“The Tsunami Future”

This poem, “The Tsunami Future”, was written by Bill Yarrow, a professor of English at Joliet Junior College. This poem was published in Pointed Sentences, a volume of poems he published in 2012. Yarrow has also written two chapter books and has won multiple awards for his work. 1 Yarrow grew up in a Philadelphia suburb, but had an interesting childhood as he went down to Ocean City, Maryland during the summers because his dad owned and ran a penny arcade on the boardwalk. He didn’t vacation there, however, but instead worked at the amusement arcade. These summers of his explain a lot about this poem because it ties in fortune/wealth and ocean/tsunami waves, both of which he experienced during his summers. 2 Yarrow writes this poem as a third party observer, but he seems to say that the events of this poem happen to everyone.

While I don’t believe that Yarrow had a specific audience in mind when he wrote this poem, I do believe that environmentalists will find more meaning in this poem than other readers. As explained in part 3, Yarrow may believe that the predominant mindset of many people reading this is “get rich quick” or “growth is good” or the classic “business as usual” model. In his poem, Yarrow attempts to convince his readers that this mindset is unhealthy and harmful. This poem was written a few months after the Japanese tsunami of 2011 so tsunamis were still on people’s minds, more specifically, the terrible effects of the tsunami were on people’s minds. Therefore, by likening the future to a tsunami, readers may associate the terrible effects of the tsunami with the terrible effects of a future business as usual mindset.

This poem isn’t directly about tsunamis. Rather, this poem is about the future itself. But by relating the future to a tsunami, Yarrow unintentionally comments on what he believes tsunamis will look like in the future as well. Yarrow does this in two ways. Firstly, he describes how the future will not prepare us for tsunamis and secondly, he says the future acts quite like a tsunami itself.

Yarrow talks about fortune several times in this poem. Fortune has many definitions; it can mean luck, a prediction, or most importantly, wealth. When he writes the line, “Fortune spaniels after you”, he may be alluding to the “business as usual” model that so many environmentalists have spoken of. Yarrow seems to be saying that wealth will loyally be there for you, if you do everything you are supposed to be doing. Yarrow, then, sees the future to be similar to the present, in that we will continue with a business as usual model. Yarrow believes that in the future, we are going to get incredibly comfortable with how easy life is that we won’t be prepared for “the risk of rain”. He even goes to say that we will “long to get in on the hurricane”, which presents a sort of anxiety about future tsunamis because of a lack of readiness.

Yarrow also compares the future to an actual tsunami. All tsunami waves have a way of creeping up on you, but as soon as they hit, they can have a huge effect. The second stanza of Yarrow’s poem uses fortune to mimic this idea.

“That’s the nature of fortune: it’s incremental./One day you install a bay window in your house/ in Fontanarosa Glen and the next week you inherit/ a 2 bedroom cottage overlooking Simeon Bay./ One day your daughter marries a furrier/ and the next day your wife moves to San Raphael.”

Fortune, he says, is incremental, or in other words, improves in small steps, so it may not be noticeable at first. Eventually, however, it creates great changes to one’s living. In this case, however, tsunamis seem almost positive. In the next stanza, however, Yarrow paints fortune to be the negative occurrence that it is. After the storm of the first stanza has settled, he writes, “you find that [fortune] is made of tar.” Tar, is usually associated with negativity because of its color and smell. Furthermore, Yarrow seems to be subtly blaming the human population for this future tsunami. Tar is produced from coal, petroleum, or peat all of which are fossil fuels. Either fortune as wealth and development, or fortune as the tsunami itself is a result of our burning of coal and other fossil fuels. Our use of coal to develop has led to the increasing of environmental effects. With his line “you find that [fortune] is made of tar”, is Yarrow saying that we will become more aware of our use of fossil fuels in the future, perhaps after a huge tsunami wave (like the first stanza) hits?

These two ideas now contradict each other. The first interpretation of Yarrow’s poem suggests that we are not ready for a future tsunami, while the second interpretation suggests that we are realizing the problems associated with fortune and thus we need to stop. Poems are interesting in that way, because there is no one true interpretation. Yarrow presents the material in this poem to hint that both are possibilities. 3

  1. “Bill Yarrow.” Poets & Writers. Accessed December 15, 2014. http://www.pw.org/content/bill_yarrow.
  2. Yarrow, Bill. “Bill Yarrow.” Interview by Derek Alger. PiF, April 2012.
  3. Yarrow, Bill. “The Tsunami Future.” Fictionaut. Accessed December 15, 2014. http://fictionaut.com/stories/bill-yarrow/the-tsunami-future.

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