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.
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 secret transport of...
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toxic war materials with the old serial-film stereotype of the heroine tied to railroad tracks and rescued at the last minute.
A third possibility is that the listener might have marched on Washington, D.C.; here the speaker alludes to the comparative invisibility of injustices against people of color until mass movements, like the celebrated civil rights march on Washington in the 1960’s, unite a significant number of the privileged majority with victimized others who seek to exercise their rights.
Next, the listener is reminded that she might have resisted injustice by identifying with the persecuted Jews of Europe through tattooing a “Star of David on [her] arm”; again, the speaker suggests that atrocities such as the Holocaust can occur because narrow self-absorption prevents identifying with oppressed peoples. The last possibility the speaker enumerates is writing “six million enraged letters” to Congress. This suggestion entails mass action rather than individualistic, isolated acts, and it suggests a nonviolent, even banal type of engagement.
In the next stanza the speaker moves from “I” and then “you” to talk as “we.” However, the statement is negative: No appropriate action was taken by anyone. A new series emerges with five parallel phrases in which “order” is noted as social, moral, and internal and linked to “law and order.” In this series the speaker also anchors the poem’s field of reference to the Japanese American internment by naming “Executive Order 9066,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s directive for the uncompensated removal of American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese descent from United States coastal areas to concentration camps.
The poem’s brief final stanza contrasts “YOU” and “I” with an abbreviated “them” in the phrases “YOU let’m/ I let’m.” Finally, the speaker includes even the blameworthy “them” in the final three-word assessment that “All are punished.” That is, allowing evil to happen hurts everyone, not just those being persecuted.
Like most of Yamada’s work, “To the Lady” is a straightforward statement with little literary embellishment. As noted, the text relies on exaggeration, irony, and topical allusion. The poem’s framework combines the device of catalogue and the rhetorical form of dialectic within the tradition of meditative poetry. Typical of meditative poetry, the entire statement is understood as taking place within the speaker’s mind; furthermore, the statement moves from a problem or question to a resolution and new insight. The resolution comes about through a dialectic that first postulates an initial impetus (imprisonment without due process of law), then a reaction (what the speaker says she might have done), which is followed by responses to the reaction (what “the lady” might have done).
Following the dialectical exchange, the speaker turns away from speculation and inserts unadorned facts of history: Executive Order 9066, which reminds the reader of the failure of every American of any ethnic group to set boundaries against injustice. Out of this recognition of failure comes the insight that in a society where injustice is unopposed both persecutors and persecuted are punished.
The free-verse rhythm, short lines, and austere language emphasize the poem’s irony. In the first stanza the speaker’s insistent repetition of “should’ve” prepares for the clipped, almost tight-lipped accusation-reminder in the last three lines, in which the perpetrators of injustice are reduced to a single letter for “them” in “YOU let’m/ I let’m.” Exaggeration pervades the catalogue addressed to a capitalized “YOU,” reminding the reader of the egotism of this privileged lady in the audience who assumes the right to advise the speaker on what should have been done. In another subtle irony the speaker through this device reinforces the parallel between the speaker’s “I” and the lady, addressed both times in capital letters as “YOU,” and suggests the possibility of an emphatic, “uppercase” collaboration more visible and potentially powerful than the minimized “them” now collapsed to a mere lowercase letter “m.”