The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 926

The content of Mitsuye Yamada’s thirty-six-line poem “To the Lady” is deceptively simple. The speaker ruminates about a gathering—perhaps a lecture or poetry reading—in San Francisco at which an anonymous lady had asked why most Japanese Americans did not resist internment in United States concentration camps during World War II. As the speaker thinks about the question, she “rewrites” her experience in an imaginary dialogue with the lady that ironically refashions a speculative history.

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The poem’s second stanza enumerates eight courses of action that “I,” the speaker as persona of the Japanese Americans in the woman’s question, might have taken. The imagined alternatives are ironic, exaggerated, and highly topical in relation to the poem’s composition in the early 1970’s. The speaker first considers “run[ning] off” to Canada. The immediate topical connection implies those draft resisters who sought asylum in Canada rather than fighting the Vietnamese; the contemporary reference also suggests a historical parallel with slaves from the United States who fled to Canada before the Civil War.

The next alternative, hijacking a plane to Algeria, alludes to airplane hijackings in the 1960’s, often connected with anticolonial struggles such as the Algerian war for independence from France; like running to Canada, this alternative suggests escape. The third entry in this brief catalogue conflates the brassiere—a simpleminded icon of the entire feminist movement by referring to a few Dutch women who burned brassieres—with the American slogan of lifting oneself up by one’s bootstraps: The speaker envisages lifting herself “from [her]/ bra straps,” but the undertone of violence continues in an image of kicking “them” in “the groin.”

Next, escalating violence and self-destruction continue with robbing a bank and self-immolation; again, the references are topical. Some bank robberies in the 1960’s and 1970’s were motivated, according to the perpetrators, not by desire for personal gain but for redistributing wealth in a more equitable society. On the other hand, some American protestors against the Vietnam War burned themselves to death in public to protest the war.

The last three entries are linked to specific incidents. First, the speaker imagines withdrawing into a wooden house and being burned up as television viewers watch the event on the news. This scenario alludes to May of 1974, when members of a counterculture group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army, who had hidden in a small wooden house in Los Angeles, were surrounded by police, who burned the building and its occupants as millions of people watched on the evening news.

The speaker next alludes to a famous photograph that shows a straggling group of Vietnamese villagers fleeing from the bombs destroying their homes; at the center of the picture is a weeping child whose clothes have been burned off her naked body by napalm. Finally, the speaker refers to the death, in the early 1960’s, of Kitty Genovese, a young woman in New York City who was assaulted and murdered as dozens of her neighbors listened to her cries for help.

The following stanza consists of the single word “Then,” which turns the poem to address “the lady” directly for the first time, with another catalogue of five imagined responses of “the lady” to the speaker’s plight. Again, the list of imagined responses melds irony, exaggeration, and topical references. The listener might have rescued the speaker like a knight “in shining armor,” the catch phrase commonly referring to escapist fantasies, or she might have laid herself across railroad tracks. The latter image fuses the real protests of individuals, such as poet Allen Ginsberg, who have placed their bodies on railroad tracks to protest...

(The entire section contains 1259 words.)

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