Turning Point




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Sample Poems by George Keithley

Painted Horses
Horses after first light browsed the border
of the plateau.  The sun had burned away
a thin mist; earth gleamed.  Birds circled, screeching.
Because of their wild grace how huge the horses
loomed in our eyes.  How stern when they stalked us
through a fitful sleep.  Finding them larger than life,
on cavern walls—temples of the imagination—
we painted them in proportion to their spirit:
Running wild, they’d nip or bite each other—
Sometimes in pleasure but often with malice.
They ran the way a full river flows, headlong,
assuming the shape of the land then swiftly
overwhelming it.  Round-eyed, whinnying.
The fierce ones charging, blowing and frothing.
Fights were brief but furious.  Kicking, chomping.
Or they reared, snorting, and pummeled with their hooves.
Today we excavate the battered bones;
the scarred hides are preserved in mudbanks, tar.
What do we know that is sacred?  Water,
rocks.  Without these the weather of each day
is insignificant, crags cast deep shadows

then withdraw them, they offer no shelter
to a troubled creature.  Fire—we carried it
flickering from the mouths of caves.  Down dark

hillsides, the steep terrain broken, footing
uncertain.  Cautiously we crossed creeks; never
more than one torch upon the water.  Or
more frequently followed the tumbling, coursing
water through gullies illuminated
only by wings of flame.  Which we brought on,

wavering, flaring, into sunlit fields.  Fowl
fled through the brush or flapped above it, striving,
desperate.  Birds bewildered us.  Their cries were ours,
but their flight, their songs, suggested another world.
Taking on their plumage and their piercing eyes,
the distant heavens settled among the trees.
Trees were worshiped, dreaded.  What other life
joined beauty and necessity?  Grass.  Windswept swales
where the nimble-footed horses romped or grazed;
where mares cajoled their spindly foals to stand
tottering.  Testing balance, vision, and nerve.
Learning attention.  Alert then to the scent of smoke
thickening the air, throbbing under its dark warning,
all turned with one mind and raced across the green plateau
thirty thousand years before this morning.


The storm blunders through the street, flapping
every awning.  A downpour drenches
shoppers caught on the walks, the clerk
on her hurried errand, whipping her skirt
against her legs.  Together we reach
the aged bandstand, shingles gone
from a gaping roof, the only shelter
in the green plaza.  One summer night
Sidney Bechet played here,
his clarinet singing that sad joy
that was his voice.  Is it the wind
or rain that makes you laugh?  We lean
close.  Your hand in my coat.  What
a storm!  Black elms blaze!  The wind roars
on, roars on, tossing branches.  Rain
batters the empty benches.
                                                Step back,
look.  Water from the splayed roof spills
splat splat around our feet.
Yes, and your hair!  How it shines!
How happy I am you’re here!  But this rain!
It’s so loud we turn to watch the wind
buffet the roses, the hyacinths.  Now
it plunges down the footpath, shaking
all the shrubbery, bright as silver.
It takes hold of the blue phonebooth
by the flowerbed—a wobbly glass
door swings open, claps shut.  Rain swamps

the blossoms.  We love each other, we can’t
speak.  I hold you and we shiver like the grass.

Living Again
Then he remembered the blue house where they’d lived.
Her hair nesting on her shoulder as in this photo.
The firm weight of her breast.  His hand opened.
The frame struck the floor; glass shattered—
He tore his shirt to reach the pain.  Now
he choked on the silence in the cabin.
No breath.  The door banged open.  He stumbled
through the pines.  Into the meadow.  Pools of snow-
melt among the budding thistles, lupine.
Still he did not cry out.  His mouth a mute O.
Above the silver river he saw a hawk flicker.
His chest on fire, he forgot his right hand
full of excuses.  Fell among mule-ear.  Grass
growing dim.  Waking, on his hands and knees,
he noticed the pain that gripped his heart
had eased into his shoulders.  Deep
in his belly his breath welled up.  Again
the hawk flashed its blood-red tail
in the wind.  He rose, slowly.  Saw tawny
cattails nodding.  Poppies.  The first purple
thistles.  He listened.  For what?  When
he was about to die he’d remembered the dark
rain in her voice.  Spring rain falling all night
in the Sierra, lifting the river above its bank,
drenching the green meadow, waking sun-gold blossoms.

Then did his heart recover its rhythm, his mind
its balance?  He took two steps.  Heard water churn;
slosh sedge grass, slap rocks.  A chill light
rushed downstream.  When he saw it shiver past
the black mudbank already he’d begun to choose
this life in which our words follow one another
to the end: snowmelt, granite, hawk, poppies, river.