Tremors

Tremors is a book of earthquake haiku written in response to the 17 October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that killed at least fifty people in the San Francisco area. At the time, I lived in Foster City, California, about halfway between San Francisco and San Jose. When the quake struck at 5:04 p.m., I was at work on the second story of a four-story office building in Foster City. Ceiling tiles were falling down among us as we rushed to door jambs to protect ourselves. Several window panes shattered.
The lights flashed and went out. A couple of computer monitors crashed to the floor, as did several bookcases and other unsecured items. My most profound memory of that moment, though, was the earthquake’s sound. It was an extremely deep vibrato—not a rumble like thunder, but a massive and precise “fizz” that seemed to come from everywhere all at once, both above and below you—even inside you.
     And then, in just fifteen seconds, it was over. A friend had a handheld TV (imagine that, in 1989!) and, out in the parking lot, we saw immediate views of the collapsed section of the Oakland Bay Bridge, the chaos at the third game of the World Series at Candlestick Park, and later the devastation 
at the Cypress Structure freeway in Oakland, where most lives were lost. The World Series was between San Francisco and Oakland that year, and because the game was about to start when the earthquake hit, commentators later concluded that many people were already at home to watch the game. If that had not been the case, many more people would have been on the freeway in Oakland when it collapsed. Original estimates of deaths on the freeway turned out to be triple or quadruple what they actually were. And of course, none of us could forget that moment (I saw it later) when the breathless World Series announcer was interrupted in mid sentence by a loss of signal: “We’re having an earth—”
     The days and weeks after the earthquake were intense and traumatic. Power was intermittent at first. Phone service was extremely limited. I was unable to stay in my own home for a couple of nights (all of my bookcases had toppled over, and the place was a mess, but the biggest problem was a shifted furnace in the crawl space and the danger of a gas leak and an explosion). Tap water ran dirty for weeks. Even the slightest of the frequent aftershocks would produce vertigo, or cause everyone to tense up. I had to visit the collapsed Cypress Structure freeway myself to see the devastation, and could not imagine how an entire car—and its occupant—could be squeezed down
to just a few inches between massive slabs of concrete. On the roads still open, we drove well below the speed limit for months, pausing and then rushing to cross under overpasses. The Bay Bridge was closed, so extra traffic lines were marked across the San Mateo Bridge to allow traffic to drive on the shoulders. The rubble of collapsed buildings lingered for months in some places. Halloween decorations were still up in condemned buildings more than six months later (very odd to see ghosts and pumpkins still up in April). Within a year, photograph books that commemorated the event began to appear, but even several years later some buildings and freeways were still not rebuilt. The Loma Prieta earthquake, obviously, was a life-changing experience, but not one I would wish on anyone.
—20 December 2009

 

Several of the following selections from my chapbook Tremors were first published in Frogpond 13:1, February 1990, in After Shock (San Francisco: Two Autumns Press, 1990), and in Mirrors 3:1, Winter 1990. The book includes eighteen haiku in two sequences (one of which is “The Last Leaf”), followed by “Holes in the Awning,” a two-page haibun with four haiku. I dedicated the book to the victims of the earthquake—the kind of tragedy for which you can never be fully prepared. For a few additional photographs of the earthquake, visit the Merced Sun-Star site.

 

 

after the quake

    the weathervane

        pointing to earth

 

 

another victim—

laying the body bag

on the flower bed

 

 

after the quake

the smell of gas

warm milk

 

 

after the quake

adding I love you

to a letter

 

 

aftershock

pausing

then finishing the argument

 

 

fresh pavement

a child’s footprint

and autumn leaves

 

A review from Frogpond

The following brief review was first published in Frogpond 14:1, Spring 1991, page 41.

 

Tremors offers a quite different mood [from my book The Haijin’s Tweed Coat, with which it was also reviewed] addressing, as it does, the Loma Prieta quake of October 17, 1989. One wishes that the last page of this book had been the first. It is a dedication to the victims of that quake; it would have honored them more arrestingly had we read that first, not last. Those of us 3,000 miles from the site of that quake are apt not to really understand how frightening, and lethal for at least fifty victims, it was. This little book makes us aware of the realities of quakes and aftershocks, aftershocks of the souls of human beings as well as in the earth. Particularly poignant is “another victim— / laying the body bag / on the flower bed.” How timely, in this sad time of body bags arriving from the Iraqi conflict. A haibun, “holes in the awning,” makes up the last portion of the book. It addresses time a year after the Loma Prieta quake when another small quake wakes the writer. “A healthy fear has come to stay.” The memory of the more serious quake is evoked as we follow the writer through several weeks; everything serves to remind him of the previous year’s tremors. But, after all, the haibun ends on a positive note: “Today we live with what we lost. We live with what we gained.” Even death and destruction offer gain, if we but seek it. Two fine books from an interesting writer.

—Geraldine C. Little