Keith Wilson: 1927-2009

Joe and Jill Somoza just called to tell us that our close friend poet Keith Wilson has died. Keith had been in a hospice in Las Cruces for almost two weeks. He passed quietly with Heloise, his daughters Kathy and Kerin and his son Kevin at his side. Keith’s been suffering from aphasia for a number of years and he had lost his ability to speak and to be a poet, so it was time for him to catch the boat to the other side. He will be missed. I will miss him.

Keith, as a friend and a mentor, was a very important influence in my life as a poet and as a householder. I first met him and Heloise in Tucson in 1963 where he was a lecturer. Through him and Barney Childs I became involved in the Ruth Stephan Poetry Center, along with my friend Paul Malanga, and was able to hang around poets and poetry. The Wilson household was always full of talking poetry and laughing. Creeley, Snyder, Duncan, Jerome Rothenberg, John Newlove and so many others were always coming through. It was a special time back then. I’ve always felt privileged to know poets and to be part of the special community of those who make poems. Keith was an entry way for me into this special world.

Last year poets in Las Cruces and Placitas/Albuquerque organized celebrations of Keith and his poetry. He was present at each event and enjoyed them immensely. You can read about each of those occasions on previous blog entries here and here where I've included introductions by Joe Somoza (Las Cruces) and me (Placitas) and poems. The picture above I took in December 2005. Keith was still writing, although I suppose the aphasia was probably creeping into his world.

This fall Clark City Press will be publishing his collected poems (1965-2001), Shaman of the Desert. 1100 pages in all, it will include 23 of his books, uncollected poems and his autobiography that he wrote in 1992 for the Gale Publishing Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series.

In my other postings you'll see other poems, but here is one of my favorite Keith Wilson poems, a poem I heard a long time ago back in the day. May Keith rest in peace.

The Gift
--for my daughter Kathleen

This is a song
about the gift of patience

of opening

the need to walk alone
ever, deeper, into

This is a poem
against light

a recommendation
to darkness

Bring a candle
the room is warm

This is a song


Airports & Horses: Jimenez & Hauser

Every time I drive to the El Paso airport I am startled by John Hauser's don Juan Oñate rearing up on an oversized Spanish mustang—“the world’s largest equestrian statue.” Hauser was into exact realism, so driving almost under the hooves of the thing, it’s impossible to ignore the mustang’s gargantuan package hanging like a wet dream gone terribly bad. What is that thing doing there? That’s a good question too. Public art, especially a piece of this enormity and expense, speaks about a city’s cultural vibes. El Paso has endured a 10-year-plus name-calling debate about this bronzed humongous conqueror. For a number of years the thing couldn’t find a home--nobody wanted it downtown, nobody wanted it on the river, nobody wanted it at City Hall--so the airport became the home of last resort. The debate teams had the usual suspects. On one side have been the conservatives (a buttoned-down assortment of Republicans, traditional Catholics, old-school and well-heeled Mexican-Americans, etcetera) and the other side is populated by the progressive community (a more vociferous hodgepodge that includes artists and intellectuals, the left side of Democratic Party, political activists, old-school Chicano activists, etcetera). This political and divisive history of Hauser’s statue has been documented in a number of places, including a long piece in the New York Times that as usual denigrates El Paso and a POV PBS documentary, The Last Conquistador. More important to the history of arts funding in El Paso and a critique of Hauser as an artist are Richard Baron’s articles, one of which is archived here at newspapertree.com (others are buried in archived pre-online fishwraps like The Bridge Review and Stanton Street).

And of course by now you can guess which side I’m on.

Sometimes when I see the Hauser I get angry. But when I’m lucky I laugh. El Paso got suckered again. Tom Diamond wiggled his finger and wagged his tongue and John Hauser patted the ricos on the back and smoothed their tail feathers and sweet green money slimed into their coffers by the millions. Why not? Oñate was a good Catholic boy, even if in 1599 he earned the nickname of “the Butcher at Acoma” for ordering the masacre at the pueblo, killing 800, enslaving 500 women and children, and cutting off the right foot of every remaining able-bodied man in the pueblo. Not to worry. He boasted pure Spanish blood.

Not like that Benito Juárez indio guy.

Not like that meztizo vato Pancho Villa.

I grew up in Memphis where huge statues of Confederate generals on horseback (Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest and others) dominated a number of public parks. Those pieces of public art left a bitter taste in my mouth. I didn’t have to be told what the underlying message of those statues of men on horseback meant—those guys were heroes because they fought to preserve slavery. So from the beginning I didn’t like the politics of the Oñate thing and I didn’t like how its funding was rammed through city council back in the 90s. Now that it’s done I don’t like it as a piece of art and I certainly don’t like the symbolism of having this huge statue of the Butcher at Acoma becoming part of our cultural landscape. I have a friend, poet Simon Ortiz of the Acoma Pueblo, who talks about how the dark shadow of Oñate and his butchery still reverberates through the oral history of his people’s language and stories.

In Denver a few weeks ago with Lee on business, I made sure I saw that city’s public art at their airport: the Blue Mustang by paseño Luis Jimenez (1940-2006) that has finally been installed. It had consumed much of the last years of Luis’ life and, with a final bit of irony, as he was working to finish the project the almost-finished head toppled over and killed him. As I approached the airport, I saw it from a half a mile away. Before the airport itself comes into view, the mustang rears up grandly on its hind legs out in the prairie, its mysterious red-orange eyes glowing in the cloudy dusk.

Luis grew up in El Paso in the 1940s and 50s. As a young man he left El Paso burdened with that rage that so many young Chicanos of his generation—especially the artists, the writers, the intellectuals—grew up with in their hearts and minds. El Paso is a Mexican city, a Mexican-American city, but the übercultur of his growing up was Anglo-American topped with a boring salsa of conservative Mexicano. The political structure, the banks, the big businesses—all were in the hands of the Anglo-Americans and a handful of rico Mexican-Americans. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the public school systems in the 40s and 50s. Spanish was not allowed. And kids in high school didn’t hear the Mexican history of El Paso, especially the stories of El Paso as the political and intellectual center for the early stages of the Mexican Revolution, they didn’t take field trips down to Monument Marker #1 to see where Francisco Madero crossed over the river to launch the historic revolution, and they didn’t learn about Pancho Villa living over in Sunset Heights, waiting for his return to Mexico. Instead, they learned about the Anglo-American history of the city and the state of Texas (the gun fighters, the Texas Rangers, the Alamo, etcetera). Artists and writers like Luis, Arturo Islas, John Rechy, Antonio Burciaga, Ricardo Sanchez and others realized early on that they had been deprived of their heritage and they learned to express their anger and resentment through their work.

Sometime in the early 80s I heard Luis speak at UTEP as a guest of the art department. Lee and I had moved to El Paso in 1978, but I knew Luis’ work from traveling from our home in Albuquerque to Santa Fe to see his cutouts, drawings and prints at the now defunct Hills Gallery. It was the first time since leaving El Paso (he was then over 40 and had received national acclaim) that he had been asked to speak in El Paso. His speech was hesitant at first, uncomfortable to be in El Paso, but, feeling the good reception of the standing-room only crowd, he warmed to the task as he showed slides of his work. Somewhere in the middle of the speech he started talking about his anger, and he spoke about how in the first part of the century the city government had outlawed the use of adobe as a building materials for homes. Adobe, of course, is the indigenous building material of the American Southwest. It’s a cheap material (you can make it yourself with the dirt in your backyard if you have the right dirt), and the result is buildings that, if properly maintained, can last forever. Indeed, the ambience of cultural boomtowns Taos and Santa Fe is rooted in adobe buildings. But the local power-brokers here made their anti-adobe law, and of course one of those helping to make the law was the local brick-maker. The story of bricks and adobe in El Paso was symbolic to Luis of his hometown, much like the stories of his and Hauser’s sculptures have become to me.

To take a picture of the Blue Mustang, I had to park the car illegally on the muddy shoulder of the road and run across the half-frozen ground to get close enough for a decent photo. I was happy to do it. Luis’ Blue Mustang is an incredibly potent piece of work, married perfectly into the landscape of the prairies to the east and the Rocky Mountains to the west. It represents the power of the Western mythos in our national psyche. Horses, of course, were introduced on this continent by the Spanish, but it wasn’t long before they became the symbol of the indigenous horse cultures of the prairie Indians. By staying away from historical particulars, the Blue Mustang synthesizes many disparate parts of our history to give us a symbol of the American West.

So I get back home and go to the El Paso airport. There is don Juan Oñate riding through the parking lot on his over-sized Spanish mustang. Even in its enormous presence it seems inconsequential. I can’t help it—I remember myself five-years-old playing with toys and realize this thing is like a blow-up of those little pot metal Indians and cowboys I used to play with. The Indians were on one side, the cowboys on the other. The cowboys were always rearing up and shooting their guns, the Indians were slinking down behind their little horses, they were running away. That hokey scene. Except that hokey scene speaks about one people’s conquering and domination of another people. It’s a complicated history that should contemplated and discussed, especially in classrooms, but it’s certainly not a history that should be romanticized with a monstrous and well-hung macho statue.

Oh well. Hauser’s Oñate has become a fact of life for us here in El Paso. It’s not going to come down. Still, I have a secret wish.

I wish we could cut off Oñate’s right foot. Not in the dead of night. No, I want to have a huge ceremony and invite the Governor of Acoma to El Paso. I want to invite Simon Ortiz to write and read a poem for the occasion. A poem that will honor the dead of Acoma, a poem that will honor the history of the pueblo peoples, a poem that will honor the land we live on, a poem that will honor our common future. After Simon has read his poem and we all have tears in our eyes, I want the mayor of El Paso to give the Governor of Acoma a large blowtorch and I want him to cut off the statue’s right foot. I want it to fall thud to the ground amid cheers and sadness and prayers. Then I want a powwow to begin. Maybe we can call it “Cutting Off the Butcher’s Foot Powwow.” Or maybe we can call it the “Asking for Forgiveness Powwow.” We’ll figure out something. The important thing is that we invite all the Fancy Dancers, the Traditional Dancers, the Grass Dancers, the drummers and the singers—the drums will pound and the songs will wail at the moon and the beating of feet will pound into the desert night. Vendors will be selling snow cones and churros and elotes, tacos and hamburgers and sodas and Oñate piñatas. No booze, no dope. Those are the rules. That’s because all of the Kachinas and the holy clowns will be there, watching us. Our Lady of Guadalupe too. She’ll be wearing cowboy boots and a big smile. We’ll invite Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed. They'll be hanging out in the shadows, mumbling about the uselessness of words. At midnight, holding hands and dancing around the circle, the big drums still pounding, we will melt the Spaniard’s foot. The molten bronze will seep steaming into a cauldron.

Hauser, like Sisyphus doing his existential but very sacred chore of pushing the rock up the hill, will recast and re-attach the foot so that the next year we can re-enact the ceremony. He will be well-paid and he will have a studio to work on other projects. The festival will become a huge annual fair. El Paso will become known as the City of Forgiveness. The federal government will tear down its ugly fence, the drug war will become history and peace will be declared in Juárez.

I wish.