Mariko Nagai: Irradiated Cities


(LES FIGUES, 2017)

Hiroshima : Nagasaki : Tokyo : Fukushima

Loss : Exploitation : Displacement : Confusion ::

A city “disappears between a pika [flash] & a don [blast].” An elongated second of silence separates here and there : before and after : ordinary people and the radiated hibakusha (to be shunned and avoided) : clean air and poisonous gas.

Irradiated Cities, Mariko Nagai’s stunning collection of prose poems, ruminates and returns to this “elongated second,” during which everything and everyone is held in suspension:

A man walks across a bridge to become “a shadow left behind at the moment of his next step.” A woman, walking in a white flowered dress, becomes a “field of flowers.”

Ghosts of the dead and forgotten weave through these pages, circling around and through the facts of four nuclear disasters, which are simultaneously outrageous and accepted to the point of being largely forgotten. With calm, measured rhythm, on neat, square pages, Nagai recreates chaotic scenes that spread beyond neat borders and lines: strong, healthy children dying from mysterious illnesses (“the body keeps erupting from within”) : : four cities fed conflicting misinformation and lies : doubt : fears : whispers of contagion and cure in the same breath.

But there is no cure, and this book doesn’t seek one. Shadows, imprints, and transformations flood the pages :: photographs in black and white show temporary shadows and hint at permanent ones imprinted into walls and earth. Nagai observes and records, truly dwelling in the aftermath of disaster, drawing a striking contrast with the legions of doctors and media who descended upon Japan to document the tragedy, before leaving just as speedily, leaving behind thousands of vulnerable people. This goldfish attention span, of course, is not personal. It’s a symptom of a news-hungry society, evident long before iPhones and Twitter. And it’s this callous treatment of disaster survivors that Nagai fixates upon. The way we feel entitled to enter and leave victims’ lives at will is, of course, unacceptable, although Nagai never draws this or any conclusion, merely showing and giving voice to the hibakusha, a people largely shunned and abandoned once media attention moved elsewhere.

Nagai seeks to give voice to these victims of nuclear disaster; she adds complexity where there is “only one story… : there is only one narrative & nothing else : their stories must be tragic : their lives must be bound to loneliness & pain & loss…” As the list of what the hibakusha “must” be and do continues : anger rises like a wave on behalf of lives limited and lost, lives written out of society and community. Throughout the pages of this text, Nagai illuminates scars—visible burns and disfigurations, and also those that run deeper. As readers, we are invited to witness these scars and these lives, so often kept out of sight.

How to write raw loss; how to record absence? These questions permeate Irradiated Cities and remain largely unanswered. In place of answers, Nagai points our attention to a bridge imbued with permanent shadow: a stain that was a person. We see the mark of a ladder, etched into concrete. Nagai leans into these silent places, moments of absence and residual anguish, with unblinking consideration and care. She wanders city streets, taking photographs of geometrical patterns made by the intersection of water and poured cement, hazy skies seen through glinting windows. In varying shades of gray, we see a February sunset; the lines of a river, its rhythm soothing and fraught; cracks; patterns; outlines. Atomic stains.

But this is not a book attempting catharsis; rather, it is a witnessing, an account of stories untold and forgotten, and, in reading it, we take a silent journey through gaps and crevices. The characters in Nagai’s prose poems are on the move, searching for the familiar, a way to resist being defined by “that day.” The use of punctuation, particularly the colon, adds to this sense of wandering towards the ineffable. In a place of loss, Nagai acknowledges that words cannot bring back irradiated and obliterated bodies, but can only attend to the places they once were, searching for the wisps that remain.

Within its long, smooth lines, Irradiated Cities contains both subtlety and rage, dignity and raw, gaping wounds exposed to witness under clear skies. Its pages are full of windows, the light that shines through them bright and distant, unreachable and a lie. For it’s impossible to discern the quality of this air just by looking. Ultimately, that is where we, who have not been radiated, remain: in view of disaster, looking through a layer of glass, safe from harm.