Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Poetry of the Everyday – Part I – Messages

On March 5 haiku poet Mayazumi Madoka gave a lecture in Washington on haiku and 3/11.

Though I was not there, I am skeptical that what she said had much relevance to the triple disaster, whose one year anniversary we are swiftly approaching.

The composition of haiku is unimaginably difficult in the best of times. In most hands it devolves into mere metric pretention. At their very best haiku pin down in 17 syllables the intersection of a time and a place in a manner that is at once considered, playful, serious and artless.

Given its intense brevity, haiku requires an immense body of knowledge to appreciate. Most of that physical knowledge has been irrevocably lost in the vast increase of personal material wealth and the disassociation of individuals from nature and its rhythms since haiku’s golden age. As for the literary historical knowledge, so many centuries have passed and so many poems composed that only scholars and devoted amateurs could place in context particular words, phrases or themes. Those without a knowledge of what has been said before would be lost. In 1994, while on a visit to the United States, Emperor Akihito (the Heisei Emperor) paid a visit to American school teaching Japanese language. In a short presentation on composing haiku, the emperor took Basho’s famous verse on the frog (kawazu) leaping into a pond, but changed the protagonist from a frog to an old turtle. The emperor was commenting on his own visit to the school, where the children were awaiting an appointed magical moment only for an old turtle to show up. The old turtle, was, of course, the emperor himself, in a charming bit of self-deprecation – a turn of phrase that was, unsurprisingly, completely lost on everyone present.

But beyond the technical and literary historical problems thwarting attempts to bridge the gap between haiku and 3/11, haiku is just not an art form amenable to comprehending cataclysm. Guernica gives a sense of cataclysm. Fortuna et Imperatrix Mundi gives a sense of cataclysm. Haiku, with its requirements that there be a season word (Who wants to remember the light snow falling in Iwate?) and an essential simultaneous disassociation from time and the capture of a moment, all in 17 syllables – cannot suffice, I am afraid.

Which is not to say that brevity cannot capture the terror and pathos of the events of 3/11. The hearts of the country had been captured by the story of "the voice of the angel" Endo Miki, 24 year-old Minami Sanrikucho civil servant who kept broadcasting warnings about the impending tsunami over the town’s loudspeakers until the waves drowned her. Her body was found in early May. However, it is the last minute emails of her high school classmate and co-worker at the disaster center, the also 24 years-old Miura Arisa, whose body was not found until January this year amid the town's rubbish heaps, which have become the words befitting the disaster.

In her last message, to her mother, which her mother was not to receive until several days after March 11 due to the back up of electronic traffic, Ms. Miura wrote:


Buji desu ka!?
6 metoru no tsunami kimasu
Yakusho nagasaretara gomen

Are you OK!?
A six meter tsunami is coming
If the public offices are washed away sorry (forgive me)

The waters that were to engulf Miura Arisa, Endo Miki and 39 of their fellow disaster relief workers were much higher than 6 meters. The only persons who managed to survive the tsunami did so by clinging to the metalwork atop the purportedly tsunami-safe three story structure.

As for the final gomen, it is the jagged edge of sadness, the apology of a child for committing the unfilial act of dying whilst in the line of duty, leaving her parent behind to mourn. (J)

Last week's issuance of the civilian report on the Fukushima Dai'ichi nuclear power plant meltdown had in it another brief yet eloquent passage worthy of repetition, describing the clash between the tedious mentality of the everyday with the forces arrayed against the country.

On the first morning of the catastrophe, when the Tokyo Electric Power Company was failing to inform the government of the situation at the plant, Prime Minister Kan made the difficult decision to visit the plant himself to get a grip on the situation, in both meanings of the term.

Hearing of the PM's determination to visit Fukushima Dai'ichi himself, Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio warned of what he thought were the likely significant consequences:

枝野官: 絶対にあとから政治的な批判をされる。

Edano: Zettai ni ato kara seijiteki na hihan o sareru.
Kan: Ato kara no hihan to kono jiten de genpatsu o kontororu suru koto to dotchi ga daiji nan da.
Edano: Wakatte iru nara dozo.

Edano: There is no doubt about it, afterwards you will be criticized politically.
Kan: Between being criticized afterward and getting control of the nuclear power plant, which is more important right now?
Edano: As long as you understand (the situation), please, go ahead. (J)

Edano, the saintly Edano who had a Twitter stream begging him to get some sleep in the aftermath of the disaster, is here revealed as the political operative, thinking about how the issue of Kan's visit would be perceived in the poisonous political atmosphere of Nagatacho. Meanwhile Kan, the selfish Kan who would not give up his premiership until he got his three wishes granted, is clearly in control of his senses, if not the situation up at Fukushima, where the #1 and #2 reactors had already melted down and the building housing reactor #1 was only hours away from exploding.

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