“Every name is a lightning stroke to some heart, and breaks like thunder over some
home, and falls a long black shadow upon some hearthstone.”
Gettysburg Compiler, July 7, 1863
Find us among ivy and green briar
along your back fence. You’ll know
we’re there by the way cardinals and jays
wing stagger after feeding on us.
We’ll draw you to stem end
where our clusters of grape-like
berries burden a thin trunk.
Phytolacca, “crimson lake.”
We bow from remembering.
An abolitionist minister once plunged
a dagger into a hollowed-out Bible
filled with our juice. So we fell upon
plantation masters and overseers
in their pews, striping them
like lash marks on runaways.
Some call us inkberry.
We were pressed into service
at Antietam, Cold Harbor, Gettysburg.
Though we could give no shelter
from Minié balls, we gave ourselves
as letters home from the living and the dead.
Turning the earth in spring you find
these others turning the earth, their ways
addling the plot to advantage.
As movers, the winds have nothing
to teach these harrowers
and aerators. They’re sextons
that take in feathers, flesh, and leaves
and cast what’s new in humus.
Their heart’s chamber-less, a vessel
strung end to end—you feel it—each
pulse a surge through the segments,
garden, field, and forest like waves
under your thumb. Lifting one
from a pitchfork’s clot you’re called back
to a cane pole and a pond. As a boy
runs an earthworm up the shank
of his hook it lets go its castings,
that gritty paste of root nutrients.
He lifts his fingers to his nose.
To him the water’s uncomplicated,
idling here till he sets up. The fish
taking this will cut back and forth
like a kite in the wind. The hook
goes into darkness that holds itself
apart from darkness by a sunfish rising.
for my father
In the dream of components
I’m a boy again building
a radio, coaxing whiskery legs
onto terminal strips,
touching my iron to solder.
Resistance . . . capacitance . . .
tuned circuits for detecting
voices from sky waves.
Your voice from the room below
comes through the furnace ductwork
but is not meant for me:
What is going to happen to us?
I see you in the Railway Express
guard’s uniform you had worn for 20 years.
You’re drumming a nightstick
on the sides of boxcars, and men
are climbing out, becoming endless
clowns from a jalopy in the center ring.
In the assembly dream I find
one step for you and then another.
You’re in the cellar holding
edges to your emery wheel and making
sheaves of light when I have you
wind my grounding wire
around a cold water pipe.
I send you toward our tallest tree,
one end of the antenna wrapped
around your wrist.
The signal you bring in—
a voice lifted through static
almost to music, news. Another
continent? You’re running now,
arm raised as though trying
to get a kite off the ground.
Holding wavelengths, you climb
high into the oak, crying out
for me to tell you what we’re bringing in.
Thomas Reiter's most recent book of poems, Catchment, was published by LSU Press in 2009. He has received grants from the NEA and from the NJ State Council on the Arts. Poems of his have appeared in Poetry, Southern Review, Sewanee Review, Hudson Review, Georgia Review, and New England Review. He is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Monmouth University, where he held the Wayne D. McMurray Endowed Chair in the Humanities.