Friday, July 10, 2009


Poet William Witherup

Poet William Witherup died June 3 at age 73, in Seattle, of leukemia after a brief hospitalization.

I first read Bill Witherup's poetry in the fall of 1971, my last year in high school, in the poetry anthology Quickly Aging Here edited by Geoff Hewitt. The handful of his poems in the anthology stuck with me over the years since, poems of gritty working-class grappling with life, an unsentimental warmth, and at times nightmare visions of the political events of the larger world. An aura of mythology is present in many of his poems, as a part of the texture of ordinary things, a continuous amazement with living beings and the movement of life.

Although I would occasionally find a poem of his in a magazine or anthology over the years, it was only a few years ago that I got my hands on a book of his poems, Down Wind, Down River: New and Selected Poems, published in 2000 by West End Press. All of the passages quoted here are from that collection.
We were each alone:
San Francisco is a desert to the shyness of love.
You sat in a rocking chair by the window,
wanting to die. The streetlight on the corner
shone on your face and bathrobe with the bluish-whiteness
of desert moonlight. I looked in your eyes
and the pupils were as wide as a Saharan night.
You were not in the room, but we were walking among ruins,
trailing a broken wing.
(From the poem "We Were Each Alone.")

A few years ago a mutual friend put Bill and me in touch by e-mail, and we corresponded sporadically. We met face-to-face once, at the Albuquerque Cultural Festival on Labor Day weekend in 2007, and we had a chance to talk a little here and there during the three days of the festival. I remember him as a large tall man, quiet almost to the point of shyness, with a soft somewhat self-deprecating humor. A mild irrascible muttering in his voice at times. And I also had an impression of delicacy in his movements, an eye for minute detail in things, an almost fragile quality.

These the impressions I came away with from a brief meeting and a few conversations. I sensed him as someone hard to get to know well, though still with a disarming openness about himself. I didn't find out till later of his long struggle with bipolar disorder. It's not easy to cross the vast distances between each of us, even under the best circumstances.
A thousand miles and two months away
and I am still disturbed
by these metaphors of your skin.
Nose, pores and heart
are overloaded with memories of your smell.
I have become a cloud
swollen with blossoms and moisture--
the pain of left-over love.

Take me, wind, over the mountains
and let me break open!
(From the poem "A Day of Scattered Rain.")

Witherup's more politically explicit poems sometimes remind me a little of William Blake in their visionary quality, though the tone is always thoroughly 20th century, always with a tactile immediacy. Bill Witherup was a poet who wrote with his hands. From the poem "Living by I-5, August 6, 1995":
Woke up to "Yes, that freeway susuration
Is Hell-flame"; cars and trucks hurtling by
Are ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki dead
Yet fleeing that quick lick of white fire.
Melted faces looking for a lost eye,
A missing breast--

Souls tortured as at any Auschwitz,
Belsen, Dachau flayed for lampshades--
These dead are burning headlights at 2:00 am.
And there are demons on the overpasses
In labcoats and dark goggles, checking
Dosimeters for permissible radiation levels.

At dawning the sun explodes--
An orange flash shakes my windows.
Swallows, after the first stir and seethe
Of insects, ignite in air.
There is a terrible stench from the freeway--
Each car has an aura of blue flame.
Or this, from "Elegy for George Jackson," a section of the poem sequence "The Soledad Prison Poems" originally written 1970-71:
They say you died in a patch of sunlight.
After ten lightless years.
Gunned down from behind.
Black man running through the woods
for two hundred years.
Gunned down by the sheriff.
Strung up and burned by the Klan.
Gunned down by the tower guard.
Gunned down running through the alley
toward that patch of light,
that open space where you might breathe
at last.

I hope it is true
that you died in the sun,
that at least they are not lying
about that.

Bless the grass that sponged your blood.
Bless the ant that drank from your tears.
Bless your mother's pillow
that has turned to a block of salt.
Poet William Witherup strove to tell the truth of the beauties and horrors of the world and our lives, no matter what effort it demanded, or how painful or difficult. We are greater for what he left us. As briefly and slightly as I knew him, I nevertheless found my life on the earth and my life as a poet made fuller by the little that I did know him, and, in abundance, by his poems. Having known Bill Witherup and his poetry, I feel just a little less alone.
Out getting wood again
I draw my bow across
the bones of your dead
and play saw music.

The morning light flashes
from leaf to leaf
from leaf to saw
and back to leaf.

I am a blessed man.
I shine in a new skin of sweat
as I lift in my arms
your great spinal discs.
(From the poem "For the Alders Again.")

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