Death is implicit in our mortality and awareness of this fact is the tragedy of humanity
An open field – no beginning, no end, only horizon;no light, no darkness, only instinct. As if sown into the fabric of the sky, like the streak of a falling star, a luminescent rope stretches out long as you can see. Along the rope, a shadow of a man is visible – gliding atop it as if weightless, with grace such that what was actually running seems like an elegant dance. Centuries pass, but this curious fellow continues with his dance. A time soon comes when this tightrope dancer, as if by accident, catches a glimpse of the rope that he danced atop, and with it, the abyss below. His heart pounds harder as both awe and fear fill his entire being like poison, he cannot erase from his memory this too sudden a realisation. Unnoticed by him, a mysterious breeze had begun to blow, but with his heart in his mouth, this time with eyes on the rope, the dancer leapt again. But his eyes deceive him, his grace fails, whether it was the gust of wind that had blown or his momentary hesitation, for the first time since the dancer could remember, there began a fall. What happens next is faster than what his senses can process, as if between two blinks of an eye, as the rope dancer falls, he finds his hands clinging on to the rope hanging on...
The year 2020 saw the addition of a new chapter in the book of life that is human tragedy in the shape of the coronavirus pandemic. With it came multiple ways to deal with it. I discovered a book of poetry written by Lee Ann Roripaugh, Tsunami vs the Fukushima 50, exploring the 2011 Daiichi Nuclear Disaster in Fukushima, Japan, triggered by the tsunami following the T hoku earthquake. Among the several themes that the collection of poems tackles, there were many that seemed to resonate with the situation that we find ourselves in the here and now. In this article, however, I will be particularly focusing on a poem titled Hulk Smash, the haunting tale of an unnamed survivor struck down by the tsunami which took his wife and daughter along with the wreckage. Unable to visit his evacuated hometown but for five hours a month under radiation guidelines, the man spends years in the aftermath of the disaster in search of the remains of his three-year-old daughter.
The title of the poem refers to the Marvel Comics character who has, of recent times, become a phenomenon in pop culture. Beyond its popularising capabilities, the use of the symbolism of Hulk seems to me, to be a masterstroke by the poet. Exemplar of the kind of potential there is in modern symbolism, this character, known ubiquitously for his rage-centric powers, provides a layer of subtext and background that perhaps makes the entire poem “pour out of the page”. The Hulk – a raging monster whose power is as boundless as his anger allows, but also almost always desperately portrayed as one of the Earth’s mightiest heroes – a mighty tragic hero? That’s a paradox. The two themes that struck me profoundly upon reading the contents of this poem were anger and tragedy. These were the very themes that I had been excessively exposed to over the course of the past year.
From the Greco-Roman mythology or the Biblical lore or certain passages in the Quran, whether it is Sassi and Punnoo, Heer and Ranjha, Macbeth, Batman, Sisyphus, Bellerophon or the Tower of Babel, tragedy [and man’s response in the face of it] cuts through the heart of some of the most revered stories in human history. Like the tightrope dancer, the realisation of tragedy freezes one to a spot, like a rabbit in front of the wolf – a paralysing and totalising fear. At the same time, we feel a pressing need to act, indolence is neither as appealing nor as resilient as our laziness often persuades it to be. So here is the story of our human tragedy – weak, feeble, dying mortals unequipped with the capacity to comprehend the entirety of the complexities around us yet forever fated to take up this endeavour.
Stretching across six pages, Hulk Smash illustrates the protagonist’s response to the tragic circumstances that have befallen him. From its opening page, its tone is apparent – there is an aura of assuredness. In choosing to start nearly every stanza with the word ‘because’, the writer gives an apparent voice to the anger settled in the belly of the protagonist. It starts with an action, the earthquake, and proceeds to take the reader through the horror and devastation of a tsunami. The verses “until the tsunami rose/ like a thundering wall of water/ and blotted out the sky” are particularly evocative of this sort of emotion. The protagonist’s helplessness is almost made to leap off of the page. To conceive of such a thing that could wrap around even the sky – the largest canvas that one can imagine – sends chills to the bones.
“because there wasn’t time/ for us to climb all the way/ up the hill, so I held my wife/ and daughter in my arms/ and we clung together tightly/ wrapped around a tree.”
Perhaps if this were not a tragedy, and maybe a comedy, this poem titled Hulk Smash might have used this moment as one where the protagonist is able to rescue the day. Instead, this poem uses the Hulk allegory only to magnify the scope of the vulnerability of the protagonist (the father). The use of the symbolism is particularly powerful in this instance. By portraying the situation as an allegory with a paragon of strength and anger, the poet is able to use the superlative nature of the Hulk conception and reflect on the magnitude of the experiences of the father without merely reducing it to a series of phrases. Even all his might, all his power would be futile against the might of the tsunami, against the might of nature itself.
“Because the icy water/ uprooted the tree so easily/ like plucking up a blade/ of grass, and tore my wife/ Mayumi away from me.”
If 2020 taught me anything, it was that there is an aura of inevitability about the fall – around every next corner, it seems there will be a red light, a canyon between the ridges. No matter how one might desire to dress it up, it is dishonest, even irrational in its most vile sense, to suggest the opposite. Death, decay, destruction, grief – these are all inevitable, inarguable. In an odd tangential way, a quote that I heard years ago struck me as I began to put thoughts on paper while writing this piece, “life, even in the best case scenario, is a ticking clock.” For me, the profundity in the quote is beyond even its wisdom on the precious quality of time, it is in the pure tragedy that the sentence portrays – even if you have lived life in pure bliss with people you love, and who love you, departure from it is undeniable, death is implicit in our mortality. And awareness of this is the tragedy of humanity.
The realisation of tragedy freezes one in a spot, like a rabbit in front of the wolf – a paralysing and totalising fear. At the same time, we also feel a pressing need to act, indolence is neither as appealing nor as resilient as our laziness often persuades it to be.
Death chances upon the protagonist in the guise of the tsunami and the losses that he incurred therefrom - his anger, his disregard for his own safety, all of it fuelled by his unbearable regret and shame.
“because how can I let this be?/ / because my arms are empty / / because she was only three”
And so the protagonist, perhaps as an unconscious means of coping with his survivor’s guilt and shame, takes upon itself the improbable, unlikely task of locating the remains of his daughter amongst the nuclear wasteland, made all the more unlikely by the fact that he could only conduct his search for a monthly quota of five hours. He says, “because the nuclear accident/ at Fukushima Daiichi was,/ as it turns out, preventable.” It is now that his rage has found a tangible target that the reader becomes fully aware of the extent of the furore that had simmered inside of him. Coming across a signpost reading “Nuclear Power: Bright Future of Energy” sends him into a fit of blind anger, he must rip it out of the ground.
The tightrope dancer, having walked the rope for eons, chasing the joyful frenzy that comes with the daze of his mania is finally in a state of momentary stillness. He musters the courage to shift his gaze to the dark abyss beneath, seeing nothing, not even the surface onto which he might fall – a bottomless pit. He looks ahead and sees nothing but the luminous rope to which he clung on. He looks to the back of him, and sees the same – an aimless, absurd past. Perhaps the pit was inevitable, perhaps he should let go, his fingers would not be able to grip the rope forever – survival was nigh on impossible. And then like a potion brewing inside a cauldron, his anger begins to bubble to surface – anger at himself for being so naïve not to notice for all these centuries, anger at the world putting him in such a position, anger at being alone and without anybody to listen, anger at being lost, adrift in the cosmos with none that could understand him.
One could posit a perspective that the rage of Roripaugh’s protagonist seems to act as an opiate; numbing him from facing the grief and sorrow that he feels. However, the narrative of the poem begs a certain question, why does his rage not consume him entirely? What beckons the protagonist to keep his feet on the earth, no matter how scorched it may be? Surely, even death would be better than this hell of a life that he finds himself in? Surely, this story is amongst few at the pinnacle of tragedy, and yet the man finds himself, like our tightrope dancer, tethered to a loose thread, barely clinging, but clinging nonetheless. Absurdly, it is the five hours of every month that he spends searching for those remains that give him purpose. As if he is bound to spend his life in this never-ending cycle, not knowing whether he would ever locate what he sought, but ever determined to continue seeking till he can do so no more, no matter the cost. In this way, it reminds me of Albert Camus’ retelling of the Myth of Sisyphus – perhaps in his acceptance of pushing the boulder back up the mountain repeatedly for eternity, we must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Then from wherever it was that these things come out of, a thought strikes the tightrope dancer, his centuries-long dance on this tightrope was, by these very standards, in the realm of impossibility as well. “Well then” he thinks to himself, “if the abyss is a certainty, I might have one last dance.” His hazy vision starts to recede, a sense of relief begins to spread warmth into his body. It is now that he notices the breeze that had begun to blow, and the music in it - a melody of joy, a tune that feels familiar to him. Slowly humming to the tune, the dancer moves with its rhythm, taking one hand off of the rope and moving it forward. He then does the same with the other and begins to propel himself forward, slowly beginning his journey across the rope once more.
This book of tragedy, where the abyss is a near certainty, with chapters and chapters of suffering, devastation, grief and anger already written and possibly much, much more to come – what title should we give it? Perhaps in the tragedies of the past year and all the grief and anger that has accompanied them along the way we should remind ourselves that though it may very well be absurd to want to keep going, with each hand tethered to this loose thread, humanity has time and time again embraced this absurdity. Perhaps, we should learn from the tightrope dancer and name it after this quintessentially human trait – ah yes, what an apt name – “The fine art of hanging on.”
The writer is an editor and researcher with an undergraduate degree from the University of Buckingham. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org