“It’s safe, but”

As I was waking up for work early yesterday morning, on the other side of the globe Japan was observing a moment of silence for the victims of its twin natural disasters.

When I arrived at the office that day a month before, 32 people had been killed from Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. By the time I left work that day, the estimated death toll was between 200 and 300– a nearly tenfold increase.

Just one week later, the number of people dead or missing from the disaster had risen to more than 20,000– almost twice the population of my hometown.

Now that number is closer to 25,000, and I’m no less stunned by the effects of the disaster.  In the past weeks, The Takeaway has heard from nuclear experts, relief workers, professors of Japanese culture, and even Yoko Ono, but there’s no getting around the basic incomprehensibility of the damage.

Yesterday as I was thinking about how the story has unfolded, I stumbled on this moving poem by Tadashi Nishimura:

“It’s safe, but” / they say over and over / that’s worrisome

Watching the story develop in the role of a journalist, my eyes have been trained on the facts (many of them numerical in this “level 7” disaster).

But poetry cuts past the numbers — the thousands dead or missing, and many more without electricity or water, a home or word from their families; the hundreds of millisieverts of radiation being emitted; the billions of dollars in economic losses — and pierces the heart of the catastrophe’s uncertainty.  It emerges from the rubble of destruction, confusion, and misinformation to describe the very things which evade measurement: loss, blame, guilt, fear, upheaval, meaninglessness.

Another thing about poetry is its eerie timelessness.  From an anthology compiled in 13th century Japan:

Like a driven wave,
Dashed by fierce winds on a rock,
So am I: alone
And crushed upon the shore,
Remembering what has been.

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