Keith Polette

Blue Mountains Walking

Splitting the difference between the mouse and the moon, the owl arrives as as pure intention, wholly stripped of guilt or guile. In silver light, it passes through a maze of shadows and settles on the dark shelf of the mind where it offers the promise of sight that can bend around trees. The breath settles in like first snow and lifts the body on wide wings.

                falling star
                the egret full
                of light

What does it mean, even for a moment, to be unshackled from thought, to be carried noiselessly into a larger mind, one too vast to fathom? Water, without current, that mirrors nothing. Perceptions shaped like holograms, pristine, immaculate beyond certainty. To close that circuit with a swiftness not driven by desire. As the owl lifts into its own urgency, the small mind returns, dragging its bag of stories into the day, decrying its own lack of light. Even so, the sky spreads out like a mantra.

                old hypnosis
                the rusted iron bridge
                a logjam

for Agnes

Barn Swallows flittering through the cul-de-sac at dusk, some feelings are like that. At such times, night comes on like an accident from another era, first fire doused by rain. And I know that, being allergic to gravity, I would lift into space were it not for you. Your touch, no heavier than a petal, has more love in it than I thought possible. And isn’t it strange, that on our paths through desert arroyos and past decaying rock walls, something in my heart bursts forward, pheasants erupting from a shorn field. I ask you to look. I extend my hand, in it is an orange, something that Lorca once held, something that weeps with joy when it is peeled. Let us linger in its fragrance.

                wind gust
                poppies unleashing
                red fever

Bad Hair

Driving at dusk, I notice rolled-up bales of hay on a shorn field that look like oversized hair curlers scattered on shag carpet. And I begin to wonder what will be set free at first light: the rolling hills of a woman in repose whose unfurled hair will release birdsong or the dark clouds of that 60 foot Sci-Fi woman whose hair will let lose a storm of jealousy driven by rage as she roves the countryside, kicking down silos and barns, looking for her cheating husband, where, after a fruitless search, she will tromp off, her sights set on the city over the horizon. In the quiet of her leaving and after the ground stops trembling, the craters that her high heels left in their wake will slowly fill with water, where they will pool into ponds.

                blind date
                she tells me to call her

Morning E-Mail

Checking e-mail after morning coffee has become a habit, though I like to think of it as more of a ritual, one which resonates with mythopoetic implications, reflecting a longing that digital messages could somehow be oracles or prophesies. Odd though, those mornings I don’t check e-mail, how there is a subtle nagging somewhere in the mind, almost as if a wooden gate at the far end of a distant field were banging in the wind, urging me to tap the phone to life, to bring forth its eerie blue glow into the growing light of day. Makes me wonder if this is the best use of my time, if there isn’t something I could be doing that were more productive, more satisfying, more engaging; but I tap the phone to life, tap the e-mail app into being, tap a message to read . . . all this tapping reminding me of the those three billy-goats crossing the bridge and the troll beneath calling out, “Who’s that tramping on my bridge?” And, of course, being a troll, he is easily duped into letting the two smaller goats cross, so that when the largest of the three, the Bovidae equivalent of a prime-time wrestler, steps onto the bridge, refuses to pay the troll-toll, and bucks the troll into oblivion. And the troll, like an e-mail with an attachment too large to open, plops into the river — the nameless but ever-present river — and floats downstream for three days, until he eventually crawls onto the bank of the river near where you live and makes his way to your house, where he starts knocking on your door, just as you have begun tapping your phone to check the morning e-mail.

                crow caws
                messages that never landed
                in ink


I open the silverware drawer and notice the long-handled spoon, red and made of plastic, up to its neck in stainless steel, and I wonder how it got there. My first thought is that my wife or daughter placed it there, after having brought it home from a drive-through. But then, I study it a bit longer and think that it could have fallen out of the desert’s bright light, like Icarus, after it tried too hard to scoop the sun. Or maybe, I thought, it is a recycled giraffe searching for food in a heady forest of forks. Possibly even, it is a narrow champion resting on its back, the winner of a long jump.

                across the plain
                the drudgery of forks
                pulled by oxen

As I bend close to it, I hear the faint sound of ropes and pulleys, as if a distant piano were being lifted into a window. As I remove the spoon from the drawer, it quivers in my hand like a birch branch after an owl has lifted into flight, or like a flock of cardinals suddenly released from a microphone.

                poised to dig into
                a bowl of stars


                muddy river
                prying open a mussel
                to find a firefly

A voice in the dusk carries itself, as if in flight, to the middle of the desert where it renounces its allegiance to wings. . . . How curious, the mind’s movement from the moon perched on a fingertip to the bone-beat of breath. Perhaps the necessary but unexpected thing reveals itself best in the moment when it shimmers like a star before falling.

                gust of wind
                hail bruises on fallen

The mockingbird, a gray flame, perched atop the leafless cottonwood, breaking open the day. The red-spotted toad emerging from the dreamless sleep of the desert floor. The incantation of the wind moaning through the windows of a ramshackle chapel.

                autumn moon
                a bleached cow skull
                in desert sand

Does it matter if we record our own turning into dust? Though we have tried, we can’t convert a river into a sentence, even if we can imagine how easy it would be to submerge ourselves there. The truth is that most days we are lucky if we can stumble across a hawk’s nest, large as a tire, blown down from the black oak, lying on the ground like a rough-hewn crown that will always be too large to wear.

                bonsai tree
                a lifetime of training
                to stay small


I hope this one, this piece of writing, doesn’t get away from me, the way it so often does: slipping the leash, wrenching out of my grip, flying from a cage I forgot to fasten. And after it does, I spend days, sometimes weeks, searching for it, looking under stones, prying open the mouths of toads, and untangling the net of stars. And, yet, at other times, it gushes forth like a river bursting a levy, threatening to capsize the little boat of my pen . . .

                clatter of trash cans
                the poem you asked for
                arriving with raccoons

Like the time I hiked into the Guadalupe Mountains on a still day, the hard-packed trail breathing up dust with my every footfall, the hawk, high on thermals, circling overhead, outlining an ancient wheel in the sky, the rocks around me holding their secret waters, until I rounded a bend and stepped into the sightlines of a gray fox that was stopped on the path in front of me. The fox’s body was as straight as an arrow in flight, its tail lifted like a calligrapher’s brush. Its body, burning past the limits of the moment and outlined in light, seemed as if it had just stepped down from the wall of a cave painting. Eyes ambered with russet light, it studied me with a tilted head, holding me in its gaze for a moment, locking me into a silence older than any I’d ever known, before disappearing, faster than a branch snapping, into a patch of Piñon Pines, leaving me standing there, without words, its fleeting image tattooed on my brain.

                welder’s sparks
                redwing blackbirds bursting
                into flight

The Maze Maker

Even though no Daedalus dwelt in his brain, he had it in mind to build a labyrinth. He had watched the bats at play in the darkening light, had noted their deliberately-drunken routes in contorted flight, had seen how they skittered in a maze of moves, and had thought, “I can make that in the underground.” He went to work close to his house on the hill, digging night after night, cutting into earth and root, hacking through the barren rabbit warren until all sound faded except for the chuff of his breath that deepened with every shovel-thrust. He called upon the moon to make his dim world bright, prayed for silver-strength to keep his muscle-mind fastened to its task.

                in the beginning
                when the word was still
                an unshaped sound

After the digging was done, he emptied all the dead-ends he had ever known into the monstrous pit and scattered them throughout the dark, so that a snarled puzzle-path of longing and loss spread into an underworld of his mind’s tangled thoughts. Then he closed the gate and snapped the padlock shut and listened through the secret grate for the faint breathing of the boy, lost and alone, wearing the bull’s head mask, stumbling in the web of dark towards his unfolding fate.

                bright days
                before the wing-wax
                started to melt

Keith Polette's book of haibun, pilgrimage, published by Red Moon Press, received the Haiku Society of America's Merit Book Award (2021).
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