hungry tsunami / tsunami as galactus
the hunger of trying to hold back
the hunger a little longer
the hunger of restraint and pullback
churn and growl of beached fishes
in an agitated bouillabaisse
liquid silver squirming on an empty shore
to lick the gilding from the buildings
like golden drizzles of caramel
to take the cake / flick off the crumbs
to raze the fruit / spit out the pits
the hunger of sucked-out marrow
the unwillingly pried-open oyster
the cracked and pillaged lobster claw
to shuck / to husk / to unshell
her way to what’s most tender
to dismantle the protective scrims
that signal a cache of rawness
to demolish defenseless succulence
the hunger for the liquid center
squirt of ganache in a swiss truffle
chocolate lava cake’s molten fondant core
to feed past the end of greed
to feast past the end of want
to gorge past the borders of voraciousness
until she becomes the monstrous goddess
of binge / pure mercenary lack
the blooded face
blood in the water
the blood moon’s exposed sweet throat
with its lipsticked jugular bitten clean out
–From Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50 by Lee Ann Roripaugh (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by Lee Ann Roripaugh. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. milkweed.org
When I get to the end of this poem, I want to roar. It’s so guttural in its language, brutal and luscious, the way a person eating lobster must verge on the barbaric in order to extract the best of the meat. So we begin our encounter with this poem through those overwhelming sounds – the rhymes and near rhymes of hunger/longer and gilding/buildings, but also the sonically ferocious phrases like “churn and growl of beached fishes / in an agitated bouillabaisse / liquid silvers squirming.” It’s a delightful mouthful, and it’s ok if it also sounds a bit over-the-top, even grotesque.
That’s because it is grotesque what Lee Ann Roripaugh is describing – once I get past the rich language, I remember that the poem is evoking gluttony as a way of anthropomorphizing a tsunami. The “hunger” referred to belongs to a wave system that is capable of laying waste to whole coastlines, and indiscriminately killing thousands. And so the sensual pleasure I get while reading the poem has a dark undertone, because the lobster being eaten is everything. In a phrase like “to unshell / her way to what’s most tender,” human beings are being shucked from their protective structures, not just molluscs.
The poem opens with a reference to a strange phenomenon associated with tsunamis. As National Geographic puts it:
A tsunami’s trough, the low point beneath the wave’s crest, often reaches shore first. When it does, it produces a vacuum effect that sucks coastal water seaward and exposes harbor and sea floors. This retreating of sea water is an important warning sign of a tsunami, because the wave’s crest and its enormous volume of water typically hit shore five minutes or so later.
Roripaugh transforms this into the “the hunger of trying to hold back / the hunger a little longer,” which gives the tsunami a strange emotional complexity. The “beached fishes…squirming on an empty shore” seem to be the result of this, as Tsunami pauses in the moments before letting loose her appetite. I think about how, at the end of Yom Kippur, when family and friends are ready finally to break the fast, I’m often tempted to just wait a moment longer, with our bagels and kugel spread out before us, and there’s an exquisite (self-righteous?) pleasure that comes from that last pause before I open my mouth. Here in the poem Tsunami takes a similar breath before gorging herself.
But Tsunami’s hunger transcends my bagel by more than a little bit! The lines that follow, with her “lick[ing]the gilding from buildings” remind us of her destructive power, so that as the imagery of appetite accumulates it becomes more and more monstrous. By the time the poem gives us “the squirt of ganache in a swiss truffle,” we are no longer just thinking of gastronomical pleasures, but also of horror. Roripaugh has transformed Tsunami into “the monstrous goddess / of binge,” placing her alongside other badass ravenous goddesses from various traditions like the Harpies or Kali.
I want to think for a minute about this gesture, the poem’s transformation of a destructive force of nature into a mythological creature with human characteristics. Of course, we have always done this, whether it be ancient peoples deifying volcanoes or contemporary meteorologists giving hurricanes names like Katrina or Sandy. On the one hand, if a volcano has human desires, then perhaps its wrath can be appeased by gifts the way ours sometimes can. We can debate the efficacy of that approach, but even in our contemporary discourse about climate change there’s an awareness that humanizing “Mother Nature” can make it easier for us to articulate the necessity to act in order to “save” her.
There’s another side to the anthropomorphizing of natural phenomena, though, that has more to do with the way we project our fears and obsessions away from ourselves so that we can isolate and confront them. The way that snakes have been characterized in myth as sinister and conniving has little to do with the real reptiles and everything to do with our sense of how dangerous and hard-to-pin-down this sort of behaviour is in people. Volcanoes do not feel “rage” any more than pimples do, but by equating human anger with volcanoes, we try to understand how internal pressures in us can lead to an eruption that hurts everyone around.
It’s easy enough to see how the ravenousness that Lee Ann Roripaugh attributes to Tsunami in this poem might be a projection of the sensation we sometimes feel that we want to devour everything in reach – damn the diet, damn the expense, the mess, the indigestion I know I’ll have two hours from now. Tsunami in that sense becomes a projection in this poem for the irrational side of our desire to consume. Feel free to derive planetary implications from this if you choose.
One quick aside about form: you’ll notice Roripaugh using a backslash (/) sometimes instead of a line break. To my eye, this functions as a sort of half-line-break, a way of directing the rhythms of our reading in a poem with no other forms of punctuation. I also can’t help but notice that the accumulation of these slashes in lines 9, 10, and 14 start look like a bit like a series of waves interrupting the text.
There’s another connection to the other-worldly this poem makes in its title. Galactus, you might know, is a “cosmic being” in the Marvel Comics universe. He’s a huge demi-god who literally eats planets for lunch. He makes numerous appearances in comics and films in which he must be persuaded to refrain from devouring Earth. Like a tsunami, Galactus destroys without any real awareness or concern for the creatures he devours – if he considers them at all, it is only as we might consider a colony of ants living on land slated for new condo development. He is driven only by his gargantuan hunger.
I get a big kick out of comparing Tsunami to Galactus here, granting the oceanic phenomenon the same ravishing hunger and using the term “tsunami” as a name (Tsunami) to humanize her. The poem reminds us of the connection between comic book superheroes and mythological creatures. The title of the collection, Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50, further evokes the 1960s Japanese monster movies like Mothra vs. Godzilla or Gamera vs. Guiron that we think of now as quaint with their laughably antiquated special effects. (Mothra makes an appearance on in another poem from the book.) Roripaugh’s savvy consideration of what “Tsunami” might be in a pop-culture context calls attention to our taste for disaster, whether we are reading comics or watching the news.
But there’s a limit to this playfulness. The poems in Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50 are concerned with a very real tsunami which occurred on March 11, 2011 and which, among other kinds of destruction, led to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The “Fukushima 50” were workers at the nuclear power plant who stayed at their posts in order to try to contain the damage done to the reactor. And while other poems in the collection give voice to various witnesses and victims of the events, granting those people a mythical heroism as well, we know that they didn’t “defeat” Tsunami the way Gamera defeated Guiron. They may have heroically protected the public from greater harm, at great personal risk, and in that sense deserve heroic art to be made in their honour. But the violence in comic books and monster movies doesn’t really hurt anyone. The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami caused the deaths of more than 15,000 people.
For me, after all the momentum and poetic relish that occur in the poem transforming Tsunami into a ferocious and attractive “goddess of binge,” the last four lines of the poem pull us up short. “the blooded face // blood in the water” are not particularly musical, and the repetition feels hesitant, even deliberately clumsy. It’s as if the narrator of the poem has stopped herself. After all, Tsunami is not like Galactus, or Mothra, or the Harpies, because she is real, she has been seen on this Earth, she has devoured whole cities, and she will return. Those were real people in the water, some of whom have never been found. The brutality of the last image – with the “lipsticked” mark of this feminized monster murdering without thought or even hunger – leave us with a resonant sense of the danger faced by those who live even now in Tsunami’s shadow. The shock of that realization cleans out all the fun like a wave cleans out a sandcastle, leaving us suspended between fascination and fear. There’s a word for that combination of feelings that this poem articulates with rich language and a swirl of allusion and image: the word is awe.