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Bernadette Hall's speech notes on Contents Under Pressure

Thank you, Bernadette, for allowing me to publish your speech notes here:

NOTES to launch CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE by Bernadette Hall

1. Welcome here to honour Gail, to celebrate with her and Rata and Karen of Pūkeko Publishing this beautiful and oh so timely book. It’s beautiful, it’s very beautiful. And it’s full of intelligence, and surprise and energy that burns off the page. Well, we all know Gail and we recognise that energy. When I first met her in 2008 at the Hagley Writers’ Institute, she was off to see orangutans in Borneo. She revitalised the South Island Writers’ Association in her years as its President. And gained an MA in Creative Writing from Massey University.

2. There’s something that continues to amaze me when it comes to poetry. The way a poem continues to grow, continues to be re-formed by history, by event, by emotional response. So a poem can be said to be both timely and timeless. Take these lines by Janet Frame: I take into my arms more than I can bear to hold.’

3. Gail has taken her time, she digs below the surface. She looks at Christchurch in ruins, she sees the reality and also the patterns that emerge, the long term effects and also their metaphorical weight. There are things that hurt her, that enrage her, that terrify her. She shapes them into something new. A sequence of 52 poems in a virtuosic range of styles, the whole thing working like a novel. This is her work. It demands courage and resilience and an honesty that is sometimes confronting. And so she tells us a story, the story of Baroness Elsa, mother, graffiti artist, who lives in Christchurch and is trying to find herself as much as she’s trying to save her two sons.

4. A powerful story, a dramatic narrative with rising and falling action all presented a series of 52 poems in a virtuosic range of styles. The Australian, Dorothy Porter, at a festival here a few years ago, read from her novel in which she employed a similar technique. She also confronted important social issues, just as Gail has done. Dorothy Porter’s novel went on to win the coveted Franklin prize for fiction much to the consternation of some purists.

5. It’s a beautiful book as you can see, with illustrations by Rata. Here’s Lady Godiva on the front cover. Hidden in the artworks are so many prohibitions NO SKATEBOARDING NO ENTRY WARNING LIVE MONITORING THE POLICE CAR CLEARANCE SALE NO CRUISING ZONE ENDS #RISE UP

6. Pressure, pressure.

As a teenager, the Baroness had felt parental pressure. She ‘had hoped to save her maimed selves, the children she does not yet know.’ But her parents had shaped the safety of the square for her,’ p. 21.

Some responses to pressure I recognised, hilarious. Those different faces we show our children, ‘the brave face, the haunted face’ and then there’s the very last straw, ‘the battle face’ over ‘the whole bloody family set of broken glasses.’

There’s pressure on her older son, Matiu, who studies physics at the University. ‘All content has been lost with external reality’ he wrote on the backseat of the family car. He’s in the middle of a breakdown.

Her younger son, Che-Che devotes himself to ‘smoking dope’ and skateboarding.

There’s her husband with ‘his deep and practical pockets, the loyalty card in his wallet with a Holden insignia patch on it that his mother gave him for the big five –oh’.

There’s societal and consumer pressure, the pressure of commercialism with its fakery and its billboards.

There’s pressure on language so that finally strings of words break up and slide all over page in this book.

In the midst of all of this, there are some things that mothers just aren’t meant to be. The Baroness bursts out, like a cavewoman taking to a wall with a charcoal stick. She climbs a scaffold, takes cans of paint from her coat, squeezes her fists, pops a plastic lid open, blends layers of paint on the wall. She’s a graffiti artist. Up there with Tilt and Banksy, the cranes and scaffolding, the tilt slabs with steel reinforcing, the rebuild.

And at this point I’d like to read a poem that shows her in action.

P. 29 “She’s going to de face a public place”

Here’s ERASURE as actuality and as a figurative device

The scale of the work is enormous, the thinking that’s gone into it. Among other things, it includes the language of science, parts and particles, of the body, of the brain. There’s much undoing of matter, of the earth, of the body, of the mind as if everything is revealing its parts what it is made of.


'I take into my arms more than I can bear to hold.’

‘Yet still I take into my arms more than I can bear to hold.'

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