Robert van Vliet


               1 - front loader

I will show you the life of the mind.
It is in the laundry. It is in the spin cycle.
We are watching it in the spin cycle.

My arm is around you. The afternoon,
slow in arriving, has now passed on,
and evening fits itself seamlessly

into night. We are not speaking.
Light is flush with dark, so there is no room
for word. This room is word enough.

               2 - the stone

he rests. his repose
curled, like a tongue
around a word, around
a stone. the straw,
the dust, the dark
holds and scratches him,
and grooms him with flat
zebra teeth. but in his sleep
he is attentive
to the heat of the stone.
he holds the stone
against the poem
against his sternum.

he is alone. the world
holds him in his repose.
the stone’s heat stirs him.
he wakes, braces the stone,
the poem, the warm dark,
into the new air, the new
calm, awakened calm.
he sings. the song
of the vanishing motion,
the furtive midnight,
the abandoned cries.
he calls. the bus, the
gun replies. the moon,
colder stone, hugs
him to her, feels his warmth,
burns, white, sighs
and sets.


in the morning
is the
meaning we always
seek in vain
for in the night.

In this hour, we
lose ourselves,
never immune to
emptiness, in the
humming of the
sun’s configurations.
This naptime of the
day: this is death.

In this hour, when
the sidewalks are
gleaming and speechless,
the grey brick windows
possess your gaze as
impetuously as you
cast it. You
scrape syllables
from your shoes, peel
them from your arms,
pare them from
your fingers, until
you stand
in the last gasp
of your attire,
then walk, sounds
of unsent letters
echoing beneath
your footsteps,
to the iron bridge
that will lead you
from this city.

Burn your memoirs
as you write them.

               4 - locus

Feel too passionately
too narrowly
for a word
or for the hollow space within the word
and you might turn inward
within the words themselves
to face only that place where the words
lounge in their unadorned meaning.

She pulled herself into the space
always returning
to the same few syllables
as a dog might turn
and settle
and turn and settle again.

Tucking herself into the staccato enclosure,
the choking clutter without
conspicuously forgotten
soft chairs in late afternoon
the rattle of traffic,
autumn’s tickle at the top of her nose
the babies she would never hold to her throat
taking their places among the elements.

Now is no time to cry.
It is the moment
you have been born for
— to immerse yourself in the fire
of single-minded thought,
choke though you may, as your eyes
sting with tears, on the bookish stench
of your own decay. Do not listen
to your breath for such comforts
never comforted you.

The only language left you
will be your own rattling sacks of knuckles.


A small room, hardly a space. A room like a bullet.
A state highway, bleached by the outward signs
of nuclear fusion. Give me some words. Give me
an angle of sunlight, some rough stones to feel,
and silence like rough stones.
And then I’d see through the smoke hole
in the roof, see stars in daylight,
standing deep in a well.

               6 - moonset over los alamos

What preceded me? Heaven
and earth. What will follow me?
The death of the state. Each night
a different moon will fall
backwards in the sky until
it has once again backed up
into the forgetfulness
of the sun. Memory of
strength not in the palm but in
the space between the fingers.

I have no sin, only regret — that I
have not killed with my soft hands, so that I
may understand the other face of life
— that I have never driven remorse from
my heart. For what are we? strings of nerves
tangled in an underbrush of bones,
quivering: naked as murder.

Rhythms leading nowhere.
Breakfast, late, behind me.
The sands are hot, closed eyes
see red. Abroad, gardens
are walled.
           At home, the sky
is so wide open, a
gesture not of shelter
or comfort, but of pain:
she is too small for the
child she will bear.
           And here,
the blank walls have melted
from siesta’s neglect.

And at last, the moon, lost in the sky,
the night’s discarded shell. Experience
falls short of description. Birds seen as birds
flying, coasting, flailing. Or the moon
seen as lost, or forgetful, sad, desperate,
coy, hateful, coasting, dead, dry.
It sets. I watch it go. It fades, rather
than sets; its paleness grows paler, its wanness
               In the valley before me, Santa Fe
sleeps in its scribbled desert bed. Fools
have scratched the hills distant to the west;
fools like avaricious hens. I am their son,
unlucky, death’s favorite child. I will
dawdle in the margin of these last days.

               7 - extinction of a new beginning

What is this legacy remaining,
           littering the streets?
Shards of pots, abandoned
           like magazines in waiting rooms.

In the broad afternoon,
           this slanted latitude of stasis,
the fragments lie unnoticed
           in this lost and amnesiac city.

We can no more reinvent ourselves
           than we can reconstruct
our childhoods’ dreams from the splinters
           of our present assumptions.

For, after all, such assumptions
           are remarks, not accomplishments.
And who can trace the fallout
           of unspoken words scarcely thought?

The failure of possibilities leaves a wreckage
exactly and distinctly nowhere,
reverberating only in the deepest dreams
of the would-be passengers.

The extinction of a new beginning,
as palpable as a hand almost held,
will ignite no curiosity,
will elicit no investigation: only a tremor
in the ground beneath the sleeping feet
of the walker who chose only to stand.

The tall orange light mesmerizes
the smashed earthenware. Nothing
moves on this field. Our history lies
broken about the base of the empty lighthouse.
No one looks on, so no one shudders.
A nameless bird startles itself across the hollow sky.

               8 - they build themselves from the inside

So can we agree
the syllable is a room:
vowels the space, consonants
a wall? The walls together make
rooms, buildings, city blocks.

But a woman
with large hoop earrings
enters one of these rooms.
Takes out her lipstick.
Twists it open, and
writes on a wall.
The rough texture eats
the stick down quickly,
halfway through a

Or a young man walking
his dog stops at a corner.
He sees a for-rent sign. Pulls
out a pen. Jots down the
phone number on a card he
dug out of his wallet. His
dog rolls on the ground, on
a patch of tan grass
struggling next to the

Or can we
agree the reaching trees
grope for light? This

is like that. I am
reminded of something. Your
face is familiar. You have seen
this before, or something
like it.

Or think of it this way.
I am speechless. You are listening.

Robert van Vliet lives and works in northern New Jersey. As the erstwhile Nicholas Downing, his poetry has appeared in the First Hay(na)ku Anthology, and elsewhere at Otoliths. His interests include the shapes of things, the origins of things, and the sounds of things. He is currently at work on several novels.

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