SHAKEN DOWN 6.3: Poems from the Second Christchurch Earthquake

SHAKEN DOWN 6.3: Poems from the Second Christchurch Earthquake, 22 February 2011, by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman. Canterbury University Press, 56pp, $20.00.

Representations of disaster and atrocity are as old as Homer. The epic has been out of fashion for some centuries now, and in its place is the lyric: a move from what happened to how it made the writer feel. Theodor Adorno famously said that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric (a quote Jeffrey Paparoa Holman references in his essay appended to this collection of poems), and it’s true that mass human suffering stuns some poets into silence. The great poet and Holocaust survivor, Paul Celan, wrote only one poem directly about the death camps. The reasons behind Adorno’s assertion are two-fold: first, to aestheticize horrific events in poetry is to confer a spurious meaning on what is meaningless; second, and more broadly, the totalitarianism that made Auschwitz possible has tainted language to such an extent that any poetry becomes but a further manifestation of that totalitarianism.

A defence of poetry against Adorno’s provocation – one that’s implicit in much post-9/11 poetry, and explicit in this book – is that it brings consolation to the afflicted. Those personally affected by tragedy often find it hard to endure, to carry on: poetry can help them do that. Hence the popularity at funerals of this usually invisible art.

Atrocity and natural disaster are of course different in kind: one is the deliberate act of human beings; the other is nature doing what nature does. Nonetheless, I think Holman is right to bring Adorno into the room. Can you write poetry about this stuff? Should you? Seismologists may explain an earthquake scientifically, but there’s little solace in science. Holman’s essay asks: “Can art help us to bear life’s blows?”

Different readers, different answers. Those who think of the earthquake that devastated Christchurch as a malignant force may take comfort from its personification (in the poem, “who of you”) as “Unbrick & Unstone”.  The name sounds like a demolition company, or perhaps a lawyers’ firm. “They have toppled cross / from steeple / they have murdered people.” An earthquake, of course, murders no one, but it’s easier, perhaps, to get our heads around a murder than it is to contemplate that people were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There is a script for stories of natural disaster. This script makes a narrative of chaotic events, and includes heroism, drama, pathos. I wanted this book to deviate from that script, which is maybe to want too much. I wanted it to show me what I didn’t already know from the TV news. But it delivered what I’d already seen, already heard. In a poem about the tsunami in Japan, cars, houses and ships are described as “toys”. The observer’s response? “Awe struck / jaw drops / mesmerised”. I know, I know.

These poems, accompanied by photographs taken by the poet, are elegies for Christchurch and for those who perished in the February 2011 earthquake. They attempt therapy and consolation for those who survived, and hint at recovery. They reach out to those who suffered and died in the earthquake and tsunami in Japan a few weeks later. Yet I can’t admire them. What, after all, is there to say? The earth shook, and people died.

Dominion-Post, The Press, Waikato Times, 28 July 2012

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Tim Tweets