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TSUNAMI vs. the FUKUSHIMA 50 by Lee Ann Roripaugh
Milkweed Editions 2019. 120 pages.
Reviewed by DM O’Connor

the liminal torn-open, turning

words into invisible birds lifting

unruly as catastrophe

Yes, but / and…

“ontology of tsunami”

Lee Ann Roripaugh has put a tsunami on paper.

Crisp, minimal, churning, and infinitely-layered, TSUNAMI vs. the FUKUSHIMA 50 explores the math and aftermath of the 2010 tsunami caused by an earthquake which collided with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. 50 refers to the number of survivors who, unafraid to sacrifice their lives, stayed at the plant to stabilize the reactors. In Roripaugh’s fifth collection, the images swirl between Bruegel and Godzilla, from total disaster to hope of rebirth, from human as self-appointed Earth colonizer, to suffering victim, to stoic hero. Footing on solid ground is almost impossible to find, and that is the point.

Delving into the field of eco-poetry, the poem “animal portents foretell the rise of tsunami,” lists the carnage. The “fish come unschooled,” “bees abandon their queen,” and “cats spill from windows.” In “radioactive man,” the following gut-wrenching dramatic monologue tells the story of a survivor who stayed to look after the animals after saving his family who he can no longer visit because, like Dr. Manhattan in Watchman comics, he believes he has given everyone he loves cancer. Radioactive man is full of dark humor, loneliness, and stoic sadness. He speaks to an ostrich so vicious the police have nicknamed her The Boss:

sometimes I think of visiting

my two kids, who live

with my ex-wife in Tokyo

but then I remind myself

of the invisible dust coated

in cesium particles that’s in

my clothes, my hair, my skin

I remember I can see my future

in the sick animals I care for

The tragic beauty of this narrative is not a fight for survival but the cost of sacrifice. Radioactive man is not a soldier performing a duty, but a father and citizen doing what is right, a martyr. Various survivors and observers also deliver their monologues. A 78-year-old pearl diver, “ama, the woman of the sea,” asks “why should I run from the tide?” before diving into the tsunami. An “anonymous, as invisible man” confesses to the shame of his children being ostracized. Robots, ghosts, hulks, shape shifters, and even the tsunami itself are personified and described. The shifting points of view feel like a glimpse from the eye of the storm. Illusions to pop culture make the horror palatable. Occasionally, the tides wash up dark humor, but isn’t that part of the process of mourning?

“Tsunami’s debris” is a catalogue of waste that swirls in the North Pacific. A “Harley Davidson wrecked/ on the shores of British Columbia,” is juxtaposed against “a boy’s lucky soccer ball/ head-butted from the waves.” The concluding couplets are an exacting summary of themes explored in the collection:

what belongs to you / doesn’t

in the shattered absence

of an unravelling cosmos

what tiny bits of debris will you

unexpectedly ache for?

what small particles will you

cling to / as if you possible could?

TSUNAMI vs. the FUKUSHIMA 50 is a prime example of how poetry can record and honor history, face the horror of nature and humanity with empathy and witness, and reach the corners of the collective unconscious that prose, photography, or video cannot. Like a tsunami, Roripaugh’s poems are powerful, awesome, and impossible to ignore. This is a talented poet at the height of her powers who etches beauty from destruction. Putting a storm on the page is no easy task, and Roripaugh has succeeded with a furious magnificence.


DAVID MORGAN O'CONNOR is from a small Canadian village on Lake Huron. After many nomadic years, he's based in Albuquerque, where stories and poems progress daily. His writing has appeared in more than 50 print or online publications. He reviews, interviews and blogs monthly.