A review of All I Ever Wanted Was A Window by John West

The poems in John West’s fourth collection of poetry are strong, stark, and filled with a very ordinary ennui and pain that most readers will be able to relate to. At 61 pages, this slim volume contains an equal number of poems generally one to a page. Most of the poems take their landscape from the Australian environment – the hot summer, dust, local icons, specific locations and lingo informing a kind of personal sadness and longing for something beyond the endless days, nursing home duties, friends long gone, scars both internal and external and addiction.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

All I Ever Wanted Was A Window
by John West
Pardalote Press
2002, pb, 61pgs
ISBN 0-957-8436-2-3

The poems in John West’s fourth collection of poetry are strong, stark, and filled with a very ordinary ennui and pain that most readers will be able to relate to. At 61 pages, this slim volume contains an equal number of poems generally one to a page. Most of the poems take their landscape from the Australian environment – the hot summer, dust, local icons, specific locations and lingo informing a kind of personal sadness and longing for something beyond the endless days, nursing home duties, friends long gone, scars both internal and external and addiction.

Some of the recurring themes include the evocative mercy of death, the awkward pain of the teen years, as typified by West’s son Matthew, aging, alcoholism and recovery (AA), and a kind of late mid-life crisis of meaning coupled with the odd moment of perfection. Death is everywhere though, particularly in his odes to other poets now gone – one perhaps a friend, as in the Newcastle Prize commended “Mowing the Lawn with Michael Dransfield” which compares a sudden death to “this endless scratch of living”:

You can’t expect forgiveness
for your endless lack of belly, the way that you
escaped from Malcolm Fraser,
from planning your retirement,
from haemorrhoids, the terrors of retrenchment,
from weekend access visits.

Similarly “Waking Up With Philip Larkin” romanticises the release that death brings from the mediocrity and ugliness of aging:

no unruly veins, just rest, rest, and nuzzling
the moist black honeycombe
kept hidden underground.

In “Watery Eye” we face the standard sort of impending death heralded by a sign of aging:

It’s all so suddenly close this toppling backwards
into coffins, this kneading your body
to your grave

The poems are simply written and easy to enter, but there is always the twist at the ending which brings home the truth – the real meaning of the poem:

it’s like waking at night
in a razor factory

naked.

In the teenage poems we feel sympathy with the awkward ill fitting youths, or most powerfully with the sense of waste and a lost future, in an ode to his son’s dead friend, only “15 & 1/3”:

Mouths are open now, eyes quirt tears, heads are shaken
but there are only questions, fluttering all around us
like a swarm of butterflies.

Many of the poems towards the end of the book are written out of West’s work in a rehabilitation hospital, and look at the pain of aging, and the pain of observing and ministering to the aged, infirm and dying with their coated scrotums, handfuls of pills in different colours and loneliness:

people with pickets filled
with the marble chips of dreams
the bluestone chunks of age

Everywhere there is boredom, pain, death and sadness, but these poems are neither empty nor depressing. There is always a glimmer of light somewhere, that moment of joy, however, brief and already passed as in “A Perfect Autumn Day” or “Canoeing,” or in the best instance, the last poem of the collection, “Daylesford Weekend”:

and so I fidget, but slowly
the sky is prinnkled with stars
and th enight hten blossems into morning
into another afternoon
and awkward hugs of farewell
and I have finally returned
to the stammering world of need, of people
of love.

For more information on All I Ever Wanted Was a Window visit: http://www.toorakcollege.vic.edu.au/warrickw/poetry/john_launch.html

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