James Masao Mitsui Critical Essays


(Poets and Poetry in America)

James Masao Mitsui’s poetic craft combines a keen sense of imagery with a refreshing candor of feeling and honesty of thought conveyed in an utterly natural, cadenced free verse. His subjects are many, but he tends to explore a few persistent major themes, including art and artists, ethnic experience and identity, nature, and relationships. Mitsui’s interest in aesthetics has a distinctively Japanese cast, although his poems also dialogue substantially with his American poetry mentors and his American poetry-writing contemporaries. In his pieces on ethnicity, the experiences of his Japanese American family figure prominently, especially their immigration to the United States and their dislocation during World War II. Much of Mitsui’s nature poetry is inspired by the Pacific Northwest, although the landscape of the American Southwest has become a presence in his later poems. In his poems on relationships, he records poignantly or humorously what brings joy to humanity, what causes woe, what shapes the self, and what endures.

Journal of the Sun

Journal of the Sun, Mitsui’s prizewinning first book, contains poems dealing with all four of his major themes. His interest in art, especially Japanese art, is evinced in poems such as “Ohashi in a Shower,” referring to a famous ukiyo-e by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858). In this poem, the speaker contemplates the painting so intently that he virtually enters the scene and participates in it, a state approximating what is termed the composition of place in mystic meditation. A similar effect is achieved in “Painting of a Hermitage,” “Shrike on Dead Tree,” and with an additional deft touch of irony, “Restretched Sumi E” (sumi-e being Japanese ink-brush paintings). Other deeply felt poems, such as “Destination: Tule Lake Relocation Center, May 20, 1942” and ”Photograph of a Child, Japanese-American Evacuation, Bainbridge Island, Washington, March 30, 1942,” obviously spring from the embittering experience of the Japanese American internment during World War II. Another group of poems, including “Hiking Dungeness Spit” and “Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,” vividly capture the mitigating effect of nature on human nature: restraining a hiker from a suicidal impulse, holding back a voyager from going beyond bounds. In this volume, too, are poems exploring the ups and downs of human relationships: the pain in “Divorced: Two Parting Gifts from My Son”; the tentative, cautious gladness of “Second Marriage” (in which two people go wading in a rocky, muddy, and barnacled tidal pool); or the hopeful, residual memory of joy in “After a Phone Call to a Friend.”

The book contains three roughly equal parts: “Relocation,” “Traveling,” and “Horizon.” The titles all refer to space, but they also take on larger and subtler connotations. “Relocation” is the official euphemism for the internment of Japanese Americans, the physical disruption, but Mitsui’s usage also takes on the psychological disorientation sustained. In addition, the term takes on an aesthetic dimension, as when a viewer enters into a painting that he or she contemplates (for example, as in “Ohashi in a Shower”), or a temporal meaning, as when an observer watches some American Indians gathering eagle feathers and is transported to George Custer’s last battlefield (“Dead Eagle on Sand Point Beach”). Similarly, “Traveling” is not only spatial but also temporal, time passing and life passing as the sun travels (as in “Journal of the Sun,” “The Morning My Father Died”). It is also the distance that grows in a divorce, the seemingly hopeless...

(The entire section is 1499 words.)