Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Strawberries in the poem become symbols of something desired and prized, of sweetness and beauty, but they are gotten at a price. Put another way, they symbolize something that is sought after but that can never be fully possessed. The narrator compares the motions of chewing and savoring strawberries with the bodily motions of the workers as they pick this fruit in the fields. The reader is thus reminded of origins, first principles, getting in touch with essential, undeniable truths.

As the first poem in The Colors of Desire, Mura’s second volume of poetry, “Issei Strawberry” emphasizes a particular color and a particular desire. This color is red, the color of love, of fire, of blood, and of the strawberry, which all figure in the poem. This red is a passionate color, full of life. The poem uses it to voice a desire for all immigrant groups to succeed and to make a mark for themselves and their descendants in a new culture.

The “desire” in the poem is one of focus and drive and motivation. “Issei Strawberry” forms an appropriate introduction to the other poems in the volume, which are all expressions of strong desire: Some of these desires are productive, and some others—most, in fact—are forbidden. These include racism in the form of a lynching, verbal taunting, and abuse; meditations on the internment camps; pornography and voyeurism; sexual love and transgression; and the miracle of first pregnancy. It is notable that the poems spring directly from Mura’s life and the lives of his friends and relatives. To read these poems is to become familiar with important influences, deviations, sorrows, and joys in his personal life. As a Japanese youth who grew up in Chicago to parents who downplayed and repressed their ethnicity, Mura preferred “American” foods and identified with Caucasian film heroes. As a result, he struggled with first denying and then, ultimately, after agonizing suffering and a great deal of destructive behavior, embracing his Japanese ethnicity.

“Issei Strawberry” is important for a number of reasons. First, the poem is relatively brief and its language is accessible; many provocative ideas are compressed into a short space. Second, it raises issues of allegiance to one’s ethnic heritage and the difficulties of assimilation. Finally, it touches on important aspects of American culture and history.