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Bill Witherup

William Witherup (1935-2009) (biographical information)

I miss the eastern Washington rivers, living in Seattle as I do. Through grade school, junior high, and high school, I knew the largest river as the Columbia River. Columbia has a good ring to it: co-lum-bee-ya, resonant vowels in combination with one labial consonant, suggesting the river's depths. But how much softer is the Wanapum name for the river: Chiwana. And then there was the Yakima River feeding into the Chiwana at Richland (Chemna) and farther downriver, the Snake coiling into Chiwana at Pasco.

My family came to Richland, Washington from Kansas City in the summer of 1944. For three baking summer months we lived in an army-type trailer camp in Pasco, until our prefab in Richland was ready. Father had come out earlier, one of the first workers recruited for the Hanford Engineering Project. I found out, only after he retired, that his first job at Hanford was to help log in the graphite blocks that formed the core of B-reactor (which was to cook, in an evil alchemy, the nasty stuff: plutonium).

My childhood was a numinous one: Kansas City was lightning bugs on humid summer evenings. And there was Swope Park, which had a swimming pool with an underground grotto where you could watch the swimmers through portholes. Swimmers, both grown-ups and children, would make fish mouths at the audience, or thumb their noses. The portholes prefigured the windows at the fish ladders at the Wanapum Dam, upriver from Hanford, where you could watch the few salmon swimming by.

In preindustrial times, it was said you could walk across the river at Chemna (Richland) on the backs of salmon.

My mother, three-year-old sister, and one-year-old brother came out on the train. Those were the days when the men's room was full of men in undershirts, either shaving or smoking cigars. I remember the secretive feeling of being in the upper booth of the Pullman, listening to the clackety-clack of the wheels. The poet Theodore Roethke, who had also come west to teach at the University of Washington, and had an influence on my writing, caught the magical, childhood experience of traveling by train. Here are the first five lines of "Night Journey":

Now as the train bears west,

Its rhythms rock the earth,

And from my Pullman berth

I stare into the night

While others take their rest.

Fast forward to 1952, my senior year in Columbia High School, Richland, Washington. (Now Richland High School, but still home to the Richland Bombers!) During my senior year I was coeditor, along with the late Marilyn Richey, of the high school yearbook The Columbian. Our advisor, James McGrath, was a first-year art teacher at Col-Hi, just out of college himself. He spent extra time with his students, in both art classes and the yearbook class. He would be busted these days for suspected pedophilia, but during warm spring evenings McGrath and some of his students would go down to the river, make a campfire, roast marshmellows, and talk art and philosophy. One of the students labeled these gatherings "Thought Fires."

James McGrath was the first to open to me the river of language, the phenomenological stream of poetry. The Columbia River was both a physical reality and a metaphor, just as the West itself is both reality and metaphor; myth and politics. As mentioned above, Theodore Roethke was another mentor. A third mentor, and good friend, James B. Hall, died in February of this year, in Portland, Oregon. A native of Ohio, a WW II vet and graduate of the University of Iowa, Hall spent the better part of his life in the West: University of Oregon, University of California at Irvine, and University of California at Santa Cruz. An important writer and poet on his own, James B. Hall was instrumental in the careers of three other writers of the West, besides yours truly: Ken Kesey, Bill Hotchkiss, and Barry Lopez.

James McGrath is still with us, living in La Cieneguilla, New Mexico, seven miles outside of Santa Fe, writing and publishing poetry, and also teaching seniors in Santa Fe, and Native American children at Hopi. I will close with a poem of my own, a testament to James McGrath. This is from an unpublished manuscript, "The Poet As Hornet."

James McGrath: 1953

The Art Room

He unlocked the door with a river stone,

We followed him inside.

Odor of ink, linoleum blocks;

A palette knife

Bleeds cadmium red.

Path of white sand through the window.


A blue aura over B-reactor.

Our fathers; a few mothers

In white paper coveralls and booties

Mix batches of Death -

A yellow slurry kneaded into round cakes.

"Eat this confection with your Russian tea!"


Mister McGrath was Fire Master,

Hearth Keeper.

Chrome yellow were our student faces

In the campfire light.

Smells of wet stone and algae

In the night air;

Nighthawks and bats rowed

To the water music.

We talked of poetry, philosophy;

Saw vast, working latitudes

As Chiwana mirrored the Milky Way.

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