Sunday, March 25, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Roethke protégé's firm voice

Special to The Seattle Times

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One of many poets nurtured and challenged by Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington, William Witherup spent his childhood in eastern Washington, in the shadow of the Hanford atomic energy facility creating the materials for the first atomic bombs.

"Down Wind, Down River: New and Selected Poems"
by William Witherup
West End Press, $16.95
Along with important excursions into poems about his years in California, especially as a poetry teacher in the state prison at Soledad, Witherup comes back to the Northwest, both real and remembered.

"At Celilo Falls the Columbia / broke into a lather of water and light," he remembers, and then switches to the present: "I am lost now in a polluted slough, /seeking a channel to white water."

William Witherup will read at 3 p.m. next Sunday at Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way East, Bainbridge Island 206-842-5332 or 360-692-2375 in Kitsap County.
That poem from three decades ago finds its echo in the volume's title poem, written in 1996, as the poet contemplates radioactive isotopes poisoning the land along the same river: "Salmon smolt stunned / As they hit the outflow plumes. / At twilight's last gleaming / I-131 sifting on sage and thistle." The poem is a long parody of "The Star Spangled Banner": "Oh say can you breathe / By the dawn's early wind / What so proudly we made / At Hanford Engineering Works."

Those four lines are a pretty good synopsis of Witherup's position on poetic form: He approaches the traditional music of verse, but when he has something to say that won't quite fit, the form drops away. As a result, the poems are urgent and earnest with striking images conveyed in lovely sound.


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