Tuesday Poem: Landlines – my poem in response to the Christchurch earthquake


It began with a tremor in the wires,
a voiceless howl of anguish.
Within minutes, the waiting world
has heard the worst — but there’s no news of you.
Amanda Palmer, an Olympic rower, former neighbours
are online. But you depend on landlines,
and the lines are down.

Were you at home when it struck? Were you
trapped on a fatal cross-town bus,
walking a hill track bombarded by boulders? Were you
unlucky under verandahs? I strategise
with relatives I barely know, plead on Twitter
for tiny clues, ask Google for your name.
I lift, and set down, and lift the phone.

At last we hear you’re safe at home,
barely touched, offering neighbours shelter.
My voice explodes with joy and messages.
I’m gabbling. I slow down. The bigger picture
presses in: so terrible, a city centre
crumbled into bone. I lift the phone.
It rings. You speak. I know, at last, I’m not alone.

Credit note: “Landlines” was first published as the Thursday Poem in the Dominion Post newspaper in Wellington on 3 March 2011.

Tim says: When the Dominion Post asked me to write a poem about the Christchurch earthquake of 22 February, I was on the verge of saying “no”, because I didn’t think that I could do justice to the subject. Then I decided to write a poem about my reaction in the aftermath of the earthquake, rather than the earthquake itself.

I was concerned about plenty of people in addition to my Dad and stepmother, including the Christchurch-based Tuesday poets, but including those concerns would have made for a rather unfocused poem.

You can read all the Tuesday Poems on the Tuesday Poem blog.

22 thoughts on “Tuesday Poem: Landlines – my poem in response to the Christchurch earthquake

  1. My Lord, Tim, what a poignant and honest poem, and a lovely sonnet no less. It is very difficult to do what you've just done here, very difficult indeed. You succeed with touching ease.Bravo!

  2. Tim – I'm so glad you posted this on the Tuesday Poem blog and this morning in the Dompost is another tribute to Amanda Palmer by a journalist who knew her – she is much honoured and was obviously much loved, and yes, it brings tears to the reader (both your poem and the article in the paper today). And, as the article I read this morning said 'How many of us actually fulfill our dream' and she did evidently with her selection for the hockey team that played in Manchester at I think the Commonwealth Games.

  3. Thanks Tim, my workmate had a copy of the Dom Post. It got shown around the office and seems to have touched a lot of people. Well done.

  4. Thanks, John, Mary, Maggie and Mark – your comments are much appreciated.Maggie, in the interests of not alarming Amanda Palmer's fans, it was Amanda Hooper to whom a tribute was paid in today's Dominion Post. Her loss is indeed sad, but as far as I know, Amanda Palmer is very much alive and kicking.(For those who don't know her, which included me until quite recently, Amanda Palmer is a musician who was on her way to Christchurch for a gig when the quake struck. As she is connected to a lot of people on Twitter, her tweets in the immediate aftermath of the quake were one of the first sources of aggregated information about what had happened.)

  5. Oh Tim – what a terrible mistake for me to make – I'd just left the cafe I frequent where I read the Dompost and made a terrible assumption – oh apologies to both Amandas – gosh – heartfelt apologies to muddle the two Amandas. Oh dear, I do hope I haven't upset anyone connected to either Amanda.

  6. That's OK, Maggie – it's an easy mistake to make. If it had been a prose piece, I'd have explained who Amanda Palmer was – Kay persuaded me to go along to her Wellington gig the Saturday before the earthquake, and I enjoyed it a lot, so she was \”top of mind\” for me at the time of the quake.

  7. Hi Tim – for nthose who may not know of singer Amanda Palmer, they might know her better by the band she was in – The Dreasden Dolls. For a s.f. connection, by the way, she's also in a relationship with Neil Gaiman.

  8. (PS – that last \”Anonymous\” is James D here in Dunedin. One of these days, I'll have to get a Google account…)

  9. Thanks, Madeleine (my previous comment overlapped yours), James, and Janis.Madeleine, I'm not always or even often a fan of the \”write what you know\” philosophy – I prefer \”write what interests you\” – but I felt it was the right approach in this case.Ah, James, so you are Anonymous, the international group of hacktivists! I figured they were either you, or this other guy I know called Colin.And, to prove your point, here are some pics of the Amanda Palmer-Neil Gaiman wedding in January. The paparazzo life is never dull.

  10. I love the way the poem explores that terrible waiting to see if loved ones and friends are alright, and that terrible feeling when someone is missing.

  11. Thanks, Madeleine. I drafted this poem in about 20 minutes, then went back, noted that the long 'o' vowel sound was prominent in the first draft, and chose to intensify it towards the conclusion of the poem. I still think there are some rough edges that could do with more work, but I am happy with this poem has come out: usually, the less thinking I have to do when writing a poem, the happier I am with the end result.

  12. Hi Tim,I found this poem quite difficult, because it's all still too raw and personal for me–that's why it has taken me until now to comment! But I also understand how in some ways it is even more difficult for people who live otherwhere but know others here and can't contact them, or couldn't … And simply as a poem: very powerful. Thank you, Tim.

  13. Thanks, Helen, and I apologise if I upset readers who live in Christchurch with this poem. The prospect of doing that was the main reason I hesitated about writing such a poem for the DomPost, until I thought that it might be OK if I wrote it about my own experience as someone who lived elsewhere and had been trying to contact relatives in Christchurch.

  14. Hi Tim–the poem didn't upset me in that sense; I think it's just all too close and so trying to read about it in a poem is 'difficult' for me while I'm still \”in it\”–but that doesn't mean the poems shouldn't be written. And your reaction is valid/authentic for you in terms of the concern for your family and friends here. It's quite odd how things affect you–on Tuesday I found it difficult to comment on the poems at all for some reason, no matter what their subject matter, so I gave up for that day and then came back again yesterday and today to 'try again' and it has seemed a lot easier. Am hoping that feeling of 'getting easier' continues. 🙂

  15. Waiting for news after a disaster is a nightmare well-captured in your poem. Even here in exile-land there are a surprising number of people with friends and family in Christchurch. Now it is the turn of the Japanese to face the anguish, again.

  16. Thanks, Isabel.I was touched tonight to see on the NZ TV evening news pictures of the Japanese Urban Search and Rescue team, weary after many days spent working hard in the search and rescue effort in Christchurch, getting on a plane that would take them back to Japan to take part in the search and rescue effort there. A number of the team hail from the north-eastern region that has suffered such terrible damage from the tsunami.I was pleased to hear that New Zealand is among the countries sending its own search & rescue team to assist in the Japanese rescue effort. If there can be one small silver lining to this horrible sequence of events, it is the bonds of friendship forged in shared adversity.(That said, I'd much rather the adversity didn't exist!)

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