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From the start of Felt Intensity, Keith Westwater creates a strange and haunting image as he places the all-too-human thoughts of ‘February 22, 2011, Report 1’ in front of the scientific abstraction of ‘February 22, 2011, Report 2.’
In ‘Report 1’ we are told that During that afternoon of terra not-so-firma / we stood around, shivered, hugged the ground / solaced those from the third floor / whose sky had fallen on their heads. Juxtaposing this with the data of ‘Report 2’ feels like a strange wrenching away from the personal experience of the event, until in the last line we are told Widely felt in Canterbury. This line brings the poem back into a relatable atmosphere, where the abstract statistics merge with the intense feelings created by the event.
This mixing of the personal and the more public or abstract thought continues in ‘Condensed Modified Mercalli Scale,’ where the numbers that are used to measure the felt intensity of an earthquake are quantified by descriptions of people and the environment. VI – IX Many frightened and run outdoors / Some chimneys broken / Noticed by persons driving motorcars. We see an intersection of two distinct modes of thought about the earthquakes, one of personal experience, from the people who were directly affected by the event. Next to this we see a more distant experience, seen through the lens of science and public reporting (‘Headlines’), the experience of the people who were not there, but still felt the impact of the event. Westwater expertly merges these two different spheres into a shared experience with these poems, evoking what could be called a ‘New Zealand’ experience.
In the second section of the collection, Westwater moves in a slightly different direction, reflecting on a different sort of fault in society. In ‘Today, there are twenty-three’ he outlines the meeting of high-fashion and style, Versace, Gucci, / and Swarovski sup with / the Saatchi brothers, and the political fallouts, politicians will make / the brothers even richer. This picture of the well-off is contrasted with a different sort of picture sitting in the same space. On Golden Mile / beggars squat. / Today, there are twenty-three / between Manners Street / and Parliament. Westwater continues to create stark contrasts, but unlike the earthquakes that brought people together, here there is a clear divide between one group and the other.
And it is these differences, sometimes reconciled, at other times continuing to run in parallel, never to fully meet, that draws one into Felt Intensity. At other times it is a calm that engages, a personal story that slows everything down and moves away from the intensity of the scientific and political. But these don’t hold a candle / to the stories told me then / of angels tending / flocks of fireflies / across the fields of heaven.
A fine balance is struck by Keith Westwater, and different worlds mix together to create a pleasant experience.
Reviewed by Matthias Metzler
by Keith Westwater
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)