APRIL IS NATIONAL POETRY MONTH: ‘Facing the Wave’: Gretel Ehrlich

  • By David M. Kinchen, with information from Knopf 

The writer Gretel Ehrlich, a longtime passionate student of Japanese poetry and culture, returned to Japan in 2011 after an earthquake and Tsunami devastated the Tohoku coast. As Ehrlich explains, during a literally earth-shattering six minutes on March 11, there were “Three sorrows: quake, tsunami, meltdown. In the quake’s ‘seismic moment,’ the total energy released was two hundred thousand times the energy at the earth’s surface, equal to six hundred million times the energy of the bomb dropped at Hiroshima.”

In Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami , poetry is one of the tools she uses to try to understand what she is seeing and the hardships suffered by the people of that region. She finds solace in lines from T. S. Eliot, Roberto Calasso, Basho, Saigyo, and others, and she writes poems of her own along the way. Even the instructions of her driver and friend Abyss-San—advice on how to avoid radiation or how to make curry—become poetry, their sustenance worthy of heightened attention in the face of seismic devastation and grief. Below, one from Ehrlich’s pen, and one from Abyss-San.

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At Ishinomaki Where Matsuo Basho Once Wrote a Poem

Finally the twisted roadbed drains
and the daily floodtides at
Ishinomaki dry out.
The sky unmists itself and
loss upon loss begins to
feel like company.
Nothing touches. Nights are brittle and soft,
ink scraped smooth.
To the south Fukushima Daiichi blazes. Flames
we can’t see. Sixty-six years ago
two other seacoast towns vanished.
I stick my forearm out
in moonlight. Looking seaward
my skin burns.

Abyss-San’s Curry Recipe

Sauté cloves, bay leaves, fenugreek, chili peppers, cardamom,
curry leaf, and garlic in mustard oil.
Add sliced onion, turmeric, coriander, and cumin.
Add chopped potatoes and carrots, then tomatoes.
Rinse China beans and lentils, then add in with salt.
Add enough water to cover. Cover and cook for one hour or
more, or until beans are soft.
Make an equally large pot of rice with wheat berries.
Fry Aju hing seeds and add to the curry at the end. Serve.
Eat with gratitude.

More on this poem and author:

Excerpts from FACING THE WAVE © 2013 by Gretel Ehrlich. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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