A review of
Deb Westbury's The View From Here, New and Selected
Schlesinger, 2008. 123 pp. ISBN: 9781876040949
A collection of new and selected poems is a milestone in a poets
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:
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
- 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.
citys outline appears through the smog
a ruined Avalon
- 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 poems availability. It seems to me the poems are bigger than these
I mentioned grief previously, and this cuts to the quick of Westburys
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.
began in my heart
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.
would have been seventeen in May.
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 Westburys 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
face is shiny with the secret
of one whose wishes
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.