Gail Ingram, Contents Under Pressure, Pūkeko Publications, 2019
Gail Ingram has published poetry and flash fiction both in New Zealand and internationally. She lives in Christchurch where she is part of a writing/ critiquing group of poets. Contents Under Pressure is her debut poetry collection and includes illustrations by her daughter, Rata Ingram.
Contents Under Pressure is in debt to a city; the poems navigate post-earthquake Christchurch. When I first held the book and flicked through the pages, I was reminded of flicking through a book to watch the drawings on the bottom corners move. Flick the pages of this book and it is poetry in disrupted movement: you get spiky angles, walls of text, bold against light, steps against missing bits, changing fonts.
The title is perfect: everything is under pressure – the fractured city and the contents of the book. This is the story of a city filtered through that of a mother / graffiti artist and her son, and both have different ways of coping with a city in pieces.
The opening poem ‘Definition: mother / graffiti / artist’ introduces just that: a mother who goes tagging in the city that continues to break. At times the pages of the book stand in for the tagged walls:
airport walls in zen
tangles so strangers
in sesquipedalian mazes
from ‘From below, the graffiti artist is’
I love this book because it shakes up what poetry can do while simultaneously bringing us in close, so searingly close, to human trauma.
An early poem returns us to solid ground: the mother and her sons are looking at a photo of the family tobogganing at Round Hill. It is a white hot shard in the collection that makes the rest of the poetry even more poignant:
Mum took the photo. I’ve got this picture of Dad resting his
arm across her shoulders —
Yeah, like a security blanket.
But now when I look at it, I don’t see us. I don’t know who
that family is, but …
I know the mountains —
The mountains are capable of moving.
from ‘She overhears the boys talking about the photo in the hall’
The portrait of the woman feels like a woman behaving out of character in order to relocate herself (her new character) in the new and shattered terrain. She leaves her familiar/unfamiliar daylight routines. She becomes someone other in the pitch dark night. At times the writing is in shards and spiky while at times it is lyrical:
She hasn’t gone out into the ink
of the night street yet. Here,
she exists, safe as a thief
in the stoma of their sheets
before she will slink through the open window,
creep along the dark passages of local streets,
and tap her own tune
on the city’s leaping drum.
from ‘The graffiti artist waits for the world to sleep’
The graffiti artist shows us the power of art to make both public and personal both ideas and feelings. And we can engage with this. We can be moved and we can be challenged. In ‘The graffiti artist as a teenager’, her art teacher had showed the class the ‘Cubist strokes of “Guernica””. She is learning what art can do:
At fourteen she learned the power of dots. That a
cluster could create a river pebble’s shadow, a
crease in a smile or the trail of cupped hooves on
farm soil. Forty pencils pattering in the class, and
the hexagon-window left free, high in the streaked
pupil, made the picture come alive as if it was her
paper skin under the shrapnel of sharp lead. (…)
There are many threads to track through the book. Equally captivating is the thread of the son thrown off kilter, with drugs, anxiety, physic textbooks. In ‘Expedition to the New World’ the mother and son are traipsing through the vegetable aisles where the poem’s punning supermarket title confirms everything is made strange and off-centre:
(…) She can’t find what they need. He
brushes past tins of spaghetti. Root-like tendrils on the
labels seem to take an interest in his passing, as though to
grasp for arm or ankle. He half-stumbles into the bags of
stalky cereal and utters a guttural sound, an earthquake
rumble that shudders up through his body to settle there.
On the back of the book Sue Wootton, Bernadette Hall and Bryan Walpert underline what a gift this book is. I agree. The poetry represents the way the shattering of familiar terrain shakes up everything: family, body, heart, faith, everyday routines, solid attachments. It shakes you as you read. It is intimate and it is wide reaching. It also shows the way art, language and a deep love of family carry you as you discover ways to resettle. A gift of a book.
Pūkeko Publications page