Poetry: anonymous, as invisible man

By Lee Ann Roripaugh

I agree to speak, but only
on condition of anonymity
I worry about my children
being ostracized at school
and still feel much shame
for being unable to prevent
over 150 thousand people
having to flee their homes
in the nuclear exclusion zone
it happened so quickly, like
a line of falling dominos, one tile
knocking down the next:
first, the terrible jolts
of the Tohoku earthquake
causing the massive tsunami,
which knocked out power
and flooded the emergency
generators, preventing coolants
from reaching the fuel rods,
causing them to overheat
and melt down three
of the nuclear reactors, leading
to the hydrogen explosions
a hero? I don’t consider myself a hero
the international media
named us the Fukushima 50
but there were hundreds
of engineers, technicians
soldiers, and firefighters
who remained in the heart
of the disaster for weeks
with dwindling food and water
and no reinforcements
those of us who responded
to plant manager Yoshida’s call
and returned to Fukushima Daiichi
to cool the crippled reactors
by manually pumping in seawater
were prepared to sacrifice
our lives like kamikaze pilots
the other workers formed a line
and saluted us as we departed
the disaster-response headquarters
where we’d been evacuated
TEPCO reprimanded Yoshida
for defying their orders,
then later commended him
for preventing a chain
of nuclear fission reactions
that would have led
to the evacuation of Tokyo
some people claimed we saved Japan
it was a full month before
I’d leave Fukushima Daiichi again,
and when I was finally released
for the first time to visit my family,
I was almost unrecognizable
I’d lost so much weight
and grown a scraggly beard
I hadn’t bathed in weeks
I was asked to strip down
for the compulsory radiation check
and given a too-big track suit,
a plastic bag to carry my things
I decline to reveal
my internal radiation levels
people gave me strange looks
on the train and avoided
sitting next to me, but when
we arrived at Tokyo station
the city glittered and jostled
the same as before Fukushima,
as if none of it had happened
I got off the train, slipping
into the city’s stream. . . .
and then I quietly disappeared


Lee Ann Roripaugh is the author of four volumes of poetry: Mandarins (Milkweed Editions, 2014), On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), Year of the Snake (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), and Beyond Heart Mountain (Penguin, 1999). She was named winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/ Prose for 2004, and a 1998 winner of the National Poetry Series. She is currently a professor of English at the University of South Dakota, where she is director of creative writing and editor-in-chief of South Dakota Review. Roripaugh currently serves as South Dakota Poet Laureate.


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