What might it look like to drown in the floating world, the sometimes-pleasure world, a world where one may become momentarily, or, for longer, lost? Meg Eden looks at loss and states of lostness through water images in this collection of poems out from Press 53.
The book’s primary focus is the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the following Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, as other reviews note. Yet a particular generosity of Drowning in the Floating World is the way Eden, though using a largely documentary lens, occasionally includes an intimate first-person speaker and, in the book’s last section, extends focus to non-tsunami water imagery. These choices open hopeful possibilities, views to contrast the loss the book illuminates.
Much of this collection’s power comes from Eden’s clear, direct tone, which makes the poems feel like a door swung wide to their subject matter. Eden’s careful linework, even in experimental forms (a list poem, a back-and-forth conversation poem between radiation-poisoned cows and their owners), feels deliberate and spare. Traditional forms throughout the book—villanelle, triolet, ekphrastic, haiku—further emphasize Eden’s skills of clarity and compression. This surface level clarity allows the book’s narrative threads to shine; no stylistic decoration distracts from the swell of water, the response of cities, each important victim or survivor.
Images ground the narrative, here, showcasing human desire to contain sweeping sorrow and chaos. Eden’s images reveal our tendency for both cluelessness and care in the face of horror, as her speakers tend to not look away from what floats toward them in their long aftermath. One of the most moving things about the book’s images is the way they prompt a reader to recognize how disaster can turn objects of the lost into treasures. In the poems, it is easy to feel burdened by the long list of left-behind things: boats, jackets, a lunchbox, a litany of dead girls’ dresses. This burden feels appropriate, subtle, and powerful.
Eden tempers the weight of these images with playfulness in sound and voice, though, creating productive tension. Subtle rhyme in her spare lines makes me read them twice, finding unexpected delight or new shades of moods in otherwise somber stanzas. The multiple characters and personas that appear, too—speaking buildings, survivors, ghosts, spirits, corpse washers, and landscapes—create a complex, shifting chorus, introducing surprising perspectives to a tragic narrative. “Here I stand,/ a new tsunami stone,” a defiantly surviving town hall claims. Or, see the end rhymes in “NASA Satellite Triolet,” which sing with an almost sweet, wave-like longing: “Whatever happened to the beach/ has floated away into the sea,/ capping the bay with floating debris.”
Sandra Beasley says that poetry of witness and documentary poetry “cannot transcend the trauma that marks it.” Eden’s images are not transcendent, and her persona poems, even as they introduce variation and nuance, stay fully entrenched in the world of the disaster. And yet, amidst the necessary wading-through, she nestles what feels like a close “I,” providing intimacy in her documentary landscape. This particular speaker doesn’t have to say much, or profoundly, to give the collection depth, yet in two key places, it provides a meeting place, a center of warmth and observation within the loss.
A poem near the center of the book called “In Tokyo, three months after the earthquake,” says: “The air-conditioning is off in every building,/ saving for Tohoku, loving for Tohoku./ I drown in my sweat […]” and goes on to make a joke about an obnoxious, glittery sign out the window, which feels like a bothersome distraction to the speaker’s thoughts. How relatable this speaker feels, set in the midst of a city, embodied, watching her community try to leverage their comfort for others. Her irritation at the sign also highlights the intimacy this voice brings: she finds something manageable upon which to fix her attention, a detail easier to name and reduce than the inexplainable aftermath of the tsunami. A similar speaker arrives in the penultimate poem, “Okinawa Aquarium,” where she observes the preserved stomach of a dolphin, cut open to reveal swallowed debris. The sight causes her to imagine a conversation with God, where, as if voicing the dolphin, she admits, “I felt so full—even briefly, I thought I was really filled.”
Beasley’s assertion is not wrong: I cannot read any transcendence of disaster in this close “I.” Calamity cannot be annulled by observation, even by honor, or by hoping to benefit others through one’s own lack, nor by personal reflection in the face of the divine. Yet Eden’s choice to include a speaker who chooses these actions alongside her unfolding calamity suggests the possibility for, if not poetic transcendence, worthwhile response off the page—to and beyond the Tohoku and Fukushima Daiichi events—in the drowning world.
Aumaine Rose Gruich is an MFA candidate at The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the Assistant Managing Editor of Ninth Letter. She has received support from the Chautauqua Writer’s Workshop and the Illinois Department of Dance’s Choreographic Platform. Gruich’s work is published or forthcoming in magazines such as AGNI, Pleiades, Court Green, Phoebe, and Bluestem.