Karen Zelas – Guest Poet

Karen Zelas is the author of one novel Past Perfect (2010), two plays Geography of Loss and Poverty and Muse (produced in 2014 and 2016, respectively) and four books of poetry, most recently The Trials of Minnie Dean: a verse biography (Mākaro Press, 2017), from which she is currently developing a new play The Falling, with the support of The Court Theatre. Karen lives and writes in Christchurch and on a boat in the Marlborough Sounds. Website: www.karenzelas.com


With tumult and turmoil

out of sea, the land
plates shifting, mountains shoving northward
terra firma a misnomer   the Kaikoura Trench
shallowing, deters passage of sperm whales and
blue   the lifted foreshore white rock, yet to oxidise
18 months ago, train rails writhed and buckled
homes collapsed, seals and humans displaced   paua
high above the tide to dry   hillsides slid
into sea   roads fractured, impassable   shallows
foam with new hazards
when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, Pliny the younger
wrote to Tacitus that ‘the sea sucked backwards as if
shaken off by the land’     Pompeii: heat
radiated from excavated stone   our son was thirsty
for antiquity   red poppies swayed
in wheaten grass, while we broke bread
and drank acqua minerale, watched Neapolitan brides
swathed in white candy floss, photographed
with their grooms among the ruins   recorded for posterity
macabre in a memorial to the dead
muted frescoes, sharp shadows, the remains
of other’s lives       we’ve seen
it takes many years to rebuild a city   Christchurch
in places still resembles a ruin      these islands
young and tremulous – Ruapehu, Whakaari (White Island)
Tarawera   Taupo’s explosions so violent no mountain remains
and ash drifted onto the Chathams          but not only islands
continents tremble, erupt and fracture   Mt St Helen
burst open – I saw it from a Boeing the following year
Eyjafjallajökull – ash in the atmosphere closed airports
round the globe   Vesuvius literally blew its top and split
in two places – rocks, fire, lava, light   pyroclastic flows
through Pompeii and Herculaneum
Pliny likened the cloud of lava and ash
to a pine tree: long trunk, spreading branches – ‘darkness darker
and thicker than any night, the black of closed and unlit rooms’
then, ash fell, soft as snow
choking, suffocating, enveloping
citizens where they dropped    one couple still
huddles (preserved behind glass) in the presence
of death, entwined
as you and I, 4 September 2010, on our knees
in the doorway of our bedroom, in obsidian dark
while a train roared through
and the floor rolled and I thought:
this is forever

today Kīlauea erupted    a lava tube
passing under Highway 130 (the road
we drove seven months ago)   magma spews
from cracks in asphalt      arteries of molten rock pour
through houses, engulfing, igniting
razing     (watch it on Google)    a crust congeals in contact with air
like black globs of porridge, a rolling edge holding
a glowing core      more technically, Kīlauea
is a basalt shield volcano, 300 to 600 thousand
years old, intermittently active     Whakaari is
a marine volcano   (only the tip breaks the sea’s surface
to form an island)   continuously active
for 150 thousand years    Kīlauea’s caldera is a crust glowing
with inner life   now spitting flame    I see why
volcanoes inspired Dante’s visions of Hell   Virgil’s
entrance to the underworld was the Phlegrean Fields, near Naples
in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Jules Verne’s professor
entered via Snaefellsjllsjökull, to be erupted in the end from Stromboli
we walked on Kīlauea’s caldera
in earlier times   an armour of overlapping scales of warm
porous lava, whose organic patterns belied its desolate beauty and
the devastation wreaked      the glint of minerals
the lightness
one visit, we rounded a corner to confront
a two-metre-high flow of now-cold rock barring our way
frozen in motion   a nearby notice alerted residents
to imminent evacuation dated only three weeks before   my heart
fluttered      now, after destruction and death and ten thousand
earthquakes, I wonder how would it be
to have advance warning?   to know what was
coming, if not quite when     to know our homes
would shake loose, buildings collapse, masonry fall
trapping and killing?
friends asked us why don’t you leave?
as we had asked in Hawai‘i, as we watched the cycle
of rebuilding on old lava, as if a volcano does not spill twice
in the same place   I understand better now: the hanging on
the refusal to leave         our land
where else would we go?
at the foot of Mt Sinaburg, Indonesian workers
dig carrots forever (in Kodachrome), a lowering cloud
of ash hovering over     ask them where could they go?
a store in Hilo used to display an old black
and white photo – a bungalow walled off
by lava    the owner, refusing to leave, confronted
the terrible heat with the garden hose   played it
on approaching magma (and house and self)
cooling, diverting    dividing the flow and
sparing his home, against the odds      Pele, Goddess
of Fire – according to chants, ‘she who shapes
the sacred land’ – travelled the Hawai‘ian islands
seeking a home   took up residence
in Kīlauea, from where she still presides
over her volcano     its soot-coloured lava fields
now stretch to the sea     westerly swell
pounds rugged cliffs       a constant spout
of molten magma arcs         falls
raises a mushroom of steam
into sea, the land