Margaret Miller in the Williamette Valley, Oregon, 1858

Thomas Reiter Click to

Thomas Reiter has published five full-length books of poetry, the most recent being Catchment, LSU Press, 2009. He has been awarded the Daily News Poetry Prize from The Caribbean Writer and the Boatwright Poetry Prize from Shenandoah. He is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Monmouth University, where he held the Wayne D. McMurray Endowed Chair in the Humanities.

My husband said I was unsexing myself,
and soon I’d have a voice hard as hailstones.
Yet when did I ever fail to spread my skirt
to curtain off a female and protect her modesty?
He believed I shamed him by collecting fossils
along the Oregon Trail.  For what purpose
take those stone remains with us, burdening the oxen?
he demanded. Then quoted the wagon master’s law:
carry nothing worth less than a dollar a pound.

O I knew the laws, I knew the one allowing
no voice or vote for women in the councils.
Not mindful of my limits?  The day he mentioned
burden, I abandoned my chest of drawers trailside.
Replacing mahogany with rocks, he cried out.
A hundred miles before he spoke to me again.
But what was that out of the 2000 miles
we’d come from Ohio on his word alone?
Cholera and diphtheria and children fallen
under the wheels.  Men buried the dead
right in the Trail, then drove the wagons over them
so wolves couldn’t scatter their bones.

My collecting began in Nebraska’s rain shadow,
where emigrants inscribed messages on oxen bones
they then wedged in limestone outcroppings
and blazoned with bright strips of cloth.
I volunteered to bring back the news.
Reading femurs and shoulder-blades, I learned
distances:  to sweet water and grass for grazing
and the next trading post.  Then, beside
a horned skull beribboned to advertise
Dr. Peeler’s Peerless Feminine Nerve Tonic,
I came upon a flat stone with a fish in it,
gills and fins and bones.  Nearby, a fossil
like a thimble with tentacles, and beside it
a stack of buttons.  They spoke to me,
those other travelers.  I didn’t know
I’d been keeping room for them in my life.
Denied my husband’s hammer, I struck stone
on stone.  I made a basket of my skirt.
How many ways there are to live!

Yesterday we reached our homestead
in the Willamette Valley, where my husband says
orchards will leap from the earth.
One day from a library of my own
I’ll learn the names and ages and stories
of my stone companions. Then I can teach
our children about the great crossing.
This morning I took a walk by the river
and found a fossil clamshell in the stone bank.
I’ll have my husband take our cornerstone from that sea.