Book Review: Keith Westwater, “No One Home”

Keith Westwater, No One Home (Mākaro Press, Wellington, 2018), RRP $25.00
https://makaropress.co.nz/submarine-books-2/no-one-home-a-boyhood-memoir-in-letters-and-poems-by-keith-westwater

Reviewed by Tim Jones

“No One Home” is exactly what it says on the cover: “a boyhood memoir in letters and poems”. But though this blurb is correct, the book is so much more. It’s both a moving story of a childhood marred by cruelty and neglect and a very interesting and effective formal experiment in how to construct a memoir through a variety of poetic forms.

To me, a word is worth a thousand pictures. When it comes to a new book of poetry, I tend to take a quick look at the cover, think “that looks nice”, and head straight for the bio, the intro, and the poems. But this time round, I paid attention to the form of the book first. Between the boyhood photo on the front cover and the title poem reproduced on the back, there are reproductions of hand-written letters between family members, newspaper clippings, hand-drawn maps and diagrams, family photos, official letters, poems, prose poems, haibun, short non-fiction narratives – and more.

The great thing is that it all fits together so well to tell a story of a young boy’s upbringing and effective abandonment in the wastelands of mid-20th-century New Zealand. That narrative ends with the young boy’s entry into the Army, and is followed by a brief coda of poems looking back. Keith Westwater’s two previous collections are as focused outwards as inwards, but do tell a lot of the story that followed his entry into – and in many ways, rescue by – Army life.

Even better, the words live up to the concept. Such a variety of forms could cause the book to spiral out of control, but the author does a well-controlled job of marrying the words to the form, and conveying the pain of separation and loss, the cruelty of neglect, and the despair of hopes abruptly dashed. “Learning to ride”, with its crushing final line, is a fine example of how Keith Westwater conveys this:

… When I came a cropper
skinned my arms or knees 

you painted them orange
set me up for another go 

until I was able to wobble solo
up and down life’s street. 

If only that were so.

It’s hard to convey the full flavour of this book in an extract: it deserves to be read in full, and I recommend that you do so.

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