I often have the feeling that the air is still full of mortar dust. There is nothing in particular, save the ubiquitous and ongoing demolitions, to substantiate this feeling, but it is hard to shake. My mother-in-law, who in times past might have been a Wise Woman, is convinced of it.
What does this imaginary dust do? It gets, I suppose, in the eyes and mouth, finds its way to the lungs and the nerves. It doesn’t paralyse or even really endanger. It simply is, and by being, impedes.
12:51 was closer to the moments that preceded and succeeded it this year than commemorations might have suggested. It was easy to make and take the silence at my work desk. I felt a little more acutely that quiet constricting of the id that carries on from day to day (and later in the day had to call upon the help of colleagues after a photocopier jam flummoxed me entirely) but largely, that minute’s passing supported my ongoing wish to stay away from semi-secular civic ceremony. It is odd that something not only raw but very much ongoing should be so continually commemorated, last year and this. I was glad that Mr Muzik gave us the cipher of his Strokes cover (above-linked) through which to feed the lumpen emotions of the week. I note that the couplet “We could try to move forward/Pretending that life is not awkward” has no answering confirmation in that verse or the following chorus, except perhaps that “the world has fallen down around us”. “Kiss me now that it’s over” indeed. (What is life? ‘Tis not hereafter.)
Every day we feel it, this earthquake grief. It is a human condition, local and special at the point where we pick up the traces, in a manner part penance for those of us not daily encumbered by horrible bureaucracy, part pathway. It strikes me sometimes as a kind of slap-back to the modernist yearning for meaning in our dwelling-places that clotted the thinking of our literary predecessors so definitively. It is the dull, dribbling substitute of the undeniable to which those writing from out-of-town seek alternative narratives. You know the kind. Most of them involve resilience, that outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual free market come to save the people and their homes. Shut up and be grateful, or not.
There are various strategies in play for writers to account for all this: the first-person memoir, for example, as embedded (and sometimes as unaware) as any of Mansfield’s restricted third-person points-of-view. How did Bertha see the world after the horrible epiphany of “Bliss”? Another is the strike-back, the calling-out, the finger-pointing, the truth-telling. Peter Hyde’s first exemplar in this regard continues to stick in the heart like ice or debris. Within and around the cordons and in the suburbs, journalists from The Press continue to do tremendous work, as do their citizen counterparts in the blogs, the libraries, the humanities. There is and are more, of course.
Somewhere on the margins of this, I experience a kind of narrative paralysis, my imaginary keyboard perhaps clogged with that imaginary dust. I do not want to step into the stream of storytelling, even as not-writing is a modest torture. I think about Robin Hyde’s angry, heavily-worked poem “Spoil“, a simple verse-fantasy of Byzantium in which the narrator spells out in image after image that the listener does not get to know about her experience. I’m not sure why I feel this way, not least when I miss the comforts of these blog pages, of poems and craft.
In writing’s absence my home and work lives proceed according to a strict routine which would astonish the me of a few years ago (perhaps more than would those memorialised names and ruined buildings). It seems likely that this would have happened anyway – our daughter is twenty months old and I am more than six months pregnant. At the same time, however, it also seems a consequence of all else that has happened, the necessity of getting on with things only highlighted by the fact that the life we had, in which, as my mother puts it “we lived in the whole city”, is gone. My husband makes a pedestrian’s survey in his lunch hours of the hidden parks and green spaces of industrial Burnside (of which there are a surprising many) when previously he practised his flânerie at the end of the night shift (also gone) around the Square and the High Street precincts. My mother sets aside a full day to organise travel for afternoon tea with her two friends in Avondale and Redcliffs, their homes green among the red.
We hesitate to narrate these details outside the privacy of our family, aware of their insignificance next to the pain of others: the ruined reoccupied homes, the insurance pain, the arson. A secondary theme of so much of my out-of-town friends’ Twitter-chatter of old, which I thought of privately as their sense of the contemptibility of Christchurch, has long gone quiet. These days when we justify our decisions to stay here, it’s for reasons quite different.
These words are not the real words but they are offerings, throat clearings, in advance of three exhibitions about which I would this week like to write (and which I have promised others I will do). I don’t think I can exaggerate the extent to which art is sustaining me at the moment, and make this assertion with full awareness of its po-faced grandeur. Watch me then, type my way to a more acceptable detachment as I try and draw threads together to tell you about this, this and this and imagine me, shaky narrator, trying to find her way back to some part in this conversation.