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  • Writer's pictureCraig Allen Heath

34 Degrees

At the most recent WordFest meeting in March, I was affected strongly by one reading in particular, and I wrote a poem on the spot about it. Homelessness is a sad and seemingly intractable problem in the United States, and here in my new corner of the world, it's getting worse - both in the sheer numbers of people without shelter, and the contentiousness of the debate.

A woman who volunteers a great deal of her time and effort to the cause read a short personal story about her work with a local shelter, and one thing struck me: She said that the rules kept the doors of the shelter shut unless the temperature reached 33 degrees for two consecutive nights. I knew that our town is tight with it's alms-giving, but I didn't realize just how tight. I was struck by the news.

So I wrote the following poem that night and read it to the group that night. A poem doesn't put a roof over anybody's head, but maybe it can put charity in somebody's heart.


34 Degrees

I am told

by a woman who knows these things

in her bones,

Mercy takes my temperature.

Death, too, watches the mercury.

My blood, chilled to 95 degrees

for 3 hours

buys my ticket across the Styx.

The guy with the scythe

feels my brow,

checks his watch,

and waits.

1 bone-cold night

out of doors, out of sight

out of luck,

and I am in the boat.

But, if the air I breathe

dips no lower than 34 degrees,

the doors of salvation

stay closed and locked.

The shelter

where I could hide from the old boy

for a night

will not open.

Rules, and rights,

and responsibilities, and regulations, and reasons

declare the quality of Mercy

strains at 34 degrees.

34 is a number.

34 degrees is a measure,

and the measure of a life

is 34 degrees.


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