywhere, but at the same time it was also me.

 

                                      We see a situation

        that has gone

                                from Washington Works
 

All that was important in life was the love we felt.
 

                                                                                          to statewide
 

All that was made, said, done, or even thought without love was undone.

 

                                     to everywhere
 

                  it’s global

                                  

In my particular case, God took the form of a luminous warm water. It does not mean that a luminous warm water is God. It is just that, for me, it was experiencing the luminous warm water that I felt the most connection with the eternal.

Copyright © 2017 Tracy K. Smith. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 17, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets. “Watershed” appears in Wade in the Water, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in April 2018.

Copyright © 2017 Tracy K. Smith. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 17, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets. “Watershed” appears in Wade in the Water, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in April 2018.

Tracy K. Smith: Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith is the Poet Laureate of the United States. She received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 2014 and the James Laughlin Award in 2006 for her second book, Duende.

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