Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462
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.
Industrious workers of any ethnic background have a right to expect their hard work to pay off; if they are immigrants, they are on the way to realizing the American Dream. For some, the poem suggests, this immigrant dream does, in fact, become reality. For unfortunate others, however, the dream either gets shelved or vanishes. Although, because of government regulations, the immigrants can never own the land that they sweat over, they work it as if it were their own. The poem also suggests that the immigrants’ lack of fluency in the English language is a barrier that can cause them to be duped and swindled.
In any case, the harvest is the important thing, and they are motivated by empty purses and by empty promises that spur them to give it their all. They believe that in working hard they are “gaining a harvest, a country, a future.” The poem makes plain the posture of servitude that the immigrants are compelled to assume. Rather than presume to talk back to a “tart and trickier” foreman if he is unreasonable, for example, they are told to “bit[e] your tongue.” This action produces blood in the mouth of the laborer, which literally and figuratively becomes mixed with the blood-red strawberry juice in the mouth of the reader. The poem ends with a plea for “memory” that connects both worker and reader.
Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486
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 (1934), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In general, Capra’s films have a naïve, idealistic hero who triumphs because of his essential optimism. Two departures from this essential optimism are notable: the fantasy Lost Horizon (1937) and Meet John Doe (1941), an exposé of fascist elements in American society. Capra, according to the poem, “redefine[s] an American dream.” A filmmaker can mirror the culture around him and, if he is taken seriously, his vision then suggests or prescribes what that culture will be in the future. If Capra is redefining an American dream, it is one that largely ignores the nonnative immigrants and their plights, except for the lucky few who make it in American society. The fact that these Issei are not “preferred,” that they do not figure into Capra’s films in any meaningful way, is a subtle but real statement of prejudice.
“Issei Strawberry” is an aggressive and passionate poem. It compares the immigrant laborer to a “piston,” to “fire,” to “a swirling dervish,” to “a lover ready to ravish.” In contrast to this personal energy, everyone else, the poem says, “declines around you.” This is a poem of celebration of the immigrant spirit, one that will ultimately endure and prosper, even if there are roadblocks and setbacks in the present: “you have managed your own/ prosperity, a smacking ripeness on the vine.” It is the children who will carry forward this spirit and heritage in the new world.
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