keith holyoak


Bubble’s Burst

At dawn that last of days no trumpets sounded,
Or maybe they were drowned in wicked wind.
Though lookouts stared, they spied no spectral horsemen —
Perhaps some hid, well-cloaked inside infernal
Coiled clouds, but no one came. If we had sinned
We weren’t told how. Newspapers all propounded
Their theories: sunspots, global warming, normal
And cyclic ice age, like before the first men.

Plain awful weather. Rain, at first a torrent,
Stopped cold as if the heavens were drained of pity.
And something strange was happening up in space —
Satellite signals died, computer networks
Crashed, and the multitudes who filled my city
Felt very lonely. Through the day the abhorrent
Cyclone toyed with the earth the way a cat works
A mouse—pouncing, clawing, licking its face.

Schools let out early, government buildings closed.
The wind grew steady, spun a tightening noose
Round the Tropic of Cancer west to east —
A fevered dervish dancing on the world,
Genie without its master broken loose,
Freed from its bottle, with blind passions roused.
The sun dimmed in green neon sky to herald
Endless dark, and up from the swirling beast

Tornadoes shot like missiles to the void.
A lone voice cried, “Oh, the bubble’s burst!”
And then the great wind sucked earth clean of cattle,
Children, nations, poems, oceans and air,
Lovers and prayers, the creatures of deep forest
And of the sea—sanctuaries destroyed,
Monuments broken, beaten earth stripped bare
Of soft looks and the armaments of battle.

Wandering souls still hear that cruel wind blow,
Wailing from light-years off, eons ago.


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.


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.


The Private Loves of Mr. and Mrs. Chen

“Daughter, go close the blinds!” cried Mrs. Chen
One springtime morning when she began to die
In earnest. Puzzled, Dienlin asked her, “Why
Do you lie so late in bed today, and when
Will you come downstairs? Look at the world outside —
Below the mansions high on the slopes, the towers
Of commerce gleam—right now, from one of ours
Father watches his laden freighters glide
Through the harbor. Come and watch them too,
Drifting like seabirds beneath the dragon-green
Mountains that crown the peninsula.” “I’ve seen
those ghost ships sail—I’ve held the world in view
So long,” sighed Mrs. Chen, “but love has fled,
So draw the blinds down tight on my death bed.”

A springtime rain never
Felt so fresh and warm
As the time that young man’s
Voice first made me quiver,
Caught me up in his storm
Of dreams and bold plans.

“She’s old,” the doctors said, “so old and frail.”
They went away. Day after day Dienlin
Washed her, combed her hair, set her hairpin,
Carefully polished her every fingernail.
Early each morning Mr. Chen dressed up
In suit and tie, then sat in her corner chair
And watched over them. He sometimes said a prayer.
All day he watched, and only would sip a cup
Of tea that Dienlin brought him. Finally
His daughter pleaded, “Father, come speak to mother!
She grows so weak—there may not be another
Chance.” “Too late,” he said, “she can’t hear me.”
Next morning at dawn, after his wife had died,
Mr. Chen still sat in her corner chair, and cried.

Two wild orchids pinned
In her long black braids
Brightened the village lane —
I grew jealous of the wind
Furtively stroking that maid’s
Soft face, damp with spring rain.


The Kiss

A roaring highway disconnects
The sandy beach from a bus-stop bench,
Golden youth in springtime flower
From sidewalks home to wasted men:
There ocean air, here city stench;
There sun-bronzed bodies, here old wrecks
Whose luck ran out when pain began
To soak right through each waking hour.

A tunnel burrowing underground
Connects the beach to cityside.
A vagrant sits, all vacant stare,
Waits for a bus—to where, who knows?
Their beach-day done, two lovers glide
From out the tunnel, arms wound round
Each other’s waist. The girl’s face glows —
Her boyfriend stoops to kiss her there.

His lips seek hers—she suddenly
Breaks free, turns, runs to the homeless one
To stroke his rough gray-whiskered cheek,
To press her lips on his in a kiss.
She slips away like the setting sun —
Just gone, with no apology.
The old man weighs his glimpse of bliss
Against a pain he did not seek.


Night Comes to Point Dume

Seals call from the rocks as sinuous rows
of dolphins weave their dark designs in the ocean.
The evening sky is painted red with seashells,
a blood-red tide rising to flood the sun.

Seals fall silent, the undulating motion
of dolphins fades. A night without stars flows
into the world till sea and sky are one.
Seabirds nod to sleep on slow swells.


The Farmer Gored by His Bull
(In memory of Mr. Len Carlson, who died December 22, 1965
on his farm in Glen Valley, British Columbia.)

Golden one, that thrust you gave that first
Slipped through my heart caught me by surprise
And held me there, listening to the burst
Of veins feeding a warm flood on the rise.
So many changes now—your black-tipped horn
Turned red, my soul turned free, my wondering eyes
Wide open everywhere. My body, shorn
Of weight and years, is just a visitor,
Joined by a silvery thread with this newborn
Beast we have made, our coupled minotaur —
A bull’s head hoists the body of a man!
I know your labyrinth, unraveler;
Below, the world lies open to my scan —
I see how all that ended first began.

So strange, that I who raised you from a calf
Have now been raised by you! You tossed me high
To lay me low—I wonder, should I laugh
To see what comes to pass, or should I cry?
We were meant for a time when danger bound
To beauty made that beauty multiply.
I saw the way those pointed glories crowned
Your head, lit up your eyes, sparked a wild beat
That set your black hooves stamping on the ground.
To cut them, burn their roots, would bring defeat
To both of us—without his horns a bull
Is half without his sex, left incomplete,
And I, I would have missed the miracle
Of seeing you so strong and beautiful.

But still, I pierced you first. I shoved that steel ring
Clean through your nostrils, clamped and locked it there,
Locked the surging strength of the tawny yearling
To human will, and made you so aware
That strength will yield to pain—yes, where I led
You followed, though your nostrils still might flare.
While I could hold you, many times instead
I let you loose to prance across the field
With horns that dazzled every cow you bred
And harried shadow rivals, made them yield
To you, my minotaur! Oh, we were friends
At play this wintry day when you unreeled
The silvery thread and showed me as it ends
Strength sometimes bends, but beauty rends, it rends!



Shoulders of ice, asymmetrical,
The final pyramid above it all,
Then one last step to join the boundless heavens
Or soar like Icarus, and like him, fall —

This is the highest and most lonely place.
Along the razor ridge above North Face
Mallory’s ghost is climbing strongly still
As wind and snow keep scouring every trace.

Adventurers and pilgrims pitch their tents,
Questing for joy, for pain, a second chance.
The mountain watches all, unmoved, unmoving —
Old English dead, hermits deep in trance,
Find neither love nor pity here, but just
The icy beauty of indifference.


Return to Peach Blossom Spring

“This is this trail I hiked, it can’t be far.
Just round this bend—ok, right over there!
The shallow stream runs through the woods and over
The path—no, wait—so strange—it’s been a year.

Just let me think. It doesn’t feel the same.
The blight’s moved further up the refuge where
The peach trees bloomed. Maybe the spring’s gone dry.
I know the way—my memory is clear….”

That day I let a wayward wisp of cloud
Guide me along. Wading a creek that flowed
Out of a grove of peach trees showering petals
Down to the stream, I stood there, overawed
To see such glory floating out of nowhere.
I turned upstream; for half a mile I trod
A path of moistened blossoms. From a cliff
A pure spring gushed, shone like a golden rod.
I clambered up, entranced, to peer inside.
Deep in the cave it seemed a lantern glowed.

I lost all sense of time. Radiance washed
The blindness from my eyes; my lungs could taste
The honeyed air that swept me to my knees.
I knelt there, rocking, trembling with grace.
“Old one, you have a moment here with us” —
A woman touched my forehead as she gazed
Clear through me with her dark, fathomless eyes.
“I’m old?” I asked. “How old are you?” She laughed.
“Just eight,” she said—“eight centuries, still young!
But we have studied you, we know the past.”
Images rose and fell—a burning child,
A lurid sky, a lone white bear adrift.
I writhed, impaled upon these holograms.
A shudder shook my heart. “What now?” I asked.
She took my hand, and we began to move
As if the world flew near enough to grasp —
Tall cities gleamed amid primeval forests;
The globe, azure and emerald, glowed in space.
Down through the blessed sky we fell to earth,
And there I mingled with the human race,
The dreamers, lovers, bold adventurers
Who dared to show the world an open face.
More than a visitor, they greeted me
As one of them, an elder brother lost
But now back home, eager to hear the stories
Of all the trials and triumphs he had missed —
The Endless War, the People’s Parliament,
And how the Age of Fire became at last
The Age of Light. “Is there no mystery
Left to be solved?” The woman I embraced
Just smiled. “Each mystery we think we grasp
Provides a thousand more their hiding place.”
Back at the cavern’s mouth she kissed my lips.
I cried, “I want to stay!” Her eyes were moist.
“The world to be began in ancient dreams;
So dream, old friend, and in your time, rejoice.”

After the man returned he marked the way
So he might find the cave again someday.
Hearing his story, others searched with him.
His hair turned white, and memory grows dim.


Crying Down the Great Wall

The spring, then summer, autumn, winter passes.
A winter heart remembers summer kisses,
A lonely moon recalls the setting sun —
Blood seeks out bone, the flesh seeks dust and ashes.

“Dear wife, I freeze to death,” cried Wan Xiliang
As third stroke sounded on the night-watch drum;
“A year of breaking rocks has broken me —
My torn hands bleed, my legs and feet grow numb.
I lived to read my books—I lack the strength
For dragging stones to raise this Wall of doom.
The Emperor uses mortal men and mortar
Just the same way—the Wall will be my tomb.
Oh wife, if you could bring me padded clothes
To warm my trembling bones—come, please come!”

Meng Jiang Nu awoke as the cock first crowed.
She sought her love around the dark bedroom
But could not find him there. Her brow was hot —
Was this a dream, or wild delirium?

“Wan Xiliang has sent his spirit to me —
I heard the anxious voice of my bridegroom.
The Emperor stole your son away two weeks
After our wedding day, turned joy to gloom.
I need to sew new padded clothes for him.
Starting now I will labor at the loom
Then go to him, far-off at the Great Wall.”
“Daughter, your dream is surely worrisome,
But you, a woman, could not go alone —
And what of us?” they asked, their faces glum.
Their young daughter-in-law replied, “I vow
To bring Xiliang with me, or not come home.”

A thousand blistering li, hungry and cold,
Meng Jiang Nu walked to reach the Great Wall,
Bearing her load of boots and padded clothes.
In its shadow loomed a sight to appall
The coldest heart—thousands of ragged conscripts
Held under guard, stooping to break and haul
Tremendous stones, food for a granite snake.
The monster, stretching from the pinnacle
Of a far mountain, echoed lamentations
Of shivering men who lived on grass and gall.

“Big brothers, I come looking for Wan Xilian —
My husband is just eighteen, thin and tall.
He came last year, sent down from Jiangni town.
A gentle scholar—does one of you recall?
I brought these boots and padded clothes for him.”
The pain her listeners shared was palpable,
Thinking of wives and lovers left behind.
“Little sister, follow along the Wall —
Another crew works fifty li on east.”

Meng Jiang Nu walked on toward her goal
Another fifty li, and fifty again.
Sleet would fall day and night, the north wind howl.
She passed unburied dead whose frozen lips
Testified to the Emperor’s misrule,
But none she met would speak of Wan Xiliang.
After a thousand li her final call
Rang out to laborers by the eastern sea.
“Dead last year, he’s buried inside the Wall.”

Then Meng Jiang Nu’s tears soaked into the earth —
The Wall opened, and stones began to fall.
Then Meng Jiang Nu’s wild cries alarmed the heavens,
And from the sea there blew a sudden squall —
Along ten li the Wall came tumbling down.
Dry whitened bones were heaped beneath it all.

Where in this heap was Xiliang’s skeleton?
She bit her middle finger to the bone.
Her red blood, spilt on bones of walled-up dead,
Soaked into those of Xiliang alone.
The sobbing widow knelt and wrapped his bones
Inside the padded clothes that she had sewn.

Hearing of this first breach in his Great Wall
The Emperor rode in rage towards the shore
Along with soldiers flashing pikes and swords.
Meng Jiang Nu bowed down to the Emperor.
“The high crime of Crying Down the Great Wall
Will cost your head!” the tyrant loudly swore.
The axe-man raised his whetted blade, but then
The Emperor stirred, desiring something more.
“Die if you wish, or be my concubine.”
“Death I accept, yet wish for something more,”
Said Meng Jiang Nu. “Bury my husband’s bones
As though he’d been a noble governor.
Carry a hempen stick to show him honor;
Let him rest in peace by the eastern shore.”

So it was. The tomb was built on a cliff
Above the sea, and even the Emperor wore
White mourning clothes, carried a hempen stick.
On up the mountainside strong soldiers bore
The gold coffin of scholar Wan Xiliang —
His wife, with the Emperor, walked before.
His bones were wrapped in padded clothes; they laid
His coffin in the tomb, and sealed the door.

“Your Majesty, your humble servant thanks you.”
Meng Jiang Nu bent low in a final bow,
Then rose and set her face towards the sea.
“Die I must—my family heard my vow.”
Veiling her radiant face with fine white silk
She leapt, crying, “Husband, I join you now!”

Long the Emperor gazed on the eastern sea.
The sea returned his gaze, pitilessly.



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