Nakamura Sachiko (b.1963) grew up in Ōtunato-city in the Iwate prefecture in Tohoku, Japan, which became one of the most severely damaged areas by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Born into a landlord family who had lived there for hundreds of years, she has never left her home town. This poem is based on her experiences after the tsunami. The poetic style she has chosen, including the mixture of the prose and linages, past and present, monologues, conversations, dialogues, and signs around the town, represents the confusion of the people’s state of mind as well as the chaotic situation the towns and cities of Tohoku had to face. The black dot in the poem is used as a coded reference to the government, implying sarcasm at the government’s treatment of the disaster. This poem won a prize in Iwate prefecture’s Disaster Poetry Competition and was published in Iwate Disaster Poetry Anthology (Shishū, Iwate shinsai shiika 2017).
Rina Kikuchi, a native speaker, completed a literal translation of the poem, liaising in Japanese with Nakamura to clarify some of the ideas embedded in the work. Cassandra Atherton, who is a scholar in the field of Japanese disaster poetry and a prose poet, worked with Rina on her translation to create a poem in English that was true to the original, but which also engaged a readership outside Japan. Once the English version was drafted, Rina, who describes herself as a messenger between poets, took this to Nakamura and completed some redrafting based on her feedback. The translation process was rewarding because it ultimately brings important Japanese poetry a wider readership.
Is this the hollowness of my father’s death?
Or the bone tiredness of his long illness in my chest?
From the hospital window, I watched it unfold.
Is this emptiness the heavy guilt of inaction?
Or punishment for surviving?
crematoria are overflowing there are no more coffins ● is to blame they control the living and the dead look there are huge smoke clouds rising No Detour Isn’t that fire? Road Closed call the fire brigade we can’t find our family please write down the names of the people you have lost hurry run to the fire station wait in line for the cremation of your loved ones we will call your name when it’s your turn
The satellite calls cannot be connected
please would you swap your spare underwear for some water? oh no, only plastic bags Limit Of Up To 3 Items Limit Of Up To 10 Litres Of Petrol we will be cremating your family member in one hour oh! the body must be in a coffin use this chipboard please hurry up people are waiting but can’t you do something? it’s too sad to keep moving his body in and out of this bag just hurry up but we wanted to have flowers and we can’t find even one now let’s pray he is lucky to have died from his illness
My father’s bones shrink to fragments and ash;
I scoop up everything, every bit of bone dust and place it in a small white bag.
My great-aunt and her family are next to be cremated.
I did not know they were victims.
terrible scars three bodies huddled together on the front porch relatives have gathered please take a flower my older sister you must have suffered greatly it’s time how beautifully white and smooth their bones are but these urns don’t match I’m sorry there is nothing we can do
Forty-nine days after my father’s death,
I reunite with my brothers; we are all broken
all the coastline roads are blocked please let me pass I beg you please my father is on the cusp of death tonight no I can’t trust this you can call my sister who is there no I cannot let you go there is nothing but a dangerous wasteland of brokenness please just give in I’m telling you this for your own good
That policeman must have been dead tired
was the last line my older brother uttered
My younger brother bowed his head and said I saw hell that night
when I looked out of the window of the company building all I could see was ocean I could hear people calling all night I stretched the fire extinguisher’s hose hoping to reach someone help where are you? help me it was pitch dark I could see nothing suddenly what? what are you doing? shut up I’m reporting I’m risking my life to record the truth you are in the way I could hear so many calls HELP where are you? HELP ME OVER HERE hello SOMEONE HELP ME hang on THIS WAY I’m coming I NEED ASSISTANCE hold on HELP where are you? hang ooooooooooonnnnnnn surely those cries were heard till morning
His illness surges in him.
My older brother wants to save me from
the same fate, but I am already in therapy.
You have been through so much.
I suffered, but so did you.
let’s talk about the sea we saw that day let’s talk about why we survived let’s talk about the unspeakable darkness about the days we have to live after all that we have loved is gone we must talk we have to talk
Nothing can be the same
but a new day still dawns
and the bright morning comes.
Nakamura Sachiko was born and grew up in Ōfuanato-city in Tohoku, which was severely damaged by the tsunami in 2011. The poem published here won the Iwate Disaster Poetry Prize in 2017.
Cassandra Atherton is a prose poet, critic and scholar. She was a Harvard Visiting Scholar in English in 2016 and her recent books of prose poetry include Exhumed (2015), Trace (2015) and Pikadon (2018).
Rina Kikuchi is an associate professor at Shiga University, Japan. She has been at the ANU and University of Canberra since 2016 as a visiting scholar, translating contemporary Japanese and Australian poetry.