Over three decades and in as many volumes of poetry, James Masao Mitsui has been steadily publishing his finely crafted poems of deeply honest thought and feeling. From a Three-Cornered World brings together some three dozen of Mitsui’s formerly published poems with twenty-five new ones to present a richly varied and fitting retrospect and prospect on Mitsui’s oeuvre and accomplishment.
The title of Mitsui’s book derives from a comment by Natsume Soseki that “an artist is a person who lives in the triangle which remains after the angle which we may call common sense has been removed from this four-cornered world.” It comes as no surprise, then, that a goodly number of Mitsui’s poems are insightful meditations on artworks and artists, objects and individuals eluding the logic of a foursquare world. Thus art (and humanity, eventually) contains the illogical tension of a brush painter’s finesse with a swordsman’s brute force in the poem “Samurai”:
The same hand
that pauses in the autumn sky
to paint wind
whispering through bamboo,
joins the other hand
on the embroidered hilt of a naked blade
& cuts a man in half
at the thighs,
leaving behind a pair of bloody wheels:
skin, flesh, bone & marrow.
Art can, therefore, be the product of a mental patient of whom Mitsui says, “the man who painted this/ died in his dreams”—not in his sleep; a fine distinction is thus made between the active creativity of this mental patient and the passive dullness of much of sane society. Yet art, for Mitsui, is not all inspiration and dash. It is also rigor and discipline. For instance, in “Shakuhachi,” a master flautist plays a note “till it hung/ clear as the moon” and then tells an aspiring pupil:
Practice this note.
Come back in a year
for the second.
In this poem, the trope comparing music to moonlight also points to another aspect of Mitsui’s aesthetic. It indicates a sensibility linked to much East Asian aesthetics, where art is integrally bound up with nature. Several of Mitsui’s poems suggest that human agency in producing an aesthetic object resembles a midwife’s—to attend a beauty born of nature mated with artistic impulse. Thus describing a man sweeping a garden to make it into an art object, Mitsui writes:
shakes a branch
and decorates the stones
with maple leaves.
The other major theme of From a Three-Cornered World is the Japanese American experience in the twentieth century. In elaborating this theme, Mitsui captures many moving and memorable moments in the history of his ethnic group in America. Chief among such episodes are ones pertaining to immigration and relocation; these and the persons who lived them become entities of heightened awareness in Mitsui’s narrative of his heritage.
Immigration is necessarily a vicarious experience for Mitsui, as he was born in the United States. Yet both his parents were Japanese American immigrants (issei). His mother’s passage to America in the 1920’s, and her subsequent life there, is imaginatively more empathic for Mitsui. Newly wed, she had not married by choice, but she was not the usual Japanese American “picture bride” either. In a female variant of the levirate, she had wed her husband because he had been married to her sister and when her sister died, her family designated her to be a replacement for him. “Katori Maru” is the vivid and wrenching recuperation of this woman’s feelings two weeks into crossing the Pacific, seasick among strangers, married to a bare acquaintance: “Today she would trade her future/ for the bottom of the ocean.” To the experiences and feelings of his immigrant mother Mitsui returns repeatedly with touching tenderness in a variety of situations—performing the chores of nurturing her family at the remembered kitchen table (“The Table Lamp”), cursing in a hospital bed after an accident (“After a Stranger Calls . . .”), with grandchildren in her low-income apartment (“My Mother Juggling Bean Bags”). Perhaps the most delicate of such tender moments occurs in “Allowance,” where Mitsui remembers how, at age ten, he earned his allowance:
I stand in the kerosene light
behind her, . . .
for each white hair I pull.
Mitsui’s father had preceded his wife to the United States. Born in 1888, he came to America in 1908, and after laboring half a century as a section hand for the Great Northern Railway, he died in 1963. For him, “sweat was religious” (“Minoru Mitsui”). Yet if work was godliness, then drink was the very devil. Mitsui’s portraiture of his immigrant father is more ambiguous than that of his mother. Instead of the...