Book Review: Contents Under Pressure by Gail Ingram

I remember watching the Christchurch earthquakes from afar. In my Auckland home, a new baby at my feet, I folded washing while watching the tragedy unfold. I learnt later that apparently the 2011 earthquake which did the most damage, the one which killed, is considered by scientists to be an aftershock of the first quake in 2010.

Shocks. The unfolding afterwards. Damage. These are the themes of Gail Ingram’s 2019 collection Contents Under Pressure. In it we meet the central character, someone who wanted to be an artist but was discouraged from doing so at a young age, instead growing up to inhabit a more standard life – she has a house, a husband, two children. Then the earthquakes happen, and she is literally jolted back into the path of her passion, but in a peculiar way – she begins graffitiing structures around the city. Her two sons experience similar life jolts as aftershocks from the earthquakes; one becoming depressed and self-harming, the other moving into drugs and trouble at school. It’s the story of a family under pressure.

This all sounds very orderly but the collection is far from it. The narrative is not nearly as strongly expressed as I have described it, it comes to us instead in jolts. It is an experimental collection where words and phrases reappear across poems, time loops around and it feels like she is stuck – they are all stuck – in the aftermath. Ingram is aware of all the aspects of words on a page – their placement, their fonts, the way they inhabit it. For example, in ‘The graffiti artist as a teenager’ the central character is young, longing to be an artist while her parents take her aside ‘held up fingers in the shape of a square and said, in here, our beautiful pumpkin.’ The whole poem itself is presented on the page inside a square box, enacting the theme. In reading Contents Under Pressure the eye is as valuable as the ear in considering each poem.

In April 2019, Ingram wrote on the Corpus website about this collection that she wanted “to experiment with various broken discourse to examine the broken world I had found myself in.” And yet the most moving poem to me is a formal one – a list poem titled ‘She’s going to deface a public place.’ It’s a list which grows because it cannot resolve, which searches and disagrees with itself. It’s a strong example of its form and I think it is also an example of the importance of joining constraint with experiment in poetry, of giving the reader something they can hold on to as the poet pushes them to consider all that they cannot. This collection would have only been strengthened by an overall constraint or more formal poems for the reader to shelter in before returning to the chaos of the story.

Contents Under Pressure joins other work (such as Fiona Farrell’s twin books The Villa at the Edge of the Empire and Decline and Fall on Savage Street) which in the last couple of years have used art to make known the unknowable consequences of the earthquakes. Not just the facts, not just the numbers, but the lived moment…and all the moments afterwards. The Poem ‘Schedule of damaged contents’ is an excellent example of this. ‘Broken glasses. She doesn’t know how many to list on the form…The stained carpet, the cracks in the Gib…that goes on another list – and another list they don’t give you for comments on a school report about…the stupefied look in another son’s eyes…The whole bloody family set of broken glasses.’

Art plays a necessary but different role than fact in recording history. As Ingram said in her Corpus article, “poetry doesn’t save lives. Instead, by bearing witness to pain, joy, all that our community is, it moves us. It gets us back to living again. So we can go on giving. So we can go on loving.” Contents Under Pressure deserves a large New Zealand audience to read and witness the outcome of our history on our people. Its characters deserve to be heard – to be given a chance to go on.