Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Poet

Today some Las Crucens will pay tribute to the town’s late poet laureate, Keith Wilson. Friends of the Library will gather at the Picacho Hills Country Club for their annual luncheon. County Commissioner William Garrett, who also writes poetry, will speak on Keith’s life and work.

The last time I saw Keith Wilson, he couldn’t speak.

Keith had a unique career path: born in New Mexico, he graduated from Annapolis, served during the Korean War, and then returned here as an anti-war poet and long-time NMSU professor.

For decades the kitchen table at the Wilsons’ home on Locust Street was the center of Las Cruces poetry, and familiar to the many nationally-known poets who visited and read here. I first sat at that table in the fall of 1969, when the Wilsons’ four kids were still kids. (Their son Kevin was eight, I think. When we moved back here recently, he was the realtor who showed us our new home.) Keith and Heloise were warm and welcoming.

Over the decades little changed at that table: kids were replaced by grandkids, a greater number of cats and dogs needed petting, and wine replaced coffee earlier in the day, but the laughter and poetry and stories still flowed freely.

Then the wordsmith began to lose his words. His mind was still sharp, but over the course of several years he was less and less capable of speaking. When I shot a videotaped interview with him several years ago, about his Korean War service and his poetry, his reading was uneven and the stories he told were sometimes interrupted by long silences in search of a word, while a cat wandered among the wine glasses and poetry books.

A year or two later, we couldn’t have shot such an interview. Keith could speak only a little, and rarely.
Where he had sometimes dominated conversations, he now sat silently at the table, following the conversation and punctuating it with glances, gestures, and facial expressions that seemed like those of a benevolent but mischievous imp. In mid-life, Keith had not always seemed as benevolent as he was. He was (in his words) a warrior and a shaman. He could be a little domineering at times, or jealous. Now, at twilight, he seemed to love life and us more freely.

On a visit in 2006, I was sitting in Joe and Jill Somoza’s backyard when Keith appeared. It was a short walk from Locust Street, and he still enjoyed it. He said little, if anything; but he beamed with joy. The joy was infectious. We all felt it.

The next time I saw him he could no longer speak. As we talked with Heloise, Keith still participated wittily with gestures and impish facial expressions. He also tried to read Dael a poem dedicated to Heloise from one of his books. The effort began with a few words and near words, continued with a sing-song, humming sort of sound, then sounded like the wordless but anguished howl of an animal.

At one point during our visit he disappeared. He walked out the front door, went into the converted garage that had been his study for decades, and eventually returned and handed me an old envelope, insisting I take it. It was addressed to him from Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso. From it I read out loud the poem he had scrawled there:

That sliver
of a moon
through the pines
opens no pathway
back to your side
Hidden among
the dark trees
fox watches
what we
cannot see
while some thing
slips behind
that darkness

The poem was strong, and succinct. Whatever he may have meant when he wrote it (some time after 12 December 1995, when the envelope was postmarked), the words "opens no pathway back to your side" were especially poignant now. His inability to speak was a frustrating barrier that imprisoned him alone on the other side. Too, he seemed likely to die soon, and I doubted he’d be able to find a path back.

In a quiet way, it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. Whether by chance or by completely lucid intention, he had fished out this particular poem and handed it to me at this particular moment. We had been discussing the forthcoming publication of his collected poems, which would feature the photograph I’d taken of him in Joe and Jill’s backyard. By handing me this poem, which had never been published and was not among the poems to be "collected," he saved it from oblivion. We all felt not only that it should appear in the book but that a photocopy of the envelope ought to be included. In a sense, this was his last poem – and as apt as any of the Death Poems written by Japanese Buddhist monks.

That was early January 2009. At the end of February we attended his memorial.

Heloise and two of the Wilsons’ children, and several grandchildren, still live in Las Cruces; and the book, Shaman of the Desert: the Collected Poems, very finely printed, is worth a read, particularly if you like poetry or New Mexico, or knew Keith. [Anyone interested in buying a copy should call Heloise at (575) 5622 8389.]
[The above appeared as a column in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning.]

1 comment:

  1. Michael Mandel brought a copy of your recollection of Keith to the open-mic last night (from the newspaper). Jill and I read it and liked it. Nice to see that it's also on your blog.