Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bill Hotchkiss (1936-2010) - My Deep Loss

Winter Spirit by Dark  Natasha

I just received notification (from his wife, Lee-Marie) that my friend and mentor Bill Hotchkiss passed away at 4 am on May 18, 2010, from a massive stroke and heart attack.

Aside from some people with whom I went to high school, he was the person in my life who had known me the longest. He was my teacher, my mentor, my friend, and somewhat of a father figure.

I wish I could post a picture, but I don't have a digital image and there are none online. I offer Old Man Coyote (above), suspecting he and Bill are sharing a beer right about now.

He was a poet, a novelist, a noted literary critic on the work of Robinson Jeffers and William Everson, and for more than 40 years, a teacher of English and writing. His first novel, The Medicine Calf (1981, W.W. Norton), about the life of mountain man and Western legend, Jim Beckwourth, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Climb to the High Country (1978, W.W. Norton), his first volume of poetry with a major publisher (and his sixth or seventh overall), sold more than 2,500 copies, which is exceptional for a poetry book. He went on to publish many westerns (with Dell and Bantam) and many additional books of poetry. He taught at Sierra College in Grass Valley, CA, for most of his teaching career.

* * * * *
I am deeply saddened and a little bit in shock. The year I first met Bill, in a writing class when I was 19 or 20, he had a heart attack in class that spring (not mine, a different one) and took a few weeks off from teaching.

Over the years he had seemed to be as healthy as one can be when not eating very well, working too much, and being a bit heavy, but he did walk in the mountains almost every day with his dog(s), and he had quit smoking after that first heart attack.

He was most at home in the trees and mountains, far from the facade of civilization. His early work on Jim Beckwourth was telling - there was something of the mountain man in Bill. His novels were westerns, his poetry was nearly always set in the wilderness, away from the cities.

* * * * *

Most importantly, however, he was my friend. I was a young adult, just beginning to process the death of my own father (postponed due to my drug and alcohol use), when I met Bill - he looked a little like my father, he was almost the right age, he was brilliant in ways I could only hope to be, and, and . . . he took an interest in me.

That was crucial.

I can't express how important that was to the fact that I am still sitting here, alive, mourning his passing. I was not happy at that point in my life, and I was not a good writer. But he encouraged me, invited me to join a poetry group that he led.

I am saddened that I never told him how important he had been in my life.

I never told him how much I enjoyed our discussions of literature, and science, and history, and the environment - how much I enjoyed arguing with him about his conservatism and my liberalism - how much it meant to me that he kept telling me I should be getting a PhD in literature and teaching poetry.

I never told him any of these things . . . and now I can't.

He's gone.

My grief is nothing to that of his wife, or his daughter, or even his step children . . . . of which I somehow considered myself one.

I knew he would pass away one day, but somehow . . . I don't know . . . he was too stubborn to die. I thought. I hoped.

I keep stopping as I type this, staring into space . . . remembering nights we sat around the camp fire at his home in Southern Oregon, reading poetry, eating hamburgers, talking about all manner of things. Arguing over a specific word, or a line - seeking the right reference.

Bill was the father I always I wanted . . . and he was more than that. I don't what to feel, or how . . . sad, numb, a little lost.

The poet is dead.

* * * * *

This is one of my favorite poems from Bill . . . seems fitting . . . . May "the long darkness" promise him peace.


THIS INTERLUDE

Summer lightning
Flickers the sprawling Sierra,
High granite, pure, hard, black-freckled,
And the overburden above timberline,
Basalt and ancient mudstones,
Bunchgrasses and kinnikinnik and cascara,
Whistlings of marmots and picas,
Snowfields and spring flowers in August:
Great waves of thunder crush
Through the sacred dark--
Bullbats and perching hawks
Cry out involuntarily:
Now here, now there,
The sleeping mountains emerge
Into light and then vanish--
Deep in gouged trench-canyons
Ceaseless riverine voices
Whisper words I scarcely understand,
Yet I attempt my rough translation.

Seasons flow about me,
Bear me deathward.

I am not certain who I am,
Where I came from, where I'm going--

Perhaps I'm simply a figment
Of wild imagination--
Bits of rock and particles of soil
In flotation or suspension,
Electric threads that vibrate through the mass
And struggle to a dream of consciousness:

At times all process seems illusion,
The possible visionings of a frightened creature
Attempting through indirection to define itself.
CALL IT MIRACLE SUFFICIENT.

Please know: an old coyote I met along the road
Told me to speak the minute conscious flarings,
Those moments vivid in memory, fragments of meaning
But hidden, disguised, incipiently alive--
For each, he said, contains its own soft mystery--
Even as a ghostly pattern of azalea blossom
(Hidden in rootstock, in meristem, intangible, a portion of ether,
Intense conditioning of space, paradigm and template,
Encodement of genetic tissue, yet prior to that)
Makes endless replication through centuries,
Produces multitude and ceaseless variation,
The odor of something like honey faint in the air
Of a May morning in a mountain ravine--
And hidden clusters of yellow-throated flowers,
White-petaled, dark-stamened above flowing water.

I HEAR THE COMMANDMENT
AND SPEAK WITHOUT CHOICE.

BUT DO YOU WISH TO HEAR MY WORDS?

No matter, no matter. Close the book,
The best poetry means to be lived.

The words--the art, the cadences, the images--
The mystical creature sheds its skin as it goes.

In my mind's eye the Great Coyote grins.

BEWARE:
YOU LIVE ANOTHER'S THOUGHTS
AT THE RISK OF YOUR OWN,
YOU BASK IN ANOTHER'S POEMS
AND HESITATE TO TEST THE RIVER'S CURRENT.

SWOLLEN-THIGHS SOLVED A DEADLY RIDDLE
AND DREW ON THE CLOAK OF POWER,
WAS ENVIED BY THOSE WHO LOOKED UPON HIM--
YET RUIN CAME AS A SUMMER FLASH-FLOOD.

THE HUMAN CREATURE IS FRAIL
AND DEATH SWALLOWS UP THE GREATEST PRIDE:
IT IS FOOLISH TO ENVY ANYONE,
FOR LIFE LACKS TENURE, AND NO ONE IS FORTUNATE
UNTIL HE IS DEAD. ONLY THE DEAD HAVE PEACE.



Friend, I think we should comprehend one another.
I suspect we're more alike
Than either of us has yet imagined.



I remember that light came in a burst,
And with it a blur of images,
A babble of voices, sensations
That filled me with fear--
I cried for the simple beauty
Of morning dew on the leaves of wild lilac.

I came awake amid streams and mountains,
Forests and long ridges and creek channels
Where half-crazed miners, obsessed,
Monomaniacal, at one time frenzied for gold--
Men who cut and shot each other, hunted Indians
On holidays, tore at the earth, and went away.

A solitary child, I was seldom at ease
Among human creatures--never trusted them,
Nor found reason to accept their madness.

Perhaps you understand me--have felt the same?

We read of torture, lynchings, pogroms,
Death camps, purges, brutalization, genocide.

The cities of America are haunted
By pain and fear of violence, seething unrest,
Utter depravity--WANTING, WANTING, WANTING--
INCHOATE DESIRE FOR THINGS WHICH CANNOT BE POSSESSED.
What I'm unable to accept, I try to avoid:
That old wound of mine, the knowledge
And the dread--I'm not completely civilized.

When I walk the forest, I carry a gun--
Not due to fear of wilderness, I assure you.

The enemy is real, bipedal, large-brained.

DEATH, CRIES THE EARTH, DEATH, DEATH....



My own words trail off behind me
Like wind-driven sparks from a night's campfire.

I think of a flight of wild swans one morning
In the northern Sierra, white birds on the water at sunrise,
And I regret I never wrote about them until now.

I wish I could make you feel what I felt then--
Or what I feel this moment, re-visioning.



We're merely visitors here. Our stay is brief.



Landforms, lifeforms are the ultimate poems
And the source of all poetry whatsoever--
We are from them and of them--and rocks and trees
Are brothers and sisters, friends and lovers--
From the earth we receive our meaning;
And when we grow tired, the glittering soil
Draws us to its bosom, embraces us back.

Forms and processes surround us always,
Forever speaking, capable of telling us
About themselves and about ourselves as well,
Hieroglyphics minuscule cut into stones,
Runes most holy, most utterly sacred.

The rocks and sediments are rich with clues
Which both invite and challenge.

All living things reveal
The same priestly writing, even as now
In muted thrum of a rainy December night,
Coyotes sing out chorus to a Coyote-headed God.

A handful of soil contains secrets
Of creation and destruction, of Divinity and the human soul,
Of solitary consciousness,
Of the vast, rough-hewn, exacting intellect Divine.

Earth music continues;
But caught in a human frenzy,
We often fail to hear.

Yet something's inside us,
Coded deep in the spindles of procreation--
It corresponds, effects a harmonic, begins to sing
In the presence of beauty or love or wonder.

Wildness sings to a wildness within,
Suggests but never defines oneness
With all we construe as life
And all we construe as non-life.
Is not the earth itself
A huge living thing, vast sentient creature
Drifting through suns and tides,
Yet infinitely small in a cosmos of titans?

We are no more than the minutest cell
In the star-shelled body of All,
The God and the Goddess forever coupled,
Forever interpenetrating, in spasm....



As a boy, I was obsessed with the woods,
Was driven to know
Every creek, canyon, meadow, and hill
For miles around my home.

I wanted to take others with me,
Show them places and things I'd discovered.

I suppose my friends grew weary
Of being dragged off to Goat Rock, Bear River,
Chalk Bluff, or Woodpecker Ravine--
But surely that was where these verses began,
In pine and oak woods, hills, arroyos
Of the Sierra's west slope.

A boy discovers a bee tree
In Fall Creek Canyon.
A boy talks about the bee tree.
A boy says, "Look, look at this bee tree.
And the waterfall. Look how sunlight glints
In the flow, there, just where it curves
And fans over the rock-rooted edge...."



Before I could utter the syllables,
I knew what was out there was FIERCE AND BEAUTIFUL,
Corresponding somehow to something elemental
Inside myself. I knew this Other had rhythms
And needs of its own, a sibilant loveliness
Completely transparent, indifferent
To the needs of cougar or kingfisher or human being,
But beautiful beyond the bounds of expression:
I didn't wish to live without it, made certain vows.

AN AWAKENING RELIGIOUS AND AESTHETIC,
THE DOGMAS FEW, COMMANDMENTS ABSOLUTE....



The young boy who became obsessed with woods
Is smitten still, and knows it. He's addicted,
Does not regret obsession and addiction.

Several times I've nearly been drowned
Because the lure of swift-running streams
Overcame my better judgment--
A promise of rushing green water caught with sunlight.

I've been chased by a bear (somewhere I've read
That one should never run from a bear).

I've gotten myself stuck
Halfway up a rockface,
At ten thousand foot in the Sierra,
And no one around for twenty miles.

Stepped on rattlesnakes. Slid down mountainside
Snowfields and damned near broke my neck.

I've gotten lost in limestone caves.
Ocean waves are also dangerous. I've learned
To beware the kissing bug and the poison oak
And one or two other things.

CLEAVE THE WOOD AND THOU SHALT FIND ME...

I was ten, and the promise of an August day
Drew me up onto Genoa Peak--I didn't tell my parents
For fear of prohibition. Then far below
The blue-black surface of Tahoe gleamed
In showers of sunlight, while westward across the lake,
The snow-touched peaks of Rubicon and Tallac
Boundaried my new-found vision of heights:
I scrambled among granite boulders,
Tested a hand-hold, it came loose in my grasp,
And beneath, motionless, an amber-green scorpion:
Mysterious and potent, I presumed, with death.

My flesh went cold as I carefully replaced
The shard of stone, then made quick retreat.

LIFT THE ROCK AND I AM THERE....



Rain cuts through darkness tonight
While higher in the mountains
A white fury of blizzard frenzies,
The snowpack deepens, winds coil out
Through high crags, swirl among cirques.

A hundred and sixty years back the streams
Were full of beaver--
Men asked, HOW'S THE STICK FLOATIN'?

But the beaver vanished, buffalo disappeared
From American plains and prairies,
The wolf and the grizzly grew rare:
Our far, sprawling lands were changed--
Emigrants moved westward
Until they confronted the Pacific Ocean.
The merely human tide was turned--
And our land grew tame in places.

Gold, silver, copper, iron--
Coal, petroleum, uranium--
Dams on the great rivers,
Forests cut. Huge cities rising--
Interconnecting weave of highways and roads.

Sometimes it's hard to tell which way a tide is running--
Waves chew at rocks, rains fall, and snow drifts down.



With mallet and chisel, brush and pincers,
I tease from compacted debris and hardened muds
A fossilized human hand, a skull,
A fragment of glass, a rusted metallic lump.

I see millions of people
Dying of starvation,
And still our numbers grow:
I see diseases sweeping
The planet again,
I see bones everywhere.

I see survival of this race
In vast diminishment,
With total population
A tenth its present count.

A MERELY POSSIBLE SALVATION....

During my lifetime (these seasons of witness),
Human numbers have more than doubled, tripled almost....
There are far too many people now, and we know it.

THE FRENZY BEFORE LONG SILENCE.

I recall several wars--think of astonishing weapons,
Technology we can scarcely control,
Yes, and the lurking specter and reality of mass starvation,
Of sexually-transmitted super-viruses,
Perhaps unstoppable, the hosts of malignancies:
Scientists engage in a frantic race,
But success eludes them--
I see desperate acts, eruptions of madness and violence,
Religious war, race war, oil war,
Conflicts of competing ideologies
Whose only apparent end is power itself,
Cancerous imposition of government upon the lives of all,
Humanity forever in conflict with itself,
Horribly ignorant--yet certain in ignorance,
Hatefully willing to die in attempts to strike
Enemies without faces, oblivious that civilizations
Have risen and fallen many times, all ideologies fail.

I think of species becoming extinct.
Not since the time of the dinosaurs
Has there been such die-off,
And we, like the locusts of the field,
Have caused these devastations.

At the last we may leap over the cliff-edge ourselves,
Those stores of lightning behind our eyes
Of little ultimate significance.

DEATH, INTONES THE MOON, DEATH, DEATH....



But tonight I look into a black window before me,
Confront my own image, distorted--I think of snowfall
In the Sierra, I think about other ranges
Farther east--Whites, Rubies, Snake Range, La Sals,
T tons, Wind Rivers, Absarokas--
I see ancient bristlecone pines
Silent in darkness, silver flame-like forms
Huddling high up on desert peaks,
Roots tight to dolomitic limestone,
Trees that have lived for thousands of years,
Endured extremes of heat and cold and harrowing wind:
Witnesses, patient, endlessly patient,
Curious perhaps (if trees are curious)
What may happen next.

These bristlecones
Are the gaunt, grave witnesses--
Indeed too few.



Human life's a fleeting dream, match-flare
Against delimiting, timeless dark.

Years run inexorably,
And the boy who grew up obsessed
With wandering California woods
Has awakened, puzzled, to find
Himself a gray-beard doctorate,
Member of that class of individuals
He always considered harmless old men
Full of books, their lives somehow behind them.

DEATH SINGS IN THE WIND, DEATH, DEATH....



The boy understands what has happened may be no more
Than alteration of dream-setting, landscape somewhat changed,
But the process of metamorphosis essentially unmodified.

He and I, one person, walk down a canyon
Where creek alders clad in grapevines
Cast cool shade by running water;
We suspect we're a long way from home,
Don't question the matter, proceed in good spirits.

Our sun has crossed meridian.

These woods are filled with strange, wild voices.
Lights glitter from the stream
We walk beside, reflections so intense
We're obliged to shield our eyes.



I want to know where the creek runs;
I have no intention of going home yet.
Ten thousand lifetimes would be insufficient.

Often my own conjectures frighten me,
Not in terms of personal, transient safety,
But in terms of the human race--
Though something tells me I shouldn't chew
On that old bone.



When I find survey stakes and ribbons
Out in the woods, I remove them,
Though my actions accomplish nothing--

Yes, I carry a gun
But promise not to fire
At non-human animals.

I observe pollution of air and water,
Devastation of landscape, human erosion--
A wearing upon things by the simple fact
Of bipedal passage, including my own.
I think about fires
Harbored beneath
These mountains I love.
I toy with tectonic theory,
Playfully envision sudden shifts
Along the many zones of fracture,
Great new mountain ranges forming.

AND THE SUNLIGHT CHANTS LIFE, CHANTS LIFE, CHANTS....



Thirty-eight years ago--yes, nearly that long--
During a wind and rainstorm in the early hours
Past midnight, I made my way to a hilltop
Where I climbed a pine and clung to a crown
Wind drove back and forth like a great metronome,
And from that crow's nest I surveyed my life--
A boy's vision--I was seventeen--the city
And the university ahead of me, all things
Still clutched in the bud of sheer potential--
Yet what I could sense was the darkness of storm,
Energy immense of wind and rain. What was my fate?

Now I'm fifty-five, and I laugh:
The storm of life runs past me,
And I'm a card-carrying member
Of the Over the Hill Gang,
A man who would cry for times past and friends past,
A man who gives thanks for manifold blessings,
A man who senses his days shorten, the net tighten,
A child who's not at all ready to go home,
Who intends to stay out in the woods until starfall.

We're pilgrims between
A darkness and a darkness,

Nor do we understand
The nature of our quest.

We know at least that most west-running rivers
Ultimately find their Pacific:
Somehow so elemental a fact
Doesn't seem particularly important....

The long darkness promises peace.

THEREFORE
MAN MAY NOT BECOME WISE
BEFORE HE OWNS WINTER'S SHARE
IN THE WORLD'S BEAUTY.

Dream-settings are characterized
By unending transformation,
And we must speak.

OLD MAN COYOTE,
THE ONE WITH ALL THE WHIMS,
HE SAYS SO.



5 comments:

Liliya Oliferuk said...

I find this post entirely by accident, and I'm crushed by the news. I did not know Bill nearly as long as you had, but all the same he had a profound impact on my life and for the few short years that I knew him, helped shape me as a writer and a person...he will be missed.

The last time I spoke with him was late April, when he sent me an email with his latest collection of poems. It made me uneasy, and I finally know why.

He himself says it all best:

VALEDICTUS

LEAVE-TAKINGS are difficult—to say goodbye
To those we know we will not see again
This side of the river of space and time,
So let the word be spoken with confidence
Before the spindle’s final turn, while breath
Yet animates the lungs and heart and eyes:

Valedictus!
&
Go with the Great Coyote….

Anonymous said...

Saddened to get this news...

Bill Hotchkiss taught me as an adult the English I as a child never learned.

He brought me to meet Iverson in his home near Santa Cruz.

He had my complete attention through three semesters while he taught and inspired me.

He was a dedicated, hard-working educator, who always had my respect.

I forever will love the memories of his stories and the discussions we shared.

I have not seen him for many years.

I will not forget him, so I will not miss him.

He will always be a part of me.

-michael

Ruth Pickard said...

Bill or "Doc" as we affectionately called him, gave me the greatest gift I have been given. He believed in me and my writing, and taught me to believe in myself.
I remember the first time I saw him in a creative writing class. He reminded me of Santa Claus! He was strict when it came to proper grammar, but had a heart of gold. He had an amazing patience, and willingness to help his students.
His last semester of teaching I was lucky enough to be one of his students, and his death was a huge blow to me. I remember thinking that how sad I was that my daughters would never have the honor of being taught by Doc. What a loss to the world...

Melanie Turner said...

It is December, 2011 and i just completed reading Dance of the Coyote. Immediately i started looking for info on the author and discovered that he is no longer with us. But i think i'll feel him when i'm hiking, watching, contemplating. The inner peace we seek is universal and all around us, if only we stop to look. If you can hear me Mr. Hotchkiss, thank-you for your book, and thank-you for allowing my spirit to run, fly, soar and frollick through your words. See you at the mountaintop.
jamminhood@hotmail.com

Janet Stearman said...

Where is Bill buried. He's a distance cousin to me. My great grandmother was a Hotchkiss.