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

James Masao Mitsui

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 491 words.)