Grandfather and Grandmother in Love

by David Mura

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578

Mura once said, “One of the things my work is about is the conjunction between race and sexuality.” Born to parents who were detained in United States internment camps during World War II, he writes poetry that traces themes of racial discrimination and betrayal. His sexual identity is subtly associated with race since even as a young boy he was aware of standards of white beauty and of masculinity to which he could never aspire as an Asian American male. Both these themes are subtly evoked in “Grandfather and Grandmother in Love,” written in 1989.

When Mura first imagines his grandparents coupling, he thinks of “the moon bluing the white/ sheets soaked in sweat.” “Bluing” is a chemical added to laundry sheets to make them look even whiter, and the word functions here to emphasize the whiteness of the sheets, or of the culture in which his grandparents find themselves. Yet the sheets are stained with the grandparents’ sweat, suggesting that the grandparents are not quite as “white” as they are expected to be. The grandparents are not engaged in the sexual act in the first stanza; grandfather is simply complaining of his problems in the brief lines of haiku, immersed in the sounds of the biwa, real or imagined, that presumably starts him on his journey back in time to his native culture. The poet, also, is traveling back to his Japanese roots on the “word,” poetically transformed into sense impressions of taste and odor.

It is only in the second stanza, when the grandparents come together and the “ship of the past” bursts onto the scene, that they regain their gusto and life force. Their spark of passion now ignites, and in teasing behavior the grandmother swats away the grandfather’s grasping hand while he laughs with joy in a surge of renewed manhood. In a luminous metaphor, the lovers now find themselves in a magical sea at “depths a boy dreams of,” with grandfather hauling in grandmother, who seems magically transformed into a fish, until he dives under to join her.

This second stanza consists of only one long sentence, which builds in intensity on strong verbs that move from “drift” to “bursts, “swats,” and “laughing.” The lines build in intensity as images of sea creatures grow more surreal, mirroring the passion of the lovers until they disappear beneath the waves and “drifting ground/ swells.”

Many of Mura’s early poems grapple with Japanese and Japanese American subjects, partly in an effort to come to grips with a self-hatred and rage he did not understand. Eventually, through membership in several men’s groups and therapy groups, he learned that feelings of inadequacy are often found in men who do not fit the cultural ideals by which they are surrounded. He calls these feelings “internalized racism.”

In “Grandfather and Grandmother in Love,” the poet imagines his grandfather unable to participate fully in an act of love until he returns, if only in his mind, to the Japanese past he has lost. Mura embellishes the poem with Japanese words, but the entire metaphor of the grandparents entering the sea is thoroughly Japanese. Japan is a small island nation to which the ocean is very important as a source of industry, commerce, and food. Mura considers himself very much an American poet, influenced by the tradition of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams. In this poem he successfully merges many disparate elements to create a work of great power.

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