Kathleen Gallagher – Earthquakes & Butterflies: Otautahi Christchurch

Earthquakes & Butterflies cover

Earthquakes & Butterflies: Otautahi Christchurch by Kathleen Gallagher.
Christchurch: Wickcandle (2015).
RRP: $34.95.
Pb, 224pp.
ISBN: 9780473332327.

Reviewed by Mary Cresswell.

Experiencing time is like experiencing an earthquake – everything expands and contracts without anything to do with us. Our points of reference (which we count on to keep us sane and grounded) shuffle, shift, and disappear entirely, and we are helpless and only hope for the best – if, indeed, we are in any shape to think: ‘Time is no longer linear. … Doing over-rides sequential thinking. Each action is separate, discrete. I write this journal to re-member myself’, (8).

In Earthquakes & Butterflies: Otautahi Christchurch, Kathleen Gallagher1 handles both time and earthquakes like time-lapse photography, working on three levels. The most sparse frames (or chapters, as you like) appear as left-hand page photographs with word headings on the right-hand page: ‘WAI ­ water, memory, song’ faces a photograph of water filling up building foundations (16-17); ‘KŪWAHA gateway, entrance, mouth’ faces the damaged Anglican cathedral (62-63) and ‘PŪREREHUA misty, cirrus cloud, moth, butterfly, bullroarer’ clustering undamaged by the river (116-117).

Most of the images are of damage; all give us a definite focus and show us something pertinent to the moment. Following them is an italicised journal entry for each chapter, written in the first person, a rich collection of observations, thoughts, impressions, whatever seemed important right then, whenever ‘then’ happened to be at that moment.

‘I watch the graph on the geo-net when an aftershock has occurred, I guess the magnitude, the depth and place and then I watch and wait to see where the epicenter is, and if my guess was right’, (32).

‘The roads are so broken up, it takes five or six days for most buses to start running again. Once the buses start running, hundreds of young people take spades and go to the volunteer student army spots and shovel liquefaction and mud’, (128).

 ‘I am a tiny caterpillar wandering around on a sleeping, living, breathing giantess. Doing my daily tasks as if they were important, as if they had meaning. While the giantess sleeps … I am all right’, (166).

And there is a more conventional narrative of text that winds its way along the base of each chapter, a story as we think of a story. Hone and Hemi, Kara, Pieter, Tess, Helena and Kay appear from the rubble, some living, some not. Those that live try to cope with the new world they have staggered into, some of them from Christchurch itself, some from farther away.

‘Tess came in on the wind. She arrived from Asia in a plane on the night of the very first earthquake … After she is buried in the rubble in the city centre at her place of work … her job disappears along with the building where she worked, … but she doesn’t want to leave. … She feels that she belongs’, (210).

‘Earthquakes’ in the title is obvious, but why butterflies? For that matter, why birds? Unlike us, they are barely affected by earthquakes at the time they strike. Throughout the narrative, characters are supported by birds, accosted by them and gladly aware of them. Unlike us, the birds take to the air and ignore the shattered buildings and ground beneath them – if only we could, too.

We may be caterpillars crawling on an indifferent giantess, but we won’t be caterpillars forever:

‘I am a butterfly, … Flying is something I never truly pondered when I was a caterpillar. It’s strange now looking at caterpillars, knowing they don’t watch air currents, small flurries of wind, the circling of the eddying, the flowing … Death for caterpillars is not the end. It is a shifting into a different realm’, (222–3).

One thing we know for sure: it will take time.

1 http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/gallagherkathleen.html

Mary CresswellMary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on the Kapiti Coast. Fish Stories, a collection of ghazals and glosas, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015.

First published takahe 87
August 2016