Thomas Reiter: "My Grandmother's Journey, 1891"




She is seven years old and knows “Lord,

I am not worthy.”  She sits alone

in a Pullman compartment studying

for her first communion,

who one day will write on the blank last page

of the prayer book she holds now,

“My twins, age seven, dead of diphtheria.”


Her father has gone on ahead to claim

a quarter-section of Iowa soil. 

“A blackness that will grow corn,” he wrote back

to West Virginia, “not fibers in the lungs.”

On my grandmother’s berth, stockings

and a knitted sewing kit as she awaits

her mother for the next lesson:

spools and a grain-threaded darning egg,

needles pushed through pleated cloth

to stand in strict rank.


A line-drawing underneath

“Come and eat, for this is my body”

shows children kneeling at the altar railing.

She clasps her hands as they do,

but finds instead of grace

that the train is coming to a halt.  She steps

onto the platform between cars

whose couplers lock like hands in the schoolyard

game of break the circle. 


She looks out on grass half as tall as the train,

flowers like her mother’s feather boas.

She moves to the other side and finds

the same except that a butterfly

has landed on the railing, a wing

half torn away.  She lifts the sulphur

into her palm, breathes gently on it

and gives it time . . . nothing,

so takes that companion back inside.


Because she loves the good wing’s

daffodil yellow dotted black

like the bow she’s wearing in her hair,                     

what should she do

if not tear that display from its body

and press it in her prayer book?


Atop the page she’s memorizing, she writes,

“Beauty, I used to watch you

among the hollyhocks along our garden wall.”

She clicks the hasp on the covers

closed, and so the wing begins

its journey into facing pages:  the Credo

and a child knocking on a tabernacle door.



Thomas Reiter's most recent book of poems, Catchment, was published in 2009 by LSU Press.  He has received an Academy of American Poets Prize as well as fellowships from the NEA and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.