It feels like months since I’ve come near to anything like writing poetry. Sometimes it just happens like that: there’s a season, not that the well is dry, just that the bucket hasn’t been lowered. The first few months of this year have been taken up with getting myself ready to leave my position at the University of Canterbury, deciding not to re-apply for another three years as an adjunct. Time to go, after nine productive and stable years.
I tell people, “I’m not retiring, just moving offices”, which is true, but it is a major change. Every weekday morning, Jeanette and I have cycled out to the Ilam Campus, stopping off for a coffee most days near Hagley Park. Now, I don’t have to go anywhere, which is different from having nowhere to go, but it will take some getting used to.
What I won’t forget is that in the last two weeks of my tenure, all has been overtaken and devoured by what happened on the afternoon of the fifteenth of March when the whole campus was locked down as a result of what we were first told was, “ a firearms incident at the Al Noor Mosque”. It soon became obvious it was a fatal shooting, there had been many casualties, that some were dead, and as the afternoon wore on, the numbers climbed as the scale of the tragedy was revealed.
So much has happened in this city since that day, on a public stage and in private places, that don’t need any reminders here. The stories, the narratives of grief, shock, anger and even a kind of numbness are all being woven together, in a community that knows disaster, that must now confront terrorism and its aftermath at our very heart – a place of worship.
I had no intention, no inclination, to write anything resembling a poem. It was enough just to try and get my head around what was happening and as well, carry on clearing my desk, saving files, changing email addresses and saying goodbye to good friends on the staff of Canterbury.
Jeanette and I sometimes go for breakfast at Under The Red Verandah, a famous city eatery reborn after the poet and publisher Roger Hickin’s original establishment was wrecked in the earthquakes. While we were there on Thursday morning, my wife asked me if any poetry was there in the wake of what had happened, and I recall saying, no, I couldn’t even contemplate writing a poem.
But as I walked around afterwards, I heard a line, an insistent phrase, quite clearly: “Normal service will not be resumed”. It just sat there. Then another: “There has been a slaying”. It isn’t often I feel I must obey an instinct as strong as this, but started to write what was really a form of litany, compressing the underlying horror I felt. The poem came in couplets that began with what sounds like a public service announcement, which the next line undermines. At least I hope that is the effect.
I worked on it during the day, and on Friday I took it out to Christchurch Mens’ Prison, Paparua, where every week, three Christchurch poets – Bernadette Hall, Jeni Curtis and I – run a book group in the library overseen by Susan, our wonderful librarian.
There was a security lockdown that day and we had no prisoners turn up. We all sat around and shared our lives, and the poem was read. Susan took a copy for the prison’s monthly library magazine. Whatever it is worth, a silence for me was broken and some of the men in that jail will get to read it, maybe even give a response at a later group.
W. B. Yeats once wrote, “…but all that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt”. For Yeats, style, form – made new – was vital in preventing the poet from lapsing into subjective egotism. A disaster like this is not about me, but the victims.
mō ngā mate Mahometa e rima tekau i hinga ki Ōtautahi 15 Māehe 2019
Normal service will not be resumed
There has been a slaying
Normal service is impossible
Normal service disconnected
Normal service is terminated
Normal service makes no sense
Terror is walking
Normal service is banned for life
Blood on the welcome
Normal service is now shut down
Thank you for weeping
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
4 April 2019
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman writes poetry, memoir and history. His most recent work is Now When It Rains: a writer’s memoir, published by Steele Roberts (Aotearoa) in 2018.
Rob Stowell, the videographer at Canterbury had recorded this reading of the poemW