Friday on the NewsHour: Poet Gretel Ehrlich Revisits Japan’s Tsunami

BY Anne Davenport  March 8, 2013 at 12:51 PM EST



Gretel Ehrlich, travel writer, poet and essayist, debuted in 1985 with “The Solace of Open Spaces,” a collection of essays on rural life in the American West. Her first novel, “Heart Mountain,” set in Wyoming and published in 1988, is about Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during WWII.

In the 1960s, Ehrlich, a practicing Buddhist, began visiting Japan to study and write about its culture, religions and literature. Soon after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011, she returned for the first of three trips to document the physical and emotional aftermath.

The result was the new book “Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami,” part reportage, part personal reflection. She recently talked to us about the book on Kent Island, Md., where she spends the winter. (We’ll post that segment here later Friday evening.)

“There were moments when the grief aspect of emptiness just seemed so heavy that it was falling like rain, that it was just a deluge of sorry,” she said. “I met a fireman who lost his wife, his two children, his mother and his father and was just wondering why he was alive and how he was going to begin again.” Her poem “Emptiness Fall” reflects on that grief:

Emptiness Falls

Beginning. Again. But how?
Tonight’s perfect moon-slice means
we are half here half gone.
Down deep sea urchins fatten on corpses
and the Missing roll on amnesia’s tides.
All summer the body rains sweat and
emptiness falls from the standing dead.
Cedar. Rice field. Pine.

Ehrlich said it’s hard to capture the magnitude of the devastation. “The loss has been so total so in that physical sense, boundaries were erased, but then what percolates up into the psyche is that almost surreal moment of having no reference point. I walked around towns with people trying to figure out where their house had been or where their grandmother was washed away or where their fishing boat had been tied up, and they couldn’t figure it out or it was just gone,” she said.

Here’s a prose excerpt from the section “Morning Sun”:

“Then the van rolls down toward the coast. It lurches and leans. Ahead, winter sun shines on torn water; on crumpled water gates; on remnants—razed houses, grieving households, homeless dogs.

“Sun shines on the lonely.

“There’s sun on red pine islets, on wrecked squid boats whose attractor lights hang like bells with no clappers. Sun on the unlit tunnels through which we hurdle, mountain after mountain, the hooded light at the end saying, ‘Come, come.’

“Sun on tangled fishing gear, on the eclipsed moons of black buoys fallen upward sea to earth.

“Sun on snow on sun. On collapsed waves. On bare seafloor. On seawater warmer than air. Faint warmth.

“Limpid water-light too thin to hold anything.”