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Dave Wood's Book Report, Oct. 18, 2006

Poetry lost a treasure in August with the death of John R. Mitchell, age 66, just retired from the English Department at Augsburg College, where he taught for 37 years. Poetry bubbled out of Mitchell's fertile mind in great abundance. Many poems were published in Minneapolis's venerable North Stone Review. Still others appeared in Murphy Square, the college's literary magazine. And thousands -- yes thousands -- showed up in friends' mail and later e-mail. Many of Mitchell's students succeeded spectacularly, including the late John Engman, a poet. Or the fiction of Anne Panning, who just won the Flannery O'Connor award for short fiction.

Mitchell might have published more himself had he not spent so much time talking and arguing and laughing with his students. Fortunately, his friends put together a small chapbook what was passed out at the Memorial Service. Attendance was huge, but my wife managed to grab the last copy. Here's a sample of John's poetry, much of which was based on events from his childhood in Alabama:

'A spunky circus came

To town by rail

When I was a kid.

Elephants dragged long poles

Through the mud.

There were lions in dirty cages

And men who needed a bath.

The glitter of women

Standing on white horses

Reeked of eternity

Their underarms of love.

The clowns looked stunted

In their growth,

The man on the flying trapeze

Swung down

And reached the hand of God'

Sixty years ago, the annual polio scare was about over for the year in my hometown. But from August until mid-October we all shook in our boots. Would I be this year's victim? It seemed that every year three or four kids would contract polio in our little town

So when the dog days of August rolled around, my grandmother, with whom I lived, pulled the shades in the old house, forbade my swimming in the millpond, kept me away from crowds at the Pix movie theatre.

Years earlier I had a small polio episode, but nothing that truly affected my life. At the same time, up in Spooner, John Durand, who became a college roommate years later, came down with it and last year wrote "Behind Enemy Lines," a wonderfully told story I reviewed several months ago. It's a book about how Wisconsin's kids were managed when they contracted polio.

A great companion piece to Durand's book -- and an expansion -- is the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in History, "Polio: An American Story," by David M. Oshinsky just issued in paperback by Oxford University Press ($16.95).

Oshinsky takes the story to the entire nation and chronicles the battle against the frightening disease from the March of Dimes crusade up to the development of the Salk and Sabin vaccines in the 1950s. He uses heretofore unavailable documents to describe President Franklin Roosevelt's behind-the-scenes efforts to get the polio crusade off the ground; the use of children victims in sometimes unethical experiments; how Jonas Salk almost got dumped by his funders when it was learned that he had left-wing sympathies in the 1930s.

The book is full of nostalgic pictures of FDR swimming in Georgia with a bunch of child victims, Sister Kenny treating a little patient, lines of people waiting to get a shot of vaccine.

Oshinsky also reminds us that polio is still rampant in other parts of the world. It's a book for the ages.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.