An Argument: On 1942

by David Mura

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 559

David Mura’s “An Argument: On 1942” is a relatively brief, understated poem of twenty-one lines, but it implies an extended long-standing and angry exposition on two highly charged themes significant to all Asian Americans: first, parent-child miscommunication and conflict and, second, ethnic assimilation and betrayal. The poem’s subject matter is one particular crime perpetrated against an ethnic Japanese minority in the United States and the ways in which the offended culture deals with or suppresses such violation.

The subtitle of the poem, “For My Mother,” indicates that Mura is writing a tribute, offering his mother, Teruko Mura, a gift. It more subtly suggests that he is making a statement to her with his art that would be difficult for her to process in direct conversation. In this statement he is responding in the best way that he can to a long-held position of hers, one that baffles and confuses and hurts him: He writes her a poem. She has been silent for years in the face of past adversity. He, on the other hand, is insistent that she tell the story; he is eager to listen, to know the truth and to disseminate it. The poem is, then, highly autobiographical both personally and culturally; it is a real story from Mura’s own past and a more wide-ranging statement about survivors of the Japanese internment and their descendents.

Some brief history is necessary to understand the poem. After Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. government forcibly evacuated more than 110,000 Japanese Americans without due process of law, approximately 70 percent of them native-born U.S. citizens, from their homes along the West Coast to one of sixteen makeshift relocation centers inland for the duration of the war. Living behind barbed wire among armed guards, the internees suffered severe financial loss, disruption of education, loss of employment and property, and extraordinary humiliation.

The narrative line of the poem is uncomplicated: It is a probing conversation between a mother and her adult son. An italicized first stanza sets the scene and the context; the speaker is refreshing the mother’s memory. The poet re-creates a moment some forty years ago when the relocation began personally for his family: His father was fired from his job. In stanza 2 the mother resists having such an unpleasant chapter of her life brought back. She has no desire to relive the past and says: “No, no, no. . . ./ The camps are over.”

In stanza 3 she reluctantly and very briefly talks about daily life in the camps, prefacing this by saying that everyone was, mostly, bored: “Women cooked and sewed,/ men played blackjack, dug gardens, a benjo [bathroom facilities].” Because she was a child, she did what children anywhere would do, “[hunt] stones, birds, wild flowers.” In stanza 4 the speaker is the poet’s father, who contributes a small but significant detail the mother leaves out, that she hides Japanese foods under the bed, “tins of utskemono and eel,” seeking some small ethnic comfort in a hostile and alien place. At the same time that the poet’s father seems to appreciate the poet’s quest for knowledge—“it’s all/ part of your job, your way”—he does not, finally, really understand. The poem ends with the father’s disapproval and trails off: “David, it was so long ago—how useless it seems . . .”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 399

“An Argument: On 1942” has a semitraditional poetic form, which seems to want to break rules but not entirely. It consists of five four-line stanzas in roughly free verse. That is, while the poem exhibits no consistent pattern of meter, despite its relative regularity in line length, the stanzas have unpredictable occurrences of pure rhyme (stanza 1: “inspired,” “fired”; stanza 3: “towers,” “flowers”; stanza 5: “Paul,” “all,” “recall”), slant or oblique rhyme (stanza 1: “grocery,” “mercy”), assonance (stanza 4: “eel,” “peeled”), and consonance (stanza 2: “back,” “dramatic”). The poet uses enjambment, a device in which the grammatical, logical, and syntactical sense of one poetic line continues into the next. This occurs in the first, fourth, and fifth stanzas, at places where the continued line signals that the emotion is more complex and is striving not to be contained.

By titling his poem an “argument,” Mura implies that a thesis will be clearly presented; that there is effort to convince a reluctant party with logic or, in this case, emotion; and that there is deep-seated disagreement that has not been resolved. The poem accomplishes these three things within a family context that renders the disharmony particularly poignant. The final stanza, given heightened emotional impact with its single line and its placement at the end, has, furthermore, an open ending. Lack of terminal final cadence suggests that this argument between older parents and adult son will not easily, if ever, be resolved.

“An Argument: On 1942” appears in Mura’s first poetry collection, After We Lost Our Way, one of five winners published in the National Poetry Series for 1989. Mura uses, as an epigraph to the book’s opening section, a series of poems about his Japanese ancestors, a sentiment from Walter Benjamin: “Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.” The title of the book, the epigraph, and its cover art all characterize Mura’s difficult dealings with his ethnic heritage. His embrace of his ethnicity as an adult is symbolized by the cover illustration, a colored Japanese patchwork coat dating from 1560, from the Uesugi Shrine. The book’s title and epigraph, as well as the rift between parents and son on which “An Argument: On 1942” is based, hint at the alienation from his ethnic heritage that Mura experienced growing up, at the destructive ways in which he acted out that denial and suppression, and at his final resolution and embrace of his culture.

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