Stephen Sturgeon’s poems are milestones along a path toward lyric self-knowledge. This scenic route is neither straight, nor narrow: it meanders between and around, above and below the poet’s obsessions with vitality and mortality, which are each other’s inverted twins. The peculiarity of Sturgeon’s vision is such that it is hard to tell the positive and the negative apart: they mesh into a single complexity. Every temporal breath is touched with death, as poets have long known (“Songsters known to say / longevity’s pre-empted—it’s gonged off . . .,” as he remarks wryly in “To See No Light, and See”), yet his gut awareness of this basic fact is a sure sign of his being poignantly alive. While the first impression of some of Sturgeon’s texts may be one of blanket darkness, the attentive eye adjusts to it and finds itself observing things in a Beckettian twilight that is sufficient to read by. “And darkness became my sight,” declares the poet as he discovers silver (life, poetry) shimmering at the bottom of the mine.

This kind of subdued lighting enables more than mere ostranenie, as the formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky called it, a “defamiliarization” that makes the ordinary seem odd. It also creates its opposite, “automization,” which turns the strange and the extreme into one’s own kith and kin. It is natural, therefore, that the speaker compulsively dwells on oxymorons, verbal paradoxes that must by resolved by the mind in order to make sense: “decency exposed,” “the illusion genuine,” “shady virgin,” “rapturous smoke-science” (all taken from “An Interlude with Billy Beck”). Sturgeon’s “deconfessions,” to use his own term of art, are delivered with great linguistic sensitivity that imposes certain demands of focus and empathy upon the reader. —Philip Nikolayev

I Forget What You Say

Beg for rest but real rest is work,
strong work. Pretend to know homelessness
and death to a fault, and talk about it,
because you’ve been homeless, because you’ve died.
Flutter at reconcilers’ screens like paper
boys scrape paper girls’ storm windows,
like a beggar. Consider this friendship
amongst masked parties—“Your pseudonymous
confidante”—siblings shouting tree to tree.

The sealine mumbles up its binges,
scraps of a yellow wall bed down
with shells corroding on a wreck of shoals.
The mouth’s calling is all deconfession,
though the last thing never comes back. Tell me
about the time you dialed M for me.

An Interlude with Billy Beck

Fan dance specials offered mirage,
the palest nick of breast
trimmed in feathers sliding against her skin
aroused crowds, decency exposed,

the illusion genuine. Syncopate,
shady virgin, and step. The hooch helps this
rapturous smoke-science which resembles
a self-hexing flagellant’s tread of coals

& other magical pastimes. All crimes
aspire to the state of dance, though most fail
to move me. Still I wish to understand

and donning a magician’s gloves say, go
liquid into solid, I possess you.

Noise outrace the daytime.

Look into my eyes.

La Ballade du phasme

Black Moon snuck behind an Oriental screen.
Poor Miss Black Moon jitterbugs and unseen
spies occasion to whistle and unwind.
Then her invitation is maligned.
When she falls, black moon sinks along the shine,

says What the world is this. Isn’t mine.

Two black moons slouching, talking about bed,
sing blue-moon-I-knew-thee-when-you-were-red,

beseech of Old Black Moon What are you like?
A geyser. No. The Pine Barrens. A shrike
who eats my friend the walking-stick beneath a yew.
Black moon reflects I don’t know what I’m like,
tho I’m cautious where I am. I’m my clue.

In and Around a Wood

I see where you have been.
Grass spears & stem thorns
peek from your hair.


last time a fruit grew
that time cherished us
hail melted on the ground
robins listened to sparrows
that is I think lynx fur


I piled dirt
& left it.
In the morning
dandelions stood there.
Rabbits chewed the stalks,
their eyes spinning.


You are better than the barn door splintered
by buckshot to orange shreds. You forget
berries that dropped into your hands.


Moles heaved the ground
running their tunnels
from the trunk pocked
with rot, around the well’s
chipped base, on to bushes
reaching through boulder shade.

This endows gross labor
to tillage of our weird gardens.


beside the hedge
the gate swings
next to weeds
pass through,
before lamb’s ear
to come closer
clover behind it
edge by
next to the hedge
pass by,
to come closer
beside the weeds
the gate swings
before clover
behind the hedge
to come closer
the gate swings
edge through
lamb’s ear behind it
next to weeds
to come closer
clover behind it
edge by
beside the hedge
the gate swings
pass through,
before the weeds
to come closer
beside lamb’s ear
the gate swings
next to clover
pass through,
weeds behind it


Glow-worms chumble through oak leaves,
hear only their teeth,
know too my step.


I found him beneath a tree –
this brown child
climbing the stone hill,
filling your cup
with ice and blue water.


the cat gave birth
in the hay-loft
she ate each babe


A nest of feathers,
a flock of hay.

Links of rain,
the sunfish trail.

You surpassed yourself
and flung off chaff & curse
at threat’s first light.
I know you understand
I need anything.


When I lay me down
acorn pulp
pine needles mint petals
When you lay me down


Mockingbird mockingbird
what would you mock

would you mock these things for me

backwards reveille

To See No Light, and See

Time was, I could get a rise out of you.
Where have I known you? Songsters known to say
longevity’s pre-empted—it’s gonged off,
or it’s sung ritualistically wrong—say
Get used to nothing that does not use you.
Wisdom for ages owns us. I’d have you
believe in most intercessory prayer
as negative thinking; that its power
cannot save so much as prolong a life;
but I’d have you do so much. Check out this
power: sparrows have devoured my palms.
Retrieve your green eyes from the crystal dish.
Unsew your ears. There are truer wonders.
Salutes. Flag ceremonies. No, let us
not speak. Smoke-signals. Memory. Onward.