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

by James Masao Mitsui
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412

“After a Stranger Calls to Tell Me My Mother’s Been Hit By a Car in Front of the Buddhist Church” is written from the first-person point of view. It consists of forty lines divided into four stanzas: a six-line introductory stanza, followed by a twenty-two-line stanza and two concluding stanzas of six lines each. The title notes the event and subject that inspired the poem and prepares the reader for the tone and voice of the narrator, who is easily assumed to be the poet, James Mitsui.

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The poem begins dramatically in the present tense with the narrator entering a hospital setting. Mitsui’s images in the initial stanza plunge the reader in medias res into the experience. Flashes of color combine with the image of gurneys being pushed “through swinging doors” to re-create the sense of panic one feels when rushing into the hospital upon hearing of an injured loved one.

After this dramatic entry, the poem takes a more retrospective turn with a stanza-long flashback in past tense. Written as if it were a film or theater script, it creates the impression that the mother is a character who is being forced to play a set role. This “script” has directed her through four significant and difficult moves in her life, the most traumatic being the hasty move to Tule Lake, a World War II relocation camp for Japanese Americans. This move is described with vivid details and highlights the fact that the narrator’s mother was constantly compelled to reinvent her life and identity to fit unforeseen and undesired circumstances.

After revealing the mother’s past, the poet returns to the present in the last two stanzas. He depicts her as being more assertive than in his previous description. By this time in her life, she has learned to swear and complain in broken English. Although the physical trauma of the automobile accident is limited to a small bruise, the incident serves as a metaphor for many events in her past. Mitsui writes: “There are no answers./ No cause./ No driver saying he’s sorry.” As the title implies, she was leaving church, a place of tranquillity and spirituality, and was run down by a stranger who showed no remorse. The final image of the poem portrays a woman who has suffered many indignities in her life, not the least among them being American society’s view of her as little more than a cipher written on vinyl.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567

Readers familiar with classical East Asian poetry will recognize that Mitsui’s long-winded title signals a particular kind of lyric, the occasional poem. (One such poem is Chinese poet Han Yü’s “Demoted I Arrive at Lan-T’ien Pass and Show This Poem to My Brother’s Grandson Han Hsiang,” from the ninth century.) Their seemingly cumbersome titles are actually licenses for immediacy; they free their authors from providing prosaic background introductions, allowing them direct entry into the essential action or meaning they wish to communicate. Often the occasions of such poems then become points of departure or objective correlatives for observations about life.

This poem’s title also appears to encode an allusive irony, a device used repeatedly throughout the poem. It is ironic that the mother is struck by a callous hit-and-run vehicle in front of a Buddhist church. Readers acquainted with Buddhism will recall that its two major denominations (analogous to Christianity’s Catholicism and Protestantism) are the Hinayana and Mahayana, Sanskrit for “Lesser Vehicle” and “Greater Vehicle.” All Buddhists seek nirvana (salvation), but Hinayana Buddhists believe in achieving a personal salvation, whereas Mahayana Buddhists believe in seeking a common salvation (for the self and others). Hence Mahayana Buddhists revere bodhisattvas, who (like some saints) are qualified to enter nirvana but compassionately stay to help their more benighted fellows. The hit-and-run driver, out to save himself or herself, must have been in a much lesser vehicle—no bodhisattva he (or she).

Mitsui also chooses words carefully for their symbolic value. For instance, when the mother was released from her relocation camp, she settled in a region of the United States “surrounded by cheatgrass and rattlesnakes”—words that contain connotations of treachery and danger and that quietly characterize the environment into which America’s dominant majority has historically situated its ethnic minorities.

Situational irony occurs in Mitsui’s description of the mother’s hospital setting. The care the mother receives in the hospital conjures up her memories of the degradation and dehumanization of the relocation camp. Thus her bed curtains remind her of the blankets used in the camp barracks to designate families’ quarters. The nurses’ ministrations remind her of the camp’s dearth of privacy, with its doorless privies and partitionless showers. Finally, the hospital’s “vinyl I.D. bracelet” on her wrist forms an ironic image contrasting the preciousness (“bracelet”) of her identity with cheapness (“vinyl”), symbolizing the low regard society has of it.

The second stanza’s shift from present action to past memory is entirely natural. When one loses or is about to lose a close friend or relative, that person’s character and significance pass in review before the mind’s eye. Thus the flashback in the second stanza serves to evoke the hard life and indomitable character of the mother. Her life is described as a “script,” a course determined by family and society. She performs her scripted role as if following the inevitabilities of her karma, spelling out the characteristics of her ordained dharma as victim (of family circumstance), wife, cook, victim (of a racist society), homemaker, and again victim (of an automobile accident). Through it all, her integrity, undaunted courage, and fierce will to survive shine steadfast. The hard knocks life dealt her would have broken a brittler spirit, but hers is resilient and adamant—in the end, she has merely sustained “a bruise on her wrist.”

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Themes