Thursday, September 01, 2011

Lawson Fusao Inada's "Drawing the Line"

Inada's book of poems pays his respect to his elders, those in his family and beyond. It opens with a prose meditation on a photograph of Inada as a young boy and his paternal grandmother. There are poems to his grandparents and a long prose-poem to a larger-than-life uncle who made all kinds of horticultural life thrive in his "personal atmosphere." There are also love poems to his big Latina sisters and his fellow Latina brothers, with whom he grew up in their neighborhood in Fresno, California. A poem in 20 sections pays tribute to hardworking Hiroshi from Hiroshima, who migrated from Japan to work in Inada's grandfather's fish-store. There is a hint in the poem that Hiroshi is his grandfather's son from another family he had in Japan. These family portraits are drawn with so much love and admiration that it seems callous to ask for a more critical perspective. However, when in the poem "Picture," Inada invites the reader, and everyone, to join his family portrait, I think he empties the trope of family too much in order to extend his hospitality.

The language of the poems is very plain, enlivened by Californian colloquialism and Japanese expressions. The pace is very relaxed. At many points, plainness lapses into explicitness, which robs the poetry of the power of suggestion. Relaxation can also lapse into laxness. There is an attractive mischievousness running through the book, but the wit sometimes devolves into an irritating love of puns and homonyms. Inada loves to play with opposites, most variously in the poems "This One, That One" and "Over Here, Over There," most poignantly in the poem about Hiroshi, whose two expressions mezu-rah-shi (his way of saying "how special!") and moht-tai-nai (a combination of "what a shame" and "what a waste") describe first the fish-store, then the city dump, and finally the world.

The last poem of the book, also the title poem, remembers a different kind of ancestor. Yosh Kuromiya was one of the young men who resisted the draft after the government had interned him and his community in concentration camps during World War Two. Inada's plain language becomes eloquent in meditating on what it means for the young man to "draw the line." In the process the line changes from a line of resistance to the silhouette of Heart Mountain, which overlooked the camp. The simple line drawing becomes three-dimensional.

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