IF, LIKE ME, you have become inured to the constant barrage of bad news, you may, like me, have forgotten all about the Tsunami of 2011, forgotten that it was unleashed by a 9.1 magnitude earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tōhoku in Japan, that it caused damage to nuclear reactors in the area, that it set off a chain reaction whose ramifications are still ongoing. And while you can of course revisit these events on Wikipedia or any number of websites, you’re unlikely to come by an account of the Tsunami’s ontology, its origins or dreams. For this, you’ll want to turn to tsunami vs. the fukushima 50, a new collection of poems by Lee Ann Roripaugh dedicated to the events of March 11, 2011, and their aftermath.

In poems like “beautiful tsunami” and “emo tsunami,” Roripaugh reimagines the tsunami itself as something between human and monster, a feral, female goddess, a

cobra come uncharmed
glittering rush
of fanged lightning
that strikes
and strikes again.

Other poems are written from the perspectives of victims and survivors, among them the Fukushima 50, employees of one of the damaged nuclear plants who remained on-site long after others had been evacuated. In “miki endo as flint marko (a.k.a. sandman),” we encounter the disembodied voice of the 24-year-old woman credited with saving many lives by tirelessly broadcasting warnings from her station at City Hall, an act for which she ultimately paid with her life: “after the tsunami took me / I was both here and not here // I mean I was everywhere / but also nowhere all at once.” The poem reads like a kind of mystical incantation, and the otherworldly speaker asks: “does this seem strange to you? // it used to seem strange to me/ but now it’s just how things are.”

Acceptance of the unknowable, of unknowability itself, is a recurrent motif in this poem and in this collection as a whole, a necessary coping tool, perhaps, or simply an inevitable effect of catastrophe. “At first,” the speaker recalls,

I concentrated very hard
on trying to see my feet, to know
if I was a ghost or not, but when
sneakers filled with foot bones
began to surface in the Pacific,
I stopped thinking these thoughts.

In the face of such tragedy, thinking itself seems not only superfluous but an affront to our basic humanity. As is always true in the case of literature of witness, the reader is necessarily implicated. Reading this poem I was struck by an ethereal quality, and the way that many of the poems seem to defy logic, which can neither accommodate nor make sense of nor even hold space for the horror of severed limbs being washed ashore, of the void the disaster leaves in its wake, a netherworld populated by ghosts like the speaker of this poem who are rendered “paralyzed / and mute […],” condemned to “keep trying to assemble” a “dissembling self / atom by painful split atom.”

To give voice to the voiceless is one of the goals of witness poetry, and in this regard Roripaugh joins a long line of poets who speak for and of those who have been silenced. But in giving voice to the perpetrator, in this case nature itself, Roripaugh enters terrain that is somewhat less well trodden. Her two-pronged poetic response to this catastrophe reminded me of the work of the late Hebrew poet Dan Pagis, a child survivor of the Holocaust who is best known for a single, searing poem, “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car,” in which, in six staccato lines of just a few words each, the poet-survivor gives voice to a victim, while enacting the silencing of that victim’s voice:

here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him that i

In another poem called “Testimony,” Pagis insists on the humanity of the perpetrators, despite or in spite of their inhumane behaviors: “No no: they definitely were / human beings; uniforms, boots. / how to explain?” [1] Neither Pagis nor Roripaugh is content to memorialize the dead, or to simply put words into the mouths of those too traumatized to speak. Both insist, instead, on recognizing the human origins of tragedies, whether they are explicitly manmade, as in the case of the Holocaust, or indirectly tied to human agency through climate change that is at least in part the result of human action (or inaction). But while Pagis draws our attention to the indisputable reality of Nazis as fully human, Roripaugh does not merely suggest human agency in or responsibility for natural disasters, but instead anthropomorphizes the disaster itself. If Pagis gives voice to the inexplicable conundrum of the human capacity for evil, Roripaugh, by turning the tsunami into a being, complete with ontology and dreams, attempts to make familiar the fundamentally foreign. And yet, her poems do not assert control over or claim to understand the natural world. Instead, they offer us a way to reckon with larger-than-life forces of nature.

In “hulk smash,” a list poem narrated by a bereaved husband and father, each item gets its own stanza, nearly every one of which begins with the single word “because.” Stretching across six pages, this poem gives voice to the narrator’s desperate search for answers in the aftermath of horrific loss. The poem opens:

Because it was afternoon
and I was at the carnation farm
when the earthquake struck

because by the time I arrived
back home to help my family
traffic jams had clogged shut
the main arterial roads leading
inland from Futaba-machi …

As the poem unfolds, we learn of the speaker’s tragic story, how his wife and daughter were torn away from him “because there wasn’t time / for us to climb all the way / up the hill.” and how he could not search for them himself “because I was taken against my will to a hospital in Iitate.” But the real pathos of this poem emerges “because the nuclear accident / at Fukushima Daiichi was, / as it turns out, preventable.” This realization brings on its own onslaught of unanswerable questions for the narrator, who now faults himself “because how can I let this be? / / because my arms are empty / / because she was only three.”

Of her decision to render the tsunami female, Roripaugh, who is poet laureate of South Dakota and editor-in-chief of the South Dakota Review, said, in a recent interview with Frontier Poetry, “nature […] is traditionally read as feminine, or female, and — much like women’s bodies — is a contested space that is endlessly erased, silenced, controlled, legislated, and colonized.” Roripaugh’s earlier works, including the 2014 collection Dandarians and On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year (2009) have explored themes relating to female identities and women’s writing. Of her most recent work, the poet explained that these poems seek to challenge or subvert what she sees as prevalent conceptions of both nature and women as “‘known,’ ‘manageable’ and ‘masterable.’” But it seems to me that even more pervasive, and perhaps more germane to Roripaugh’s poetic project is the perception of women and nature as, in fact, defying knowability, a perception that drives those in positions of power to wrest control of that which they can neither contain nor comprehend. Roripaugh’s poems thus resist not the supposed knowability of women, or of nature, but the attempt to render either woman or nature “knowable.”

Reading this book, I wondered what it might mean to try to get to know a person or a thing, not by penetrating it, or by breaking it down into so many parts and pieces, or by rendering it intelligible and comprehensible, but instead by listening closely to what it has to say, by watching it intently, by holding space for it to simply be. Roripaugh’s “tsunami” poems can be read as attempts to enact a poetics of attention, of close listening and reading. Consider, for example, “emo tsunami,” which opens: “sometimes she’s so lonely // she unscrews herself like a bolt / at 4:00 a.m.” The reader is drawn into the experience of this line through plain vocabulary, coupled with a surprising image, and a concrete measure of time. Lines like this, and there are many similar to it throughout this collection, are both entirely legible and profoundly unintelligible. While we may have some sense of what is being communicated here, we also recognize that we will never really know. And what is poetry for if not precisely to render into words that which will remain — like the tsunami itself, and the experiences of its victims, and of its survivors — utterly and profoundly unknowable?

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Shoshana Olidort is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Stanford University.

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[1] Both translations by Stephen Mitchell, from The Selected Poetry of Dan Pagis, trans. Stephen Mitchell, University of California Press 1996.