Book Review: Leaving the Red Zone: Poems from the Canterbury earthquakes

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_leaving_the_red_zoneThe 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
ISBN 9780992251758

Dunedin writers and readers festival: Poetry in the Pub

polaroid_leviathan1This was a Thursday night, a clear night with stars for Africa, and Dunedin. I came at The Leviathan from the direction of Queens Gardens. There it was, its main door opening out onto the nexus of two main thoroughfares. Trucks lay along its flanks. Toitu glimmered in the near distance. The old jail a little further on. I searched along both walls of The Leviathan for the entrance to the backbar, laying my hands on the faded facade in case there was a hidden lever. For surely the truckers and poets of yore needed not to enter by the front door, head past the main counter and key boxes, under the gaze of customers who only required a room and not fortification, past the dining tables, treading a path through the heavily patterned hotel carpet? It turns out they did, and the proprietor this Thursday evening waved me through with a mild smile that might have said,Welcome to the back bar, where poetry probably began.

There were formica tables with four hard backed chairs at each, deep softer chairs lining the walls, poets and listeners sitting quite quietly under bright lights, and a lectern in the front left corner sharing the podium with an enormous television screen. If one of the shorter poets had happened to levitate (which couldn’t be ruled out given the miraculous quality of the poetry and listening to come) they would have barely filled the screen. Was I alone in wondering if this was to be multimedia?

I was and I was wrong. But it was multilingual. Have you read or heard Rogelio Guedea? If not, do. His spoken work tonight, taken from his recent book Si no te hubieras ido / If only you hadn’t gone, described by those in the know as poems of love and loss, was alive, funny and painful. Guedea, a literary flame in his native Mexico, seemed to deliver his syllables and lines like a Spanish speaking gunslinger, despite the subject matter, with apistolero’s gestures to provide clues for his mostly English speaking audience. Michael Harlow, who would come back later to read his own poetry, gave us the English translation with a different rhythm. We were spoilt for sound and cadence.

Kay McKenzie Cooke brought more polysyllables to her poetry, and at first a focus on landscapes and the things that inhabit them and thus our memories: a lofty Balclutha sky, the grub in an apple that falls to its knees and begs for its life, the placentas that are buried under magnolia and olive on ancient family land. But she also delivered close details, in a darkly humorous vein tapped by all of the poets, of daily life in Caversham or on the road to Gorrrrre.

Peter Olds came shuffling up from the back of the room. “Never before have so many truck-drivers attended a poetry reading,” he opened in a quivering bass that spoke of wine-dark ferry crossings. He may have been right about the truckers, though who’s to say that Hone Tuwhare didn’t give recitals from time to time. The poems of Olds were self-aware, wry and sceptical, always funny. “You’re out of date,” he is told by a salesman in one of the poems, for using a typewriter rather than a computer. He leaves the shop with a wetsuit, and the poem ends with Olds speculating that it’ll be useful for gardening in the rain, or for when a tsunami hits Maori Hill. He finished with a poem about a bike, any old bike, ideally one “so old no one will want to steal it.” He made an old bike sound so good I resolved to buy one. His poetry made me want to buy his newest book. The poetry and verve of each of the poets had this effect. My children are on bread and water this week. I’ll read the poems out loud while they eat.

Especially Louise Wallace’s one about feijoas. As you probably know, the trees grow like weeds up North. You don’t buy feijoas in the supermarket. You try your hardest to give them away. We used to throw them at passing cars. Wallace took to making feijoa crumble, feijoa cake, freezing feijoas in ice cream containers, anything to seize the season’s day with winter on its way. (Peter Olds was overheard later recommending feijoa smoothies and feijoa wine. It seemed everybody had a view on feijoas that night.) It transpires in the poem, however, that Wallace’s husband “is a good man who hates feijoas.”  I know from perfumed experience that feijoas do polarise. Where will it all lead? It led me to think highly of the committee that selects the Burns Fellow. Wallace’s poems of fruit and plastic bag pois and childhood up North are seemingly light, quirky, funny. But like the country, perhaps like the life she is describing, they are weighted also with sadness, with uneasy revelations that ease up out of the dark.

Michael Harlow oozed generosity, of spirit, of talent, of insight. This man seems born to speak, and what he speaks of– imagination, heart, “the terrible affliction of being estranged from oneself,” love, the world — is worth listening to. Looking about, it seemed that many of the listeners had their eyes closed. It could have been the bright lights, it could have been the cheap whiskey. But I think it was more likely the sonority of Harlow’s voice and the purpose of his words. It could be felt through the palms on the table-top, through the soles. The whole room seemed to vibrate. What a feat! He is the kind of speaker, the kind of poet to whom one might say, as did young Cassandra, “Could you tell me all about the world?”

And then its time was up, the poetry in the pub. A thought I pursued as I left by the front door, turned right and climbed in the shadow of Burns Hall: when the poets sit in the audience, with friends and family and the greater mass of listeners, rising to read and speak then returning to the congregation, it seems that the divide between people and poetry is not so marked. That the music comes from the mass and is played for them by the poet. That the sound-giving and the listening are not separate, rather that they are an ocean. Like the ocean of stars tonight above the heads of poets and truck drivers.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker