Critical Essay on “What I Would Ask My Husband’s Dead Father”
Although “What I Would Ask My Husband’s Dead Father” only hints at it, Hashimoto is a poet of dual heritage. The Crane Wife reveals her deep connection to Japanese culture, but it also shows that she is also firmly rooted in American culture, particularly the Pacific Northwest area where she has spent all her life.
A number of poems in The Crane Wife take their inspiration from Japanese folktales that Hashimoto uses to subtly probe issues of family relationships and the experience of loss. “The Mirror of Matsuyama,” for example, draws on a folktale in which a dying mother gives her daughter a mirror, telling her that whenever she is lonely she must look in the mirror, and she will find that her mother is always with her. In the poem, the surprised daughter disbelieves her mother’s statement at first, but then, when she puts it to the test and looks in the mirror, “Amazed, / you looked back, your fingers stretched / to meet mine.” The poem suggests the indissoluble link between close family members that survives death (a point of view that is also hinted at in “What I Would Ask My Husband’s Dead Father”). Yet, the sense of loss and longing cannot be fully assuaged, as the last two lines imply: “Each time we meet, we press / closer together, as if you could make me whole.”
Another Japanese folktale inspired the poem “The Mountain Where Old People Are Abandoned.” The tale is about a village that has no use for old people; anyone over sixty is banished and left in the mountains to die. The poem is told in the voice of a mother, who is being carried up the mountain by her own son. The son (in contrast to the speaker in “The Mirror of Matsuyama”) refuses to look at his mother’s face. This fact does not stop her forgiving him since he is only doing what the rules of the village require.
The title poem, “The Crane Wife,” also alludes to a Japanese folktale, one in which a sailmaker who lives by the sea finds a wounded crane lying on his porch. He nurses it back to health, and it flies away only to return in the disguise of a beautiful young woman. They fall in love and marry. When economic times get hard, the crane wife makes him a magic sail to sell in the village. She sets two conditions, the first being that he does not look at her while she is making it and the second being that she will never make another one. The sailmaker disobeys both instructions, and the two are parted forever. In the poem, Hashimoto assumes her reader is familiar with the tale. As the crane wife makes the sail, she thinks back over the circumstances of her transformation and realizes that she is not content: “Disguised as a woman, I forget / what I want as a crane.” Longing to get back in touch with her essential nature, she resolves that “tonight, / when his body moves against mine, I’ll wake / to listen for the wind in his breathing.” The last line seems to be an allusion to the folktale, in which the sailmaker loves cranes because he thinks they are like sails and seem to hold the wind in their wings. The poem, which some might read as a feminist allegory, suggests that self-sacrifice and love are not enough to bring personal fulfillment if they lead to a distortion of the authentic self.
In addition to exploring this realm of myth and folktale, which is well suited to her wistful thoughts about the connections and the separations between people, Hashimoto also writes of a key event in Japanese American history. This began in 1942, during World War II, when more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps. The American government stated that this was for their own protection but, in fact, the government believed that Japanese Americans were a threat to national security at a time when the United States was at war with Japan. From the evidence of the poems, Hashimoto’s grandparents and parents were sent to Heart Mountain Relocation Center located between Powell and Cody in Wyoming. More than ten thousand Japanese Americans were interned at Heart Mountain. Since the poet was born in 1953, she has no direct knowledge of the camps, but the poems...
(The entire section is 1703 words.)