Even in Kyoto–
hearing the cuckoo’s cry–
I long for Kyoto.
Even in Christchurch…
‘The event itself has no purchase on the mercies of analogy or simile’, writes Don Dellilo, admitting the failure of writing at the very moment when it is needed most. The influx of the real has smashed the symbolic order. How can we signify when there are still bodies lying under the rubble?I was at home in Ashburton during the earthquake. The first indication that something was up was a look of wide-eyed terror from our large, slovenly black and white cat. When I reached down to pat her house began to rattle. She sprinted out the cat-flap. The rattle turned into a full, sharp shake. I took cover under a door frame, not really thinking that it was going to be that bad. The interior doors swayed back and forth. The shaking stopped. Nothing fell over. Yet I was worried: I immediately sent my girlfriend a text, asking if she was ok. (She is.) If it was that strong in Ashburton then I knew it would have been pretty full on in Christchurch.
In fact, I was really worried. I was worried enough to switch on the news, and see if they would interrupt Emmerdale. I loaded up Geonet and got through relatively quickly–a bad sign, meaning that internet and power was probably cut to much of Christchurch. I loaded up Twitter and followed the #eqnz tag. One person tweeted that the Cathedral had come down. Another followed it up with a photo from out their window, showing a thunderhead of smoke and dust drifting East over the city.
‘In its desertion of every basis for comparison, the event asserts its singularity. There is something empty in the sky. The writer tries to give memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space’, writes DeLillo, of 9/11. Symbolization has indeed abandoned us. What is the event like? It is not like something we see on TV, because it is too, too real, much too close to the sun, burning too bright. There is a lot empty in the sky; all that howling space haunts everyone in Christchurch. Perhaps that’s why we want the Cathedral to be rebuilt so much. It is full of the wrong sort of memory; tenderness has departed.
Half an hour after the earthquake TVNZ began streaming live, unedited footage from the CBD. The first pictures showed a city in ruins. Worse was to come. A camera watched the attempted rescue of a woman whose legs were poking out from beneath the rubble. A policeman and other rescuers pulled the rubble away and dragged a limp, whited corpse out into the street, blood thick in her hair. Those pictures have never been shown again, but they are burnt into my memory, coming back when I peel potatoes, stare out across the lawn or empty the dishwasher. All those knives, lying straight and in a row, are haunting. For those who were in the city, I cannot begin to imagine what it’s like. Perhaps they can’t either.
‘The dead were everywhere, in the air, in the rubble, on rooftops nearby, in the breezes that carried from the river’, writes DeLillo in his 9/11 novel, Falling Man. It haunts us, it’s in the very air we breathe, we can’t filter it out, it invades us, coats our skin, sticks in our mouths, it’s in our hair and on our clothes. That feeling of violation is a long time forgetting.
Yet that feeling remains only amongst the living, the lucky ones. The dead–those who decided to take a late lunch, or to try to get back to the office a little early, or took time out to visit the Cathedral–still lie under the rubble. For those who know that people aren’t coming back, I wish you every strength in the days, weeks and years ahead.