BWB Texts, $15.00, ISBN 9780908321292
Leaving the Red Zone: Poems from the Canterbury Earthquakes
James Norcliffe and Joanna Preston (eds)
Clerestory Press, $40.00,
When the time came to decide what I would do after high school, the University of Canterbury was not an option. Staying in my hometown, post-quakes or not, was a revolting idea. And, let’s face it, the same can be said about the university campus. They gave up the apexes and intrigues of what is now being restored as the Arts Centre and opted instead for squares and stairs out in the middle of the fields next to a lumpy cricket pitch. When I read Fiona Farrell’s description of it in The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, I chuckled. “Stalinist modernity”, indeed. Coming out of high school with few career ideas other than reading books for a living, I wanted a university that looked the part. So I moved to Wellington, and here I am, reading books.
However, having read Christchurch Ruptures, there is a twinge of regret. The more I read about Katie Pickles, the more I wish that I were taking one of her classes. Her 197-page book is a stirrer, and it looks to Christchurch with a shrewd gaze, behind which sits a brain that is constantly asking “Yes, but why?” Why is Christchurch seen as a conservative’s daydream, when it has been the home to so many radical thinkers? Why do people care so goddamn much about the Anglican cathedral? What do we have to show for the ethnic diversity present in all our stages of building and rebuilding? And, gosh, what about the fact that Christchurch has been the backdrop to several chilling crimes? The book is split into five areas of rupture: “Landscape”, “People”, “Heritage”, “Gothic” and “Heart”. Each unpacks these ideas and features a quick introduction that lays out the main points, and an echoing conclusion. Pickles has efficiently balanced opinions with facts. There is an absence of clutter, empty rhetoric, and first-person pronouns. She is not saying things to sound good; she is showing things as they are. To some readers, this style might seem empty and artless, but the extent to which the book has clearly been researched saves it from any accusations of being mundane.
The object of the book, as stated in the introduction, is “to work through the clichés that can accompany times of change, and in light of what has changed, to grapple with what Christchurch was before 2010 and consider what it might become.” So what was Christchurch before 2010? Certainly not uninteresting. Pickles lays down the standard history lesson in “Landscape” and “Heart”. Ngāi Tahu sell 99.9 per cent of their land to the Crown in the mid-1800s, complete with bonus cultural misunderstandings. John Robert Godley and Edward Gibbon Wakefield form the Canterbury Association and plonk a great big grid on a very hungry swamp. The first four ships arrive in 1850, and imperialism kneads the marshy ground into a comfortable place to sit. The colonial narrative commences, and Ngāi Tahu are further marginalised. The layout of the city as it grows reflects this intolerance. Pickles is on the money. Must the rebuild of Christchurch insist upon this tired story as a blueprint? Or could we instead create “a new city plan that would regenerate a Māori past”, as the architect Perry T Royal suggested? The statues of the city forefathers all fell in the quakes; William Rolleston’s likeness lost its head. Pickles suggests we ought to leave them where they lie. The city need not reflect its “whiteness” quite so proudly. As a high school student who marched in peaceful protest against white power parades, I definitely agree.
Once the first two sections have laid down the names and numbers, “Heritage” and “Gothic” focus on the reaction to our conservative founders. “Heritage” encapsulates the city’s radical history, a history I was never taught at school. It’s a Homeric catalogue of feminists, cyclists, poets, pacifists, chemists, and left-wing middle-finger-pulling mayors. It was a delight to read, but it stands at such a stark contrast to the Christchurch I remember growing up in, and the Christchurch that is now under the thumb of a select few acronyms and government ministers. “Gothic” looks at the juxtaposition of the “Garden City” and the Parker-Hulme murder, along with other prominent newspaper headlines and pieces of architecture. Finally, “Heart” shows Pickles at her most unpopular, but, as she points out, the Anglican cathedral belongs to a passed time that we ought not to revert back to, if we know what is good for us. The people who seem to care the most about the building are not the ones who have any intention of actually using it as a place of worship. And then there is that little secret that no one really likes to talk about: Cathedral Square was a bit of a dump.
Meanwhile, on the outskirts, the poets have been up to something. Leaving the Red Zone is a crunchy anthology of 148 poems by 87 poets, wrapped up in cleanly designed pages with a few well-chosen pictures tucked here and there. The Medway Street footbridge, twisted into recognition, is on the cover, setting an appropriate mood for a collection that bucks between fantastic and ho-hum. The task that James Norcliffe and Joanna Preston set for themselves as editors has paid off. Some of the poets featured are accomplished, some are just starting out, and the sum total is a believable mess. It sounds like a community that is trying to make sense of their situations, as opposed to a handful of delegates expected to put all the thoughts of the population into impenetrable sonnets.
As with Pickles’s book, the anthology is divided into sections. The prologue consists of a lament and a technical report, two ends of the spectrum for gauging loss. The poems in “September” show the moment when the covers were ripped back. The late Helen Bascand in “Sleep and Wake” paints it well:
The black night is drunk,
climbs into my bed, breaks
a wind bumble, like the stone-
worn dry river rumbling.
China birds fling down chips.
I have no idea what “a wind bumble” is, but I am familiar with the sound of every piece of crockery in the house exploding into life. Farrell and Norcliffe also provide standout pieces in this category, along with a haunting moment supplied by Robynanne Milford: “We each knew a white chair on the edge of our busyness … .” The next section, “February”, moves forward to families stuck on opposite sides of town and the chaos of that great grey day. Tusiata Avia’s poem “Finding Sepela: 22 February” captures the mayhem on the east side of town.
I am driving through the river/ that is my road/ to find my daughter/ there are black sea creatures/ eating white hippos/ big as cars/ I drive on the footpath/ the drowning of wildebeests/ whole herds of them in Breezes Road
Each SUV became a sinking ship, all in an afternoon. Heading south, my mother was in the same situation. Every parent fears coming home to an empty nest.
The “Aftershock” section features multiple poems called “Aftershock”, as one might expect, and shows a city battered and bullied into various states of sleeplessness, and scatter-brained. The one that grabbed my attention, however, captured that seemingly daily conversation about how big the last quake was. Elizabeth Morton’s “6.3 (or the Quake Poem)” delivers a fine dash of drollness at the perfect moment:
out the back the manager
readjusted his balls …
and the bookie scratched his nipple
and the customer reckoned
it’d be a six point two … .
The final sections of the book, “Demolition & Rebuild” and “Aftermath” heavily indulged the cynic in me. Andrew M Bell’s “Ransom Note” ends with “P.S. Don’t even think of going / to the authorities. / We are the authorities”, as a response to the use of millions of taxpayer money on ruins and rugby fields. “Curmudgeon” by Judith Walsh laments the slide from the gothic and Edwardian feel of the city to the new floor-to-ceiling glass office buildings that have so captivated pub attendees across the road afterhours with soap opera-worthy plotlines.
Both books provide glimpses of waves that are still crashing, aftershocks, skimmed stones, cliffs that are still cracking. The land has not settled yet, and neither have the people.
Claudia Jardine is studying classics and English at Victoria University of Wellington.