Stephen Sturgeon

A Thought Before Sleeping Next to Running Water, and other poems


        to Philip Nikolayev


The derangement of day is the first act.
Blighted, as in the everlasting bed,
then shagged with hook-seed, shirtless in the grass,
he hears the fiery pliers where he walks,
rejects the rags of Rasputin, sensing
form without edge, edge without an ending,
ascending through a surfaceless ocean.

Assuming all is wonderful and false,
regardless of continent and season,
continental leisure, seasonal shame,
combing the sun’s rotund perimeters
the globe furnishes clothes after enough
or no endurance, purposes a kiln
for our kith and flighty reemergence.

Yes, there is destruction in the first act.
For what else should he bathe, and comb his beard?
Debussy on Mercury, Plato close
to Pluto, and he, his musicalia
impacting too the moon, the bellicose
barcaroles, deliquesced piano-rolls,
lives in the cold of the moon, his kingdom

a cratered teseract not visible
from earth. A meadow near-unseen through rows
of trees is more than meadow and rowed trees.
It is more there for nearly not being,
less there than here. As if carved from the sun,
his trekking tongue refutes the things he makes
and explores by illuminating them.


Ash statues may pin the hilltop, crumbling
for their dancing, led by the one in black
posing always like a father but clown
by profession, summoning great laughter
in unwary hours. To hell with this,
he says, and turns to the breakers, smoke webs
lolling from his mouth and nostrils; now blind,

now sighted; now unheard retching out sand.
Geophagy a grim necessity
can be, as his necessities will be,
over-indulged. Take his word, forgotten
as it will prove though nonetheless held to.
Believe his actions will be right virtues
acted with or without witness-value.

Misguided by triumph, late, distracted
by happiness into misery: what
do these hold for the kicking Russian bear?
Tardigrades are in-season. Turritopsis
excels in nice incest.
He has come to show you what can be left
in a man after his own vanishing.

Hold a key on the piano, hear it
die, entertain what traverses the fields
behind his jumbled eyelids. Hovering
above the oak-ringed reservoir, a plea.
And he is a race of one, adherent
of a religion of one, and fortune
works inside words. My word, it is re-birth.


On a continent of oceans, he played.
The rain subtracted the all from its parts.
He from one side and he from the other
side of his Sterno flame appeared the same:
vertiginous, sane, and approximate.
This was the infancy of his instinct.
That was before the endless endorphins

of an endless language located him,
when truths were trinkets of what had been real.
In the garrulous garage, the woody world
where percipience was pleasure, when rain
wriggled personably on the windows,
behind peripatetic glass, mouths moved
such people, living heartbeat to heartbeat.

He is not flying but waking. This life,
incommunicable undertaking
that it is; this forsaking; this future-
breaking work and war and worship: it swarms
with intimations of flight, gall that gains
negative gravity, breaks climactic
contiguity in days’ extremest

seriousness and surfeit, he thinks. And thinks.
And it is waking and not flying, scorch
inside of striving and dead-end diving
deforesting his mind that may stop him,
as if mid-strobe the world were a portrait
continuously re-painting itself.
What matters is not material here.



Even a wall has its name
has its name and calls to the world
its name its material


Emptiness constructs a path


The bells not ringing with the bells that ring
parentless daunted on the dented sand
Hear the garden bell


to understand the deserts
these gardens
that could not stop beginning


Though I mean what I do nightly
a Japanese pond squats in the yard
says Go now

and I go thinking about pond and soft land
the cradle and the cradle cat or garden
and trowel


Where there is a storm in a forest

the forest is making a garden



The garden is followed and led
by its unlocatable center


The plant shakes for its garden
The garden is master


one cares for a statue
brushes its sexless hair
sees its form like ice milk


The heart is an importunate jungle
Hearts aspire in the jungles of the womb

we are all jungle


Places not devastated
come to resemble a garden


by a light peopled
peopled by chairs and tables
through the window a scene, senseless
the floor floating alone


Slowing slowing into stricture
of rational obedience


open up and grey lolls
over mounds like heaps
of what has been pillaged
and hoarded onto neglect


In eternal flex a cherry
turns casting stares
as if to memorize these motions


        to Peter Behrman de Sinéty

I went down where silver was made,
dismantled my uniform
and stayed.
It was dark
and darkness became my sight.

My sight became everything.
Questioning the floor,
caressing the sere,
it came to nothing more than seeing.

No future moved me now, no voice.
Yet one voice
was noticeably elsewhere.
The voice of silver being made

carried on I am sure.
For the moon tinseled real
in the fuliginous air
as if to see us.



say we are voyeurs of extinction
aching to anomie
of clovered ribs
say of muscles filled with rain
                at home in lunar geology
of no lament the uncut ground
the never sifting sands
the greystone hills
                if that is voraciousness of vision
if it is a matter of chapped hearts
jigging themselves blind
as music is blind and so can blind
                if we are sequestered
mongrel children
suffered of grace
inches beyond the sun
                ah to be truly blind
that must be miraculous


what precision
or tempo will the maquette please
                assume depth
as in shading
and a plausible hue
renounce as indeterminate
                one day
                at antapex
                like other days
saturation of doses
rides down the eyes
like cottontails
                slowed through dearth
dispense guardianships
to custodians to lensgrinders

                to ropedancers
so the pledge of acuity tramped
so the soul unworn


        to Alison Walsh

     Of these things no recorder;


We are in this boat.
We know the colors of heaven and hell.
I ripped off some hair
to throw into the wind.

Our injuries are not unique
in that they are disgraceful.
It is usual to conclude this is punishment
and as often one rejoices
in the notion that this is paradise.


About a century ago the vocations
of educated men and ladies
allowed for long absences from society
and this time would be spent on boats.

Days ago
by this time it may have been months
those of us in this boat
passed by a site of sacrifice

A column’s capital
tipped from its place and rolled
down the bank into the river’s water
as we passed

Now by all appearances
it is hunting us

Mysterious more than this
is how the water is in fact talking


To scoop water from the side
of this boat and look inside it.
Too many found distant faces or futures
inside the water they scooped
from the side of this boat.


I know the back of her hand like the bricks of Rome
but she vanishes into the glutted throng
and when she returns I do not recognize
her or the bricks of her hand, my cathedral.

Her tears you would see on book jackets. The river
floats trade winds to no vector, the commerce
a river must imagine is its heraldic right
skitters for hammocks slung in men and women’s minds.

Hold to the river. The wind’s force does not betray
how destination is cradled in God’s mouth
now frowning now smiling at time’s invisibility

licking the hull of this boat. My cathedral
city knocking against her own ears’ doorbells
has its place and vanishes and I do not recognize.


Have you even married a mountain.
It can happen and it does.

Have you even loved a river or lake
and visited it daily
and saw what must have been consent
and married it.


spinning spinning
we in this substantial
dialog with creation
or the unassuming vitriol
of a creator’s whimsy
and flashing dance

Leave all this behind. Embark
today for any past clue helpful
that will reveal the clandestine fortitude
of the river’s indomitable current.


Bastion of bombs sang
The peripatetic Boomerang
Someone now here in this boat
will not stop thinking

The moths come out and frisk in hair
Is it true they are souls
As I transition into moth-hood
will it be fear or delight I feel for flight

Unwelcome answers
The coast of Australia heaped with questions
Have we been shackled in lieu of shackles
Does elegance have a place
in this boat
When the river ceases to speak
does it listen
What madman would have the river listen


I rarely drink from my drinking glass.
Instead on days I think I have found God
I fill it with water from the river
and empty the drinking glass on my head.

It may be a single day in which this is happening
a day with thousands of days and nights inside it
nevertheless a day


One missed institution is a jail
where the unlikeable would live.


In exhaustion lives discovery.
And the river resembles exhaustion.

The river ran in iodine
People brandished their blades
in cavalier fashions

Can you bear to see
what will be achieved
after the hour of exhaustion

The river reflects the trees
but the river does not reflect
this boat or we who ride it.

For now, I am, and this river is,
a traveler many times disassembled
that collects itself. When the collection fails
the day will mark the new kingdom.

STEPHEN STURGEON is the author of a book of poems, Trees of the Twentieth Century (Dark Sky Books, 2011). He delivered a series of lectures this spring as a professeur invité at the École normale supérieure in Paris. He is the librarian for English and American Literature at the University of Iowa. Follow him on twitter at