After Disaster, Sorrow in a Few Short Words

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When an earthquake hit the Japanese town of Niigata in October 2004, Yo Yasuhara, an elderly monk, wrote these words:

It’s cold and wet/camping outdoors/aftershocks multiplying the misery

The poem, originally written in Japanese, so stirred survivors that it was carved in a memorial stone. Today, one month after the Great Tohoku Earthquake, his lines again ring true.

Much has been said, and indeed, written, in the aftermath of the Mar. 11 quake. Yet, for all these words, the scope of the disaster and the depth of the sorrow have, at times, felt unknowable. Perhaps that’s why I found this piece so moving.

In a dispatch from Tokyo, Julie Makinen, my former colleague at the International Herald Tribune, selects and translates poems written as the crises unfolded. Though some are not technically haiku, but senryu (a form which follows the same syllabic rules, but is more apt to contain satire or social commentary), they are nonetheless evocative.

Here’s an example, by Tadashi Nishimura. Read it slowly.

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

Yo Yasuhara, the monk, used the first line of his poem from 2004 to anchor this piece.

Day of disaster/I can never forget/the cold and wet

The last one I’ll quote uses a device called a kigo, a word or phrase that typically signals the season in which a poem was written. This year, Makinen explains, writers are using the words “spring sea” to signify the tsunami.

Here, a woman who uses the pen name Murasaki Sagano, evokes the loss of her mother five days after the wave hit Honshu’s coast.

Mother’s pain/into the spring sea/her last sleep