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Thursday, April 14, 2016


by Ned Balbo

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) is accusing his staffers of lying to him about lead and other contaminants in Flint’s drinking water supply. Snyder has long accused state environmental and health regulators of giving him incorrect information about the safety of the Michigan city's water after its switch to using the Flint River in April 2014 until late last year. But on Monday, he accused employees at the state agencies of lying to him. —The Hill, April 11, 2016

Why is our boiled water brown?
Our bottled water’s running out. 
Will it be safe to drink again?
Why shouldn’t water touch our skin?

The water mains still underground
belong to a forgotten age—
The records we’ve retrieved so far
don’t always point to where they are,

and, yes, we have a deficit—
which means we can’t repair them yet.
But rest assured: your water’s safe.
True, there are problems with its taste,

color, and smell, but samples show
lead levels are extremely low.
We hear you. We’ve conducted tests.
The wheels of government are slow.

When water from the tap won’t clear—
When families forced to cook with it
get sicker, do we share their rage?
Or do we share in their defeat

when hydrants flush the streets metallic
orange—one more tainted purge?
When residents desperate to sell
are turned away by realtors?  

Water, once thought a public good,
is now one more commodity:
expendable, like those who live
in devastated neighborhoods.

Why change a city’s water source
to one inarguably worse?
You know why: it was cheaper. Summer
days, pools fill with teenage swimmers,

laughter, lead. How soon will daughters,
showering, watch hair fall out
in clumps that catch in rusted drains?
How will the elderly, the poor

assured it’s safe, protect themselves?
Stop washing when their rashes burn?
Or let caregivers sponge their flesh—
the toxic river’s toxic touch.

We know this water’s poisonous.
Who’ll stop or redirect its course?
We’re told we have to wait. How long?
Who’s listening, if anyone?

Hair white, startled from sleep, a man
who should have known pads down the stairs,
thirsty. What does he see at night?
Iced-over windows, mandalas

of frost on glass. He pours and drinks—
fresh water from the faucet, cool
and clear: the least that he deserves.
What do the least of Michigan

deserve from those responsible?
If citizens are customers
and nothing more, then, yes, they’re lost.
What should they ask this Governor,

and others like him? Shouldn’t water
wash us clean and nourish life?
Who sent this poison to our homes,
as if to kill or scatter us?

Don’t turn your back in disbelief.

Ned Balbo's The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems received the Poets' Prize and the Donald Justice Prize. His previous books are Lives of the Sleepers (Ernest Sandeen Prize; ForeWord Book of the Year gold medal), and Galileo's Banquet (Towson University Prize). A new book, Upcycling Paumanok, is due out soon from Measure Press. He currently teaches in the MFA program in creative writing and environment at Iowa State University.