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.