Erebus in the frame, Lydia Wevers

Erebus: a poem
Bill Sewell
Hazard Press, $21.95,
ISBN 1 877161 46 2

Is Erebus one of those events like Gallipoli, a bloodied trench, an oil stain in the white wastes of our forgetting? Like most people I remember where I was when I heard the news that an Air New Zealand plane had been reported missing. My husband, who was working in what was quaintly known as the Think Tank, didn’t and didn’t come home and eventually rang, hours after dinner, to say he would be staying until they knew where it was. By then it was already clear it would not be coming back.

Bill Sewell’s new book is not the first and probably not the last about the events of 28 November 1979 but marks a different kind of uncovering of “history and the snow”, and the journey that Erebus took us on. The flight’s call sign TE901 and the pilot’s last words “Go round power please” have made their way into that common language that marks our horizons, like Anzac or Muldoon.

Sewell’s long poem, in 34 sections, offers many of the satisfactions of narrative. Opening with a scene-setting preface, briefly recapping the accident and its judicial aftermath, it unfolds as a series of frames, a reference to a point made in the preface about the numbers of cameras retrieved from the site which preserved film of  TE901’s last minutes. This structure allows the poem to move outwards multilaterally from the point of impact while keeping a fairly tight focus; it radiates like a splash through the various political and historical stories, out into layers of cultural history and geographically over the landscapes of weather, topography and passenger origin that are part of its texture and shape.

Sewell’s stance is explicitly reflective, reflexive and retrospective. The opening poem “Knowing Better” circles around the adverb “now”, and as each determining phrase is suspended –

Now that we eat
sundried tomatoes and pesto;
now that we can stand
upright; now that we are no longer
surprised that our eyes dazzle

– another thread of our social and cultural being is attached to the retreating present and what the poem seems to set out to claim is neatly destabilised. It is a good way to begin reading Erebus, thinking about the problematic of knowledge and time.

The sequence of the poem, the journey it enacts, follows a three-part trajectory. “Knowing Better” opens the first part, a series of frames, or takes, on the journey: the weather (“prophecy is a heavy responsibility”), the mountain (“always there first”), the transcript, waiting up, a journey literal, technical and historical. “Frame 3: Study in white (and black)”, accelerating its monochromatic way through “whitecaps and the white water” to “white noise, white heat, white night // (blackout)”, is followed by “Frame 5: The ultimate day trip” (“And for lunch, the polar theme menu”), and “Frame 7: Waiting Up” as the information boards move through their cycle to “CHECK WITH AIRLINE”.

As the individual poems stack up their story, each frame opens out to another sector, registers another language, an individual story, the common experience. Part Two, beginning with “Convergence” (“They have come / to feast their eyes, to pick over / the evidence”) focuses on the aftermath; “Frame 10: Apportioning the blame”, “Frame 14: Systems failure”, or “Frame 15: Methods of identification” – and Part Three – follow the widening circles into time and history:

Listen to the distance:
if you hear thunder or cataract
you hear wrong.
                It’s more like
tuning your mind, short-wave:
all the faint stations
amidst the underwater burble –
(“Voices”)

The story of Erebus is such a well-documented story and so flawlessly dramatic, extending through tragedy and failure to sinister corporate cover-up, judicial disclosure and contest and tragedy again, that it is a brave person who takes on its overdetermined events and audiences. But Erebus the poem is perhaps the most perfectly realised of all the numerous and lengthy publications on Erebus the event.

Sewell writes with a beautiful spareness. This is no messy confessional, but poems which use their different languages to suggest all the difference in disaster. His use of the language of aircraft accident and weather reports, transcripts, and cross-examination mixed in with 70s pop culture, the Rocky Horror Show, bits of Curnow and Rilke, delivers a poetic which builds texture and impact from the range of its references and versatility of its forms, and seems endlessly able to look back or across or through what you already know.

Erebus is also able to suggest the range of emotions which might drive such a poem – sorrow, anger, grief, disgust – and the range of emotions and reactions which informed the event without lapsing into sentimentality or nostalgia. Partly this is due to tightly controlled verse forms and partly to a quality of suggestive detachment in the writing. There are many variations in form – sestina, triplets, couplets, quatrains, syllabic lines, rhymes and half-rhymes – and because the verse moves outwards into the reading experience and the wider world of histories and peoples from an overtly and visibly structured frame there is an impression of emotional control.

Sewell, too, often understates or undercuts the freight that goes with the facts and records. The shape and weight Erebus makes in our collective or personal history is referred to the reader to deal with:

Erebus remains, and the snow. What is
left of the dead is almost nothing.
What came afterwards was Christmas.
(“Frame 20: Sestina on history and the snow”)

The filmic method of Erebus lends itself to the wider reflections on time and history which both permeate and explicitly conclude the poem. It is both a look back and a look at the 70s, Norman Kirk’s death, Muldoon (“our favourite obsession”), Luke Skywalker, Abba, John Travolta, the appalling hair, a nation of talkback callers, the events and attitudes which are the track that brought us here:

we keep one eye on the calendar
o the past won’t get away from us,

and the future perhaps be easier
o pilot.
(“Frame 25: Towards an explanation”)

The story of TE901 and Mt Erebus is a powerful, moving and contested story, and the poem of the book delivers that story without, in my opinion, reducing any of its complications or dimensions. I think it makes them better. It retains the principal actors and their various mistakes, heroisms and treacheries, it even retains much of what they wrote, said, saw, ate and experienced, but it makes it shorter, sharper, vividly felt and seen, complex and rich and sad, a whole picture shooting out of its frames. Sewell’s portrait of Justice Mahon, for instance, in “Frame 23: A sense of detachment”,

casualty of an incident
that occurred at the end of the seventies
in the vicinity of McMurdo Station

or the grisly inventory of body parts or the haiku in “Frame 18: Postcards to Japan” all post you to a different recognition, map another bit of history and grief; like hypertext each piece of the trail stacks up but doesn’t close.

Erebus is a big call and Bill Sewell’s poem superbly rises to it. Sewell’s previous collection El Sur (Pemmican Press, 1998) contains many fine poems and showcases Sewell’s punchy, structured and reflexive writing just as Erebus does, but it is the narrative muscle of the long poem and its courageous success in opening out freshly such a familiar story that fills me with admiration:

No matter what, you will always break
out of cloud with your wing tilted;
you will always veer off
that slope into the dark …
(“Frame 11: Whiteout”)

Lydia Wevers is a Wellington researcher.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry, Review
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