Neil Aitken


        —a fundamental type for declaring small integers

In shallow waters, we say it is enough
to use a small raft, bound with reeds

and twine, enough to name oneself
after the mayfly, the airborne pebble

before it skips and descends, after
the sound a shovelful of earth makes

as it falls into the darkness of the grave,
or what we say to whatever leaps across

the silence, that sparks brilliant in the tiniest
of containers we have laid in the earth.

Here, we store only the smallest of fires.
It’s only for a little while, we say,

but soon everything is burning—
soon, we can’t remember what we said.

The hallways are filling with smoke;
someone stands at the window, shaking.


The days circle round and round, unstoppable, until the office
seems like a hard country, your ergonomic chair, a poor conveyance

to the land of sleep. No one stops you when you slip out from behind
your desk to wander the half-lit halls after hours with arms and hands

swinging in an intricate and imaginary gun ballet of exhaustion
and poor taste. Something fails in such moments, your body

no longer wholly yours, inhabited instead by some stuttering shadow
of motion unwillingly bound to the world of intangible labor.

The hour is late and you have already left what remains of yourself
in the draining sink, in the bathroom mirror that refuses your gaze.

Everything is on the verge of disappearing, you think. Everything
moves toward the raw edge of time where anxious factories loom

like great trees in a storm about to break. The end is almost here,
you sense it on the horizon—how it hangs over you, heavy, faceless,

like the imminent demise of a star whose last brilliant flare
will arrive long after the earth has gone its own way into the dark,

and whatever was you and the life you lived will have slipped free
of the wheel at last, and found some sort of respite from samsara,

from this continual remaking, this constant arising and going forth
into the broad and echoing world patiently awaiting its destruction.

In your waking dreams, you see your father as a young man
on a hillside with a shovel and rake, clearing a path to hold back a fire.

How simple it seems, his task always at hand, crafting a middle way
between what would consume us and what would leave us be.

Neil Aitken is the author of The Lost Country of Sight, winner of 2007 Philip Levine Prize, and the founding editor of Boxcar Poetry Review. His current manuscript, Babbage’s Dream, draws on the cultural history of computers, the life of Charles Babbage, and the modern world of programming and programmers.