Wilson, Keith

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Nationality: American. Born: Clovis, New Mexico, 26 December 1927. Education: U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, B.S. 1950; University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, M.A. 1956. Military Service: U.S. Navy, 1950–54: Lieutenant; Korean War combat veteran. Family: Married Heloise Brigham in 1958; four daughters and one son. Career: Instructor, University of Nevada, Reno, 1956–57; technical writer, Sandia Corporation, Albuquerque, 1958–60; instructor, University of Arizona, Tucson, 1960–65. Professor of English and poet-in-residence, from 1965, now emeritus professor, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces. Fulbright Professor, University of Cluj, Romania, 1974–75; distinguished visiting professor and writer, Bowling Green State University, Ohio, spring 1991; distinguished visiting writer, 1998, the U.S. Naval Academy. Consultant to Coordinating Council for Literary Magazines, 1972–74; consultant to National Endowment for the Arts to Voice of America, 1975; master poet for New Mexico Poetry in the School Program. Awards: University of New Mexico D.H. Lawrence fellowship, 1972; P.E.N. American Center grant, 1972; Westhafer award, 1972, National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1974; New Mexico Governor's award, 1988; Premio Fronteriza, Border Book Festival, 1997. Address: 1500 South Locust, Las Cruces, New Mexico 88001, U.S.A.



Sketches for a New Mexico Hill Town. Concord, Massachusetts, Wine Press, 1966.

The Old Car and Other Blackpoems. Sacramento, California, Grande Ronde Press, 1968.

II Sequences. Portland, Oregon, Wine Press, 1968.

Graves Registry and Other Poems. New York, Grove Press, 1969.

Psalms for Various Voices. Las Cruces, New Mexico, Tolar Creek Syndicate, 1969.

Homestead. San Francisco, Kayak, 1970.

The Old Man and Others: Some Faces for America. Las Cruces, New Mexico State University Press, 1970.

The Shadow of Our Bones. Portland, Oregon, Trask House, 1971.

Rocks. Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Road Runner Press, 1971.

MidWatch: Graves Registry Part IV and V. Fremont, Michigan, Sumac Press, 1972.

Song of Thantog. New York, Athanor, 1972.

Thantog: Songs of a Jaguar Priest. Dennis, Massachusetts, Salt-Works Press, 1977.

While Dancing Feet Shatter the Earth. Logan, Utah State University Press, 1978.

The Streets of San Miguel. Tucson, Arizona, Maguey Press, 1978.

Desert Cenote. Fort Kent, Maine, Great Raven Press, 1978.

The Shaman Deer. Dennis, Massachusetts, Salt-Works Press, 1978.

Retablos. Albuquerque, San Marcos Press, 1980.

Stone Roses: Poems from Transylvania. Logan, Utah State University Press, 1983.

Lovesongs and Mandalas: Some Poems for Family and Friends. Navada, Iowa, San Marcos Press, 1984.

Meeting in Jal. Nobbs, New Mexico, Hawk Press, 1985.

Lion's Gate: Selected Poems 1963–1986. El Paso, Texas, Cinco Puntos Press, 1987.

The Winds of Pentecost. Las Cruces, New Mexico, Blue Mesa Press, 1988.

Graves Registry. Livingston, Montana, Clark City Press, 1992.

The Way of the Dove. Las Cruces, New Mexico, Whole Notes Press, 1194.

Études. Boise, Idaho, Lumberlast Press, 1994.


Critical Studies: By William Winthrop, in New Mexican (Santa Fe), 25 August 1968; in San Marcos Review (Albuquerque), February 1978.

Keith Wilson comments:

I hold with, or to, a number of concepts of the new American poetry.

Three major areas of concern: (1) New Mexico Southwest, (2) the sea, (3) emotional geography. I often use methods derived, in part at least, from Charles Olson's projective verse. He, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley have been large influences on me, as have both William Carlos Williams and, from childhood, Robert Burns.

*  *  *

Keith Wilson's poems are filled with the history, geography, and climate of their locales and even more steeped in the ghosts that cling to these settings. History in his poems is more of a spiritual experience than a matter for pedantry. His most comprehensive collection, Lion's Gate: Selected Poems 1963–1986, samples all of the major locales he has written about and includes work from all of his major collections.

One of these collections, Homestead, traces both his personal and his historical awareness of the American Southwest. The poems celebrate the strengths and mark the weaknesses of the people of this harsh but lovely land, where violence may be the snake under a nearby stone, ready to strike, sometimes at random, or, as in "The Drug Store," have its source in human actions:

one night, a fat old man
while teasing a baby
tossed him high
into the smokefilled
air inside & the great
fan cut the boy's
head off.
the man caught
the trunk
& carried it to
its mother.

There is also the brutality done in the name of religion, as, for example, in "Teofilo's Father":

Brothers carried him in honor
through the streets of our village:
for three days they sang & marched,
bearing the corpse until the smell
drove all but the devout away.

This poem about the death of a Penitente not only captures the harm done in the name of faith but also hints at the cultural differences that often divide humanity at the same time they enrich the world. In "Teofilo Orozco" Teofilo's son, the author's boyhood friend, returns, like the author, from time in the service, but when they met,

...as I shook
his hand I saw the blue tattooed cross,
the slashed rays of the Pachuco, man
of violence, hater of gringos.

As Teofilo's friends watch, they shake hands, probably for the last time.

Wilson's work is full of quick, vivid character sketches of people who enrich the Southwest landscape, for example, an old man at peace with a rattlesnake under his house and another who raises but cannot bring himself to slaughter his farm animals. Perhaps the most vivid personage of all is the land itself, as shown in these lines from "The Voices Of My Desert":

New Mexico is a myth, an ancient whirlpool
of time where moments stand still just before
being sucked down to other planes, other hours.

In "New Mexico: Paso Por Aqui" the poet tells us that

This is an old land, dry & brittle.
Its charms are bones, hollowed to whistles,
dancing feet hidden by rising dust.

Wilson's poetry also reflects on his experiences as a naval officer in the 1950s. Graves Registry treats the Korean War, and MidWatch: Graves Registry Part IV and V extends his reflections on war and man's attraction to violence to the Vietnam War. These poems face up to the most unpleasant aspects of human existence and contain powerful images: fountains of flesh rising from bombings, faces blown away by a single bullet. They also strive toward affirmation in the face of the horrendous evidence of history.

A later collection, Stone Roses: Poems from Transylvania, chronicles a year Wilson spent in the mid-1970s as a lecturer at Babes-Bolyai University "in the ancient principality of Transylvania," a part of Romania. Here violence springs less from war than from the harshness and difficulty of life, but even so, as in New Mexico, the author bumps into his past, into earlier selves. The following is from "The Minaret in Constanta":

I raised my head
   saw the gate I had dreamed of
since childhood, without understanding, encrusted
with lions...
I sat on that terrace, drank cognac in reverence
for whatever that night long ago might have meant
to that me who lived a little while ago and remembered
so long a night, candles, her lips, and lions.

Wilson's poems are ultimately heartening, for he brings compassion rather than self-righteous anger to human follies. It is this sense of our own complicity in history, whether through repetition or reincarnation, that makes his preoccupation with his own ancestral past and the historical roots of place, in New Mexico, Korea, or Romania, valuable. This is not nostalgia at work but rather a desire to learn from the past, to help something new rise from the ruins of the old: "It was the purpose of these poems to show / the glories of war, sadnesses of peace. / Replace them both."

—Duane Ackerson

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