After a Stranger Calls to Tell Me My Mother's Been Hit by a Car in Front of the Buddhist Church Themes
by James Masao Mitsui

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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Many occasional poems not only convey a vivid impression of the fleeting event but also make an observation about the larger human experience—hence Ben Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper” (1616) is not only a dinner invitation but also a model of Elizabethan taste and civility. In Mitsui’s poem, the shock and anxiety occasioned by the mother’s automobile accident become also a poetic vehicle to appraise the woman’s character and thereby apprise the reader of the historical experience of her ethnic group in twentieth century America: The individual woman becomes an exemplar of her ethnic genus, the Japanese Americans.

The heart of Mitsui’s poem, the lengthy flashback of the second stanza remembering the mother’s “script”-like life, contains two highlighted events: immigration and incarceration. Both reveal the quality of the woman’s character and strike key themes of Japanese American history. She emigrated to the United States not by individual choice but because her family decided to make a marriage of convenience between her and a previous Japanese American immigrant, the widower of her elder sister. (One may gather from another of Mitsui’s poems, “Katori Maru, October 1920,” that this occurred to Mitsui’s own mother in 1920.) Somewhat like the so-called picture brides of that era who came from Japan and Korea to marry immigrant men known to them only through photographs, the mother emigrated to the United States to replace her sister in a female variant of a leviratic marriage. In her patriarchal Asian society, her preferences were not consulted. She confronted her destiny with a stoic, can-do determination and a denial of self-gratification. In this spirit she created a home and a family for a new generation of Americans.

Wrongful incarceration was also writ large into the script of this mother’s life, as it was into the lives of the nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans who were rudely relocated from their homes and put into “concentration camps” (President Franklin Roosevelt’s term) during World War II. Mitsui’s family was actually relocated in 1942 from their home in Washington State to the exceptionally harsh Tule Lake camp named in the poem. However, like the Japanese Americans of her generation, the mother in Mitsui’s poem survived this indignity and injustice perpetrated by her government and her society, but she could not forget. Hence, being hospitalized after her accident, removed from home, deprived of privacy—with only a curtain demarcating her personal space and with her identity reduced to a vinyl band cuffing her wrist—all these circumstances provoke a flood of frightening associations with her experience of the wartime camp. This brave woman thus cries out to be free, to go home. The reader may well see this frail-bodied but tough-spirited woman laid low by a callous and conscienceless driver as emblematic of her ethnic coevals whose human freedoms were trampled by the political machinery of racism and xenophobia in the land of the free.