Thomas Reiter: Three Poems




         “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.



CALLED BACK                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

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.