May 14, 2024

Craig van Rooyen


is a group bike ride involving guys in tight pants
and floppy hats with feathers, I tell my daughter.
They play flutes and lutes and flageolets
and recite poetry while they pedal.

She asked—shyly passing a note in her 2nd grade script.
I didn’t misspell anything. Plus what am I supposed to say
about training bras and tampons—still years away?
OK, for reals, I say, lying next to her in the dark:

There’s a whole frickin’ peloton of these guys.
They decorate their bicycles with cowslips, primrose,
foxglove flowers. They ride (no hands) into town
with the breeze on a warm summer evening.

And the frogs and crickets go quiet just to listen
to them tell knock knock jokes. They ride in circles
around the Mission square, long hair blowing back.
There will be time enough for the rest. To tell her the part

about how they stop their bikes and pull out
their horns. There will be time for her to hear the music—
how they play the sound of summer—the heat of it,
the ice-cream sundae smell of it; how they play

sun on wild rye, barefoot prints in the key of oak tree
shade—how they play it lazy like a shallow creek
on Mississippi mud; how they play it quick
like a lizard tongue or thumping like a dog’s tail.

There will be time for her to hear them play it loud
like the Fourth of July then gentle like a mama duck.
And when the sun is down and the bats come out—
specks in a darkening glass—she will hear them play

“We’ve Got All The Time in The World,” and know
that they are lying—lying in their floppy hats,
lying in their funny pants, lying with every last breath
they let out of those beautiful sad horns.

from Rattle #36, Winter 2011
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


Craig van Rooyen: “One of my biggest faults is avoiding hard conversations. Among other things, writing poetry is a way to trick myself into saying things I would not otherwise say and knowing things I would not otherwise know.”

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October 28, 2019

Craig van Rooyen


Dusk slides beneath her dress,
creeps across her thighs, slips

over the rise of her belly.
Night gathers in the hollow

at the base of her throat.
I know she hears knives sharpening

when I unzip her,
the dress down-fountaining

over her bare feet. I can vanish
into the dark small of her back,

my bristled chin plowing
down its single row.

But there are places I dare not touch.
The timpani behind a knee,

the bowstring throat, a taut
and fluted ankle:

each an old crime scene
still taped off.

Yet, she has learned to open,
guiding the hot blades

of my hands into untouched places
that burn with their own furnaces.

I don’t pretend to be a healer,
bring only my glinting hook of need

to petal open her ribs, crack through
the gristle of her assembled face.

She is a horse, gravid
with the bodies of old lovers.

With them, I move inside her
waiting to set the city on fire.

from Rattle #64, Summer 2019


Craig van Rooyen: “My teacher, Marvin Bell, once assured me that poetry can be absorbing for an entire lifetime. The longer I keep at it, the more I cherish the feeling of being absorbed — of being soaked up by the process of laying down words.”

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July 22, 2019

Craig van Rooyen


ending on a line by Sharon Olds

Oh selective inhibitor
of serotonin uptake and my guilt.
Inner space capsule, unbitter pill,
blithe message in a bottle.
I hesitate to call you “Savior” for fear
of sacrilege—but, come to think of it,
blasphemy doesn’t seem half as bad
as it used to be. Have you destroyed
my conscience, or inhibited
my paranoia? They say rampant anxiety
has leaked you into suburban wetlands,
presumably suppressing
the predatory behavior of frogs and
the foraging urge in Great Blue Herons.
I don’t know how you work
once your gel shell dissolves
in my bellyful of morning coffee,
but models of your molecules look to me
like off-kilter Stars of David hooked to
dragon tails. I imagine each tail
propelling its double stars upward
through carotids, the Circle of Willis,
and on into the vault of my wrinkled mind.
Maybe chemistry’s just another name
for God—your armada sailing through
the blood-brain barrier, each Star of David
mirror to a neural ending.
And there they dock, molecular
rabbis minding the gaps,
blocking messages from the void,
allowing the gentle anointing
of serotonin while singing
the Shirat HaYam. Horse and rider
he threw down, and the depths congealed
in the heart of the sea. So this afternoon
I am able to sit in stillness
on a park bench and watch the heron
that may or may not be experiencing
dizziness, dry mouth, and a decreased libido
as it stabs at its own reflection. See
how my eyes get wet when I say it:
I am sane.

from Rattle #63, Spring 2019


Craig van Rooyen: “The fact is, we lose stuff all the time. If you’re lucky, it’s just your wallet. Tomorrow it could be your dog. At some point, it will be your mother. One of the jobs of a poet is to make music out of loss. That last sentence sounds pretty and is kind of philosophical, which is why it would never work in a poem. It’s also probably offensive to someone who has just experienced a big loss. A good poem, on the other hand, makes a sound that readers recognize as their own. I write to come closer to making that sound.”

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August 19, 2018

Craig van Rooyen


If I could, I’d stop loving
this promiscuous world.
It should be easy to loathe
the trashy lush with her
plastic oceans and brimstone eyes
reminding me I slept with her
one too many times. But I can’t.
I know the sky burns over concrete
rivers, but Aretha died today
and she won’t let me go. She’s
demanding my respect, commanding
me to come back to her, take her to heart.
She’s on every channel, smashing
FOX into CNN, making alphabet soup
from our bitterness. She’s shrugging
a mink stole off her shoulder,
calling down judgment, then
singing us back together
one bent grace note at a time.
For in her chest dwelt
the voice of the Almighty.
For in her throat thunder came
to lie down with laughter. For
her tongue gave shape to the song
of a child born to an unwed girl,
and the blues dwelt among us.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat down
and wept, yet in the Voice
we took refuge. Look to my right
and see trash cans pulled curbside
for pickup. Look to my left and see
the neighbor’s dead lawn.
But look here between my feet,
a dandelion’s perfect afro, pushed up
through buckled concrete. Then I know
it’s true. This world never loved a man
the way she loves me.

from Poets Respond


Craig van Rooyen: “Since Aretha Franklin’s death on Wednesday, I’ve been watching the news cycle’s struggle to express what this woman meant to the country. Then a line from an old hymn came back to me. The title is adapted from a line in ‘O Holy Night,’ composed by Adolphe Adam and translated into English by John Sullivan Dwight, and the line ‘by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept …’ is from Psalm 137:1.”

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July 31, 2018

Craig van Rooyen


Lo, let that night be desolate;
let no joyful voice come therein.
Let them curse it that curse the day,
who are ready to rouse up leviathan.
—Job 3:7-8

This is a job
for your barnacle-wrecked body.
Grief, it turns out, is too much
for the mind. It enervates
the yellowed enamel of your
ground-down molars; chafes at
the skin sack separating your water
from the world’s water. Keep
your chin up. Not because
the sympathy cards tell you to,
but because the horizon’s gone,
replaced by a blubberless body
you must dive for again and again,
as it slips and sinks—body of your body
that you must propel to the surface
over and over, each time discovering
for the first time the lie of perfect form.
Three days and three nights,
across the Sound, afterbirth
trailing behind, swim
until your forehead becomes
an open tomb. You must balance
the weight of your old life on your nose
until the sky disappears and you become
a spectacle for pleasure-boaters.
Engines throbbing, they will point
as if the calf’s a rubber ball
you can’t put down.
The captain will turn on his mic:
No one knows why. Instinct? Spirit?
It’s almost human. This will be
your signal. Swim closer, closer
until the binoculars come down
and they flee the railing,
recognizing in your dead
their own.

from Poets Respond


Craig van Rooyen: “I wrote this poem in response to the story of the mother orca who has been swimming for more than five days in the Puget Sound with the body of her dead calf balanced on her forehead and nose.”

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February 5, 2017

Craig van Rooyen


That’s the reason, my dear captain, for my strange melancholia.
—Federico García Lorca

After eight years, she’s lost all memory
of wildness—knowing only the occasional sparrow-flutter
in her water trough.
So, ear tufts in front like a blind man’s palms,
she leaves through the careless mesh gap
to find what she doesn’t know
she’s been missing.
Under rust-riddled metro bridges,
down H-street empty as Monday morning
before first light, somewhere in her brainstem
a Texas prairie love-wrestling the wind.
Instead, a sweatered sausage dog squats
under the loop of its leash, quivering to move
its bowels in the cold. Its owner
calls her in, reads the melancholy
in her eyes as menace.
Men with nooses are deployed.
Thirteen schools shut doors for recess,
three thousand noses press
up against classroom glass.
She keeps moving through the open spaces
that were only echoed in her cage of years.
Unable anymore to swat small birds
in flight, she feeds on front porch kibbles,
licks smeared sauce from pizza boxes.
I too have walked away when no one looked,
following a frenzy of fireflies
onto an empty playground I remembered
being wild, then this shadow of a swing
clanking up against its pole.

Poets Respond
February 5, 2017

[download audio]


Craig van Rooyen: “When Ollie, the bobcat, returned to the National Zoo in DC earlier this week after being on the lam for a few days, the zoo’s curator of great cats had this to say: ‘I think she wanted to go out, have a little bit of fun, see what it was like on the outside, then I think I’m ready to come back inside now.’”

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January 6, 2017

Craig van Rooyen


A man hikes a mountain road with his daughter.
She is two and rides his back. Prayer flags make
river stones of their ears. But the poem does not start here.

At some unmarked bend in the sky, the girl
drops a stuffed animal. Nor is this the beginning.
Only family can fathom the scale of this loss.

Others who measure suffering in epidemics and
battlefield casualties understandably take no notice.
Yet for two years the girl has never entered sleep

without the presence of the cotton rabbit.
Mornings, her parents must speak to the stuffed
piece of cloth before they are allowed to address

their daughter. When the girl prays, she mouths
the rabbit’s secret totem name in gratitude.
Needless to say, the man spends all afternoon

tracing and retracing his ascent. And since,
in the local dialect, he does not know the words
for “have you perhaps seen a furry pink bunny?”

he suffers in silence and returns home, hands empty
as last spring’s birds’ nests. Still, the poem has not
started. That night, the girl sleeps for the first time

with the Buddha. (Surely even he secretly believed
some attachments worth the suffering?) And when
she wakens, clutching at the emptiness beside her,

when she rubs a phantom ear between
her thumb and finger, when she cannot find the words
for the nothing in her center, then and only then,

the poem finally starts—the beginning of some
essential song she will spend her life trying
to turn to praise. Think of the echoing sea in

lightning whelk shells; the rattle of a summer gourd
in winter. Not to mention the tiny flutes
made from the hollow bones of songbirds.

from Rattle #53, Fall 2016

[download audio]


Craig van Rooyen: “The fact is, we lose stuff all the time. If you’re lucky, it’s just your wallet. Tomorrow it could be your dog. At some point, it will be your mother. One of the jobs of a poet is to make music out of loss. That last sentence sounds pretty and is kind of philosophical, which is why it would never work in a poem. It’s also probably offensive to someone who has just experienced a big loss. A good poem, on the other hand, makes a sound that readers recognize as their own. I write to come closer to making that sound.”

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