It begins without warning. The water withdraws from our feet, exposing the ocean
floor. The bay that is miles of sand. Fish without water. The last thing we see
is a wall of white crashing.
Abandon. The water comes again and again in towering waves. A deep retching
from the core of the earth. Trees thrown from their places. Buildings collapse
into the sea.
There are people in restaurants eating their meals and people walking around crying.
People washing out to sea. Debris. The earth in the process of dividing.
The character for moon appears. Trucks carrying lentils, rice and sugar. The stench
of the dead, the standing water. The strangest sight is the beautiful sunset.
Dawn. The blood swells through our veins with each step. All around us is the city
evacuating. Oil rig evacuations. Cars and cars against the sea wall.
It’s the city below sea level and the levees are made of earth. We are made of earth.
The earth begins to call us back to itself and we escape by leaving our homes.
We leave the poor behind. The sick calling from the windows.
We do not turn back. We drive and drive—we do not see the levees that collapse
into the floodwaters or the wind that tears through the dome.
The highways become one way routes away from the city. The blood leaves
our hearts as if it will never return. Empty houses pillaged one after the other.
The laws of the city dissolving as the water washes over it.
It comes to this. A sea of washed bones. Survivors in shelters of bamboo and palm
leaves. A man running with two boys on his shoulders.
The river with miles and miles of the dead. We drink from ponds filled with
the dead. Particles of the dead.
Those without names. Bloated bodies. A submerged tree. A boat sinks with cargo
containing rice, soap and stretchers. We count the missing and never finish
counting. Star rubies. Two thirds of the village.
Flights arrive with tarps and mosquito nets. Encounters with the ruling military:
the monsoon will come and wash the saltwater out of the ponds. Some consider invading
the country for our own good, with wood, buckets and nails.
The quaking that starts at the core rises to the ground. Space between roots shifting.
Space and distance. At the edge of the river, the water rocks violently. Rocks fall
from the mountains in a stoning pattern.
We are left with negative space. The displacement of dust and roads. Children die
under crumbled buildings. A razed province. The summing of our remains.
Someone is counting and recounting the dead. Relief troops pull children out
of graves, using their hands to move rubble. There is no relief. We are afraid
to sleep indoors. We walk for hours over rock and ruins.
Does tragedy occur in a series? Homelessness and constant walking. We wait for
the sun to set and then for the sun to rise again. There is a light glaze of dust
over us. The dust shakes. We are the dust shaking.
afterward we are back
to Civil War period medicine.
The cries can be heard in several countries.
We amputate a man’s foot
on the dining room table.
On one side of the ground
is the field hospital, on the other side,
the amputated foot, buried like a dog bone.
Nearby the roosters crow
unexpectedly in the darkness.
Preachers on the street
crowing before daybreak.
Sister Mary plowing through town like an army platoon.
We eat mushrooms and rice
the paintings on the walls splattered
by the deep stab wound in the shoulder of a man.
We witness the body, when it is empty, when it is
buried in piles.
A penniless man returns the money
he borrowed for a coffin.
Fifteen miles from here
at the epicenter of the quake, people dig
through the concrete with bare hands.
Somewhere a trapped woman drinks the blood of the deceased.
Somewhere a Blackhawk lands at dusk.
Dusk leaves us with a long line of fractures and wounds.
The following lines from the poem “Sediment” were taken from CNN articles dated December 28, 2004 and May 14, 2008:
“The strangest sight is the beautiful sunset.”
“The monsoon will come and wash the saltwater out of the ponds.”
Sediment, from the poetry collection SEDMENT (c) 2010 by Sandy Tseng. Appearing here by permission of Four Way Books Inc. All rights reserved.
We’re not going to avoid catastrophe no matter how carefully we make decisions. I don’t have the energy to be angry or to distribute blame. The world has proven this to us again and again with the tsunami in Southeast Asia, Hurricane Katrina, the cyclone in Myanmar, the earthquakes in China and Haiti. There have been catastrophes before, there are catastrophes now, and there are even more catastrophes to come. Our response when the moment of catastrophe arrives is an insight into our character and strength.
The poem “Tent City” is for the group of medical professionals that left Denver for Haiti five days after the earthquake: Jen Bruny, Betsy Folkerth, Emily Muggli, Boyd Loehr, Pat Mahar, Eric Tham, Misty Vivian, Sam Wang, Greg Winslow, Kathleen Winslow, and Mark Winslow. Their example of courage, passion, and selflessness in the wake of disaster will continue to inspire many. My gratitude goes out to the people who have the ability and desire to help in times of disaster and particularly those who are there right now doing all they can.
Most of all, my heart goes out to the beautiful wildlife who don’t know where to go.
Sandy Tseng is the author of Sediment, published by Four Way Books in October 2009. Among her awards are The Nation‘s Discovery Award and the Louis Untermeyer Tuition Scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Her work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Crazyhorse, Fugue, Hunger Mountain, The Nation, Third Coast, and other journals.