JENDI
REITER

Jendi Reiter is the author of the novel Two Natures (Saddle Road Press, 2016), the short story collection An Incomplete List of My Wishes (Sunshot Press, 2018), and four poetry books and chapbooks, most recently Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree, 2015). Awards include a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship for Poetry, the New Letters Prize for Fiction, the Bayou Magazine Editor's Prize in Fiction, and two awards from the Poetry Society of America.

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RUMSPRINGA ON
THE POLAR EXPRESS

Though I no longer believe

in Lancaster County

the bell scrapes out a chime

 

and the black engine the gouged-out mountain swallowed

loops dinging past tin-sided diner and derrick

bobbing its lullaby head over the town

 

of men in hats waiting under streetlamps

and the monocles of gas pumps and clipped round trees

that an old man's hand reaches down and straightens

 

under the hinged glass. Though horses

clop through sun-silent August

boys who'd be reaching

 

(were they my brothers)

beneath the gamey softness of laying hens

are watching The Polar Express,

 

uncanny digital faces

caught between child and cartoon.

Inside the National Toy Train Museum

 

is a replica of the National Toy Train Museum.

Though the bell rings only

the boy can hear it after he confesses

 

belief in the old man and the sleigh and the story

that everyone grows to learn untrue.

Though I never knew a red and tinsel Christmas

 

daily our voices lofted holy notes to rafters

we nailed with our tender hands

proud with hammers instead of toys,

 

laying a different world over this

asphalt maze of cravings.

Push the Button and Look Into the Mine.

 

Though the bulb inside shows plaster pink

Disney dwarves who never coughed up black

Pennsylvania coal, the land (our fathers said)

 

promised us gifts for being good

white souls fertile as bulls and plain

cotton obedience. Though I could say

 

why my plough hit rock, the millstone

was always the bells

striking the universal hours

 

for dinner and penance

and the rope of God

the blizzard-blinded followed from barn to hearth.

 

The movie ends and the lucky children

listen to what pleases them

on their mothers' phones and the toy train sings

 

the new start of its same circuit

with piercing light whistles like a boy

calling his brothers across

 

a field too far to hear.

YEAR OF THE RAT

Rubin Museum of Buddhist Art, New York City

Born under the sign of scurry, bright-eye, nibble death. The waste mélange of cities passes through hunger's tiny tube, so slowly removed and transformed, like a fifty-scroll horoscope painted one rat-hair brushstroke at a time. In columns of crimson, jade and gold, robed masters mapped sneezes and monsoons onto luck, predicted postures of sickbeds from a zigzag of stars.

 

Rats stud their tunnels with prizes they can't eat, packing dirt holes with sharp shiny soda tabs and November's empty trick-or-treat crinkles. Outwardly untidy, inwardly meticulous, says the touchscreen at the Rubin Museum, where these scrolls have come to rest in reverent grey rooms. It will be a good year for old men. The emperors who believed this are five hundred years underground. One day a person wakes up and realizes they have become their clothes. Their tunnel blocked by books on presidents and cartoons, grown sons' kindergarten volcanoes, letters of praise for old work from dead friends.

 

Laboratory protesters swing red-streaked cardboard placards in the rain, mushing black arguments that sprout ethics from suffering, as rats were once thought spontaneously born from rotting wheat. But what of a rat's pleasure, why not joy's sweet stink as the good fortune our corpses can expect? Those born in this year search for happiness. Downstairs, spindles march across an interactive wall. They will find a few enemies in their path. Visitors complete memos to hang on the stacks of both questions. I am grateful for: my baby, sunrise, divorce. I am anxious about: our government, the heating earth. Imagine the box where these notes will be cellared next season. Imagine a rat's delight in all that forgotten paper.

VILNA IS BURNING

for Billy Porter and Indya Moore

Truth waits till sundown to come out

of the A train stop on 155th.

He remembers Sabbath-observing

hands stripping the paper name from his forehead.

He remembers his clay sleep in an overseas crate

marked for a Hester Street tailor's shop.

 

Seventy-one winters measured in chalk and shears,

sons of sons pinning broad, then narrow,

then broad lapels to Truth's nerveless shoulders.

Truth found the scroll that would wake him to labor

almost at once,

but time never seemed right in the new world

to raise his giant head in the workers' hungry crowd.

How dare he compete with the fathers,

budget slave who neither eats nor speaks?

 

But when the last son rolled up his cloth tape

Truth came to himself on a trash truck uptown,

still in the sharp purple blazer and parachute pants

of his final window display.

Thus he strutted into the televised streets.

 

In a record shop's plate glass his face reflected

four centuries baked brown.

A sign read SOUL so he entered

perhaps to barter heavy lifting for the one thing he lacked.

She, waiting on him — she

was the first angel to match his height,

black hair glossy as a spinning 45,

bronze legs that went on and on like Friday night prayer.

 

Tonight — Xtravaganza.

DJ in paisley top hat preaches

"Pose!" though Truth can see

the letter some clergyman erased

to write death on his forehead, too.

While Truth's retail angel vogues

for the honor of the house she mothers,

in a gown he sewed, silvery

chiffon lofting like the smoke of torched Prague.