Since April is poetry month, I chose to review Westlake for the Honolulu Advertiser, a book I’m still excited to have read, and still delighted that many others will now know its subtle joys.

Westlake: Poems by Wayne Kaumualii Westlake (1947-1984)
By Wayne Kaumuali`i Westlake
Edited by Mei-Li M. Siy and Richard Hamasaki
UH Press; 275 pages; $17.95

Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Special to the Advertiser

When Wayne Kaumuali`i Westlake composed the epigrammatic poems collected in “Westlake: Poems,” he’d already dropped out of college in Oregon, immersed himself in Taoism, and day-by-day created his own poetic philosophy, a Taoist-Hawaiian cultural spirituality, with a later dose of taut political awareness.

“Well, (shiny) like a mirror, here I am,” Westlake has described himself and his work, and this collection provides a remarkably intimate and complex self-portrait of both man and poet.

Arranged loosely by theme—a smart move by Hawai`i poet and co-editor Richard Hamasaki, who also includes his contextual introduction and insightful critical analysis—and penned from 1960-1984 (the year Westlake was killed at age 36 by an alleged drunk driver), Westlake’s verse offers a pungent catalogue of multifaceted yet everyday life experiences. Most entries are short and untitled reflections—yet others, like “God,” span pages—and though some have been edited and published, others were left as is, even one scrawled on a leaf.

They include translations and allusions to earlier poets, are in turn contemplative, calm and subtly playful, perpetually orbiting religion and Westlake’s apparent quest to simply be, as “the coconut” articulates: “the coconut / on the beach / just sits there.”

Whether mischievous or thoughtful, Westlake’s verse consciously wanders landscapes of time and space, capturing nature’s purity and in just these five lines, the essence of living Hawaiian myth and legend: “just like naupaka / I’m half / in the mountains / half / by the sea.”

Sometimes he simply mirrors the minute realities of his era–“eh—you / don’t give me / any of your / acid enlightenment / you just dropped / even deeper in / darkness,” but he never shies from the personal, often twain with the political, using writing to cope with intense anger and grief such as that expressed in the prickly series “Down on the Sidewalk in Waikiki.” Written while Westlake worked as a janitor at “Okadaya” in the early ‘70s, these pieces hover uncomfortably close not to only his but also many people’s simmering abhorrence for the Waikiki machine.

Beyond theme, though, Westlake’s work shines with form and rhythm. His concrete poems explode from tradition in a modern echo of Hawaiian petroglyphs that Westlake explains as “the art of making visually stimulating pictures out of words.” His artistic and multi-layered rendering of the word HULI is in many ways brilliant.

Many longer poems are song-like with a refrain, or unintentionally mimic the punch and cadence of modern slam poetry. Westlake also utilizes pidgin throughout, not phonetic transcription but its innate pulse, as in this diaphanous pairing with the haiku: “silent / still- / the moon.”

But whatever the focus or shape, and in spite of a reliance on the short form and, irksome, the exclamation point, reading Westlake’s verse is a reward, and his intimate, earnest reflections nearly convince that Hawai’i should only be written about in exactly this way.