BLACK ASH, ORANGE FIRE: The Collected Poems of William Witherup 1959-1985
Floating Island Publications, Point Reyes, CA. 1986.
I've been trying to write a review of your book. Ten times I began; ten times I never got past a few paragraphs. There are so many theoretical positions from which to approach a work, and so many rhizomes leading out to follow! I can go into one of your poems and create a new text. Or I can discuss what a collection means. But a single poem is not a collection, and a collection does not reach down to where each poem germinates.
There are so many directions and so little space!
Then I realized that to speak of your poems is to immediately value your life, a life. The women you've loved. Your children. The land you staked out. The madness that darkened your mind. Your white suit. Your green suit. The gentle violence of your nature. The muse who burrows through your being like a tick.
What drove me away from reading poetry for many years was how personal so much of it is, especially work presently being done. I had little interest in the lives of these people. My own was interesting enough for me.
What brought me back was a statement by Allen Grossman, that poetry is "situated upon the central crisis of our civilization: how do we know a person is present?" And that this is what makes it unique among the arts. I began to see that all each of us has to contribute, finally, to our species is a person, one's personal self.
From the beginning of Western poetry, from Homer on, poets set about personifying aspects of their psyche. The Gods. Now, Grossman says, "Just as Horace spoke of the poet as serving the heroes, so I in my way imagine the poet serving the person." Not the personality that Warhol suggests could be famous for fifteen minutes, but the person, who is infamous. The man with fish blood/streaming down his knuckles, as you say.
As I read your poems I see the life of a man fragmented into brilliant metanoiac shards puncturing my vision: to draw them out is to draw blood. Vision and blood is, after all, the anamorphic history of our species.
You seem always to be working this notion in an oneiric discourse with yourself as Other, as at the very beginning of this book you clearly state your venue: In a dream agony your image rises/from the bottom of my psyche. It is all here: dream (psyche), agony (struggle), image (world), psyche (person).
Thus, inwardly alert, you explore the world with nascent curiosity. As, for example, when you lie down in the garden/and become a beet, wanting to share the secret double life/the vegetable knows;/the joy of living/half in earth and half in air.
The double life the Other sustains?which in your case is Woman and her saltations?you situate before you (in time and space) as an image ascending like Venus, born from the bubbling bottom of your alembic mind, from which she rises like a sprig of pink coral fern/torn from a grotto in a sea swell.
Your visions are like the heavy seas of your affairs, swelling only to be pulled under, flushed down to where alchemic salts sting archetypes into awakening as words. So that, even when sunning or loving by the sea, you're dreaming a darker dream, your pleasure being another dreamer's pleasure.
And who is this other dreamer but the poet. To the poet pleasure is the poem's flirtations. Consummation takes place in language's womb. All through your life, your book, this knowledge is implied: that the poet is the threshold between the woman you want and the muse who loves you, as one loves, but never has it. Love, like the muse, has us. To be in love is to be invaginated like a zygote.
Having been a poet myself, I must mention the respect you have for your old teachers. For Roethke, who, when it was time for him to die, moved through his garden like a heavy bee,/his dark suit gathering a bloody pollen. And your portrait of Robert Bly at Point Lobos, With his clear plastic raincoat/billowing like a fish bladder,/like a bag of waters. Or John Haines, who has A voice with boulders in it, rumbling around./His songs made of basalt/and owl's blood.
Until I read your poems collected I hadn't seen how much blood circulated through the body of your work. and how this blood is not necessarily human. It could be the beet's dark root/swollen with rainwater, (its) green leaf shot through with purple veins. Or that of a wounded crow, the same one you'd invite into my living room/and offer the softest chair./Then we'd crack a fifth of Old Human and talk into the night. Drinking, talking, bleeding into the night, human and bird completed into a single noun.
Fish blood. Owl's blood. The violet of you lover's eyes. A thread of life suturing this book's one hundred & thirteen poems into the man you are. This is the gift of poesis: a plurivocal song ever revisioned over thousands of years; a song that, beneath its hermeneutic and metaphoric gestures, simply says "I have lived." From this statement of person we all define our lives.
So, Bill, your poems, which have meant so much to my life, now, as a book, will be widely read and appreciated. Faults will be found, of course, even as William Everson, in his Foreword, comments that you are 'not an innovator," that you have "stylistic limitation." Yet he sees how you have "learned how to enter a poem," the accomplishment of which is a poet's probity. Everson also points out that in your poems "we find the pervasive Western landscape interiorized rather than projected."
This reminded me of an extensive visit I made to Brooklyn many years ago. Feeling isolated from my beloved West, depressed on that hard grey lip of the country, you suddenly appeared, wonderfully out of place in cowboy boots and telluric reassurance. With a guilty grin, you related how your van had hit something big on a dark New Mexico highway; which turned out to be a horse, who died. Thanks for that visit, it saved my life. The horse gallops on in your poems.
Photo by Patrick Lofthouse
(c) Joel Weishaus 1988
(c) Ironwood 1988