William Witherup’s down wind, down river

I’ll admit I’m always a little surprised when I discover a poet I’ve never heard of that grew up around me. As I read down wind, down river, I began to realize just how many experiences I shared with William Witherup even though he’s closer to my older brother’s age than mine. “Down wind” in the title refers to living downwind from Hanford Nuclear plant, an unfortunate circumstance I share with him, as well as his belief that living downwind caused some of my own health problems.

He also attended the University of Washington, where he studied under Theodore Roethke. Though I never had the pleasure of taking one of Roethke’s classes, I certainly fell under his influence just by the fact he dominated the English department three of the four years I was there. Witherup also ended up in California after he graduated, an area where I spent several years of my life, and shared some of the views he expresses in his poetry.

Luckily I didn’t share his his bi-polar disorder, but, considering the number of poets who have suffered from it, including Roethke himself, I wonder to what extent the disorder contributes to his poetry. Sometimes it seems that the disease allows the poet to see a particular situation more dramatically than the rest of us do.

For instance, we’ve all had moments like this one,

TO A SALESGIRL IN JUAREZ

She stood in the cool shaft
of a gift shop doorway, her dress
morning glory blue against brown skin.
Her presence loosened the chrome yellow light
and the afternoon expanded, touching each man
in the plaza with the spaciousness
and destiny of a conquistador.

I travel with her still through personal deserts,
my water bag filled with the elixir of her smile,
for even the lizards are sick
of seeing the black, swollen tongues of poets.

-1964

but only the poet, or the painter, sees it vividly enough to preserve the moment like this. For most of us, it’s only when we read the poem or look at the painting that we recall such moments. Of course, the painter can only capture the first five lines of the poem. It takes the poet to contrast this moment of beauty with his own bitterness, his “black, swollen” tongue, and to show the fragile link between the two.

When I read

FREEWAY

An infected vein
carrying filth to and from the city;

a funnel
draining a huge operating table.

Even the light here
is the color of pus.

All the late model cars
have tinted windows to shield the murderers

and the chrome is honed
to slash and carve.

And the city has drawn
a rubber curtain of shrubbery

to enclose the view
and muffle the screams.
-Berkeley, 1966

I could vividly recall a moment when I was driving from Barstow to Los Angeles. As I reached the summit of the mountains I looked down into the valley below, and all I could see was a brownish-yellow haze covering the valley below. It was over thirty years before I returned to LA after that, preferring to drive north to Bakersfield the rest of the time I was stationed in the Mojave Desert, even though the nightlife was virtually non-existent in comparison to LA’s.

Unfortunately, my view of freeways has changed very little since then. Still, I would never have thought of translating those feelings into this kind of poem, even though I identified with it as soon as I read it. It reminded me of some early Mark Strand poems that I liked, another poet who seemed heavily into South American poets.

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