Felt intensity

Mary McCallum, Keith Westwater, Dinah Hawken,
and Heidi North-Bailey at the book launch











Felt intensity was launched during the New Zealand Poetry Society's 2015 Conference at the National Library on Sunday 15th November. Dinah Hawken, one of New Zealand's most respected and accomplished poets had this to say about the book:

Felt Intensity, Keith’s book, follows his collection Tongues of Ash published in 2011. It is interesting that ‘the tongues of ash’ are the layered ash of eruptions on the central plateau while ‘felt intensity’ is, besides what it means at first glance, the degree of intensity felt at various distances from the epicentre of an earthquake. Keith writes on both settled and unsettled ground. The settled ground of clear observation and accuracy, and the unsettled ground of strong emotional response. As Kerry Popplewell...writes: Keith’s poems testify to a ‘long, honest and loving relationship with the New Zealand landscape.’ And they certainly do. Landscape, history and memory are intertwined in many of Keith’s poems - place is a central and solid feature - but all the same he doesn’t shy away from the sights and sounds of destruction, and disruption. Because of that, the poems in the first section of Felt Intensity, about the Canterbury earthquake, are both graphic and grounded. My favourite is the first poem in the book, ‘Feb 22, 2011, Report 1.’ It shows many of Keith’s strengths as a poet: clarity of observation and description (‘the earth .. jack-hammered/bucked like a Brahma bull/ at a rodeo/) ; it shows his sensitivity to place as well as to human reactions; and the word play that he cannot resist. (A tower, shedding bricks, for example, is ‘three sheets to no wind.’) This poem has a great last three lines.

Poems of description like this one are juxtaposed with found poems, poems of facts and figures about the earthquake. We learn about the time and intensity, the mercalli scale, the headlines in the newspapers, with clever arrangements of facts, phrases and definitions. This, it seems to me, is Keith as geologist and teacher, as well as the poet trying to exert control on the uncontrollable – the bucking and chaos – with well chosen language, dexterous craft, and the distance created by humour. It is not easy to make found language fit into a poem and also make it lift.


The second section of the book, called Felt Intensity, is a surprise. We seem to be back in Wellington and Lower Hutt, where the poet is giving vent - like cracking ground -  to feelings of rage about injustice and the lack of compassion in society, with a torrent of word-play and satire. The ‘felt intensity’ has given way to an explosion of language, targeting neglect, boy racers, the police, politicians, spin departments. There is something delightful and courageous about this – Keith a calm and thoughtful man caring so strongly about these issues that he can find a fierce and inventive way to express his ‘felt intensity’ in these lines of poetry. I can’t think of another sequence of poems quite like this and I wonder if they could have appeared so eruptively if Keith had not experienced the earthquake itself?


The third section of the book ‘A wing and a prayer’ - though it has a scattering of social comment (fundamantalists and the hospital system come in for scrutiny) - is a more settled and personal affair. Family and place come into the foreground. There are poems about grandsons; a very moving one addressed to a grandson lost before birth, and the astute observation of another in these lines:


‘I know too that yesterday


my grandson, not yet two
opened his narratives of place
when from his father’s arms
he touched our house goodbye.’
 

The Book Launch cake

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