June/July 2010




walleah press


Avalon Burning

A review of Deb Westbury's The View From Here, New and Selected Poems

Brandl & Schlesinger, 2008. 123 pp. ISBN: 9781876040949

 A collection of new and selected poems is a milestone in a poet’s career, one that should not go unacknowledged. Deb Westbury has a solid reputation as a fine lyrical poet, as well as being an influential teacher and mentor. The poems in The View From Here are taken from her four previous collections, as well as a range of new poems Westbury has not been an overtly prolific poet. Her career stretches back to 1990 when Mouth to Mouth, her first book was published. That makes this a long awaited collection.

These poems are highly readable. The metaphors crisp and clear. Westbury eschews structural formalism, preferring to let tone and image stand alone. There are no linguistic tricks or intellectual abstractions. These are poems about human relationships, memory, grief, and the natural world. They can be both lyrical and vernacular, peppered with urban scenes as well as natural imagery. A peach stone is described as:
               the swirling red
               thumbprint of the stone exposed (p. 27).
There is even a little comic eroticism:
    A quick one in the parking lot
    and his footprints on the inside
              of the windscreen (p.96).
The tone is consistent throughout, yet there is an assured variety in the narratives and subjects that interest her.
Throughout there are poems of emotional power employing juxtapositions of urban ephemera against the natural, or mythical worlds.
               the city’s outline appears through the smog
               like a ruined Avalon
               burning (p.90).
A sparse, imagistic quality permeates the language, as well as a colloquial pleasure in story telling. This is achieved notably in ‘Death in Thirroul’, a strong poem about the death of Brett Whiteley told with warts-and-all clarity from the point of view of the background characters. Elsewhere there is a political sensibility at work with poems about Tienanmen Square, refugees, the homeless, the status of women. The book balances between poems concerning the social world, and those of personal, introspective reflection. As the title of the collection suggests The View From Here expresses an individual perspective of the world, informed by an intimacy of detailed observation.

 Structurally the book commences with the new poems, and returns in reverse chronological order to the earlier work. The effect of this is unusual, where the reader seems to know progressively more than the personae of the poems. Another small structural point concerns those poems which are sometimes footnoted, or prefaced with the locations of where they were written, or set, (Katoomba, Port Kembla, Upstate New York). A minor point, but if the reader is unfamiliar with these places, I wonder if the effect of this limits the poem’s availability. It seems to me the poems are bigger than these self-imposed constraints.

 I mentioned grief previously, and this cuts to the quick of Westbury’s measured output. Since her last book Flying Blind (2002), and back to the earlier Surface Tension (1998) there has been a profound and articulate silence. The first poem of this present collection, and a significant number of others, are eloquent in their description of the process of grief - grief at the death of her son, Luke Westbury.
               What began in my heart
               comes out like a nail between my shoulders (p. 15).
It is hard to know how to talk about the intimate detail of poems like these. In a prescient way one of the earlier poems ‘The Prince,’ in a mixture of fairy tale and industrial imagery states: ‘there is no mystery so great as misery’ (p. 118). There is an elegiac poignancy in the way these poems speak the unspeakable.
               He would have been seventeen in May.
               He was
               reckless (p. 78).

 While the event behind these poems is emotionally harrowing, a philosophical paradox is also implied: how to keep writing, and indeed why? Sometimes sorrow and pain for the writer can lead to literary exaltation for the reader. These are profound poems. Westbury handles the emotional intensity of loss with images imbued with dignity and powerful understatement. The poems are a way of not letting go, or as one of the themes this book returns to – the persistence of memory.

 The final section of the book contains poems from her first collection Mouth to Mouth. These poems were on the HSC English syllabus for ten years, and it is easy to see why. They are accessible, suburban narratives, lyrical and vernacular, as well as imagistic nature poems. Rather than the echoes of death, which punctuate the collection, the book is perhaps better framed by two poems typical of Westbury’s strength of observation. In ‘Coffee and Rain’ she sees ‘a man / in the building opposite / standing at the window.’ Twenty years later, in ‘Roundabout at the Family Hotel,’ she similarly observes another figure:
               His face is shiny with the secret
               joy of one whose wishes
               have all come true (p. 29).
It is this sense of hope, one that has looked in the eye of mortality and grief, which remains. Westbury articulates a domesticity of human failings that, being human, leave much in which to rejoice. She has one of the purest poetic voices around.