I’m from Christchurch. On my website, I introduce myself by saying ‘writing saves my life’. Before 15 March 2019, I was going to try and persuade you how this was so. I wanted to argue that I had evidence of this, that in the experience of writing Contents Under Pressure, my soon-to-be published poetry manuscript, I supported my damaged children in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes, and, in doing so, kept them living.
I wanted to communicate some of what it felt, as a mother, to support teenagers who were suffering severe mental stress, and how necessary and large the task was to work our family back to health. I wanted to be there; attend the hours and days and weeks in doctors’ appointments, school appointments; listen and learn and implement coping strategies, model them; and most of all, through it all, give love and survive.
The father’s parameters
While you are suspended, Che-Che my friend,
for attending your jazz class — wipe that
smile off your face — while under the influence, you will learn
we do not accept that fruit-bat kind of behaviour.
As you know and certainly rue, your brother
is having a breakdown. We need to make sure
you are in your bedrooms, and listen, you’re both to resist
your proclivities for activities of escape
— getting high on weed, speed or driving
like shit over Scarborough cliffs. You understand,
you are not heroes; we have zero
tolerance. None, son, listen, none at all.
I was working part-time and doing my Masters of Creative Writing full time, which required me to research and write a poetry manuscript. Whatever compelled me, then, to stay enrolled and write at this time of trauma and in the face of my family’s need?
My answer was simple. I wrote the pain out. Not as confessional poetry, but with a primary academic focus on my research topic to experiment with various broken discourse to examine the broken world I had found myself in. This was about our family but it wasn’t about them because it was a creation; poetry as art and poetry as fiction. The crafting was as important as the communicating of the ache because, in the process of crafting and turning personal feeling into art, transformation and healing can take place. Necessarily, it had to take place in me first, as parent. Then, by osmosis through to my children.
On the wall:
the nautilus shell
Sighing out the frothy sea, this
speck’s for Matiu, once coiled, wriggling
in her watery belly, now
a boy-man, a tiny piece
of brittle shell, all
that’s left here
on her artificial beach
she paints in a continuous
squirt and release, squirt
and blend of a dozen
layers, the tension
in her wrist wound up
to the calcified curl of
My family’s stress didn’t arrive from nowhere, in much the same way, the actions of a killer on March 15 didn’t come out of the blue, but out of a sick community that has been simmering and festering underground for a long time. We lived (then and now) 500m away from the epicentre of the Feb 11 earthquake and all the trauma of a rebuild that followed. Before the earthquakes, there were probably glimmers of mental stress in both my children, perhaps because of genetic disposition, perhaps because they are part of a society that is experiencing mental unwellness in youth on an epidemic scale, or perhaps a combination of reasons. But for sure, the anxiety many New Zealand children are experiencing hasn’t arrived in a vacuum. What has caused it? A world that streams calamity in soundbites? The loss of community communication across diversity at the same time as shrill internet silos predominate? Abdication of adult responsibility in the face of rampant consumerism?
Prefabricated tilt-slab with steel reinforcing
shipped from a Guangzhou factory a city street
long. Delivered by a bevy of cranes
criss-crossing a hung sky. Slung with ropes hauled
by fat-muscled builders driving aluminium SUVs
splattered with spun-patterns of river-mud.
Pulled vertical, it blocks the U-line of the hills
between Mt Cavendish and Castle Rock, shines a
white burr on the retina. The press applauds.
Up close, at night, the slanted shadow, fallen
across a security-lit carpark, cloaks her silhouette,
the concrete wraps cold around her
paint-stained fingers. She sways against the wall,
a weed scratching sounds in the wind.
One of the roles of art, I think, is to bear witness to our lives. If I wrote to the best of my ability about what I saw around me in my children’s lives, in my broken hometown, in the wider world, the act of writing released the ‘thing’, allowing the experience to exist outside of self. My experience as a human being in a wider landscape became an object that could be examined and seen for what it was. And I believe, to examine the experience in its context objectively by creating art is to recognise the flaws and the beauty of it. And recognition of this ugly-beautiful thing that comes out of us is the first step towards healing.
So this is what I was going to write about; about how writing poetry saved my life because it enabled me to keep on going in the face of extreme distress. But a week ago today as I write this, a killer attacked two mosques in Christchurch, and I have realised I was being pretentious in my argument. Poetry didn’t, nor couldn’t have saved those 50 lives. Instead, it did, and it does, something else.
The day after the attack, I wrote a poem that made me cry while I was writing it. I performed it in the RNZ studio and cried again after reading it. The crying released something in me. Some people have told me that it has helped them too. It set them on the journey of processing something incomprehensible, the first necessary step taken towards healing. Poetry doesn’t save lives. Instead, by bearing witness to pain, joy, all that our community is, it moves us. It gets us back to living again. So we can go on giving. So we can go on loving.
Listen to “I cannot write a poem about Christchurch” here.
Gail Ingram lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. Her first poetry collection, Contents Under Pressure (Pūkeko Publications), will be launched 30 April 2019 at Tūranga Central Library, Christchurch. Copies can be ordered now at https://www.theseventhletter.nz/contents-under-pressure
- An earlier version of “The father’s parameters” was first published in Poetry New Zealand 2017.
- “The canvas” was first published by Penguin Days: NZPS Anthology 2016.