Grandfather and Grandmother in Love

by David Mura
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508

David Mura’s “Grandfather and Grandmother in Love” is a poem of thirty lines divided into two fifteen-line stanzas, which celebrates the union of “the bodies that begot the bodies that begot me.” The poem is written in the first person and opens with the provocative line “Now I will ask for one true word beyond/ betrayal.” This is followed by a scene in which the poet imagines the circumstances of his grandparents in bed between sweaty sheets; the grandfather whispering haiku about clover, signifying good luck; and the cuckoo bird, a symbol of betrayal and cuckoldry. Grandfather also complains of misfortunes such as “blight and bad debts,” while both grandparents hear the quavering sound of the biwa, a Japanese stringed instrument.

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The word the poet seeks is found by line 10, in which the poet cracks the word “like a seed/ between the teeth,” to spit it out in the soil of his grandfather’s greenhouse roses. Although the word the poet seeks is never stated, it is associated with positive images of sweet teriyaki and the smell of sake. This longing for the “one true word” leaves the reader to imagine what the word might be and draws the reader into a contemplation of the grandparents’ life. Words such as “redemption,” “trust,” “success,” and even “luck” come to mind, but it is fairly certain that the found word is associated with the grandparents’ Japanese roots, transplanted to the United States like the seed spit out on the greenhouse loam. Mura’s grandfather, an Issei—a first-generation Japanese American—was a grower who lost his greenhouse during the war, but by calling up the past in this poem the poet is able to coax something sweet from the bitter experience.

The second stanza pursues the image of the grandparents in bed but changes focus from the poet’s musings to the actions of the lovers themselves as they turn toward each other in the chaos of love, bursting from the alien culture of the United States into their private, shared, Japanese life. In the first line they are referred to by the Japanese names for father and mother, “otoo-san” and “okaa-san,” identifying them in their native tongue and placing them in the Japanese world they inhabit spiritually, if not physically. Afloat on the “ship of the past,” the grandfather who has been betrayed regains his manhood. In a stunning metaphor using vivid ocean imagery, he “hauls her in,/ trawling the currents, gathering/ a sea that seems endless.” The metaphor builds to a climax in which the grandfather frees the grandmother from the net and dives into the water, where night obscures the couple and they find peace until the inevitable dawn.

This is a poem built on oppositions: between the past and present, between Japanese and American cultures, and even between the grandparents’ real life, typified by blight and bad debts, and the imagined one of the sea depths. It is Mura’s poetic vision and compression that pull these elements together into a new object: the poem.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 386

“Grandfather and Grandmother in Love,” written for the ear as well as the eye, is characterized by sound associations that link lines together in the absence of obvious rhyme. The first eight lines use alliteration, the repetition of initial consonants, to create a sequence of labile b sounds that create their own irregular rhythm. Starting with “beyond,” the poem strings together “betrayal,” “buoys,” “bedsprings,” “begot,” “bodies,” and many other b words, ending with “blight and bad debts, as the biwa’s spirit/ bubbled up between them.” In the last three lines of the second stanza, the poem draws to a conclusion made memorable by the linkage of sibilants in “slipping,” “sight,” “soft,” “shush,” and “swells.” The word “shush” both contrasts with and highlights the s sounds.

The poem is sprinkled with Japanese words that form a bridge to the Japanese past of which Mura writes. The biwa, teriyaki, and sake of the first stanza are words that appeal to the senses: hearing, taste, and smell. It is significant that the poet uses these words in speaking of his grandparents, since science has verified that memory is often triggered by sensual clues. In the beginning of the second stanza, Mura names his grandparents’ roles in Japanese words, placing them directly in the context of their own culture as they move close amid the reverberations of the “ran/ of lovers.” Ran means “chaos” in Japanese, and here it implies that only in the throes and the privacy of love’s chaos are the grandparents able to return to their genuine selves.

The simile used to give substance to the “word” of the first line, as the poet cracks it “like a seed/ between the teeth,” and spits it out “to root in the loam of his greenhouse roses,” again recalls the life of the grandparents: the grandfather’s greenhouse and the grandmother’s rice.

Yet everything in the first stanza is mere prelude to the second, in which Mura creates a stunning metaphor of the grandfather as a fisherman trawling for his wife in a magic ocean “where flounder, dolphin, fluorescent fins, fish/ with wings spill before him glittering scales.” Yet there is a suggestion that they cannot sustain either their passion or their return to Japanese culture, for the poem ends with the “knocking tide of morning.”

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