The poet takes up the poignant theme of the internment of the Japanese Americans in the US following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. After the attack, thousands of Japanese Americans were relocated and kept in concentration camps. But the poem is not about the ordeals faced by them in the camps. Instead, it’s more about the spirit of courage and fortitude, and the significance of memory that offers support and solace to one’s mind during and after the period of acute crisis.
The speaker is an ordinary, old Japanese American who is a gardener. In the majority of the poem, he recalls his past – the days before the “relocation,” the period of the internment, and the days that followed. Thus, most of the poem is set in the memory of the speaker.
He starts by remembering the good old days when he would plant bamboos “in ditches next to the fields.” He was a farmer, but his land “was no good.” It was rocky and dry. He says,
...and my land was never thick with rice,
only the bamboo
With bamboos, he would make beautiful flutes, and people would call him an “enlightened” man. He tells us how he would make flutes out “of only the best bamboos.”
Things changed during the war. The Japanese Americans had to abandon their homes and their belongings in order to be relocated in the concentration camps. Though a simple farmer, he displays immense fortitude and strength of spirit in this critical situation. He says,
When the War came,
I told myself I lost nothing.
My land, which was barren,
was not actually mine but leased
(we could not own property)
and the shacks didn’t matter.
In the next part of the poem, he tells us briefly about the concentration camps, and his longing for the past. He says,
All through Relocation,
in the desert where they put us,
at night when the stars talked
and the sky came down
and drummed against the mesas,
I could hear my flutes
wail like fists of wind
whistling through the barracks
He doesn’t describe the camp in detail, nor does he say anything about the suffering he underwent. The only word he uses to describe the place is “desert.” The readers are left on their own to imagine the place.
Finally, the war is over and he’s back at home. He tells us that he planted “strawberries and beanplants” and “the dwarf pines,” and “let the ditches clog with silt again” for the bamboos to grow in them. But things are no longer the same.
Now, he’s grown old. In the final part of the poem, he describes how he will always visit his land where,
the grasses go wild
and the arroyos come up
with cat’s-claw and giant dahlias,
where the children of my neighbors
consult with the wise heads
of sunflowers, huge against the sky,
where the rivers of weather
He would sit there recalling the cherished memories of his earlier days, when he would make those flutes. The music of the flute has never abandoned his thoughts. Those beautiful memories offer him much solace.
Although the speaker describes his land as “barren,” “rocky” and “dry,” he never forgets the place and the memories associated with it, wherever he might be. So, we see that the speaker has very a deep emotional bond with his land.