“At night I dream about empty parking lots:/ flat and void of memory./ It’s been two years & I still live/ in a temporary house.” Meg Eden’s poetry collection Drowning in a Floating World (Press 53) is concerned with disaster, survival, & what comes in between— the temporary shelters we seek & construct as the waters recede. This collection is a catalogue of what was lost in the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami: the fragile borders of beaches, the autonomy of citizens, the security of families, and the lives of loved ones. Eden conveys how natural disasters operate to disrupt entire ecosystems, societies, as well as touch personal lives. These poems are an intimate portrait of the moments after the storm, when the survivors must survey what the water has taken, and what happens long after the world has forgotten the tragedy. The speakers sort through the ruins, finding instead only remnants of the lost. And through it all, we are reminded of both the smallness of human life and the strength of human resiliency, dichotic like “the water that pulls— both killing and sustaining.”
On March 11, 2011 an undersea earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 occurred just off the coast of northern Japan, in proximity to Sendai; the earthquake trigged massive tsunami waves, which obliterated buildings, vehicles, and bodies until all became a soup of debris. The official death tally: 15,897. What does one do when encountering a number like that? It is difficult to put tragedy into context, without gawking at the sheer expanse of that its effects. Early in the collection, Eden illuminates the widespread consequences of the tsunami, how the water had reached so far into homes that one could hypothetically “make miso out of seaweed from a backyard,/ make udon from the debris in a living room.” These were not anonymous deaths: each a sibling, parent, child, grandparent, coworker, friend, lover. “Try to remember friends’ names, & what/ they looked like before they were found.” Lives have been lost, but what has also eroded is the memory of those lives— in some cases their bodies so disfigured by water that they have become unrecognizable, in other cases details of their lives— the objects in the homes, the documents that assured they were counted as citizens— were flood-shredded.
What exists after the water has receded is strange, unexpected. Not only the debris of disaster but also new habits, rituals born of the tsunami. The townspeople ask that certain buildings remain standing, even though they are uninhabitable, to serve the same purpose of tsunami stones “should you mistakenly forget.” The speaker of one poem is forced to wear the dresses of dead girls, “dresses I found on the shore, in now-empty houses.” In one formally ambitious poem “Tsunami Debris Found Poem,” Eden creates a kind of database of found objects— the strange detritus of lives we cannot know, only infer from what they left behind.
“Rumiko / A Series of Possessions,” which appears as the sixth poem in the collection, is useful in investigating the breadth of this ruin. In the poem, Eden evokes persona to give us small glimpses into the lives of survivors, many of whom house spirits that passed due to the tsunami— find exorcised here a dog left chained in the backyard, daughters never found in the flood, a sister who let go of her brother’s hand, all these familiar ghosts. What Eden does so well is show how the tragedy is not simply melancholic but horrific; she forces the reader to reckon with that horror.
Such a challenge, although we might acknowledge it expands our capacity for humane empathy, is never easy; it is never easy to take each tragedy personally, to understand loss as intimate and real. Each death individually traumatizing, the kind of loss that might stay in one’s throat for a lifetime. We learn of the son who “digs with his hands/ through the mud/ for his mother/ Maybe her shoes?” He is desperate for any familiar piece of her to bury, to remember. We learn of the sneakers washed up on the beach, those with “bones in them,” the sneakers of “salarymen,” “school girls”, “janitors,” “porn stars,” “homeless men,” and countless others; the tsunami does not discriminate but rather floods every possible life with fresh loss.
Toward the end of the collection, Eden’s project becomes even more ambitious as she tackles the fallout of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. She weaves narratives of the exclusion zone— the slow death of cows left behind in a barn, the ghost town quality of abandoned cities, the struggle of families returning home to retrieve their belongings. Eden places this disaster in historical context, connecting the spread of nuclear contamination from Fukushima both to the neglect-caused death of the women who painted radium onto watch dials in the 1910s, the release of radioactive foxes across battle lines during the Second World War, and the United State’s use of atomic bombs in the destruction of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In the next few weeks, as COVID-19 continues to spread and as the death toll rises, I hope this lesson stays with me— to take seriously each life, to understand each tally is not merely a death but also a life. That tragedy affects us in ways we cannot escape, floods our bedrooms, leaves our kitchens muraled with seaweed. What we must avoid, in the aftermath of tragedy, as the days make the water a distant memory, after the donations stop arriving and the organizations who arrived to help turn their eyes to a newer tragedy, is forgetting. In doing so, we “remove the save file/ of a person’s life: human/ erasure.” It is easy to do so when the tragedy is so immense, so unbelievably grand in scale. “It’s easy to become/ a ghost in a country of ghosts.”
Eden has managed to resurrect these ghosts, even for a little while, so that we may honor their deaths, their lives, their memories. What might a country, a nation of people, become after being baptized by water, by blood? Eden has drafted a blueprint for what such survival can look like.
Derek Berry is a poet & novelist living in South Carolina. They are the author of the novel Heathens & Liars of Lickskillet County (PRA, 2016), as well as the poetry chapbooks Skinny Dipping with Strangers, Glitter Husk, & Buggery, winner of the 2020 BOOM Chapbook Prize from Bateau Press. They write book reviews for Free State Review. They are the recipient of the Emrys Poetry Prize, KAKALAK Poetry Award, & Broad River Prize for Prose; they are also the recipient of the 2020 Susan Laughter Meyers Summer Fellowship. Their recent work has appeared in ANMLY, Yemassee, Taco Bell Quarterly, Beloit Poetry Journal, Raleigh Review, Longleaf Review, & elsewhere. They offer creative consultancy services with Contribute Your Verse & host the CYV Podcast. They eat too much pasta & like to catch ghost Pokémon. Their poems, books, & secrets can be found at derekberrywriter.com.