Friday, August 17, 2012

My Top Ten New Mexico Poets: Keith Wilson

I will always consider New Mexico home. Not the home of my birth (we moved there when I was nine), but of my real life--my soul. Home of my first kiss and my first fist-fight, my first bb gun and my first sled-ride. First car, first love, first drink, first heartbreak. And in the spring of 1970, as part of a class at New Mexico State University, my first poetry reading.

Even though William Stafford was the current poet laureate--more precisely, the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress--I had never heard of him. (Nor had I heard of Allan Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, or Frank O'Hara--all the poets I knew had died in another century.) But that night in Las Cruces, as William Stafford's voice "talk[ed} along in [his] not quite prose way," I found what I had been looking for all of my life, and I didn't even know I had been looking for it.

It was Keith Wilson, the professor of my poetry class that I was enrolled in because it was the only elective I could fit into my full-time work schedule, who introduced me to Stafford after the reading. It was Keith Wilson who invited me over to his house to hang out with him and "the poets." It was Keith Wilson who brought Creeley and Olson and a dozen other world-class poets to the campus of this unknown desert college in southern New Mexico in the late sixties and early seventies. It was Keith Wilson who rocked my world. And it was only after I graduated and moved on to another state for graduate school (in a completely different field), that I understood the significance of his own poetry and his own life.

After graduate school, floundering in a job totally unsuited to me, I began a thirty-year correspondence with Keith, in which he directed my reading, exchanged poems, and mentored me in the writing life. What I did not know, was that Keith did the same for scores of students over his lifetime. (I have met some of them, in the most amazing ways--but that is another post....) The point of this post is that Keith Wilson has to be number one in my top ten New Mexico poets.

But it is not just because of my personal connection that I begin this series with him--Wilson stepped into critical acclaim in 1969 with the publication of his Graves Registry & Other Poems, which was nominated for the National Book Award and the Lamont Prize. It is to his work, beginning in that collection, and growing into his Shaman of the Desert, Collected Poems, that I direct attention in this post.

Hayden Carruth calls Wilson's poems "quiet, held like the moment of the whirlpool's brink of cosmic lust and extinction, held but ready to let go, to dance and die, to shatter. They are magical." G.E. Murray said "There is a sense of the mystical in Wilson's work, a quiet assuming eye for the marvelous, the incredible, the simple magic of wind and rain, of a quick-draw." And, finally, Jerome Rothenberg quotes Wilson himself ("I am a voice, nothing more"), in order to declare that "Wilson writes too modestly; for what that voice delivers is an authentic vision that transcends its place by being of it."

"A vision that transcends its place" is an apt description for Wilson's body of work. Often dismissed as merely "a New Mexican poet," in the same way that Stafford has been criticized for being "only a poet of place," Wilson's work rises above this short-sighted assessment by those who fail to see the entire universe in a drop of water or, in the case of Wilson, in a single grain of New Mexican sand. Hear the universal voice of the poet in the particularity of "The Grain of Sand":

The Grain of Sand

There he goes, old hawk, he touches
the thermal, rises, lifts himself to dot
sky bending in a semicircle of blue heat.

The grey shimmer of mirage standing unbroken
until the strike

down he drops knocking
a buck rabbit off his feet, flurry of dust,

rises again, talons blooded,
crippled rabbit hiding in the sage and brush
for coyotes to find:

desert, crawling under heat,
slick glass sand tumbles in little avalanches and
the tarantula flashes back, her catch firmly
in her hairy mandibles. The quick awkward gait
of the Giant Desert Scorpion. His more deadly
kin, the straw colored Durango, all cocked, waiting

as this desert son goes down, as blue, grey
and pink spread themselves to silence and I hear
tiny feet and scales flee the hunting night.

Or hear the music, the prophecy, the powerful conceit in "The Way Things Are Going":

The Way Things Are Going

--Horsehead Crossing, South of Fort Sumner

New Mexico will soon have passed away,
gasping like a minnow on a clay bottom of the Pecos
I know, I feel the same. The air drifting up
from El Paso, down from Albuquerque, East from Tucson
West from Odessa is heavy, hangs like plastic rock
above us I know

nothing but that beauty is the most
transitory while ugliness lasts and lasts. One comes
to hail the shining moment for what it is: one scale
of one tiny minnow flashing in the dying light, one face
--so loved--aging in this still brilliant, holy Sun.

While the above poems are examples of Wilson's "desert poems," collected mainly in Bosque Redondo: The Encircled Grove, New and Selected Poems, it is his life-long polemic against war,Graves Registry, a five-part unfinished sequence of visions blending scenes from Korea, the New Mexican desert, the ocean, and the inner journeys of their unwitting participants, rising from his own experiences as warrior, shaman and sailor, that brought the most critical acclaim. Here is the opening poem from Part IV, SeaChanteys, first with Wilson's own introductory comments to the complete work.

Graves Registry:

A Joint Service Operation that comes
in after battles, & wars, to count
the dead, identify bones, draw up
a total of what has been lost . . .

Part IV

Ballad of a Sailor

...wave, interminably flowing--Wallace Stevens

It is because my fingers
move over these keys
that the result
quiets me

Dark images of war,
storms, hands raised like waves
in my dreams the wind
never stops

betrayed shores
sick girls in foreign bars
children begging outside
a night that is always closed

Comrades, their drowning faces
pale tourmaline, rayed with light,
open eyes and seawashed mouths

It is because my fingers
move over these keys
that the chanty
moves me

Here, far from the sea,
this house is steady. It does
not rock and that noise is
thunder, not gunfire. It is
peaceful here. Say it again.
Peaceful. One has only to stay
awake, not dream, the faces of dreams
cannot touch, dreamed blood stains
only the bedsheet sails of haunted ships.

Sailing, sail on, its crew of phantoms
wave, passing beyond the light, wave
& giggle among the shrouds, knowing
it is not the last goodbye nor the first
we are sharing.

Keith Wilson, Shahman of the Desert, know that your goodbye to the battles, to the desert, to your vision, is not goodbye. And know that countless "fingers still move over these keys restlessly..." but move more surely because of you...

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