In 2012, I stood at the window of the Texas School Book Depository in Dealey Plaza and marvelled at the people dodging traffic to get a photo of themselves on the X where the fatal bullet hit JFK on his motorcade. Years later, I read Malcolm Foley and J John Lennon’s article, ‘JFK and Dark Tourism’ and understood that I had visited the quintessential dark tourist site identified in their study.
Foley and Lennon offer the first comprehensive definition of this phenomenon:
Dark Tourism is the term adopted by the authors for these phenomena which encompass the presentation and consumption (by visitors) of real and commodified death and disaster sites. (1996: 198)
I realised I had visited many sites associated with Dark Tourism. For example, my research on atomic bomb literature had led my husband and I to visit the A-bomb dome in Hiroshima — a site dedicated to commemorating the atrocities of the atomic bomb — many times. The first time we visited, a tourist asked if we wanted our photograph taken in front of the skeletal structure. I was conflicted but, with considerable reluctance, I handed over my iPhone. I still have the photo: I am smiling but my husband looks dour. He said he didn’t think it was appropriate to smile. It reminds me now of Israeli-German Artist, Shahak Shapira’s YOLOCAUST project, where he questioned the ethics of selfies at Holocaust sites by ‘combining selfies from the Holocaust memorial in Berlin with footage from Nazi extermination camps’ (2017: n.p.).
In reflecting on dark sites, writers are faced with ethical dilemmas about the representation and purpose of these places. This is not a new consideration; people have been making pilgrimages to sites associated with death and memorialisation throughout human history and writers have been writing about them just as long. AV Seaton is arguably the first scholar to link dark tourism with thanatopsis — the meditation on or contemplation of death — for an academic readership. He characterises thanatourism as ‘travel to a location ... motivated by the desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death’ (1996: 240). More recently, Duncan Light, in his review of two decades of academic research into these phenomena, argues that while they are sometimes used interchangeably they are different in scope:
Dark tourism tends to be used as an umbrella term for any form of tourism that is somehow related to death, suffering, atrocity, tragedy or crime. As originally formulated, it is a phenomenon rooted in the circumstances of the late twentieth century. Thanatourism is a more specific concept and is about long-standing practices of travel motivated by a specific desire for an encounter with death. (2017: 277)
The elegiac tradition should also be part of any broader discussion about writers’ responses to death and demonstrates that not all writing about death is ‘dark’, potentially exploitative or unethical. Elegies are almost always a way of honouring, celebrating or memorialising someone. One of the most well-known and enduring examples is Thomas Gray’s poem, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’. While the churchyard could potentially be identified as a dark site, the poem doesn’t revel in death’s obliquity or horror; rather it is a dark poem that steadfastly and clear-sightedly meditates on mortality.
With the preceding discussion as a framework, I have created the following ruminations on what I have defined as ‘Dark Poetry’. It comes primarily from my work as a prose poet and scholar of the atomic bomb. Following on from this is an example of my own Dark Poetry on Hiroshima. In many ways, the considerations and prose poem illustrate Philip Stone’s comment that ‘dark tourism is concerned with death and dying, yet ... tells us more about life and the living’ (2013: 315).
Five considerations about Dark Poetry:
- Dark Poetry is poetry that attempts to imagine, explore or reanimate a dark event. It is most often an engagement with events associated with death, disaster, tragedy and/or suffering.
- In its most basic iteration, Dark Poetry is usually connected to Dark Tourism in its desire to respond to (or be a form of) a visitation to a place of death or dark site.
- Dark Poetry extends poetry’s history of exploring terror and anxiety associated with various forms of the sublime (including the Romantic, Postmodern and Nuclear sublime). Its focus on imaginative transportation, witness and existential anxiety, intensifies Dark Poetry’s connection to Dark Tourism and its effectiveness as a genre to powerfully explore dark sites.
- Dark Poetry is concerned with the ethics of exploring dark sites of death and suffering. It can present important insights about humankind’s capacity for monstrous acts and also lobby for change, but it can equally be used to exploit grief and suffering and/or romanticise dark events as fetish, titivation or spectacle.
- Dark Poetry can appeal to the readers’ ethical responsibilities and challenge the ‘unspeakable-ness’ of dark events by exploring, reanimating or memorialising occurrences and moments that should never be forgotten or silenced.
Branded with cherry blossoms, the rays burnt the shapes of flowers on their kimonos into their skin. They don’t know how to refuse the doctors and scientists who ask them to undress. On a stage, in her underwear, twelve-year-old Tanimoto tries to cover her breasts.
Bathed in Hiroshima blue, our bodies are water. Your fingers find the hollow at the base of my spine and I am bone heavy in your hands. Outside, peaked clusters of islets stud the horizon. Sea and sky, we recede and converge.
Foley, M and Lennon, JJ 1996 ‘JFK and Dark Tourism: A fascination with assassination’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2 (4), 198-211
Light, D 2016 ‘Progress in dark tourism and thanatourism research: An uneasy relationship with heritage tourism’, Tourism Management 61, 275-301
Seaton, AV 1996 ‘Guided by the Dark: From thanatopsis to thanatourism’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2 (4), 198-211 234-44
Shapira, S 2017 YOLOCAUST, at http://yolocaust.de (accessed 4 April 2020)
Stone, P 2013 ‘Dark Tourism Scholarship: A critical review’, International Journal of Culture, Tourism and Hospitality Research, 7 (3), 307-18