Poetry Shelf review: Richard Langston’s Five O’Clock Shadows

Richard Langston, Five O’Clock Shadows, The Cuba Press, 2020

We often wonder

what moves us in a day –

was it words in a sequence

that surprised us

or notes played by someone

who kept their mouth closed

& let the sound leave

their broken body

from ‘Hill walk’

I am writing this as Tāmaki Makaurau is back in lockdown, wondering if I will pack the car for our first family summer holiday up north in years, worrying how Auckland businesses will cope, how families will cope, and sleeping like a patchwork quilt. Poetry is such a necessary diversion. It even makes up for patchwork sleep. I still have a wee stack of 2020 poetry books and now the 2021 stack is growing. It is like a preserving cupboard of treats along with the canned tomatoes and the black beans.

Richard Langston’s book has been on my mind for months after hearing the reading he did for Poetry Shelf. This week has been the perfect time to return to the poems. I finished the book and the word that came to mind, a word I have never applied to a poetry collection, was precious. This is a precious book – it has poise and it is personal.

The first poems take me to the land. I am musing on how Allen Curnow and the crew of white men writing poetry in the middle of the twentieth century were digging their way into a New Zealand kind of poetry. They were moving away from the early poets that filtered the land and experience through poetry models from Britain. It is a complicated story that has been retold so many times over the decades, in so many different contexts, with so many different biases and erasures. Ah. And then the land barely got a look in in poems. I feel there is a book to be written that traverses the relationship between the land and poetry, that never lets the poem lose contact with the reader, that never lets the poem service the theory and little else, that acknowledges the suffering and heartbreaking losses of the tangata whenua.

The first poems in Five O’Clock Shadows make the land precious. I am reminded of how Sue Wootton, Brian Turner, Airini Beautrais (a river), Hone Tuwhare, Ruth Dallas have done this in distinctive ways. Like these poets, Richard’s poems also travel with myriad subject matter: from the closing of a tavern, to a lost dog, to Dunedin, to refugees, to Sunday in the islands. But it is the land poems that first strike me. I am musing on how earth warmth and leaf light can permeate a whole book. So yes, this is a collection of earth warmth. You get to stand in the land poems and the poem is beauty and anchor and care.

We love the land by eye & feel & sun

& shadow. It grows within us.

This is who we are, this is how we find ourselves.

from ‘Map’

There is a spareness in all the poems, a light rich economy. Goodness knows what it took to write these, but when they reach me there is an exquisite poise. Every word belongs. I also found ‘Bsharri, Lebanon’ – a poem penned for Richard’s sisters who travelled to their ancestral village – precious. This ancestor poem is a poem to hear read aloud:

We have come to hug you,

we have come to kiss you for the life

you made us.

We have come, ancestors, to love

you as you taught us. We have come,

ancestors, & now we are together.

Ancestors, we hug you, we kiss you.

Ancestors, we weep, because

we have come.

The poetry is economical but each poem launches you into multiple musings, feelings, intricacies. I love ‘Please, do not’. The poem begins with infectious word wit and then travels to the punch-gut restorative ending – and the word ‘enough’. I want you to read the whole poem but here is the beginning:

Please do not yell,

such a small shattering word –

YELL – I prefer yell-ow

that might imply surrender

or a field of flowers holding

their faces to the sun,

why not peace, or acceptance,

such lovely hard-earned words.

Perhaps the poems that strike deepest, that are most precious, are the several addressed to mother and father. Eulogies, recollections, re-tracings. I am thinking how Richard’s poems are made of parts and you need to experience the coming together of these parts to get the reading joy in full. If I take a stanza or two to share with you, I am distilling the magic. These poems are magic, moving, must-reads: ‘Plums’, ‘Sons’, ‘Snoring’, Threaded’, ‘There’. In writing the poems both mother and father are held close, like a gift for family, like a gift for us as readers who also live and love and mourn. I especially love ‘There’, a poem that places the mother at the centre. Here are a few stanzas near the end of the poem (again I implore you to read the whole poem):

What we share is our story.

I sit with her

& look out at the weather.

The windows

are full of the day.

She doesn’t know. I do not know.

We have our story,

our fallible memories.

Her mouth

hovers by the spoon,

& we watch the weather.

You can tell this book matters so very much to the poet – and the degree of personal investment is contagious, whether in words gathering the land, family, experience, memory. Think of the poems as personal plantings in the undergrowth of life, with all manner of glorious lights shining through. Like I said, I reread this book in our return to lockdown, and by the time I got to the end I was filled with the joy of living and writing and reading. I am going to leave you with the final poem in the book, that takes us back to the land (crikey we never left it), how the need to be creative is such a necessary thing and how we share so many attachments – ‘together on this whenua’.

Richard Langston is a veteran broadcasting journalist and director, who comes from Dunedin, and was a driving force in the city’s music scene in the 1980s. He lives in Wellington and is a proud member of the three-person South Wellington Poetry Society.

The Cuba Press author page

Richard reads from Five O’Clock Shadows

Off the Tracks review

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