The poetry of disaster
The poetry of disaster can open up a space for solace and solidarity, sympathy and empathy, education and awareness, and to share our trauma and resilience.
All weekend we had strong winds and rains, and this alert from my university was sent out: “The National Weather Service issued a Tropical Storm Warning this morning at 6:00 a.m. Gradual intensification is expected as this system tracks northwest towards Hawaii. Some impacts are likely in the coming days, including hazardous marine conditions, high surf and heavy rainfall.”
To me, storms invoke nostalgia. Guam, where I grew up, lies in “Typhoon Alley.” I remember a super typhoon so forceful that it broke through shutters and flooded our bedrooms. Our family closed all the doors and slept in the hallway as the storm shook the house.
Guam is also located in the “Ring of Fire,” an area of frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity. One of the scariest moments of my life occurred in 1993, when an 8.1 earthquake struck for nearly 60 seconds. My family ran and held each other under a doorway until the earth stopped trembling. I write about both these events in my most recent book of poems.
Natural disasters are one of the most prevalent themes in eco-poetics, especially since disasters are occurring with much more frequency and intensity due to climate change.
In class, we discussed Nicole Cooley’s essay, “Poetry of Disaster.” Cooley suggests that the poetry of disaster opens up a space for us to gather and grieve, to seek solace and solidarity, to express sympathy and empathy, to educate and raise awareness, and to share our trauma and resilience. Cooley also highlights how the poetry of disaster inspires action, pointing to the Poets for Living Waters project (an example of literary activism to the BP Gulf oil disaster).
Indeed, disasters not only inspire poems, but they inspire post-poem literary activism, including publication in mainstream and social media (in video and print form), benefit readings, fundraising anthologies, educational websites, ethnographic/interview based poetry projects and writing workshops for survivors.
We read or heard and discussed several examples of disaster poetry and literary activism: in response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, the 2009 tsunami in Samoa, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, and the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis.
There are many ways to respond to disaster, whether we have lived through it ourselves, or if we experience it emotionally from afar. There are many forms and styles these poems are expressed in, as there are many forms of literary activism that emerge. There are, also, many ethical and artistic questions that arise about charity, representation, and the appropriation of others’ traumas.
What follows is a selection of student poems addressed in the theme of disaster (personal, natural, political, etc). As always, we welcome your comments, and we invite you to write and share your own poetry of disaster.
by Brian Lieu
Fishes. Birds. Insects. Tortoise.
Open space; No forest.
Let us pray.
Men. Women. Children. Pets.
The sun sets.
Let us pray.
2953. 1958. 4. 4.
Structures threatened. Structures destroyed. Fighters hurt. People killed.
Please no more.
Let us pray.
Worship the Father. Praise the Son. Thank the Holy Spirit.
Why not the Mother?
We easily forget of Her limit-
less power. Our world is hers.
Fishes bask in the sunlight, from lack of
shade; Birds dine on the beetles scurrying about
the new ebony; Bugs weaving above
and around the expeditious growth of greens; the
tortoise finds its new home.
Glorify the Lord.
Fire can kill or sustain
Fire can destroy or merge
Fire can be wild or tamed
Fire is consumption or hope.
What can be fixed, will be.
The sun rises, clouds whimsical, sky indigo;
Boy, is She flirty.
We are not broken.
Firefighters in action.
Disasters break us down fine
Or do they bring us together.
Some see scars
Some see beauty.
Your Last Breath
by Darlene Rodrigues
you have taught us
where ocean water and mountain water meet is Po Wai
ebbing and flowing
the ocean swirls to give birth
to limu strands along the shoreline
feeding fish, honu and people
for years you spoke of the bane of development
“whatever happens to the land affects the ocean”
the estuary system kept the rain drops clean from mauka to makai
the limu is disappearing slowly
you have observed
the changes over time
another kind of growth has settled into the shore
choking itʻs chance of survival
we watch with sadness as
your own body tan from days in the sun
mirrors the disaster
of obstruction and construction
of foreign particles lodged in branches
where streams of oxygen have become
concretized by poison
your face while recognizable is like
the places you walked as a child
sunken with sad memories of what once was
the rising and heaving of your chest
your shuddering breath
your own system mixing oxygen and blood
slows and stops
and the fear that keeps us there comes to pass
by Chase Wiggins
Natural selection confuses me—
and this is a real question—
because what good is survival
of the fittest
when I have bled bears with thrown
and have shot a lion with cross
and have killed a child with shot
and have taken a saw to an elephant’s
and have murdered natives for their
and have leveled cities with nuclear
and have driven
Translation Poem for Hong Kong
Henry Wei Leung
To mime a more exacting fire
In which I translate the other
Despite I was there I was there too
A flag an encounter with silence
A man giving and giving his river of kerosene
To the long road of protest
Why can’t I light students on fire
In which please translate my cigarette
Beneath armored police on a galleon stage
Three men sail into a city of no citizenship
With a megaphone, a gas of tears, and a camcorder
Red light blinking at the end of the tunnel
The other way the other telling
Respectfully Dear Brigand Road-Hogs
tyrannically occupying roads, illegally
assembling for over ten days with grave
consequence to the lives of Hong Kong/
Kowloon’s citizens, students can’t go to
school, parents can’t go to work, household
incomes subtracting, store incomes subtracting—
your foolish Occupy campaign is doubly criminal,
spreading discontent [“the sky’s rage the people’s complaint”]
A thousand copies of a white note flitting down
A dark apartment window in a billboard-lit darkness
A protest camp staring at stars dislodged, lit up in wonder
One morning I passed a man not weeping though his cheeks were wet
An insect of iridescent hue trampled in the [ ] of the night before
Dm stands for Deemocrycee
A smoke persists
rupturing society and the home, aggrieving parents.
Now if you don’t withdraw by 20 October at 11:14pm,
“Fourteen minutes” sounds like “wet shit portion”
then may we please invite you to eat shit-urine
ink bombs, of which you can have your fill
and then go home to sleep, okay?
In this assembly of Citizens Loving Hong Kong
each member has made ten cloacal bombs as gifts
for your dinner, an especially enriching bomb consommé!
These bombs are a [learned] dark ink
weight of an orange
A language is a darkness interpreted
made of thin plastic bags tied at the mouth
A life of longing for [the ]
Allied Federation Coalition League of Family Protectors Hong Kong Saviors
Tied at the mouth