Charles Borkhuis and Superfluity: “Write What I Say”

[Below is the poem followed by a brief discussion. A more detailed reading of the poem will follow in a couple of days.]

Write What I Say

write what I say

said someone face over
water in the weeds

drown the instant in ink
flickering eyelight to eros
walk your shadow across the wall

a small red ball hangs from a string

the naked woman in the window
steps behind the curtain

“I’ve been running in place all my life”
sneers a fat man on tv

an empty train pulls into the station
enter with the others and stare
at the smudged glass

write what i say


flesh-dwelling memories
caught in a lover’s mandibles
or carved
into a bird-lit tree stump

languorously finger-writing
her name on the window
while we circle the runway

down we go


scribbling on the underside
of night (the little hairs
that go unnoticed)

the recitular residue
of dead skin and ash
stains at the bottom of the cup
talk in riddles
dream in code

with the outward manifestations
of a displaced metaphor
poised at the eye

a photo of the last of her
sitting at the fountain
the relaxed angle of her arm
on cold stone

write what I say


emptiness folds into itself
giving birth

(parentheses vibrating)

a man’s exhausted
habit-swollen face
on a stalled train of thought
our eyes lock and load

lock and load


where the words lead and then
abandon us . . .

like the scent of our own flesh
that’s always too much
and not enough

like the sea gull fallen
between parked cars
her motionless eye staring
at no one in particular

like the man on the train
who stands and apologizes
before shooting into the crowd

like the coyote trapped
and gnawing off its foot

like your tongue tracing the ridges and valleys
of your lover’s scars

that’s not what I meant

winced the sole survivor
of the burning 747

write what I say
“Write What I Say,” from Alpha Ruins (Bucknell UP, 2000)
          The title of Borkhuis’ poem is ironic: the poem offers many images of excess, of the overdetermination of signs, symbols, utterances, so that writing down what a person says is no more guarantee of pinning down its intended meaning than eavesdropping on the mumbling of an absent god through thick walls.
          A less ironic version of the poem’s title might be, “Write what you think I say when I say what I think I’m thinking.” Which is to say that as soon as I start to tease out meaning from the poem, I feel caught up in a catch-22: the poem sings the superfluity of tracing its outlines with my own signifiers. It invokes shadows, drowning, hovering, weedy waters, and above all, the superfluous action or situation that overflows its context (or inversely, invented contexts that overdetermine an event). That which exceeds its bounds metaphorically stands in for linguistic excess, the signified that overdetermines origin, context, intent.
          It’s tempting to say that in this poem Borkhuis captures the essence of poetic language, but of course his poetry does not celebrate essences but rather the infinite splaying of experience in which the words that name it abandon us in a wilderness whose colours language can paint only in wisps, elusive brushstrokes, evocative traces. And in the process of interpretation, I become acutely aware of other meanings lurking behind the ones I choose in order to create my stories, my opera, of the poem.
          The work strikes me as an example of the metapoetics in language poetry that echoed deconstructionist thinking; it brings to my mind Derrida’s “Signature, Event, Context” in Limited, Inc. Has this approach to poetry really fallen in popularity (if I can use such a word to describe a tendency in experimental poetry) in recent years, perhaps following Derrida’s somewhat fallen stock? Is the gesture of pulling the rug from under signification taken for granted and somehow absorbed into political and social critique? My question is vague and problematic, but who these days, among the younger generation of poets, is writing more or less explicitly about writing, speech, words, language, la rupture?
          For now, though, my aim here is to show, in my own way, how Borkhuis explores such issues brilliantly. In a couple of days, I’ll post a more detailed reading of the poem that I’ve been mulling over.

Camille Martin

5 responses to “Charles Borkhuis and Superfluity: “Write What I Say”

  1. Write What I Say.
    ‘A demand. Don’t interrupt. I have to say it before the thought disappears. And the thought does disappear. Into the moment. The moment is like a black hole. Nothing escapes it…’
    That is what I believe he is getting at. The rest of the poem are examples of the moment. When something might/could/should have been said. And written down. But wasn’t. The moment passed.
    This kind of inqest is like quicksand. It is open to the pretensions of thoughts. Of ideas. Without actually stating what you are talking about. Falling in love with images. Like Eliot’s women coming and going and talking of Michelangelo. The poem would have been just as affective if Borkhuis had just written the title.
    I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh. I know I’m probably not being very generous to the poet.


    • Hi, David, thanks for responding. No doubt, Borkhuis (or this poem, at any rate) isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Perhaps there is a kind of emptiness (or the idea of it) at the heart of the poem, and that is what I find so intriguing: the way in which the poem enacts the very thing it unravels, the way in which poetic language becomes the unspoken subtext for Borkhuis’ meditation on writing and absence. I hope to clarify this thought in my analysis.


  2. I shall not have such a hard assessment of the poem…but share merely say that it was an interesting poem with conflicting imagery…thanks for sharing it.


  3. Pingback: Charles Borkhuis: “Write What I Say” « Rogue Embryo

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