Four Poems

The Cougar

At dawn I took my boat and crossed
Over to Sonora Island.  No one
Lives there now since the last logger
Left, and the young firs and pines
Hide the deer well.  I held my gun
Loose as I hiked a road long lost
In moss and nettles, watchful for signs
Of deer.  I never heard the cougar.

I was the only man on the island
That day in November.  It felt good
To walk alone into the breeze
And drizzle, kicking away the brown
Alder leaves blown from the wood
To the path.  Where a creek spanned
The road I paused, and knelt down
To drink.  Something made me freeze.

Slowly, slowly, I turned.  The great cat
Who followed behind was watching me.
He crouched low and long on the road,
Low and long and golden against
The leaves, watching pensively,
A damp sphinx of the woods.  He sat
So still, tail sinuous, that I sensed
He could watch me forever; or explode.

Meant for the moon, those yellow eyes
Glowing through the pale light of noon,
Those eyes meant to prowl the dark
Met mine in mutual appraisal—
One man on an island paused to commune
With one cat.  I spoke first.  “A wise
Cat does not trifle with a loaded rifle.”
He listened quietly to my remark.

But the cat did not bother to answer.  
I aimed, and touched the trigger, waiting—
For what, I could not say.  A man,
A cat, we shared some time alone;
I lowered my gun, reciprocating
His silent gaze. The golden panther
Moved off through the trees, and was gone.
I camped there, and listened to the quiet rain.
 

 Controlled Flight Into Terrain

Dawn up above, fog set afire below
and no one else aloft to watch it all—
could be I’ve died, gone back to long ago
when great birds flew, when earth was virginal—
the mist dissolves the way a silken nightdress
flutters undone, my airplane’s shadow races
up the wild river—oh, I pity flightless
mortals left back asleep in human places!
This one last wilderness and open sky
belong to me—the spawning salmon lead
me on a spirit flight, skimming upstream
into a Chinese landscape scene where I
see snow-brushed mountain ledges blurred by speed
then touch the overhanging pines and dream….
 

 In Vain He Mocks the Fine Spring Day

An early spring can be a bitter season.
Another hot short year is torn from earth,
Another piece of rhyme breaks loose from reason—
Neither one I count a thing of worth.
This laurel tree, all gnarled and stripped of bark,
Has now seen fifty springs; and so have I.
The tree tries on its fine green leaves to mark
The year’s rebirth—I sit beneath and cry.

The daffodils are always first to flaunt
Their moist and slender stems, their golden faces;
“Withered old crones within the month,” I taunt—
“The scythe will hack your last pathetic traces.”
The bees are nuzzling flowers to gather pollen;
“You work and die, my friends, so why be gay?”
I wonder though, has my own joy been stolen,
Or did I somehow give it all away?

The honest blast of winter does not chill
The heart as does this breeze that masquerades
As warm caress—I’ve surely had my fill
Of springtime sun, and long for when it fades.
But even now the pale bare-breasted moon
Is laughing at me through the harsh daylight:
“Don’t hurry sundown, dusk will come too soon—
This spring the day is kinder than the night.”
 

 Water Rights

Crossing high Nevada desert I came
To some hardscrabble town set in a waste
Where long ago a miner staked his claim.
A road to nowhere—just some trailers braced
Against the desiccating wind, gas station,
Church, post office, tyrannized by sun
Year after year.  Amid that desolation
Water was almost never seen to run—
Except in one small irrigated patch
Of lawn where rows of planted willows shaded
Marble slabs, green guardians keeping watch
Above townsfolk who’d lived, and loved, then faded.
    The living thirst for water, yet instead
    Take greater comfort moistening their dead.
 

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About Keith Holyoak

Keith Holyoak is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UCLA. His poems and translations from Chinese have appeared in numerous magazines in North America, Europe and New Zealand. The bilingual collection Facing the Moon: Poems of Li Bai and Du (Oyster River Press) appeared in 2007. A collection of his own poems, My Minotaur: Selected Poems 1998-2006, will be published soon by Dos Madres Press.