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About this Poem 

This poem was commissioned for We the Poets, a collaborative project with the National Archives and the Academy of American Poets to celebrate American Archives Month in October 2014. To read more about the project and to view related photographs and documents from the National Archives, visit the Prologue: Pieces of History blog.

The Buttonhook

President Roosevelt, touring Ellis Island
in 1906, watched the people from steerage
line up for their six-second physical.

Might not, he wondered aloud, the ungloved handling 
of aliens who were ill infect the healthy?
Yet for years more it was done. I imagine

my grandmother, a girl in that Great Hall’s
polyglot, reverberating vault
more terrible than church, dazed by the stars

and stripes in the vast banner up in front
where the blessed ones had passed through. Then she did too,
to a room like a little chapel, where her mother 

might take Communion. A man in a blue cap
and a blue uniform—a doctor? a policeman?
(Papa would have known, but he had sailed

all alone before them and was waiting 
now in New York; yet wasn’t this New York?)—
a man in a blue cap reached for her mother. 

Without a word (didn’t he speak Italian?)  
he stuck one finger into her mother’s eye,
then turned its lid up with a buttonhook,

the long, curved thing for doing up your boots
when buttons were too many or too small.
You couldn’t be American if you were blind

or going to be blind. That much she understood.
She’d go to school, she’d learn to read and write
and teach her parents. The eye man reached to touch

her own face next; she figured she was ready.
She felt big, like that woman in the sea
holding up not a buttonhook but a torch.

Copyright © 2014 by Mary Jo Salter. Used with permission of the author.

Copyright © 2014 by Mary Jo Salter. Used with permission of the author.

Mary Jo Salter

Mary Jo Salter

Known as a leading figure of the New Formalism movement, Salter has published many collections of poems, including Nothing by Design (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), A Phone Call to the Future (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), and Open Shutters (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003).

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To celebrate American Archives Month in October we collaborated with t...