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The Quake of 1906
San Francisco
Bonnie Nish

Battle scars etched upon the earth’s surface
a brutal reminder of potent forces
unleashed upon civilization.
Returning us to dust we begin again.
A moment flashing by
burns a picture onto the walls of our psyches
allowing us never to forget
the humanity too easily destroyed.

Not everyone views the world
as I do, through a pinhole,
each moment
an individual frame.
From childhood
I grew into this world photo by photo,
measuring success
not by wealth or love
but by focus and frames,
the most important the least expected.

April 18th, 1906 5:13 a.m.
Worlds shift dramatically
in our dreams
the minds opposing plates
rub against one another all night,
pressure erupts and we are broken
deeply rooted trees snapped in two.
In daylight, we find tectonic plates
squeezing space
predators inching closer together
each building a bruising force
erupting against the earth’s surface,
hurling us from place to place
like wet rags flung upon open flames
we are shaken out of our complacency
reminded with each sizzling jolt
how miniscule we are
losing answers to questions, we forget to ask.

I wake to find my bed
shifting from wall to wall,
shaken loose of sleep
my dreams fall off the edge.
Trophies and photographs slip from the mantel,
the treasures of my childhood
smash on the hearth.
I want to run but can’t move.
Shifting my eye across the room
I try to focus on the damage in the dark
but I am on the wrong side of the lens.
Hoping at any moment
the world will stop shaking,
I grasp the sides of the bed,
hold my breath and count…
1…2….3…how long has this gone on?
Longer than it takes my flash to go off.
Another thundering crash.
Closing my eyes, I slip into that instant
between flash of a camera
imprint of a image
onto a photo plate,
Images I will never escape.

The shaking has stopped.
I do not move for fear it will begin again.
I hear someone calling from a distance
I want to respond but can only listen.
Voices bang together
a mess of confusion out in the hallway.
Jumping from the bed
I feel my way to the desk
find trousers, pull them on, a shirt, jacket.
Grab my Brownie, my photo bag.

Darkness comes in many forms
night, a cave, an eclipse,
an empty camera,
we take our snapshots
nothing appears,
moving through disasters
grey matter fills our memory
our eyes avert the destruction
as we dispose of the film,
yet shadows remain on the lens
permanent imprints of those things
which cannot be wiped away.
In the hallway I collide with panic
voices and people blend,
we all try to move
from the top to the bottom
of the boarding house
out into an uncertain street.

Outside I load my Brownie,
turn to face the devastation,
The house next to ours has lost its face,
the next house held up only by its neighbour.
In the growing light
the first aftershock hits us
spilling salt on the city’s open wounds.
I gather my photos
people around me gather families, belongings.
A group of strangers huddles together
to decide what next to do.
Men in the middle, a tight knit circle,
low grave voices explore possibilities.
Women gripping children stand on the rim
exchange hushed groans
as the extent of the terror
seeps into each crack of a memory.

A group portrait.
Someone rushes over from next door
frantically calling,
A man trapped in the debris
close to the collapsed wall,
they need more help to free him.
We climb over the rubble
to where his upper body is exposed.
With bare hands, we remove boards,
nails, glass, plaster,
with our voices, we try to remove his fear.
His eyes closed his grey face exposes his pain.
With great effort he is moved to the street, he cannot feel his legs.

The photo captures the moving crowd
the individual becoming an indistinguishable mass of fuzzy bodies and missing faces,
eclipsed by the shutter
dissolved by chemical development
there is clearly nothing left worth knowing to the undiscerning eye.
Returning to my house, I search the crowds for Miguel
wonder if he has gone to the Latin Quarter in search of his family.
Someone has started a stove in the middle of the street
people gather into a closely bound group
share coffee, their stories blend into a single frame of triumph, survival, desperation, loss.
As I move among the ruins of my neighbourhood search out each face for an explanation,
my lens finds the same story
over and over,
the same tear, smile, twitch of fear,
the same numbness masking
underlying fractures in our foundations.
From the top of the hill
we begin to see billows of black smoke
rise above the city.
People clamour for the best view
fear and curiosity create an odd hush as we watch.

It is time to move away from the street
as the fire creeps near.
My neighbours who have gathered their belongings into wagons, trunks,
anything they can physically move
abandon their homes,
some dressed still in night attire;
others in odd bits and pieces
pick up what they can
and begin an exodus to safety.
I drift into the larger crowd
losing sight of familiar faces.
Cars full of soldiers, yell for us to move.
It is a long day, a longer walk
through streets piled high with rubble.
I spend hours clearing debris,
many searching for wounded.
I carry children for exhausted parents,
help an old woman find her cat,
take a picture whenever I can.
By dusk, I reach Golden Gate Park
exhausted I escape under night’s consoling blanket.

In sleep, we heal ourselves
take the ruptured parts
and slowly build them back into a whole,
yet even in dreams there are those images we cannot escape,
shadows, blurred visions haunt us;
expose us to the raw elements,
we try to forget until the inevitable,
we are tossed back into the middle of the dream to find we are wide-awake.

In the morning, all around me
people share food,
relief workers pass out supplies.
On a bench, not far off, a young couple rests.
Pregnant, she leans against him for support,
his arm sits protectively across their unborn child.
A makeshift wagon sits in front of them,
I imagine them pushing it across town, battling the steep hills.
I leave them the few items of food I have.
Rumours spread like the fire consuming downtown,
even at this distance the black smoke
is a choking reminder of yesterday’s nightmare.
An eerie celebratory atmosphere
takes hold as people wake.
I load my last roll of film and roam among the resting crowds,
recording face by face,
angle by angle
another day, another moment,
we have survived.

© Bonnie Nish 2002 - A Vancouver poet
Bonnie runs a poets reading group that meets at on Commercial Drive- El Cocale

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