James Norcliffe and Joanna Preston – Leaving the Red Zone

Leaving the Red Zone cover

Leaving the Red Zone: poems from the Canterbury earthquakes.
Edited by James Norcliffe and Joanna Preston.
Christchurch: Clerestory Press (2016).
RRP: $39.95.
Pb, 180pp.
ISBN: 9780992251758.

Reviewed by Christopher Gomez.

All things fall and are built again, 
And those that build them again are gay.1

The Canterbury Earthquake Sequence which shook New Zealand (starting late 2010) is most certainly the defining moment of our generation. It was, and will continue to be, investigated under divers scientists’ magnifying-glasses. Science alone, however, is a slippery ‘glass’, at times lacking the necessary provisions that people, confronted with such asperities, need in order to physically and emotionally survive.

As Franz Kafka wrote The Great Wall of China as a metaphoric support for the Babel tower, so Leaving the Red Zone offers a Great Wall of “emotion and feeling”; an inclusive surge of human responses to the seismological numbers 7.1 and 6.3 and the contingent realities that seared Cantabrians. Articulated here is reality: nature, flesh and soul. The brain gains a heart.

Established poets James Norcliffe and Joanna Preston have expertly edited together 148 poems from 87 poets (in 5 sections, a prologue and an epilogue) that articulate diverse human responses to a natural disaster and its continuing aftermath. The book’s well-formatted sections: ‘September’, ‘February’, ‘Aftershocks’, ‘Demolition and Rebuilt’ and ‘Aftermath’ offer a journey. We cross a geography of deficit: of incomprehension, suffering and resignation and of regeneration: stoicism, defiance, reflection and commemoration. Multiple mindscapes enunciate the differing ‘zones’ mapped here in parlance larger than local – a quality that intensifies the value of this collection, allowing many beyond Aotearoa New Zealand to identify with the experiences and processes cartographed.

The editors’ Ariadne thread weaves these multiple experiences and emotions deftly. In that fracturing instant, when the ‘vista ruptured’, the city is young and old, peopled with familiars and foreigners – catapulted towards breaking point (Ian McCartney, p 2; Frankie McMillan, p 40; Rangi Faith, p 6). In page after page thereafter we see this symbolic humanity diminished, disfigured. Communities of halted hearts and speech and disassembled materials, undermined – as though the earthquake has stolen all possible stability (Joanna Preston, p 22; 84-5; Helen Jacobs, p 9; 83; Helen Bascand, p 7; 11). ‘[C]rockery flies’ in ordinary homes (Andrew Paul Wood, p 14). Areas once verdant turn grey and aqueous (Robynanne Milford, p 12; Gail Ingram, p 43) and ache and are colour-coded accordingly (Barbara Strang, 109; 130; Emma Currie, p 73). Flesh contracts, like the habitations, reduced to dust and disorder (Genista Friesen, p 152).

Lives change with the rupture of the environment (Tusiata Avia, p 54). Some lose their balance; their repairs; ‘the precious and practical’ (Don Rowlands, p 145) – because ‘nothing is’ (Barbara McCartney, p 62). And perhaps because ‘Nothing’ is as before (Lorraine Ritchie, p 63), some meet, converse with and listen to others, ‘hearts plunged in unison’ (Doc Drumheller, p 19; Tom Weston, pp 50-3; Dean Walker, p 135; Nod Ghosh, p 67).

Some are flung into deep retrospection and deep questioning (Tom Weston, pp 50-3; John Ewen, p 136; Catherine Fitchett, p 94; Stephanie Grieve, 150; Glyn Strange, p 154; Janet Wainscott, p 30; James Norcliffe, p 158). Others rail against the loss, lament the truncation of young lives (Sue Wootton, p 33; David Howard, pp 34-5). A few presage to build anew ‘from memory’s unbolted store-room’ (Joanna Preston, p 84), under a ‘sun in its hi-vis vest – every day rebuilding the sky’ (Greg O’Connell, pp 98-9). And a few grapple with and distil the sheer uncertainty of it all (Adrienne Jansen, p 31; Erik Kennedy, p 101; Catherine Fitchett, p 141; Don Rowlands, p 145; Fiona Farrell, p 160).

This is poignant human geography. In parts it reminded me of WWII poems from Europe, endlessly sad. Yet the editors of Leaving (perhaps because they are poets themselves) have chosen, on balance, to offer a positive ethos. They tell us that every poet-contributor responded freely to the disaster; each a free and individual exegete. On balance these poets affirm messages of hope in ‘Aftermath’: providing that we accept that nothing will ever be the same, providing that we accept that we have to “leave the red zone”.

The funds raised from sales of this publication will go to the Christchurch Earthquake Mayoral Relief Fund. Leaving the Red Zone (well executed by Clerestory Press) reinforces the editors’ and contributors’ intention – journeying towards community and regeneration – an affirmation (pace Adorno) that poetry can still remind us “of the richness and diversity of existence” (JFK).

1 From “Lapis Lazuli” (1938) by WB Yeats (1865-1939).


Christopher Gomez (b 1978, Paris) spent his childhood between France, South Devon (UK) and South-Germany before graduating from Sorbonne University with a PhD in Environmental Sciences. Christopher enjoys a passion for both the sciences and the arts.

First published takahe 87
August 2016