The epicenter of the earthquake that devastated northern Japan last Friday was just off the islands of Matsushima. This coastal wonderland, dotted with jutting rocks and picteresque islands, had been the chosen home of Basho, one of the greatest Haiku poets, in the later years of his life. This article by Hari Kunzru provides some context about the region, and the influence it had on the great nature poet.
As we watch the incredible videos of tsunami damage and worry about nuclear meltdowns, it helps to refer to our literary treasures for perspective and understanding. David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times has compiled a list of literary works that refer to earthquakes. In 2005, I quoted from a depiction of a terrible tsunami in Lisbon, Portugal that appeared in Voltaire’s Candide. Basho’s simplest haiku about Matsushima was written as an expression of joy; today, as we watch for the latest word from the nuclear power plant disaster recovery effort, it takes on a double meaning as an expression of our worst fears.
Ah-ah Matsushima! Ah!