Angry Reminders: Lee Ann Roripaugh’s Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50

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Human beings like to make myths out of things we don’t understand. Modern mythologies—like comic book and science fiction characters—contain some of the metaphors for our greatest fears, our greatest disasters. In Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50, Lee Ann Roripaugh uses mythology—pop cultural icons such as Godzilla and The Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan, who have long represented our nuclear anxieties—and her own personification of the character “Tsunami” to examine an almost unbearable series of tragedies: first the tsunami that hit Japan in March of 2011 after a 9.1 magnitude earthquake shook the country, and then the nuclear disaster at Fukushima that followed.

Japan is one of the only countries that has known horrendous nuclear tragedy before—its history as the first highly populated target of the nuclear bomb—but this nuclear tragedy was not a disaster of war; instead, it was a product of nature, and of human hubris, delusion, and error. The tsunami has featured as a main character in ancient Japanese art and poetry for centuries as an emblem of all that can destroy, but also the power (and generosity) of the sea on which the Japanese people rely. Roripaugh continues this tradition, but gives it a postmodern spin.

The tsunami and nuclear disaster at Fukushima were horrifying to watch, especially for anyone who had family or friends in the area. I didn’t, but I do have a bird’s eye view of the nuclear power industry: my father worked with robotics solutions for nuclear accidents just like the one at Fukushima at Oak Ridge National Labs in Tennessee. Cesium 137, the nuclear contamination that resulted from the Fukushima disaster, is also found in cow’s milk, fruits, and fish in the area I grew up in Tennessee. I was interested to see the success or failure of the robotic nuclear cleanup attempts, which were supposed to protect workers—workers just like the “Fukushima 50,” the pseudonym the media used to refer to the employees who tried to cope with the disaster. The robots—created to safely transport and remove nuclear waste in case of disaster—were almost immediately destroyed by the power of the core meltdown. Sadly, even though it had been twenty years since my father’s work with nuclear disaster-cleaning robots, the most modern robots’ great capabilities and safety features were unable with withstand the disaster. Roripaugh addresses this playfully in her poem “tsunami battles the pink robots/French poststructuralist tsunami”:

oh tin men, she laughs
…with her gulls and crazed
seaweed hair/ rusting down

your hearts to orange filing
and cringing flake

tick tock / tick / tock
until they all / stop

This book, Roripaugh’s fifth, uses her perspective as a second-generation Japanese American to create a kind of cross-cultural intimacy, and skillfully interweaves historical facts with science fiction imaginings and persona poems to offer different viewpoints. In the end notes, she dedicates the book as “a tribute to, in memory and honor of, the victims and survivors of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.”

Her unique take on the story of the disaster, of the heroes, and of the victims, includes poems in the voice of the tsunami and placing the disaster in the perspective of various comic book characters, along with more realistic perspectives of a female pearl diver, of the workers watching the meltdown, of locals losing family members, of someone watching the tsunami land on the beach. This approach leads the reader to think about the ways we interact with nature and with disasters in general, but also the small, personal tragedies of the people who were impacted directly.

Roripaugh’s poem “radioactive man” refers to real-world heroes, as well as to comic book characters. It’s about a survivor who goes back to feed abandoned animals, and who fears poisoning his own children with his presence:

Sometimes I think of visiting
my two kids… but then I remind myself
of the invisible dust coated
in cesium particles that’s in
my clothes, my hair, my skin…

in the American Watchmen comics,
Dr. Manhattan was once tricked
into believing he’d given everyone
he’d ever loved cancer, through
exposure to his radioactive body

just the thought of it undid him…

In the poem, “mothra flies again,” a pregnant survivor worries about bad omens of silk moth cocoons unhatched and the propaganda spread by her government: “everything was fine, fine, fine” (or “daijobu”), even while she doubts its truth:

I unknowingly exposed my twins
small as a pair of Bing cherries,
to radioactive contamination while
believing everything was daijobu.

The character comforts herself falling asleep in front of monster movies, where

Mosuru is summoned by her
twin fairy priestesses, who sing
for her when they’re in danger…

how fiercely she defends them…

And Roripaugh offers the frightening side of her personified tsunami, but also its beauty in “beautiful tsunami”:

it’s no secret she’s a little bit vain…
in the way reptiles are vain…
with her Hello Kitty barrettes…
all that snaky girlzilla hair…

she surfaces like a terrible fish
rises like the Dark Phoenix
comes in for the kiss like Narcissus

She also garners sympathy for the personified tsunami as a victim of different types of abuse in “origins of tsunami:”

barbed wire that interns her

shoes that pinch
the jeans that ride…

…boy in a drunken rage
who smashes her face…

…don’t tell don’t tell…
don’t make any waves

In one of the first poems in the book, “animals foretell the rise of tsunami,” animals offer hints of the disaster-to-come, but ultimately the warning signs are dismissed until they become angry reminders, as in “song of the mutant super boars” near the end of the book. Human refusal to read nature’s warnings becomes a repetitive alarm throughout the poems, in which monsters rise out of neglect, anger, and abuse. The book has a melancholy subject but is electric with feelings of loss, anger, and an increasing sense of unease.

In Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50, a book that crackles with imaginative language and mythological retellings that represent real-life disaster, Roripaugh offers the audience a new way to think about nuclear and natural disasters and the remnants and ghosts that remain in their wake. Worth a close reading just for the sonic skills displayed, this book manages to weave a larger message for the reader inside poems that are at once playful, plaintive, and foreboding.

Jeannine Hall Gailey served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She is the author of five books of poetry, including her her most recent, Field Guide to the End of the World, winner of the Moon City Press Book Prize and the SFPA’s Elgin Award. She’s also the author of PR for Poets. Her website is and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @webbish6. More from this author →