Upon Reading Lawson Fusao Inada’s “To This Day”

Yesterday, in my AP class, I wanted the students to analyze Asian writing and Asian poetry.  However, I had put that poems originally selected in a very safe place…I just had no idea where that safe place was.  Since a teacher was in my classroom working with his Algebra II students, I didn’t want to go in and make a ruckus, even though I am very good at making a ruckus.  So, I decided to use poetryfoundation.org….

Nothing.

Then, I went to worldliteraturetoday.org and found these incredible poems by Lawson Fusao Inada (click on the name for a link to the poetry).

Love.  Complete and utter and immediate love.

As I read “To This Day,” I (mentally) walked the lines of barbed wire, running my finger along the steel wires before arching my fingers over the hungry barbs.  I wondered about the name of a lake that sounded like tools but made me think about the cloth on a ballerina’s tutu.

When I hit the fifth stanza and Inada levels his indictment against the United States government for the treatment of the Japanese-Americans, I am awed by his double entendre.  He artfully uses zoomorphism when he describes how

residents of the American West,
who, in the western tradition,
were to be “rounded up,”
and “herded” into fenced areas –
Tule Lake being but one such place.

All right, on the most simplistic level, I love the fact that I can understand this poem.  I have read some amazing poets who use words which make my jaw unhinge and my mouth drop open.  But, then I’m left scratching my head and wondering, What the hell did I just read?  Of course, being that I’m an English teacher, I can’t really admit that I have no idea what ludicrosity I have just read so I pretend that, “Yeah, I’m smart.  I got it.  Let’s look at that word…that one right there.  The one next to ‘the.'”  And then I pray to God that the other person will start talking so I can just agree.

But, here, in this poem, I get it.  I understand (meaning comprehend) his anger and animosity at a government that willfully and happily placed its own citizens in “internment camps” and then looked the other way.

Because these people had eyes and skin color that were threatening?

His mockery of the judgment of the US citizens is brilliant and scathing.  The fact that he can use the words, “Yes,” “let’s,” and “oh” to cast judgment is incredible.  He doesn’t have to utilize caustic words to brand the sins of the government across the page.  The “simplistic” words that the uses are enough to make my fingers bounce once against the barbs before I yank back my offended digits and shove them into my mouth without fear of tetanus.

I know that this part is a stretch, but I will say it here because this is my blog and because I am willingly admitting that what I am going to say is a stretch….

But this poem reminds me so much of the Holocaust in terms of the barbed wire and the complicity of the every day citizens in terms of forcibly moving people into holding areas in the name of racism and nationalistic security.  I know that the United States government is not guilty of an attempted genocide against the Japanese-American nationals.  However, I still feel like this is a part of our history to which we are not reconciled.  The ghosts of our sins have so many rich colors and textures and we have only started shaking the hands of those closest to us.

Are we willing to go further?  To walk deeper into our history and recognize the mistakes that were committed in the past?  Whenever I turn on the History Channel, if it’s not Pawn Stars, it’s likely to be a documentary about World War II, and it’s generally going to be something to do with the Germans.

What about the rape of Nanking?

What about the Japanese Interment Camps?

What about the other parts of history that are still tucked into the nooks and crannies of our discomfort because hiding is so much easier than accepting that our government was wrong.

Okay, I’m ranting here.  Time to stop ranting.  I was writing about a poem that I read and loved and want to share with other people.

     So perhaps it’s immaterial
to dwell on such material matters
like rusted wire of the past;
rather, as we can imagine,
in this advanced day and age,
there just might be a mentality
among us, between us,
that, to this day,
serves to keep us separated
serves to keep us confined
between “them” and “us,”

     and this mentality, this condition,
invisible as it is,
intangible as it is,

     can actually function
like actual barbed wire –

     and it is up to everyone,
in the spirit of humanity,
in the name of mutuality,

     to reach through the strands
with extended hands.

When I hit this part of the poem, I know that I’m being a bit literal here, but I really did imagine small hands reaching through the barbed wire.  In just writing this, I feel a bit obtuse and stupid.  Oh well, doesn’t matter.  But this reminded me of Robert Frost’s poem, “Fences” and how the one neighbor kept saying “Good fences makes good neighbors.”

And, I have to admit, sometimes it’s good to have a fence.  Knowing the boundaries and respecting those lines is significant, at times, to fostering a good relationship.  At the same time, I come back to the idea of how the barbed wire fences were such a destructive force of separation and division, the truest sense of keeping one thing in and another out.

And I wish I had some bolt cutters and could just walk down the line and cut each wire in the middle.

Next year, I want to do a project with my students in which they analyze their concepts of freedom, what freedom can mean, and who has made “the long march to freedom.”  I want my students to create artwork, pictorial representations, music, written pieces, etc. that would show how their subjects have marched towards their own desired form of freedom:  freedom from ignorance (Galileo), freedom from poverty (Rick Bragg and his mother), freedom from persecution (the Jews in Auschwitz), freedom from oppression (the African-Americans of the 1950’s and 60’s).

I want my students to display their artwork in the building and, essentially, make it almost into a museum of which they are the curators and the living displays.  And, if I could really have my dream come true, I would love to create a wire sculpture of the “legendary” gate at Auschwitz, the “Arbeit macht frei” gate.  Only after this was created, I would use bolt cutters to literally cut the gate in half and peel it backwards so that the “Arbeit macht frei” was broken open.  And spilling out of those words that symbolized confinement and persecution and murder and crimes against humanity would be Dr. Martin Luther King’s words, “Free at last!  Free at last!  Thank God almighty, I am free at last!”

I am not a victim of racism or discrimination.  I am not a perpetrator of racism or discrimination.  Sometimes, though, I don’t think that I stand up enough to help others.

But I have two strong feet, and my knees feel cramped…I’m ready to stand now.

Reach out your hands.  I’m reaching out mine.  I will hold onto you and pull you up.

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