Books / Reviews

Hymns for human potential

by Kris Kosaka

March and After, by Jon Mitchell. Printed Matter Press, 2011, 34pp., ¥1,000 (paperback)

“March and After” brims with pithy song, but it is not merely a collection of poetry. The slim volume cuts with journalistic economy and biographical precision.

Yet, its author, Jon Mitchell, a 12-year resident of Japan and accomplished writer of various genres, purposefully transforms his reporter’s pen to capture something more essential to humanity than the day-to-day unfolding of life in the aftermath of the March 11 Tohoku-Pacific earthquake and tsunami. At its heart, “March and After” tells a contradictory tale of apologetic survival and downward redemption — the fragile and soaring possibilities of man.

Mitchell’s subjects illuminate humanity in ridiculous triumph shaded with ambiguity: Reiko, the office-lady who slyly shoplifts chocolate and lipstick during the the chaos of 2:46 (time of the quake); “the boss” tasked to clear “twelve cars from a bone dry yard” in the middle of the town’s cemetery, who instead miraculously saves a gasping beached eel; the Iwate girl who walks her poodle nonchalantly through the destruction, wrapping her pet’s excretion in tissue “as carefully as a slice of wedding cake,” while some aid workers explode in disbelieving mirth — “what’s one more ounce in this s**t-soaked town?”

The poems connect through the story of our narrator, Mitchell-like but not Mitchell, a foreigner in Japan struggling with the essential questions of life autopsied by three minutes of shaking and those insidious waves. Flee or endure? Celebrate the now or snatch a new future? Restraint or decadence? Mitchell’s narrator discovers the meaning of “home” and plunges into a meaningless affair. He visits the disaster zone despite nearly being dismissed by a volunteer organization as useless; he is finally accepted for his ability to “lay long words on a page.”

Across the nebulous plot, life is drained to uncomfortable truths, yet the dregs somehow nourish. Although the narrator exclaims that poetry “has lost its tongue,” the writer in him knows it is one way to rescue something worthy from the waves.

All proceeds go toward Peace Boat’s relief efforts in Tohoku, and you’ll pick up more than just one writer’s musings on March 11 and after. You’ll pick up a poetic treatise on what it means to be human.