Tongues of Ash stands out and stands firm because almost all the poems are embedded in, but also arise from, specific places in the landscape. They are trustworthy poems, where personal response to place is observant, clear and thoughtful. They tell no more or less than is needed to make a good poem and the telling is consistently light-toned and respectful.
– Dinah Hawken, poet
There's a no-nonsense specificity about Keith Westwater's poems, a refusal to privilege the smooth over the roughnesses of human experience. He provides a chart of his significant spaces - literally as well as figuratively: the book begins with an annotated map of New Zealand, with Wellington as a special insert – which has room for romantic and family love, weather, landscapes, rocks and history.
– Dr Jack Ross, poet, fiction writer, editor
Keith Westwater lives in Lower Hutt and has been writing poems since 2003.
Westwater has been around for quite a few years and these poems Tongues of Ash have been bubbling up inside him for a while. An annotated map of New Zealand, with Wellington as a special inset, is set up as a guide to these poems.
Westwater's poems roam around New Zealand and hit on themes of romance, family, love, weather and landscape. The centre of this little book explores his army days at Waiouru and presents his strongest poems.
"Navigation point on the Desert Road for Greg Hill":
... We're halfway through
Greg said in his quiet way
pointing out the trees.
During Vietnam, Uncle Sam
licked Greg with orange rain.
Later, his life was cut in two.
He showed us how to get to
further yet, helped us with the pain
of that, made sure we all got home.
Westwater does not quite have the light touches of Bush, Jones and Fleming, but he refuses to be boring. Statues talk to each other in a small town and a field trip is not always a place of learning.
Westwater admits in "Canterbury Visit, Winter 1982", "I have to fumble my way". At times things seem a little clumsy, but there is still something good about Tongues of Ash. Westwater writes poems that make you want to believe the guy will eventually get his stuff together. I am looking forward to his next shot.
– Hamish Wyatt, Otago Daily Times
I do like a map. Helps you work out, literally, figuratively, where you are, where you’re going, where you’ve been. So it was
neat to see a map of places in the poems at the start of Keith Westwater’s collection.
The map is New Zealand, with a mini-insert of Wellington. Poetic geography in action, perhaps? The poems are referenced in a key. This gives us another way of diving into the collection than via the contents page, where the poems are divided into five sections – A basket of apple trees, The moon is lashed by trees, Tongues of ash, Today’s hui of gulls and
Tourists on safari for nirvana. Each of these sections is further subtitled, the first being 'Memories of place'.
Places we visit here with Keith are Canterbury, the West Coast, Trieste Street and Hawkes Bay. There’s some lovely
imagery, from the “skirt of fog” worn by Canterbury, to the Waiho “as it bench-presses mountains of snow”. ‘Town statue
talk’ imagines and images a meeting between Robbie Burns, Richard Seddon and the Unknown Digger.
At first they talk about
when the town had
one hundred and two hotels
ten thousand souls
and nuggets in the creek.
They next discuss
the West Coast rugby team’s
Aye, the best laid schemes...
What we need
thumps King Dick
is more resources
and a distribution plan.
But the Digger
just takes a swig
looks to the hills and says
There’s gold inside ‘em –
we just need
to work it out.
The second section brings together weather, seasons, water, light, rocks, planets, stars. The natural world, it must be
said, is gloriously highlighted on the front cover. It’s an image taken from a work called ‘Dawn Poem for Taranaki’, by Turi
Park. Mountains are overlaid with an orangey-translucent leaf. The effect is striking, but subtle. You want to go back for
more. Like the poems.
As well as natural images, there are many musical notes in this section, particularly in ‘Variations on an early turning’.
the last apple’s heart
pecking a cadenza for rain’s bolero.
playing arpeggios of hope
in a heart’s winter garden
The love of rocks and water is a stand-out in this section. It has a dreamy quality and the sestina form does not overtake
the words – no mean feat. The use of weight/wait is clever, too.
‘Song of the Climate Canaries’ brings some balancing cynicism:
melted permafrost, drunken trees
reports of iceberg fleets at sea
birds with GPS astray
is there time? can you see?
The third section addresses ‘Army days in Waiouru, Wellington and its weather’. It contains also the poem from which
the collection gets its title – ‘Navigation point on the Desert Road’:
The cutting’s orange side
speaks millennia in tongues of ash.
Past it a mountain stream
corrodes the road each rain.
First, a short dipping straight
with sentries of black beech.
This poem is dedicated to Greg Hill; presumably the Greg of the same poem. We learn.
During Vietnam, Uncle Sam
licked Greg with orange rain.
Later, his life was cut in two.
This is just one of Westwater’s poems where the no-nonsense language and strong metaphors belie the emotions below.
The ‘Wellington Southerly’ sonnet and the ‘Bucket Man’ poems in this section show also a song sense of people and
Found poems, among other things, can be found in the sweeping scope of the fourth section – musings on landscape,
ecology, colonisation, identity and place. Not enough room here to quote from them but they are definitely journeys worth
taking. As are those in the last section – Places overseas – experienced and imagined – and thoughts of home.
Throughout the collection, many of the poems are annotated. It is interesting as to what is explained and what is left to
our readerly nouse. You know who Tane Mahuta is? Does your Aussie cousin? Because surely our understanding depends
on our own language and geography? For example, in the last poem, ‘National Anthem’, we are told what a waiata is (in
footnote no. 26), but kereru, kowhai and kotare go unexplained. Nonetheless, ‘National Anthem’ is a lovely poem, evoking
a paddock with a sentry cabbage tree
the noise a kereru makes flying
tree fern unfurling and unfurled
A rousing, questioning cry to end the collection. A collection that is solidly conscious of home, and away, and represents
these through some fine poems. Readers who want more can also look at www.keithwestwater.com for more information and
Tuesday poems. Nice.
- New Zealand Poetry Society Te Hunga Tito Ruri o Aotearoa
The poems in Tongues of Ash testify to Keith Westwater's long, honest and loving relationship with the New Zealand landscape. They're 'memories of place' and people, evoked and explored (often with wry humour) through closely observed detail and unexpected but apt metaphor.
– Kerry Popplewell, poet
I have found much to appreciate: a humanistic vision that encompasses nature and culture, the personal and universal. With the wisdom of age comes empathy, irony, humour, ideological critique, love and affection. His work has an identity and strength that is unique.
– Stephen Butler, Central Queensland University
Tongues of Ash, Keith Westwater's first collection, is an extended conversation with place, primarily the land/whenua of this country, or landscape, rather, to use the more attenuated expression Westwater employs, with its suggestion of how the land is parcelled up and worked by humans, and mediated and refined through our gaze and memories and response – the full Romantic Monty, in fact. The mixed metaphor of the collection's title refers to layers of ash deposited by the Taupo eruption, as seen by Westwater in stratified cuttings on the Desert Road, when he was an army officer training in Waiouru. A sequence centred on this experience broods on Ruapehu's presence as a potential foe, not quite dormant in our midst, while signalling the futility of our efforts, either individually or collectively, to shore up defences against the ravages of time or nature:
We watched you from Waiouru's windows,
Ruapehu, all those years ago
though I never knew who was watching whom
– 'Coming back from leave'
Memory and place find reconciliation here and achieve a lyrical vulnerability, despite the slightly pedantic formality of 'whom.' The best of Westwater's output is solid, dependable and honest and most effective when making unadorned observation, as in this take on Gray's 'Elegy Written in A Country Churchyard':
Not even car-lights on the highway below
(such is their need for road when it's dark)
re-mark the trees – their placement
their particular explanation of green.
– 'Evensong in a graveyard of villas'
He is less successful, though, when he tries his hand at weather poems or more abstract themes, in which his enthusiasm carries him away in heavy-handed personification or metaphors that seem forced or fail to go off, despite the frequent use of military signatures. Such poems are often conceptually strong, but leave you wishing for the sharpness of deeper thinking. In 'River talk' Westwater addresses the Hutt River: 'Before this walk is over/we need to talk, you and I'. Both the title, and the aforesaid penchant for personification, set the reader up to expect the river to find its voice and tell its story, but ultimately we hear only the poet's mutterings.
Other poems fare even less well. 'The love of rocks and water' is a sestina in which the diction, syntax and imagery become convoluted in their rush to achieve the overall conceit. Along with some others, it shouldn't really have seen publication and would better have remained the passable attempt at a creative writing class exercise it probably was – a darling, no doubt, but to be killed off in the long run, to invoke Faulkner's maxim.
Tongues of Ash comes from Interactive Press, an independent Australian imprint. For the benefit of Australian readers, poems are frequently provided with footnotes that are old news to New Zealanders, but have the unsettling effect of positioning us within the exotic otherness of colonial/postcolonial discourse. It's a moot point, of course, as to how much we should gloss the culture, but with information these days just a click away, it seems to me that Westwater's poems would have benefited from the conventional use of appended notes, gaining from the mystery and leaving some work for the reader to do.
The collection does, however, boast an innovative frontispiece, a map of New Zealand marked with the locations of various poems. It seems to signal the collection as a song-line, a trans-Tasman reference with strong potential, though in the case of these one-sided conversations, it remains largely unrealised.
– Cliff Fell, Landline