The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

David Mura’s “Issei Strawberry” begins with an invitation to an unspecified audience: “Taste this strawberry.” The next phrases indicate swift action—the reader is not only to “taste” but also to “spin” and “whirl” the flavor on the tongue. The narrator guides readers through the literal savoring of the fruit in their mouths and also guides them through quite a different panorama, a sweep of the mundane and repetitive gestures of migrant laborers, workers on the Pacific coast, whose job it is to pick and process the strawberries. The narrator invites readers to turn their eyes “west” toward “some. . ./ sleepy California town” and to imagine workers there bending down and up picking the berries. The narrator specifies that the scene is set in the autumn of the 1930’s, before World War II.

The poem indicates hardships that the Japanese immigrants have to cope with, including intolerable working conditions, which generate complaints, misery, and eventually labor strikes. Even more deplorable is a situation touched on briefly in the poem and then tossed off: the sad reality that such nonnative people are ignored in the present because they have traditionally been “written out of history” in the past. This situation makes the prosperity that some of the immigrants have been able to achieve even more laudable and significant. In spite of the grueling odds, if they do succeed, that success is miraculous.


(The entire section is 462 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

One of the reasons that “Issei Strawberry” is an unusual poem is that it is a full page long and yet is written in a single sentence. For all its length, its grammar is impeccable. The poem is composed of thirty lines of varying lengths. It is unrhymed and has no discernible meter. The four shortest lines, which are notably much shorter than the other lines, all mention gestures of loss or anger in some way: Line 4 ends in “spit,” line 10 ends in “declines,” line 19 says “you’re no one here,” and line 24 ends in “losing.” These words and phrases signify that the immigrants are shut out in important ways from the American society that they live and labor in.

The poem is a declarative invitation couched in simple, neutral language that belies its complex and subjective meanings. The only word that a non-Japanese reader might not be familiar with is “Issei,” which refers to a first-generation immigrant, someone born in Japan who moves to the United States. Poet Mura is a Sansei, a third-generation Japanese American, the offspring of a Nisei, who is offspring of an Issei.

The only cultural reference in the poem that may require some glossing is “Capra” in line 11. This reference is to the filmmaker Frank Capra, whose 1930’s films both relate to the Great Depression and are gently satiric situation comedies. These include Platinum Blonde (1931), Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night...

(The entire section is 486 words.)