Thursday, May 17, 2012

‘Things Lay in Pieces’ features 13 poems written in the shadow of a national tragedy – the Christchurch earthquake.

Things Lay in Pieces
By Richard Langston
Published by FitzBeckPublishing
RRP $30.00

               The publicity for this book says ‘Things Lay in Pieces’ features 13 poems written in the shadow of a national tragedy – the Christchurch earthquake.   Initially I was reluctant to enter such territory, worried that if not done well, it would be wrong.   But, Richard Langston is a news reporter and was on the ground during the earthquake reporting, and so to some extent, I allowed him some legitimacy, before I started reading.  I know full well this is not the right way to approach poetry, but I feel the earthquake is such a big topic and am cautious of reading anything that tries to ‘ride’ on the tide of disaster.  
               This is a slim, understated black book with the title words, displayed vertically, to be read horizontally, and each letter has spaces, like ruptures, or cracks from an earthquake.     Langston evidently wrote many of these poems while reporting on the quake for TV3.   He says that he read first drafts of them to his colleagues back at the motel room after a day’s work when “We Were all trying to make sense of what we were seeing.”
                The small group of earthquake poems work well, because they seek out the very ordinary rather than the big, and overwhelming.  There’s a very small poem called ‘The Shake’ which I rather liked for its simplicity and understatement – how we differ in a time of crisis as to what is best to do.
               “You say
                     stand up

               I say
                    get down ...”
               Another, ‘The Homing Instinct’ is about people rushing home to find their loved ones and has this lovely line “buildings cracked like pavlova” and the final line “the ground a wild surf”.   A poem that I really liked is “Mrs Lee is open for business” and it very much reminded me of the film “When a City Fall” and the indomitable spirit of small business owners continuing in spite of the chaos.  
               The second section is a range of more personal poems that reek of things New Zealand and of age and loss, family and nostalgia.   Some I felt excluded from perhaps because they were personal and others I totally recognised.   I really liked ‘After Ten days of Wind in Wellington’ which speaks of the stillness that comes after the storm
               “When this

               stills ...”
It encapsulates very nicely the idea contained in the slogan ‘You can’t beat Wellington on a good day’... the poem then ends with the very eloquent...
I love those two lines ‘stunned, blue’.... because it is true, that is how we die-hard Wellingtonians feel when the storm stops, literally stunned by the calm and the colour.  
               There are place names in the poems that I know intimately; Nuhaka, Motueka, Temuka and Pelorus.  It made me think how blessed we are as New Zealand poets with these gorgeous names, poetry practically all by themselves.  
               A poem that stood out for me in this section was ‘Learning to play pool’.
It begins with:
               the balls scatter,
               random and jumpy as hormones.”            

And ends with:
               “When a lipstick princess swaggers past
               a toothy boy covers his callowness
              whispers ‘tart’.”

               A poem that appealed to me, and my nostalgia, was ‘Brylcreem’
               “His hair stood shiny,
               Bent as wheat in a nor-wester.”

And ends with:
               “No thought then of what lay ahead,
               what would confound or defeat
               why a man would turn from love,
               what would drain a boyhood grin.”
               Another poem that I really like is the ‘The Lawnmower Man’ –
               “A single post of darkness
               in his sun-marked face,
               a tooth missing.”
The Lawnmower Man speaks to me of childhood summers, freshly cut grass, and the sharpening of mower blades... the good old hand mower that is, and ends with:
               “His scribbled bills
               antique and meagre.”

               This is Richard Langston’s fifth book of poetry and he can sometimes be heard reading his poetry on National Radio.   There are 50 poems in this slim collection, which surprised me, as that’s quite a number, but the poems are easy to dip in and out of and you don’t have to read them in any particular sequence, to enjoy them.    Some are quite short (one called ‘Aunts’), just brief images, but evocative and eloquent.    Right near the end, there is a poem called ‘What the Birds Said’ which I think links back to the first section, to giving a sense of symmetry to the collection

Maggie Rainey-Smith (right) is a Wellington novelist and poet and regular guest reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog. She is also Chair of the Wellington branch of the NZ Society of Authors.    

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