Windswept Words

William Pitt Root's Western poetry leaves readers with an appetite for more

A baby pigeon in the jaws of a bull snake. Saguaros at the edge of a mine "stationed like sentinels." In late October,

reach into the air like roots,
and whatever blossoms
blossoms underground.

Such visions of contrast appear throughout the poems in former Tucson poet laureate William Pitt Root's new book, White Boots: New and Selected Poems of the West, and they epitomize one of its central explorations: the complicated and necessary relationship between life and death.

Such subject matter is certainly not new in literature, but Root's keen eye and lyrically astute ear provide a fresh take on the life-death paradox. His contemplation naturally extends to creative expression, as in the book's title poem:

That's how it always seemed
to me, with art I mean. Whether
it's paint on canvas or ink on a page,
it's the chance for what knows it must die in us
to join what knows it will live forever.
And knowledge from such common depth
only survives in the light as shadow ...

If this knowledge resides in shadow, Root's desire in these poems is to illuminate. It is the connection between things unseen or apparently unrelated that matters; his task is to flesh this out while still leaving room for mystery. Like any good poet, Root does not set out to answer questions, but to ask them.

While the individual poems stand effectively on their own, there are also many satisfying threads woven loosely throughout the work. This is a writer who can be trusted to take us on a journey likely to seduce veterans and newcomers to the world of contemporary poetry.

As poet laureate from 1997-2001, Root commuted between Tucson and Manhattan, where he taught at Hunter College. He now writes in southwest Colorado, and the influence of the Western American landscape on his poetic consciousness is clear. Whether he's writing about the Sonoran Desert or the vast grasslands of Wyoming or the forests of Alaska, Root's powerful narrative voice finds its inspiration and its images, which are at once stark and striking. Outside a sweat lodge, cows are

... Lumps
of darkness in the dark
crunching pebbles
under tall grass

And in "Anamax Open Pit: Graveyard Shift," mining machinery comes eerily to life as evening progresses:

... Desert in
the dark grows luminous,
as in another corner
of the pit shovels and dozers
groan and roar like
huge abyssal creatures
feeding in the circles
of their own light.

Root's lens focuses on the minute as well as the grand: the mating rituals of slugs are conveyed with sensuous lyricism, but the shockwaves of the global AIDS epidemic have a place here as well. The natural world, particularly the lives and habits of animals, is seamlessly juxtaposed with the human. The two are no longer separated by our admittedly false distinctions.

Another pleasure of these poems stems from the variety of characters explored, from the traveling outsider to truck drivers, from frontier homesteaders to the voices of indigenous people. This is a portrait of the West that rejects a simple view of an oft-romanticized landscape in favor of more complex terrain. The voices here are intimate and diverse from poem to poem, and keep the reader wondering who, or what, might come next.

While the poet's love of these particular places is clear, the writing does not hinge on idealization. These poems are all-encompassing, and the contemporary conflicts and conditions of the West are often addressed. Root smoothly integrates an honest treatment of political and cultural issues, both specifically Western and universally human. However, he never sacrifices what remains most important in poetry: the treatment of language itself.

At once a lament for things lost and an exaltation of all that lives on, White Boots is an accessible and often stunning book. It will strike a particular chord with those who cherish the Western landscape, where

nothing seems more still
than this desert at night
late, after the breezes
of twilight
establish themselves
in the chaparral.

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