(Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2019)
Lee Ann Roripaugh’s fifth volume of poetry, tsunami vs. the fukushima 50, explores the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster, triggered by the tsunami following the Tōhoku earthquake. The collection opens with a handful of poems that almost beckon the storm, the first lines of the collection a compulsory acceptance of sorts: “awoken venom / cobra come unchanted // glittering rush / of fanged lightning.” After a few pages, “animal portents foretell the rise of tsunami,” and we witness kneeling elephants “pressing their trunks / down to the ground / like seismic antennae.” Science and spirituality blend seamlessly through superb imagery, genius metaphor, and unique personification. Tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 illustrates this tragedy in a way that no news reel nor article could accomplish.
The character development within tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 is, perhaps, the most spectacular accomplishment of this masterful collection. For example, in “ama, the woman of the sea,” we witness the entire complex life of a pearl diver. Through brilliant descriptions and unmatched storytelling, we observe the narrative of a woman, from girlhood to her late seventies, in less than five pages, yet we experience the waxes and wanes of her life’s story in a way that rivals the work of award-winning novels. We learn about how, when she was a teenager, she “dove / naked, wearing only a loincloth / and a tenugui” over her hair, how she moved to Toba City, how she “performed for westerners / and tourists in modest white / cotton suits,” subtly losing her innocence and becoming an unexpected celebrity. We learn of her marriage and her daughters, granddaughters, and great granddaughters. When the tsunami comes, she faces “the rising wall of curled surf” and dives back into the ocean.
Tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 conveys the complexity of those who suffered this tragedy, an unexpected mixture of pride and shame, agency and helplessness, and other seeming polarities. Radioactive Man, for example, gently boasts being “champion” for having the “highest radiation levels / in anyone they’d ever screened,” because what else can he do. He works to rescue the animals left behind in the district. Despite his almost saintly selflessness, he laments the ways in which he cannot visit his children (who live with his ex-wife because of his contamination) because of the illness he could bring. Somehow, this man is both hero to the exterior world and something much darker to himself and, at least at times, to loved ones. He is undoubtedly human, and his circumstances are heartbreaking.
“Mothra flies again” is another poem that speaks to the generational cost of this disaster and the ongoing nature of trauma. In this poem, a woman laments, “I unknowingly exposed my twins, / small as a pair of Bing cherries, / to radioactive contamination while / believing everything was daijobu” or “fine, fine, fine” as village officials continued to insist. This active sentence, which begins with the mother—“I unknowingly exposed my twins”—instead of something like my twins were unknowingly exposed, suggests some feeling of responsibility, however unfair, perhaps some sense of foolishness for believing the quasi-propaganda of the local government.
Despite the utter devastation the tsunami brings, these poems refuse to flatly vilify it. With grace, Roripaugh’s collection deconstructs the oversimplified notions of good and evil in which we often cloak tragedy. The storm is personified, depicted as both “an unsubtle thief” and “a giver of gifts.” The tsunami, often a she, admires the clouds, contemplates glitter, and even battles pink robots. It is difficult to hate the tsunami simply for existing, with her likes and dislikes, her attributes, sometimes endearing and often terrifying, although the effects of the tragedy are horrific. Roripaugh’s depictions lead us to connect more deeply with our planet. We are nudged to contemplate our own agency as citizens of this earth, what our duties might be to both our planet and our fellow inhabitants, human, animal, and insect alike, but never in a didactic or heavy-handed way.
A collection on a large-scale tragedy could have quickly become too difficult to read. Roripaugh, however, infuses wit, subtle humor, and comfortable pop culture references into tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 in a way that never underscores the tragedy. For example, in “kikuchi octopus,” we learn that the octopuses’ arm can carry “up to 440 pounds to clear / radioactive debris and rubble.” We also learn that just as Spiderman’s nemesis “engineered radiation-proof tentacles / of immense strength and precision, / harnessing them to his body,” the octopus will tear off a man-of-war’s “stinging tentacles” to use them as its own weapons. Nevertheless, even this fierce creature hides, at times, retreating its 100-pound body “through a hole / the size of a cherry tomato.”
Tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 invites us to contemplate our existence on this earth and our experiences as human beings far more deeply than any news coverage ever could. The collection evokes overwhelming bereavement for the people lost and irreparably damaged by the nuclear disaster. However, the collection also thoughtfully sparks deep rumination about how humankind, collectively, affects the planet. Roripaugh’s latest collection is an authentic reminder of the power of poetry and the ways in which this medium can evoke the heart and mind like no other.
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Heather Lang Cassera serves as World Literature Editor for The Literary Review. She holds an MFA in Poetry with a Certificate in Literary Translation from Fairleigh Dickinson University. In 2017 she was named Las Vegas’ Best Local Writer or Poet by the readers of KNPR’s Desert Companion. Her poems have been published by or are forthcoming with The Normal School, North American Review, Pleiades, South Dakota Review, and other literary journals, and have been on exhibit in the Nevada Humanities Program Gallery. Heather curated Legs of Tumbleweeds, Wings of Lace, an anthology of literature by Nevada women, funded by the Nevada Arts Council and National Endowment for the Arts. At Nevada State College, Heather teaches Composition, Professional Writing, World Literature, and more, where she serves as Faculty Advisor for 300 Days of Sun. www.heatherlang.cassera.net
You can purchase tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 here.