Witness Tree, Culp’s Hill, Gettysburg

Thomas Reiter Click to read more...

reiterphotoThomas Reiter’s most recent book of poetry, 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.  He is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Monmouth University, where he held the Wayne D. McMurray Endowed Chair in the Humanities.

For my grandson

“All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys.”
— Herman Melville

Monument by monument we’ve found the site.
You’re wearing an officer’s plumed hat
chosen from shelves of replicas, and

over one shoulder an enlisted man’s haversack
stocked with insignia, a clay pipe, a Minié ball—
a ten-year-old, you’re the whole regiment.

You stretch full length beside a witness oak,
on the sloping, lichen-covered stone
where Mathew Brady’s assistants are lounging

in your book of views of the battlefield now
and on the day after Lee’s retreat. The dead
have already been exposed onto glass plates.

You walk the breastworks, now only a slight
rise in the earth beyond the witness tree.
History’s open in your hands. General Greene

and his 102nd New York made its stand
here, defeating the 15th Louisiana
coming through the woods. Lead poisoning

killed many of the trees, you teach me,
and years after the battle, lightning
would set off unexploded shells.

A school bus stops for a moment
and you wave. Then fall mortally wounded,
having so many postures to choose from.

Waiting for your picket to report back,
you stand beside the oak, ostrich plume stirring
in a light wind from the 2nd of July, 1863,

while a rider on horseback bending low,
chunks of moss flying from hooves,
hurtles fallen trees to reach this ground

where blood has yet to come up monuments.

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Discussion

One Response to Witness Tree, Culp’s Hill, Gettysburg

  1. Michael Spence says:

    Glad to read “Witness Tree…” in the spring issue of Shenandoah. I’ve enjoyed the serendipitous fact that you and I are both “literary neighbors” in the spring issues of both The Hudson Review and The Sewanee Review. I especially like “Pull, Don’t Push” in Hudson. Reading your Crossovers volume now and looking forward to reading Catchment. (I’m going to be a “belated” literary neighbor in Shenandoah–“Poem Noir” is slated for its summer issue.) Take care, and keep up the good work.

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