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

James Masao Mitsui

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 567 words.)