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.
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.