Shaman of the Desert
Keith Wilson’s Shaman of the Desert, Collected Poems (1965-2001) is a massive volume of over 1100 pages containing works from at least a couple dozen of his books.
Drum Hadley, long-time friend of Keith Wilson’s, says in his introduction to this Collected, “it seems like we have always known each other. I went to the University of Arizona and I met him right off. I said I was interested in writing poetry and people told me, ‘see Keith Wilson.’ It was the beginning of what has become a lifelong friendship and creative exchange.” And in Las Cruces where the Wilsons moved to, they continued to be “a gathering place, creating a community made of words, ideas, and dreams—where many a young poet was nourished by their good food and company.” And the books of poetry kept coming, subject to the ups and downs of small press publishing, so this Collected from Clark City Press can be your Keith Wilson bible. As Hadley says in his Introduction, “Wilson’s poetry is raw and honest. What is inessential has been pared away, only intensifying it’s impact. Keith describes his writings as ‘Emotional Geography.’ He guides the reader through transformational terrain, reacquainting them with a deeper place within the self.”
I can’t begin to be in any way comprehensive about this incredibly moving and extensive
achievement, but I can bring together here two reviews I did of two of his books, Lion’s Gate, 1986 and Graves Registry, 1992. Also here are a couple short statements about the importance of Keith’s work to me. We were born about a hundred miles apart and he was only eight years older than me but he was always my New Mexican elder. Finally, I include the poem I wrote after his death: “Keith.” And I include a poem of his I picked almost at random, “The Voices of My Desert,” but it nevertheless expresses that honest grit representative of the poet’s best work.
. . .
I’ve had these lines of Keith Wilson’s on my study wall, now almost unreadable from paper disintegration, the last three lines central in many ways:
. . .
“& all the time,
there was this song
all about me
it had only to open
my mouth to sing.”
And from last line of “New Mexico: Paso Por Aqui” I quote, “All men are visitors here.”
. . .
This youthful review of Lion’s Gate, Selected Poems 1963-1986 by Keith Wilson, Cinco Puntos Press, El Paso, first appeared in Southwestern Discoveries, June-August 1988, in my column Backfire.
Keith Wilson, New Mexico’s Leading Poet: 1988.
Lion’s Gate roars in the face of the Yuppie invasion of New Mexico as the Peugeots and Saabs pull up to the Placitas Post Office and people lock their cars there for the first time in history. The wind hits the coiffures and business suits and that, simply, in Spring, is New Mexico reclaiming its history. The wind hits hard: death, the odd, the tough, the ghosts, the desert is hard.
These are “stories.” Call them “poems” if you like. Stories make up the history of this man’s art which is poetry. You can theorize poetry to death, break it up into compartments and whisk it away. Or make an icon of it and install it in the University to assure you and your buddies of a job. You can be a non-language poet, a langoiterage poet, a New American Regionalist poet: all these things are a crock, because anything with strength and individuality transcends borders, definitions, crocks.
Lion’s Gate is real, real-ler than a dozen All the Pretty Horses in substance and song and authenticity. Would that Keith Wilson could be touted and read as much, but not adored beyond reason and eaten up in the American Video Machine.
A poem is an utterance of a new-old: the language older, the voice of the poet the newer. And to read Lion’s Gate from cover to cover is hearing a man revealed. There’s the mother, the father, the relatives. “The Arrival of My Mother” is the archetypal Western Expansion poem to me. And there is in Wilson the place in a way that stomps through Western reruns and strangles everything to get to the source: that is, the immaterial, the second rate, the bullshit falls off like dross: the Western in original dressing is revealed.
There’s an encounter with deja vu, more than that, reincarnation actuallized as we travel instantly back in “The Minaret At Constanta” to a lion’s gate in Rumania– the Western Expansion retraced through the intense darkness and voice of the Poet Deluxe.
There is the reinvigorated power of the revealed poet. Layers come off and I don’t mean clothes, the history sings through verse, through the energy that mouths sing and have sung, told, laid down and storyized, where all is never all told: gaps create the poem’s imagination, the reader/listener is vitalized in reenacting the real poet, as Keith Wilson is.
Among the many works as “Midwatch,” “Seacaptain,” and “Chantey,” there are perhaps the best Korean War poems that have come to light: the section from Graves Registry. They make you think of Wilfred Owen’s First World War poems of atrocities, and Viet Nam revealed by Larry Rottman in Winning Hearts and Minds, and the many that have followed him. But the sea and war travel return to “know that my desert is a condition of soul / not topography. It is where one wrestles with devils / and knows they are oneself.” – from “Chantey.”
In 1988 I wrote this in “Teachers,” a series of short poems:
he was the old voice
the bear voice in newest everyday now,
he taught me to bear with it and it
will tell the story.
. . .
This review of Graves Registry by Keith Wilson. Clark City Press, 1992, appeared in Blue Mesa Review, Spring 1993.
This collection, a Keith Wilson magnum opus, brings together what Grove Press did in 1969 (Graves Registry and Other Poems) and what Sumac Press did in 1972 (Midwatch), and adds about 50 pieces to make up a handsome 216 page edition from Clark City Press in Montana. Things have been clarified: poems that were just numbered before are now entitled, there are certain additions and restorations, but the major parts have remained as Keith Wilson wrote them, in high heat. You have the obvious proportions of an epic on war, a book poem that allows the poet to play out the human species’ obsession with war. You could say it’s Keith Wilson’s obsession, but when you reach the end and pass through “the battlefields of galaxies” you realize the truth of his hammering and the shield of this book becomes timeless, Homeric, and present. Look at what’s happening, now, 1993: war is part of us.
Graves Registry is a poem. (The cover of this beautiful publication erringly refers to the work as “poems.”) The most graphic parts come at the very beginning in “Korea-Japan, 1950-53,” and echo the much earlier poet Wilfred Owen in their depictions of death. Subsequent sections are like shock waves recalling those things experienced in action. The Young Lieutenant seems to be the poet’s persona, antipathetic to the Sea Captain, who figures strongly as the poem progresses.
I think of Dante’s Inferno, but more of the conversations through space of Milton’s Paradise Lost. I think of Owen, and especially Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem: I can hear it backing Owen’s genius depiction of death & that lie “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” These are evoked in me, reading Graves Registry. But mostly, I think of the great Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems. For instance here is the beginning of Olson’s “Maximus, to Himself,”
I have had to learn the simplest things
last. Which made for difficulties.
Even at sea I was slow, to get the hand out, or to cross
a wet deck.
The sea was not, finally, my trade.
But even my trade, at it, I stood estranged
from that which was most familiar.
Here is a piece from “A Masque for the Warriors, Home,” the last part of Wilson’s Graves Registry.
All the voices spin down, lost
beyond whatever recall the memories
of lives lived and died, held briefly
to glints of moonlight, crowns that crumble.
There is left the counting of graves.
The slash of swordblade an epitaph
shudder of cannon in circling echoes
the bones rot within the ring,
boys’ faces kiss shadow girls
rings rings around Saturn or Mars
Graves Registry is a grandiose work, unnerving, troubling, obsessive, powerful, relentless, visionary, comprehensive, bold and musical. It is an immense and tragic poem that both includes and transcends boundaries of space and time. It ultimately succeeds, and what a pleasure that New Mexico’s greatest poet has not only received the Governor’s Award for excellence in the arts, but now has this important work at last available from Clark City Press in Montana. What I and many others regret is that our own University of New Mexico Press stubbornly refuses to publish the rich store of New Mexico poets. What a miss! Keith Wilson is from Fort Sumner and is a resident of Las Cruces where he has taught and worked for years. His works should be fully available and in print, since this poet is a living treasure of our state and our country.
Note: We now do have this in Shaman of the Desert (The Collected Poems 1965-2001), Clark City Press 2009.
I wrote this in my notebook in 2000: No poet writes with such gristle & grace as Keith Wilson who in Bosque Redondo excites again the pleasure of what it’s like to be a true New Mexican, a voice of this hard land that sings from the depths as well as the shallows. No poet so truthfully evokes the real world that includes the ancients in the gritty day-to-day living in our own home state. And in 2009, after his death I wrote this:
Who more than you opens doors to where we live?
and we live here whether Las Cruces, Albuquerque
Santa Fe Taos Roswell Fort Sumner,
and where in this so-called Southwest,
who more than you breathes the past with the present?
Who tells the story more than you and
punctuates it with a laugh
or brings the mystery out in the open
to be pondered and wondered at?
where the multifaceted multi-ethnic trans-animal
trans-person melt into the specifics
of the story of each act
which is the reality of living here you get at
and release to us to see what is right before our eyes.
Your voice excites the present with place, places
faces animal and plant and dry presence,
story after story that comes up out of the arroyos
and brings the past with it, the ancients
the voices breaking out of caves
or from their graves
to face us in your family land, your love
of this earth here you articulate father mother
son daughters wife friends strangers
to introduce us, amused, carried on in words
your voice brings me face to face
with where I live
Opening Shaman of the Desert you’ll find many poems such as this one from While Dancing Feet Shatter the Earth.
The Voices of My Desert
Beginning this new trail, with the resonance
of shifting earth about me, I hear calls
distancing the crow voices of my childhood,
the wolf cry of my middle age. The sun
is an ancient symbol above me and God knows
what the mountains, spirit blue on the horizon
mean. Silence stands within me as without
desert stirs to its own subtle communication.
There is time, always, to wonder, doubt.
New Mexico is a myth, an ancient whirlpool
of time where moments stand still just before
being sucked down to other planes, other hours.
We hold time back through rituals, dances
that stir the seconds like flecks of sand
beneath our feet, eternities of the possible.
I write down the words I hear, but I know
it is the Dead who speak them. Our ears
are tuned to the past, hear, hear the days
less clearly than the flute-songed nights
with their last owls whitefaced as moons
swooping low for the poisoned, dying mice.
The ghosts of wolves ring our hills.
Those birdcries, Comanche songs drifting
up from wartrails: the click of steel
in the night, prospectors or old soldiers
sharpening the edge of darkness to a keen
wind that blows all the stories away.
He says “I write down the words I hear, but I know / it is the Dead who speak them.” As the voices of the past inform the voices of the present, Mr. Wilson’s voice is prominent among them.
Shaman of the Desert is available in hardback, $40, and in paper, $30. Query Heloise Wilson email@example.com or email me. firstname.lastname@example.org
Larry Goodell / Placitas, New Mexico
Note: This appreciation of Keith Wilson will be part of the next Malpais Review, the Southwest’s premiere poetry magazine edited and published by Gary Brower.