What is Left Behind by Tom Weston.
Wellington: Steele Roberts Aotearoa Ltd.
RRP: $24.99. Sc, 76pp.
Reviewed by Jeremy Roberts.
Reading this book, you can’t help but admire the arduous task of ‘tending to the altar, counting the mala beads’ (Michael Steven referencing Allen Curnow) – work that Tom Weston undertakes as part of his continuous pursuit of NZ literary modernism. The poems in What Is Left Behind are the latest carefully measured, sometimes melancholy, meditation in which every word is undoubtedly raised up, squinted at, and then carefully lowered and set into place throughout the five, thematically distinct sections.
‘The Thief of Everything’ explores the power of myth, and imposed morality; ‘Aftershock’ acknowledges the tectonic shifts but focuses upon the human aftermath; ‘Crossing Over’ takes grief in its myriad guises as its central motif, eased only by the balm of time; ‘The Ancient City’ considers the ever-changing architecture of time and the labile quality of language itself, and ‘Landscape Without Boat’ places us, metaphorically, in “The Transit Lounge”: ‘where we travel blind / through this world’s / bubble without rights of state.’
The title, What Is Left Behind, is full of intrigue. To hold the book in your hands with its cover of white letters on a mustard background (superb production standards by Steele Roberts) is to imagine that you are possibly in possession of something rather grand, something that also might have a bit of a sting in it.
The event poem, “Aftershock”, solemnly recounts of one of Christchurch’s darkest days. For those who only know of the tragedy through second-hand accounts, this twelve-stanza poem is a riveting poet’s report – a sensitive summation of the damage to mental as well as physical worlds. It opens: ‘We have learned a bitter lesson’ and Weston seems to answer the adage Who would be such a fool to trust the universe, by stating: ‘We had thought the horizon / absolute’ (p 17). “Aftershock” is also very much a questioning poem – ‘How could / there have been so much learning? (p 17). The imposed reflection and thinking in this section has led to numerous and new painful understandings and knowledge of absolutes : ‘We have learned about absence’; ‘When the earth bends, so do we’; ‘Our homes are fragile things.’ (p 18).
The communal voice that Weston has tapped into – ‘Each of us, this strong / us, // lives separately in shrunken skin, / reaching out // to the numbness of / neighbours’ (p 18) – has much emotional power.
A fascination with the geological actions of the earth hinges upon finding reasons: ‘I speak of the world’s surfaces, the giant plates. / What of their weakness? / They snap // and then snap again, splitting along / each joint, / fracturing where it is perforated.’ Consequently, ‘our world is perforated’ (p 19).
The poet’s personal experience of the earthquake adds a chilling authenticity: ‘When I awoke there was no city … I opened my eyes to it. // My ankle turned in the rubble and / tipped / me to the ground. // I was one of the broken city. / I was in the Afterwards.’ (p 20). Much is made of having to cope with anxiety: ‘no safe assumptions, nothing / but the same fear’ (p 21). Weston ends “Aftershock” with only a tentative grasp on hope. It becomes clear that the mental damage is far more significant than anything physical. The inference is that it will take something very powerful and equally disturbing to shake this poet’s voice free of the aftershock.
Weston’s poems unobtrusively invite the reader in, offering tantalising predicaments for us to absorb and consider. It’s challenging work. Almost immediately you know to be on your guard. But it is also a very engaging world, with scenes of delicate beauty, brutal truths and dry humour.
In the final section, the poem “To the lake” (p 72) describes an encounter between a man and a woman, told through the voice of the male character (cleverly both inside and outside of the poem). The idea in this poem (as in much of Weston’s writing) is not to tell what happened at all, but rather to let the reader wander through the construction – to pause and gather what you may, as the penny slowly drops. It is part commentary on social patterns and part reflection on lust and longing, a sensual narrative loaded with provocative metaphors: ‘So that when he entered her it was like a body / into water … It became // like a dance itself, this floating, when two of them / moved // one to the other: hip toe hip toe bend. / He would enter her / flesh // and live just under the skin. (p 74).
There are many lines in this book to which you will, undoubtedly, return because the poet’s world view is written with such care and steadfastness – the light and dark of it, with more than a few surprises.
 Originally included in the collection, Leaving the Red Zone: Poems from the Canterbury Earthquakes, edited by James Norcliffe and Joanna Preston. Christchurch: Clerestory Press (2016).
[MC1]Took away scare quotes because the word was used two lines above.
[MC2]Quote mark OK? Or is this a title – in which case, change the next one.
Jeremy Roberts (Napier, Aotearoa NZ) MC’s at CAN Live Poetry; has performed poems with musicians in NZ, USA, and South-East Asia, taught Primary school children, and has been widely published. His collected works, ‘Cards on the Table’ was published by IP in 2015. https://www.facebook.com/Jeremy-Roberts-Poet