Jendi Reiter

Jendi Reiter is the editor of Poetry Contest Insider, an online quarterly guide to poetry contests that has won rave reviews from prizewinning poets and publishers. You can find out more about Poetry Contest Insider at She also has a "day job" as a senior editor at Facts on File News Services. Her work has won two awards from the Poetry Society of America, and has appeared in such publications as Poetry, The New Criterion, Southern Poetry Review and Best American Poetry.  Her poetry is also featured in Miller, Reiter, Robbins: Three New Poets, available from Hanging Loose Press, on-line at Her first book, A Talent for Sadness, will be published by Turning Point Books (an imprint of Word Press) in 2003. The Turning Point Books website is

The Circus and the Wilderness

No shadow of bars now across the tiger's back,
only dark stripes like trenches in a field of war
or like the streets of freedom where the pack

of trained dogs whined and padded out the unbolted door.
We let the beasts go that we had no right to own.
We let go our imperium of ridicule and gore.

The circus is gone: no beast need bemoan
the loss of its nature.  Go to the wilderness,
leave us quarantined by dominance, alone

to refrain from ruling. Perhaps legal politesse,
if not peace, will reign now that we've expelled
the tempting urgency of the claw and the fur's caress.

How pitiless the purity we beheld
rising from our segregated dreams!
Enlightenment needs its prey: a darkness to dispel.

We hunted beasts within ourselves to hear their feral screams,
and forgot to spare those who were merely living,
idiots and insects, who made no noble schemes.

Towards whom, then, should we be unforgiving,
on whose flesh flick the lash (like a waving tail,
our natural appendage)? The freedom we're giving

to one, beast or man, puts the other in jail.
In the rain the abandoned cages bleed with rust
while another steel-gray ship of slaves sets sail.

The mirror returns a brilliant gaze of mistrust.
The wilderness creeps back.
The abyss looks into us.

Published on


Finally even the light ceases to wear
down the metal sheets of your mind
where ran the thin traceries of despair
etched in a keener time by a younger hand.

Down the metal sheets of your mind,
the maps vanishing under waves
were etched in a keener time by a younger hand;
the moon that draws you but never saves

the maps vanishing under waves
pulls your tears from their stone beds.
The moon that draws you but never saves
the sun and its purpose that have fled

pulls your tears from their stone beds
and sings in the iron lattice of the night.
The sun and the purpose that you fled
to follow the moon's reflected light

are barred by the iron lattice of the night.
Is it all about eating bread?
To follow the moon's reflected light
or the sun's goal, no difference but what we lend?

Is it all about eating bread?
Even the ended days when you sought to find
the sun's goal, no meaning but what we lend
in the sharpness of each thing that struck your mind?

Even the day ends that you sought to find.
Finally even the light ceases to wear
the sharpness of each thing that struck your mind
where ran the thin traceries of despair.

Published in The Lyric

Villanelle for B.F. Skinner

"A poet writes a poem like a chicken lays an egg,"
wrote Skinner, who could do neither. An involuntary birth,
a thoughtless creativity machine between the legs.

The poet's heart constricts and beats, as when a guitar's pegs
are tightened, and a hand makes sound the note's determined worth.
A poet writes a poem like a chicken lays an egg,

a fragile sphere cast loose against her will. The hen can't beg,
"This treasure should stay safe within;" she spends it on the earth,
a thoughtless creativity machine between the legs.

The farmer comes with warm caress and steals between her legs,
ungrateful, takes the egg to feed his hunger and his mirth.
A poet writes a poem like a chicken lays an egg

or like the rat whose bar of shocks teaches him how to beg:
all bounded in a box, a form, a world of rigid girth.
A thoughtless creativity machine between the legs

is art, like Skinner's pigeons who mocked speech by pressing pegs
that lit up signs. "I love you;" " I fear death;" "What is life worth?"
A poet writes a poem like a chicken lays an egg,

new packages with the same few matters at the heart. The dregs
of every pleasure bring another sufferer to birth.
A poet writes a poem like a chicken lays an egg,
a thoughtless creativity machine between the legs.

Published in Tucumcari Literary Review

Ash Wednesday

I gave up prayer for Lent. No gravity
in God's-eye void, spinning to see my soul
from no perspective. Such difficulty

made me dread waking. But the earth won't roll
off my neck. I strapped it tight. All blame
is mine for its canyon wounds and battered shoals.

Unchosen sin, to love and be ashamed
of loving hatred too. To hoard small rage
like a golden calf, old talisman disclaimed

in public but retained in every age
as something essential and practical,
the selfish wrench that lets one disengage

from crippling empathy. Love makes us fall
into a fractured world, a lake with no
bottom but a myriad partial

reflections on its skin. Should I once know
you for yourself, your dreams and sad defenses
against my missteps, dare I ever go

back to see through my self-unseeing lenses?
Where shall the right be found? A word is spoken
like water dripping in the vast silences

wearing down stone within the dark heart's broken
caverns. Or not at all. So many voices
compete to be truth's filter or its token

that, echo-trapped, I fear my only choice is
to doubt them all in turn, and most to doubt
those that most comfort me. One of the voices

I doubt is God's, but which? He reaches out
to every corner, so affects nothing,
paralyzed by his own sight streaming out

from polyhedral eye coruscating
to see each side of all complexity,
hanging in stasis, doomed to be forgiving.

Published in Perspectives

Registering Bliss

As dessert follows
the carved roast, the appliances of love are ready
to follow love, inevitable as laundry.
Every good play surely transcends
the backstage machinery, the paint and porcelain
mocked up as stone, but how many

good plays are there? Not many
who get this far anticipate how time follows
like an abandoned dog, who breaks the blushing porcelain
and chews the used wrapping paper you're not ready
to throw away--as if memory could transcend
their torn state, like rags you still wash as laundry.

You choose your straight roof and the design of your laundry.
After this time the choices aren't as many
as their consequences, though the cups transcend
their pattern as they're chipped and kissed, and the mattress follows
the rises and depressions of particular bodies. Who'd be ready
to smash a whole set of porcelain

just to choose anew a different pattern of porcelain?
Things are made fresh but never new, like laundry
washed and worn, scented with personality already.
In the yard every year, many fallen seeds sprout and many
blow elsewhere. The lost ones that don't follow
their generative pattern still won't transcend

being in one place and not another. No one transcends
this law of bodies. Whether cups are porcelain
or self-conscious ascetic tin, someone must follow
the feast with washing-up. After passion, laundry
writhes in the machine's many
predictable cycles, emerging pure and ready

as the next white page of the story. No one's ready
to see the bottom of the box of paper, till one transcends
the need to transcend things, which is just one of many
manifestations of the need for things. The porcelain
you chose and the tablecloth fresh from the laundry
wait in the belief that another day follows.

Published in The New Criterion

Brain Music
for James Moore

No God would make a world in such poor taste,
scoffed Darwin, thinking of blind nature's waste,
of creatures duplicate, ungainly, vile:
too many mollusks, slime without soul or style.
Better to hope the blood-lust brutes displayed
allowed the strong to shine like hammered blades,
that pyramids of dead led up to man.
The worst pain is the one without a plan.
Rather amoral pattern, godless law,
than thoughtless lion's rank and hollow maw,
a meaningless decease, like Darwin's daughter,
ill, dying young. His theory made this slaughter
proof-text of pain, her childhood's sacrifice
near swallowed up in what it symbolized:
no Jesus healing with miraculous kiss,
just laws reliable and pitiless,
a world with no grace and no randomness.
Patterns in beasts' acts are the sole witness
to a design by irony inspired:
when scientists mapped how the neurons fired
in the cortex of the brain when learning,
on-screen a melody was coldly burning.
Whether the deed that's learned is right or wrong,
each synapse pattern plays an (unsigned) song.

Published in First Things

The Apocalypse Supermarket

Airless fluids line the white stockroom shelves
in squat black jars, stable as loaves till the virgin
seal is pierced and broken
and the chemicals fume, flame or let
themselves be used, diminished into lesser substance.
Only once
is anything pure: before the touch

of the corrupting air, untouched
by its own or others' action.
As if what's on the shelf
preserved all virtue, as if time that did not once
rend her would not crack the brittle virgin
nor the tight drum of maidenhead grow slack.
Even glass, let
alone for years, flows down old panes misshapen though unbroken.

And that's the paradox: the wineglass of action must be broken
under the heel of luck, and every marriage murders with the touch
that life requires, (they say) brings forth again what was let
out by Eve when she picked the seamless apple from the shelf
of the Apocalypse Supermarket.
And bit.
And so the virgin
skin broke and the knowledge, once

perfect when inside, became something less.
The dish once
cracked by life's heavy bread, and broken
shards the consequence of any wine, only a virgin
(the story goes) could restore what touch
marred by regenerating.
Contrary Mary, with her shelf
of disposable virtues like the plastic needles that let

into the flask an inert unbreathable gas.
If you must let
air in, you can drive it out, approximate its once
and vanished purity by casting out breath.
Leave life on the shelf
(said her son) and the stone that into sand was broken
will become transparent glass, and, immune from touch
as from fracture, the spirit will sublime from the rusted virgin

bottle like any holy or prosaic ghost.
Such tales make ruined virgins
of us all, dating our fall from the ancestor who let
go her grip on the static bliss of angels and beasts, to touch
the virtue that can be used only once
and must be used, and when once used is broken
as the bottle's split seal flames and tears of glass
run down the shelf....

Published in The Penwood Review