Down Wind, Down River: New and Selected Poems
William Witherup
West End Press, Albuquerque, NM

Dear Bill:

This is the second time I’ve written to you on the occasion of a major collection of your poems being published. In the interim, we have both sprouted gray beards, "wisps of lichen," as you say, like Whitman. I say, "your poems," knowing that real—realized—poetry is not about its author, who is always unknown, but about the reader’s connection with the unknown author, whose branches / flung wide in welcome / to a friend you have known / for millions of years.

When I opened Down Wind, Down River, I was surprised to find that the first poem was written in Crete. As I’m writing this letter in the middle of winter, the Mediterranean sun, with Eileithyia’s blond nymphs propelled through "the hissing swells," was an inviting vision. But you go on to say that you "dream a darker dream," perhaps prompted by the fact that you were in the Army then, spying on the Russians, deciphering the Other’s cryptic transmissions beneath the turbulence of your youthful swells. The entrance to the Minotaur’s cave is flooded, but is its exit? Does that old bull of a man still surface in our dreams, steaming and glowing like a hot branding iron?

It is not far from Crete to San Francisco, especially in the early 1960s, when the air was still fresh off the ocean, and the buildings were "white as the walls of Jerusalem." But in 1966, in a vatic vision, you looked back through the ages to "a new terror," that of Man. The lions, watching from the bush, / did not like the smell and slipped away. But the hyenas were pleased. From then on, it seems to me, you found a shamanic voice, where the warrior’s odor / mingles with the milky scent of corn.

Your cycles of manic/depression, first notated in 1967, also began there. We met that year, when you danced out from the storefront in the Haight-Ashbury, weighed down by your white plaster suit. Were you close to a breakdown then, the one you wrote about as if it were an illness of the marketplace, too, which you cured "with Gillette stainless steel blades"? If our species is to survive, poets must beat their blades into words that draw blood from those throats infected with the systemic language of lies.

For a while we shared a large flat near Golden Gate Park, owned by a mad Russian, named Boris, of course. One evening, you returned from a poetry reading at a Catholic university with Robert Bly, some nuns, and a priest in tow. We all sat around a bottle of wine, while Robert, whom you later saw as he truly is—/ a stranger, risen among us / from a watery life, told bawdy stories, much to the bemusement of the clergy.

It was during that time, too, that you met Marian, a woman who was to be the subject of some of your best erotic poems, as in "Marian at Tassajara Springs," which begins:

I remember your hair
spread out like black moss against the rock,
Your skin tasting faintly sulphurous
from the mineral baths,
Your laughter like a spring
swelling up
from the lime and chalk of your pelvis
and flowing out the white stones of your teeth.

I caught the small trout of your tongue
in my mouth.

During that year, 1968, you made a trip to New Mexico, where in Santa Fe, with Marian in mind, you wrote:

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.

Ironically, a few years later, Marian would move to New Mexico, changing her name to Chama, after the river. There, in 1988, she would die, when her fevers / Metastasized into the tumor /Of 8,000 hungers. This is the same year your father, after having spent much of his life working at a nuclear bomb facility, died from having carried plutonium home in his underwear, / Ashes of Trinity, ashes of Nagasaki.

Back in 1977, I moved to New Mexico, which would be my home-in-exile for the next 23 years. With you still living in the Bay Area, we stayed in touch through letters, now the property of university libraries. But we rarely saw each other, the last time being when I was preparing to make a new home in Oregon. By that time, you had returned to your native Washington State, where salmon entered our blood, / searching for secret channels. Here, too, when we found the glyphs of fish, deer and sun / on the nearby rocks, our foreheads were marked with signs, our temples pulsed like drum skins / and we danced.

Over these decades of movement and achievement, besides the poems and translations, and the books, you fathered several children, worked in warehouses, hauled furniture, sprayed pesticides, and taught poetry in prisons, including the infamous Soledad, where

Prisoners’ hands reach out
of the barred windows,
thirsting for the pure
silver water of the moon.

Well, Bill, it’s sounds like you’ve had a life! And still do. So I decided to write this letter, to congratulate you on the publication of this book, while, as you would say, "the countryside is still green."

Your friend in this millennium, too,

(c) Rain Taxi, 2001