Charles Borkhuis

               THAN THEY APPEAR


the limits talk back
like bricks in a wall like street punks 
hanging out at the dead ends of sentences 
like shrunken heads in birdcages
taking their revenge upon the writer
one peep at a time

everyone wants a self 
they can call their own
everyone wants to unload 
into a shout-box during lights out

but the writer dismisses the rabble
of inner voices as fragmented false unities 
desperately grabbing for the mic 
say it again

I shall not talk out in class

the sentence repeats itself
a moment before the fatal sweep 
of a schoolboy’s eraser
across the chalkboard 

will you be my dead letter
say it again
will you shadow my pronoun
into the foaming seas 
where everything starts again
as if by accident


o oblivion
you little talking machine 
hiding under my breath
you little nothing created 
for all the world to hear

the missing time of the crime
the empty space 
the body left 

to walk the streets unseen

when you look for me
I won’t be there
when you don’t look
I will
enough chitty chat 
stand up and play dead

we are talking the logic 
of a dream that’s fled the scene 

leaving a desultory detective 
to decipher the trail 
of crumbs 
under his dining room table


sucking chicken bones over lunch 

you think of the woman 
who left you for a robot’s arm 

everyone’s got a name 
to cover for the nameless someone 
that escapes them

the endless unraveling of a murder
before our eyes 

I wasn’t there when it happened

thinks the dead man 
who ghosts the pages of a novel

the patient reader recreates 
the writer’s steps
slipping into another’s shoes
so she may wear 

the dead man’s coat
his hat 
while becoming a double agent

who roams the corridors of sleep
squeezing through the space
between words 


so the world erases itself
leaving only illusions to justify
its disappearance

as if we need this second world 
to claim us

I had no part in this
says the husband to his long-suffering wife

simulacra just want to have fun

it’s official 
the new artificial risk 
promises safety within a tantalizing vision 
of the animal kingdom on camera
ripping itself to pieces 

playground of the near encounter
you were never really there

mother don’t frighten your son

the pixelated person stands in for
a missing someone at every turn 
if I have your image
do I really need you

next time I’m the murderer
following a new victim
down rainy streets
who’s beginning to look 
a lot like you


footprints in the mud
hairs in the comb

how often have I thought of myself
awake in a coma

a wife peers 
into her husband’s dreaming face 
his muscles hanging loose 
on the bone
this is the way he’ll look in the coffin

let me in she whispers
but no one can enter 
the dream of another

love in the background static 
of the infant universe 
the big bang has left us
its calling card 

the dead man watches the living
from a safe distance 
if they're beginning
to mean something


a whistle shrieks 
down a lonely street

the dead man has escaped 
his chalk drawing
rumors swirl 
around a disappearing world

as if reality 
had taken a bullet for its copy
and is now on the other side
of the mirror

your most intimate self
is a missing person

everything is safer now
that it’s been screened
people too I’m so like you

now that another someone 
has taken my place

but when the bandages 
are unraveled 
the face of the loved one
is nowhere to be found

they said it wouldn’t be forever
they said his replacement 
would be ready in a week

they said most people 
can never tell the difference


everything has already happened
in an anteroom of the mind
the same characters return
in a repeating dream

the writer’s wife begins to realize
she married a mannequin
the murderer has fallen in love
with his victim 
who returns to the scene of the crime
to meet him for drinks

the detective sees the murderer’s 
face in the mirror 
he shot the wrong man years ago 
some nobody took the rap

the stories keep being rewritten
the characters keep losing
their minds

whose wife left whom 
who’s dead and who’s alive
your secret will be safe with us
it will never leave this room

but instead 
melt like snow
into the carpet and chairs


steam rises from ancient pipes
an old guy smokes a cigar 
through face towels 

he’s a crime writer 
says everyone’s secretly someone else
reader and writer husband and wife
murderer and victim 
each resides under each other’s skin

the person you’re really talking to  
left the room thirty years ago

mother don’t frighten your son

we’ve heard it all before
the transference of a person 
into a playing card

you’ve got the wrong man
the guilty always say that

old characters wearing new faces
the inquisition inches in 
on needles and pins
the eternal return is always 
just around the next corner

come closer 
whose body whose smile 
whose dream whose death 
whose life whose gun 
whose wife


apparently there’s a black hole 
in the fabric of being 
a backroom where we all get to try on 
various costumes and speaking parts 

in this po-mo techno world 
of saturation information
most everyone gets to strut their stuff 
in public until they go viral 
or the camera gets bored

according to the latest media reports
reality died last night 
on the cutting-room floor 
of a major motion picture 

on another note 
democracy and celebrity 
walked hand-in-hand down the aisle today 
they were met outside the church 
by an entourage of adoring fans  

perhaps it’s better that way said the writer
everyone gets to play a minor part in their own movie

that’s easy for the writer to say
he’s living off a fat advance on his next book
objects in mirror are closer than they appear
movie offers are dangling like carrots over his head
who could want more unless
you weren't really there when all this happened


the detective combs the beach
searching for the missing murder weapon
listen I hear a trickle of stones
rolling past my ear
a small avalanche of words

is that you
coming back to raise the dead

the pages keep turning like endless waves
like the disappearing self or an invisible cat 
that leaves its smile hanging 
on the branch of a tree

one exposes the false unity of such a self 
as a necessary fiction
necessary for whom
everyone who wants to remain sane

so I must take my head off 
to welcome you all to the bawd and cutpurse’s ball
but be warned it won’t be a pretty sight

look the abandoned husband standing 
on the ledge of a building has opened his arms 
to the empty sky

don’t jump 
into more dust 
the stars won’t shed a tear
even if you are so elegantly dressed
look the dead man has just opened a birdcage  
full of shrunken skulls 
see how they fly freely over the virtual city
searching for the famous writer
asleep at his desk


where are we now
inside someone’s book
at the outer reaches of inner space

who’s speaking now
what does it matter who’s speaking
the words themselves are speaking
through you through me 
isn’t that enough for you

but the pages are burning under our feet
put on your fire-resistant red shoes and goggles
where are we going
to the sleeping writer’s house
his body is still smoking from his big ideas

the fragment will not grow past itself
it will radiate alterity from within
he made us like this 
talking his criminal talk 
committing his unspeakable crimes
what’s left for us now

we sharpen our knives on his bones
we lick our spoons and forks over his kidneys
we eat the famous writer like a cannibal’s delight

I’ll start with a breast pass me a thigh
toss me a wing I only like dark meat
who’s got the toes 
quick before he wakes 
we’ll devour him without a trace 


look how the characters keep bubbling up 
to the surface as their opposites 
as if no one will notice
they’ve turned themselves inside out

I could never do that
I could never be that person
you already are that person 

look a philanderer's wife
has mistaken her husband's lies for nails
and hammered his head to the bed

look the famous writer has been driven
through an inaugural parade
wearing a crown of thorns

look the detective's body
has been dragged through the streets 
by a murderous mob

look a kindly old lady has given a child 
a doll’s head to play with

look the murderer is having sex with his mother
correction – his stepmother
does that still count

everything counts 
and everything pertains 
to you


the detective wakes only to realize 
he’s been living in a recurring dream 
the perfect crime that leaves no clue

but of course we know that’s not true
no crime is perfect 
there’s always something that doesn’t quite fit
like the little boy running away from home shouting

he’s not my father
he’s not my father

then who’s that smiling man 
clenching the briar between his teeth 

who’s that nice school teacher’s wife 
that replaced her husband 
with a less talkative dummy who looks just like him

who’s the dead man in the alley 
slipping the writer a tip 
about the friendly detective 
who got away with murder

the unfinished novel will become famous  
despite its labyrinthine loose strings
despite its characters that live inside each other 
and talk incessantly about their dreams 
of who they might have been 
of who they might have loved
and what their lives might have meant

if only they were real
if only they were real  


Charles Borkhuis, poet and playwright. The most recent of his 9 books of poems is Dead Ringer (BlazeVOX, 2017). He is the recipient of a Drama-logue Award and finalist for a W.C. Williams Poetry Award. His two radio plays aired over NPR can be found at www.pennsound. Foreign Bodies was produced in Paris Jan.-June, 2019. Blue Period will be produced at the On-Stage Playhouse in San Diego in July-August 2022.
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