Helen Losse, Review of William Pitt Root’s “Strange Angels”
by Helen Losse
William Pitt Root
Strange Angels by William Pitt Root is a 120-page volume of new poems, dedicated to his wife Pam, his daughter Jennifer, several others, and me. Yes, Root dedicates his book to “all who’ve never had a book dedicated to them before.” Well, I haven’t, so that’s me. Thanks, Bill.
The book begins with a single poem and is then divided into five sections of varying lengths. The single poem “Night Poem in the Shawangunks” sets the scene and acts as an introduction. Saying Root loves nature is like saying the Pope is Catholic. Root is nature, the genuine article. And before the book is over he will have drawn the reader in, making a spiritual case for his radical point of view.
…and yes my own heart quickly
sympathized, first contracting
fearful as the prey’s,
wanton as a pulsing star,…
(“Night Poem in the Shawangunks,” p.3)
Along with the beauty and music of Root’s language, he writes to our shame on every page—
details form accusations that cut this reader to the quick, to the marrow—for we all know how often we do not give our very best. We fail to listen for a “reason to remember” but rather concentrate on the accuracy of details that form memory. Root demonstrates in verse after verse why the former is a superior approach.
In the first poem of the first section “Why I Remember,” Root reminds his reader that many “explain [the miraculous] away in retrospect as chemistry,” which can easily be forgotten or dismissed as inconsistent. He prefers to ask, “And what is the true nature of the miraculous?” (“Seagrape Tree and the Miraculous”). Isn’t that what we all really want to know?
In “Misconceptions,” he explains why—too late—after years of “diverting [himself] from the main roads,” because of a word he overheard whispered by a neighbor, he learned, “[He] had no Indian blood.” And then in the titular poem “Strange Angel,” Root explains,
…we wait to be transported
By what we think we understand
From one place to another
While all we cannot comprehend
Gratuitously moves through undriven mysteries.”
So Root is part Cherokee, after all. The why of memory made him so. Then, just as Root has sobered his reader, shaming us for our lack of depth and commitment to what we say we believe, he is chosen Poet Laureate of Tucson, Arizona. And he pens his “Laureate’s Proclamation” drawing from his poetic ancestors to show the universality of poetry. Root is telling us all, we can be what he is: genuine.
Root’s next section, “At the Feast of the Last Breath,” is made up of poem’s about the deaths of several of Root’s male friends. Most of the poems are titled with the friend’s name or dedicated to him. Meeting Root under various circumstances, the men have traveled many miles together. “The years since then have rolled by in tides of wives, / …banked against emptiness in… / quests for respite…” (“For Tim, Without Whom”). And “I remember your last lamb roast for young Hannah, / how you watched a young moon dance on ancient waters” (”At the Feast of the Last Breath.”
And when the ones all in white wheeled you out,
the look on that bearded face of yours
reminded me of a long-eared hound
crouched in the back of a battered pickup
pulling out onto the freeway at last, face set in the rising wind.
“Neither Basalt Ledge not Turnip, or: Forests and Fields” and “A Flower of Human Light” are shorter sections, made up of five and six poems respectively. The first contains some fine assumptions made from dialog with nature. “You know perfectly well / we who begin as dreamers / close our eyes in sleep” (“Query for Owl at Spring Equinox”). The reader knows we will all die, but do owls dream? And again in “Most Likely”:
It isn’t life that’s strange.
Is the assumption
We know enough
To know what strange would be.
“I’ve been en route to all I will become” (“Most Likely”) explains why the reason to remember matters and why the numinous matters.
“A Flower of Human Light” is a section of love poems.
How odd, how interesting, what a blessing
that skin behaves
as skin does
touching other skin….
And as he eats lunch, a glimpse of the eaten—the antelope:
I have eaten
and will and will
though the floor
will rumble with
the clatter of hooves.
The reader knows by now how bold William Pitt Root can be, but he goes further, telling of how “[he] will pity those / who know [the blonde] now /only by this poem, /…they must live out / their remaining lives / tantalized…[by the possibility of meeting her]” (“Ode to a Russian Blonde Who, Before Sleeping, Wishes Someone Might Write Her a Poem Before She Wakes”). Pitt has taken us back to how we listen. If we do meet this Russian blonde, will we remember, or are we to be pitied for our lack of attention to what leads to true remembrance?
In the final section, “Among Fools, Soothsayers and Kings,” Root begins, “You must change your life. So says the poet…”, as if, by now, that is not obvious to the discerning reader. “…The poet’s mortal eyes / saw his own immortal face / appear as fire in air” (“Classical Figures”). And if that story of Apollo is not reason enough for the change, try hearing a poet, whose “lyrics” resound with “that ruthless blood-tonged cry / drawn from a throat sheathed in rainbows of the living flame” (“Calling the World to Order”).
William Pitt Root calls his reader to walk on higher ground, to summon memories that matter, to change our behavior, and to become more fully human. Strange Angels is a book of accessible poems to be cherished, read, marked up, and corner dog-eared. This is a book to be learned from. Get your copy soon.