Claire Qian reviews a volume that considers the role of poetry in times of trauma.
Jeffrey Angles, These Things Here and Now: Poetic Responses to the March 11, 2011 Disasters (Josai University Educational Corporation University Press, 2016), 256pp.
On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami struck northern Japan. The unprecedented natural catastrophes and nuclear disaster that followed claimed more than 15,000 lives, and reactions to the devastation naturally extended beyond the borders of the disaster areas and forced Japanese people to think and act in different ways. The Japanese literary world was no exception.
Named after Takahashi Mutsuo’s poem “These Things Here and Now,” this captivating book reveals the necessity and prospect of poetry in times of trauma as the translator and editor Jeffrey Angles addresses in the introduction. Indeed, the Japanese were struggling to find a language that would allow them to express their grief, horror, and anxiety, thereby making poets their de facto leaders who used dramatic and compelling language to provide momentary comfort, record the tragedy, and probe its philosophical and moral implications.
For people in the worst affected regions of the disaster zone, writing poetry was a means to document the disaster and its destruction; for others, poetry served as a method of searching for meaning. Wagō Ryōichi, for instance, wrote in great detail about the disaster as a victim and as a Fukushima native. His voice and other poetic responses in the disaster area appealed to the public through social media platforms such as Twitter as quickly as the seismic waves. There are other poets in the anthology, such as Itō Hiromi, who tend to comment more on the poetry production in the post-disaster era and seek the creation of a new language. Poetry also became a vehicle for social protest that dealt with the tensions of contemporary society in profound detail.
The collection presents a great variety of responses from poets with different backgrounds and styles, including concerns from moral and philosophical perspectives. There are also numerous poems from poets who did not have firsthand knowledge of the chaos on the ground. Written in 2015, Hirata Toshiko’s poem “Cold Spring” makes us visualize the poet’s regret and grief at the thought of this devastating disaster, as if everything were happening to our families and ourselves and we should always keep caring for others and feeling the care from others:
Flowers bloom, birds sing
Spring comes without a certain someone
Fragments of feeling muttered to myself
Spill over, more than I can count
I will keep the water always at a boil
So that those who are cold may warm themselves
So that I can make coffee at a moment’s notice
Even on the days no one will return
These poems truly provide a window into Japan’s experiences through the fusion of scenes and feelings to tell us what we cannot see, and to give voice to the countless people across the world praying for an end to the suffering.
Apart from direct reflections on emotions, some poets in this collection started looking for a new language after a short period of silence and sadness (as well as sympathy and indignation). One year after the disasters, poet Tian Yuan published his poem “Tsunami,” in which we find the poet’s playful reprimand of the survivors:
You, oh loquacious survivors,
Give us some peace and quiet!
Learn from the falling snow
Which falls silently, disappears, and leaves no traces
Right now, our words are not needed
Our sadness is useless
Let us make the salt from our tears
Turn to crystals inside of us
For the sake of the dead
For the sake of us, still alive
As Angles notes, the poem “hints at the poet’s frustration over the unbroken string of post-disaster political accusations, as well as the seemingly unending series of lamentations about the disasters from other poets” (211). It’s undeniable that a sudden disaster may become an unexpected Muse for writers, but poetry itself is useless. At least in the absence of electricity, water, food, and clothing, and the presence of unburied dead bodies of thousands of victims, poetry does not have more value than a bottle of water, a piece of bread or even a coffin. Since August 2015 Japan has been reactivating its nuclear reactors, but it remains difficult for the people of the region who survived to move on and get back to their lives.
Poetry can be a place of solace for people after a disaster and a way towards hope. As Angels stated in the introduction, poetry served as a means to explore the crisis of representation that was revealed by the 3.11 disaster. Before 3.11, the dominant way of writing poetry was intensely personal and linguistically playful, but many poets realized its insufficiency in dealing with the enormity of the catastrophes. The Japanese literary world has seen a subtle shift from linguistic play toward increased communicability. Meanwhile, poets who had occupied positions on the periphery of the Japanese poetic scene were able to emerge and become leaders so that new ways of writing might arise. “Language has power,” Angels says, “and many have increasingly felt that it is the responsibility of the poet to use that power well—whether it be to provide comfort, to question the world, or to help shape a better future” (65).
One thinks of Jean-Paul Sartre’s question: “What is the meaning of literature in a hungry world?” In other words, how should literature connect to real suffering? In the face of a catastrophe, some recognize the responsibility to mourn the deceased by expressing concerns about safety; and others focus on what they can do for the survivors. This eloquent and unique book offers some of the best examples of these various impulses of poetic expression in the wake of disaster. Still, as Jeffery Angels notes, it remains to be seen how contemporary Japanese poetry continues to develop in the post-disaster era. In the meantime, this evocative collection channels our fears when peace is not easy to find in the here and now.