Witness Tree, Culp’s Hill, Gettysburg

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.

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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