Witherup’s “down wind, down river”

While doing some background reading on William Witherup, I noticed that several critics referred to him as a “Beat.” I’m not sure that I’d classify him as a beat, but certainly the title poem of this volume,

DOWN WIND, DOWN RIVER
For Frederick Wayne Nelson, down river,
who was in the bio-path of the Green Run, 1949

Oh say can you breathe
By the dawn’s early wind
What so proudly we made
At Hanford Engineering Works:
Iodine-131, plutonium, ruthenium.

At the dawn’s early light
Irradiated meadowlarks
Filled a young boy’s heart
With isotopes of beauty.
Particle and wave shimmered
Over the river stones.

What so proudly we hailed.
Looking for arrowheads
After my morning paper route,
By the hot Columbia;
Bike sparkling with flakes
Of mica not mica.

“Roll on Columbia,” Woody.
Salmon smolt stunned
As they hit the outflow plumes.
At twilight’s last gleaming
1-131 sifting on sage and thistle,
On sweet, newly-cut alfalfa.

Plutonium in the hog swill,
Ruthenium in the jackrabbit’s eye.
The pure products of America go crazy.
By the dawn’s early light
Hiroshima flickers white-hot,
Nagasaki fuses with the sun.

Particle and wave,
What physicists proudly hailed,
Who used murderous intellect
To invent deadly winds; military
And scientific elite gassing their own
Workers, soldiers, and children.

Down river, down wind;
1-131, plutonium, ruthenium.

-Seattle, 1996

reminds me of the Beats with its shrill overtones. If I hadn’t been a down winder, I might even reject the poem as a failure. Since I’ve spent considerable time in these areas and experienced the same feelings, the poem works for me, though I suspect I would like it more as folk song than as a poem. Reminds me a little of Woodie Guthrie in its earthiness. One of the qualities that I did admire in many of the Beat poets.

As you might imagine, my feelings toward nuclear power don’t differ too much from Witherup’s. In fact, one of my greatest criticisms of President Obama was his shutting down of the nuclear repository in Nevada while still pushing for increased nuclear development. Anyone who has even a minimal understanding of the disaster that is Hanford should realize that it’s totally arrogant to continue to develop nuclear energy without first finding an effective way of storing the waste products.

That said, the poem seems too shrill to ever be a personal favorite or one that I’d return to repeatedly.

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.