An Essay by James L'Angelle
Given a set of literary techniques to analyze poetry, limitations exist on just what is effective
and what isn’t. In addition, rewriting or revising a poem also exhibits similar characteristics of
restriction. Those parameters are based on certain underlying assumptions about analysis itself.
In order to understand the process, it becomes necessary to initially complete the transformation
then look at what works and what doesn’t.
--for my mother
Near Rose's Chop Suey and Jinosuke's grocery,
the temple where incense hovered and inspired
dense evening chants (prayers for Buddha's mercy,
colorless and deep), that day he was fired…
--No, no, no, she tells me. Why bring it back?
The camps are over. (Also overly dramatic.)
Forget shoyu-stained furoshiki, mochi on a stick:
You're like a terrier, David, gnawing a bone, an old, old trick...
Mostly we were bored. Women cooked and sewed,
men played black jack, dug gardens, a benjo.
Who noticed barbed wire, guards in the towers?
We were children, hunting stones, birds, wild flowers.
Yes, Mother hid tins of tsukemono and eel
beneath the bed. And when the last was peeled,
clamped tight her lips, growing thinner and thinner.
But cancer not the camps made her throat blacker.
. . .And she didn't die then. . .after the war, in St. Paul,
you weren't even born. Oh I know, I know, it's all
part of your job, your way, but why can't you glean
how far we've come, how much I can't recall--
David, it was so long ago--how useless it seems. . .
By Rosario's Tacos and Juanita's taqueria
the mission was last before caravan migrante
hitching rides on trucks, not on La Bestia
Walking with family in prayer and silent,
Try to forget, it is nobody's fault
con el niño a la espalda or in stroller
the sun burned our feet on the black asphalt
a thousand miles north toward the border
at the wall our children were tear gassed
some drowned in the river when we crossed
arrested we waited as days and months passed
we tried not to remember the friends we had lost.
we pleaded for freedom from incarceration
from conditions condemned inhumane
children were taken to another location
adding to our misery and pain
as we live day to day, life grows bitter
politicians see us drink toilet water
they go back home and play with their Twitter
then sobornar a la universidad to admit their daughter
now they turn down our applications
and shout "Go back to where you came from!"
they think we are here on summer vacations
when all we wanted was asylum.
The underlying assumptions about analysis follows a predictable paradigm of commonly
accepted components in poetry; voice, identity, tense, meter, alliteration, to name a few. It would go beyond the scope of this essay to examine all of the various aspects that include structure and meaning. That’s the problem. Comparing the two above, what succeeds in the transformation and
what fails would be an abbreviated approach to gain insight into why, not just how, the
transformation occurred in the first place.
Mura writes about his mother’s incarceration in a World War Two internment camp,
“Asylum” is the recreation of that scenario into a contemporary framework, Central American
detainees in US border camps. The transformation works because, although Mura is obscure in his description of the camp, “Asylum” is clear in no uncertain terms;
“Who noticed barbed wire, guards in the towers?
We were children, hunting stones, birds, wild flowers. “ (An Argument)
“as we live day to day, life grows bitter
politicians see us drink toilet water “ (On Asylum)
Mura utilizes his mother’s voice to downplay conditions in the camp while the collective
voice in the US border camp exacerbates them. The transformational paradigm shift works
because the voice is no longer singular but plural, the scene vividly described instead of hidden under the “children” playing metaphor. What doesn’t work is the fact that the collective voice
removes the feeling of the individual toward the hopeless situation. Throughout “Asylum,” the
voice does speak in the plural and does not contribute to the loss of individual emotions,
represented as a whole. Another aspect of that loss of individual voice is expressed in Mura by;
“ You're like a terrier, David, gnawing a bone, an old, old trick…”
Where the narrator, by hanging on to the past, has himself become a dog in a kennel similar to
his mother in the camp. But instead of at least being treated to the code-switched terms of
mochi on a stick and tins of tsukemono, he is tossed a bone by the kennel keeper. The
code-switching technique, which doesn’t fit the standard critical paradigm, is used in “On
“ con el niño a la espalda or in stroller”
“then sobornar a la universidad to admit their daughter”
In each of the code-switched terms in the lines, the subjects are not treated to something
beneficial but to hardship and humiliation, which serves to enforce the notion of realistic
collective hopelessness. They aren’t the dog, they are the bone.
“An Argument” also suggests an inner turmoil of identity as Mura attempts to substantiate
his Japanese-American heritage by a nostalgic look into the suffering of his parents and friends
at the camp;
“you weren't even born. Oh I know, I know, it's all
part of your job, your way, but why can't you glean
how far we've come, how much I can't recall-- “
Exactly what the “job” is in the poem is unclear. It may have something to do with his coming
out on the mistreatment of Japanese-Americans during the war and a nation in denial over the
tragedy, in much the same way hundreds of years have whitewashed America’s involvement in
the institution of slavery. Asian identity has progressed a great deal in American culture as
Mura’s mother suggests, “why can't you glean/how far we've come,” but that doesn’t seem to
register with the poet.
By a similar token in the transformation, “On Asylum,” Central Americans are implicit, but
not attributed a guaranteed identity, as they are from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador,
Nicaragua, and Mexico. In this case, the identity is not emerging, as Mura attempts in “An
Argument,” but in fact being eradicated. The children are tear gassed, taken away, others drown
in a meaningless end to a hopeless existence. They are forced into the humiliation of drinking
toilet water and are dismissed for, like rich American tourists, being “on summer vacations.” The
result is the total denigration of a culture in the present, not an effort to substantiate one by
showing past injustices. “On Asylum” goes beyond the rather conservative, traditionalist
boundary set by the barbed-wire framework of “An Argument.”
Where is the line drawn that refutes assumptions about a paradigm? Can it be found on some
literary map that says one cannot cross the line without risk of condemnation by peers? The
current paradigm is traditionalist, it doesn’t allow for why the transformation occurred, only how .
Cloaking thought in meter, rhyme, metaphor without substance works well in poetry, too well.
Mura, D., “An Argument, On 1942,” Poems, Poets, Poetry , Vendler, H., Bedford-St. Martin’s,
Boston, 2010, Page 234
Manzanar Camp Photo, https://www.latimes.com/socal/daily-pilot/news/tn-wknd-et-japanese-internment-20170413-story.html
Copyright © 2019 reconpresseusa - All Rights Reserved.