“someone else’s disaster:” Sachiko Murakami’s Render

by Jonathan Dick

Jonathan Dick is a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania. He reads very slowly.

Render
Sachiko Murakami
Arsenal Pulp Press
2020, 136 pp., $18.95

                                                           or come back
                                          to the hum of today
                            where you could almost feel

                            what he feels, on the neighbour’s porch
                            scrolling through his phone
                            checking for updates

                            on someone else’s disaster


The major thoroughfare that services the City of Philadelphia is Interstate 676. Wikipedia tells me it is 6.90 miles long. Apparently, people call it the Vine Street Expressway because it runs parallel to Vine Street, stretching all the way from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the Liberty Bell and then down over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, where it ascends the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Highway once safely on the shores of Camden, New Jersey. That’s from Wikipedia, too: I had to look all this up because I don’t drive. I don’t even think I know where Vine Street is, aside from the vague impression that it runs somewhere north of Trader Joe’s. But for all these ambiguities I have in mind a sterling image of the I-676. It is a six-lane roadway—three in each direction. It is dotted on both sides by green, grassy hills. On the third consecutive day of what would seem like a summer of demonstrations in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd, there are peaceful protestors marching down it, many of them young adults and still more of them in mourning. And at the other end of the roadway are cops. In a moment, they will stop these protestors, round them up and arrest them. In a moment: because the tear gas comes first.

Distance made this ‘someone else’s disaster.’ All I could do was watch.

Maybe you saw the video. Hundreds of protestors, scampering up an embankment, barely visible for all the smoke. And their screams, so loud: that’s what I remember most clearly. If it isn’t obvious, I wasn’t there; I’ve been marooned in Canada since March. So many of my friends, though, are still in the city, and some were protesting, though I had no clue where. The easiest way to keep tabs on the situation was with social media. A few journalists I knew were posting minute-by-minute updates about protests happening around the city—everything from major conflicts in West Philly and Fishtown to the standoffs with the National Guard outside of City Hall—and I watched their Twitter pages with the kind of religious fever that usually accompanies states of intense worry. I was really fucking worried. For a week, as I “scroll[ed] through [my] phone,” “checking for updates” of an event that concerned me but was not concerned with me, worry seemed all I had. Distance made this “someone else’s disaster.” All I could do was watch.

It’s as if there’s a potential for ‘your anxiety’ to become ‘mine’ when ‘you’ treat ‘someone else’s disaster’ with the right kind of attention.

The opening poem of Sachiko Murakami’s Render brought to mind this early month of June. She calls the poem “Encounter,” and like the collection as a whole, it has its finger on the pulse of a problem that recovery narratives tend to skirt around. “Would you take a look at this / sweat held together / by dream . . .” These lines, the first we experience, invite an undesignated but singular “you” to “look” at the “frays of memory & history” pearled on the forehead of a speaker, who has just woken up from some terrifying dream, “shaken, the fist / of trauma inches from / the hand of the word.” As the poem continues, however, that “you” does not stay singular. “You” are watching this dream but are also in the moment “when the adult’s argument / drifts apart”—and then “you” become like your neighbour, instead, scrolling through your phone for “updates / on someone else’s disaster.” Witnessing splinters, encompassing contexts at once individual, familial, and interpersonal. Eventually, the “you” becomes so porous that it practically envelops the “me” it watches; we get this through the poem’s closing strophes, which place the two side by side: “your sea             my sea”; “your anxiety           my anxiety”; “your sinew / my throat.” It’s as if there’s a potential for “your anxiety” to become “mine” when “you” treat “someone else’s disaster” with the right kind of attention. On the one hand, this might make the I-676 “someone else’s disaster” and “mine,” too, if only I learn to let it in. But “almost” is our qualifier, here: it means that, on the other hand, and in the same way “your sinew” and “my throat” are literally separated by a stanza break, the observing “you” and traumatized “me” will ultimately “drift apart.” When the poem ends, concluding morosely that “none of it happened,” it therefore seems as though the dream of a trauma transferred is exactly that. It is there in sleeping, and gone when “you wake up.”


Render, published by Arsenal Pulp Press, is Murakami’s fourth collection of poetry, after The Invisibility Exit (2008), Rebuild (2011), and Get Me Out of Here (2015). While diverse in terms of their subject matter, these earlier works are united by a careful attention outward. She’s written pseudo-sonnets, for instance, out of the jet-lagged impressions of lonely travellers in airports from Vancouver to Reykjavik. She’s dreamed up poems from the bulldozed lots that dot, with increased frequency, YVR’s downtown core. And in her Governor General Award-nominated Invisibility Exit, she has written deftly about the “Missing Women” from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Render does something a little different: it turns the gaze inward. More particularly, it trains its sights on Murakami’s own experience with addiction and recovery, these 40-odd poems criss-crossing between rehab centres (“I scribbled on the page while waiting in / the Toronto Western psych emerg / above the noted score of Biles’s gold / floor routine (15.966)” and relapse dreams, the deaths of loved ones and fraught romantic relationships. One is even about the compulsive Pokémon Go-related thoughts Murakami had in the summer of 2016. I worried, for all this intimacy, that Render would keep me at arm’s length. And I’ll admit that in moments, it did: I just wasn’t getting it. But in others there was a striking familiarity—one that “almost” had me “feel[ing] / what [s]he feels.”

The idea, at first blush, is a counterintuitive one. By most accounts, trauma is a personal trial, though maybe this is Freud talking. I’m no expert, but from what I’ve read, canonical trauma theory lavishes most of its attention on a single subject who is said to feel a shock so severe that it arrives before they can take stock of it. “Experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known,” this shock, in Cathy Caruth’s formulation, escapes consciousness “until it imposes itself again, repeatedly, in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor” (4). What this suggests is that recovery is an intensely individualized project: not only do we have to commune with what haunts us, we also have to show these spectres the door. Since its inauguration as a field in the mid-1990s, though, critics have increasingly troubled trauma’s supposed individualism, scaling up their studies with reflections on its social, cultural, and historical resonances. Still other scholars have discussed the way trauma can be transferred, particularly when mediatized. This is what Susan Sontag refers to when she describes her life as divided into two parts—“before I saw those photographs [of the concentration camps] and after, though it was several years before I understood fully what they were about” (20). And it’s what E. Ann Kaplan sees in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, which affected people who were there, who knew people that died, who lived “near to where [the] catastrophe happened,” or who saw those pixelated videos that spread, virally, from the news and beyond (2).  Sontag and Kaplan aren’t suggesting, of course, an equivalence between first-hand and mediated experiences of an event. Neither is Murakami: “you could almost feel / what he feels, on the neighbour’s porch . . .” From where I’m standing, what they’re suggesting, instead, has a lot to do with empathy—a capacity to feel for someone who’s hurting when hurt is pictorialized, given a transmissible shape and form. In this way, the dream of a trauma transferred is no longer had merely when sleeping; “you could almost feel / what he feels,” too, when “checking for updates / on someone else’s disaster.” Sometimes this disaster scrolls by on screen. Sometimes it fits snug in the pages of a book.

And sometimes it’s in a place. Murakami’s places are multiple. There’s Vancouver, Reykjavik, and the Toronto General psych ward. There’s the garden she Pokémon Go’s in, and the porch your neighbour sits on. There’s even a poem devoted to place and memory: it’s called “The Big One: Field Notes.” This title announces upfront its interest in place-based record keeping through the subheading of “Field Notes.” These are qualitative observations made by scientists for the purpose of research, usually during or after a specific experiment has run its course. A short-form reminder of findings, subjects, and data, they’re designed to be unobtrusive—a mix of loco-description and reflection. It’s possible that this is what makes the field note such an attractive genre to Murakami; like recovery narratives more generally, and Render more particularly, they “describe[] the environs in detail in order to be able to more easily recall the space when I needed it.” The “environs” here “described,” though, are full of gaps and uncertainties. When “The Big One” opens, for instance, it is with a speaker, scouring “Google Earth to locate the exact spot” of a thing she never names. She’s quickly foiled in this task—“came up against limits”—though this doesn’t stop her from “Click[ing] / around the map” for the spot she thinks she sees there, “or maybe a bit farther / north,” to no avail. This “spot” was supposed to provide her with clarity, like “a thread to unwind through the labyrinth.” Maybe it was meant to give us some clarity, too. Yet all this search has given her is “a long-form census”—a survey without any identifying information. We might read this lesson pessimistically as having something to do with the difficulties of closure. One “spot,” “The Big One” seems to say, is never enough to take us through the labyrinth. The poem ends, however, on a note whose ambiguity throws this pessimism into question. “In the time since you moved to Toronto / the city has rewritten / most of your memories / and Main Street doesn’t look at all how you remember.” If the slippage of “you” where a lyric “I” used to be dilutes these closing lines like moving to Toronto has diluted the speaker’s “memories,” perhaps the absence of that “exact spot” indicates not an endless travel into the labyrinth but the beginnings of a way out. Perhaps it is by losing that “Big One” that we begin to be found.

While there is, in this way, no one ‘thread to unwind through the labyrinth,’ Render asks if it’s the census, diffuse and proliferated across channels and spaces, that actually gets us through.
 

All this bleeds into the myriad of definitions Murakami offers of “render” at her collection’s open. Render means “to submit, as for consideration,” “to give or make available,” and “to give in return,” as with retribution. It means “to surrender; to yield,” “to represent” and “to arrange,” as well as “to become.” Render can refer to acts of translation and formal pronunciation: “the phrase was rendered into English.” And most important to her cause, it implies a “reduc[tion], conver[sion], or melt[ing] down, by heating.” What all this suggests is that the expression of an intimate experience (“to render”) breaks down that experience’s very individualism like bacon in a hot pan. This, in turn, makes the experience clearer (“a rendering”), and it is through that clarity that it becomes something to share, represent, arrange, and make available. While there is, in this way, no one “thread to unwind through the labyrinth,” Render asks if it’s the census, diffused and proliferated across channels and spaces, that actually gets us through. Here is how “you can almost feel / what he feels.” Here is how “you” can rise to support “me.” 


On July 14th, 2020, three lawsuits were filed in Philadelphia accusing the city’s police of using military-grade force against the peaceful protestors that marched across the I-676 just one month prior. The video I saw on June 1st was one of many pieces of evidence. When I saw it again on my feed, now, the effect was largely different. This time, it didn’t feel, anymore, like “someone else’s disaster.” And reading the comments, seeing the outpouring of support for these people and for these protests, I realized that something similar held for all of “you,” too.


WORKS CITED

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Kaplan, E. Ann. Trauma Culture: The Politics of Terror and Loss in Media and Literature.  Rutgers University Press, 2005.

Murakami, Sachiko. Render.  Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography.  Anchor Books, 1990


 


Jonathan Dick is a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania. He reads very slowly.

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