The Garden City, the cathedral, the sight of cranes towering overhead—these things have all amalgamated into the image of what Christchurch is and has been. Leaving the Red Zone captures this blended image, presenting a collection of poems on the Canterbury earthquakes.
With a range of different writers in one collection, it was amazing to read such a selection of perspectives and emotional responses to the same event. Some writers use facts to try and understand Christchurch’s suffering; demographics become something structural, concrete, and real amidst the strangeness of a home turned to ruins. Keith Westwater employs the Richter scale to measure the effect of the earthquakes on both the earth and humans. It starts at “3.1… Felt by only a few” and finally moves to “6.1… Felt by all… Stoics grimace and those on edge start crying”.
Gravity is also an everyday concept turned strange in the rubble of collapsed buildings. Janet Wainscott asks, “how do we find and keep our footing here?” during the strange imposition of aftershocks that are constantly changing what used to be a stable home. Fixating on action and items becomes a reprise, even if, like Frankie McMillan, she becomes “another woman hurrying / home ticking off a list / candles, shelter, food and water”.
Many poems in Leaving the Red Zone describe interactions between not only friends and family, but also strangers. The title of Jeni Curtis’ piece says it all—Prayer For A Boy Whose Name I Never Found Out—the poem itself proving that even amid all the terror, there is a string of community. The question “Where were you when it struck?” becomes a point of reference for those who share the experience of the Canterbury earthquakes.
It also explores breaking points; C. M. Fitzgerald, writes “If I hear that damn word resilience / one more time, I will scream”, when the frustration of building herself back up over and over again becomes harder each time. Others poems question how ruined something has to be before you finally have no choice but to give up, and what it means to reach this breaking point. In her poem Possibilities Of The Now, Annette Chapman leaves with her “world packed in a moving van”, a departure that has layers of history behind it.
I was only fourteen when the 2011 earthquake struck. I had lived my whole life in Auckland, never been to Christchurch, and didn’t have family or friends there, so I am someone who has never felt the full effect of it. However, this collection makes Christchurch feel a little closer, through a whole chorus of voices that are joined together by memory.
The fact that Leaving the Red Zone cycles through the initial earthquake to aftershocks, the aftermath, and the promise of rebuild creates a full and rich narrative. Although many people have left Christchurch itself, the words of these poets persist in this collection; they are New Zealanders who are still attempting to understand this tragedy, years on from when the first quake struck.
Reviewed by Emma Shi
Leaving the Red Zone: Poems from the Canterbury earthquakes
edited by James Norcliffe and Joanna Preston
Published by Clerestory Press