Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Tin of Tangerines


So far this blog has dealt with war quite a bit . . . the role of men in particular, in both WWII and the American war in Vietnam. In the poem "Hospital Thoughts, Last Year and Today" (see 24 November 2008), there is a fantasy sequence where a woman is shown in a war context, but that scene is only imaginary and depicts a romanticized war, a Hollywood war.

Here is a poem that deals with war from the woman's point of view; quite distinct from the war poems I've given you so far: the main character is a woman, she's Japanese, a survivor of the Hiroshima atom-bomb attack, a religious person, a woman of both faith and hope . . . as well as despair.

50 Years Later, A Woman Recalls
— based on a story in National
Geographic (August 1995).
"Mother, may we please open that tin?"
four-year-old Akiko asked before breakfast.
"No, dear, we must save the tangerines,"

Shima sighed. "Akiko, you know we're keeping
our canned food in case the bombers attack.
You've asked May we please open that tin?

every morning for a week." Akiko grinned
and slipped into Shima's open arms for a quick
embrace, "Yes, we must save the tangerines."

They turned to slice radish leaves, stir soybeans.
Above, Enola Gay, Little Boy. Rice cooking.
Some mother's son says, "Please open the bomb

bay doors." Their home implodes. Shima and
her three other daughters never find Akiko.
Since then, No, we must save the tangerines

has resounded each morning in Shima's mind.
Daily, she recalls Hiroshima, Nagasaki —
kneels at her bedroom altar, offers an open tin
of tangerines. To save lost Akiko. Save Japan.

— Vince Gotera, Crab Orchard Review (1998).
Also appeared in Ghost Wars (2003).


This poem, as you can no doubt intuit from the epigraph, is based on a true story. There is an actual woman named Shima, living in 1995, who tries symbolically each morning to fulfill her dead daughter's last wish. There is a quiet, sublimated horror here that matches, and perhaps overshadows, other true stories about horribly burned people making their way down to the river, seeking coolness and a quenching of their terrible thirst, only to find that haven choked with dead bodies. We can only imagine the throat-catching, existential anguish that Shima lives through in not finding Akiko — an anguish that is with her still today.

The focus, obviously, is on mothering, on traditionally woman-oriented topics, the opening kitchen scene, the preparing of breakfast, the sweet conversation between two females, mother and daughter. The mention of "Enola Gay" and "Little Boy" are meant to be thematic here. "Enola Gay" is the name of the bomber pilot's mother, ironically enough, and "Little Boy" is the name given to this specific bomb; together the two names imply a kind of distortion of the poem's mother/child theme. And, if we think in Freudian fashion here, the B-29 births the "little boy" through its bomb-bay birth canal. I try to clinch the askew thematics by calling the disembodied bombardier "some mother's son" and having him speak in such a polite way, as taught him by his mother.

In terms of poetic technique, this is a villanelle . . . though, of course, notice that I take liberties — or poetic license — with the returning refrain lines. (For those who don't know the villanelle form: the first and third lines of the opening triplet are cycled as alternating refrains at the ends of the four following stanzas, and then both refrains appear at the end of the closing quatrain; also there are two rhymes, the b rhyme sandwiched between the a rhymes in each stanza.) Actually I take immense liberties with the refrains, mainly re-using only the words "open" and "tin" in one line and only "save" and "tangerines" in the other line. I wish I could say something like "I meant the extreme changes in the refrains to represent the chaos of war"; but no, that wouldn't be true . . . I just wanted the refrains to be radically changed each time, just for the sake of change in form and in the reader's expectations.

The a and b rhymes are also radically altered. The a rhyming sound is basically the consonant /n/ . . . "tin," "tangerines," "grinned," and so on. The most distant a rhyme is the /m/ of "bomb," which I did mean to echo thematically, to underline the psychic distance between the male world inside the B-29 bomber and the female world in Shima and Akiko's kitchen. The b rhyme is primarily focused on /k/ . . . for example, the slant rhyme "attack" and "quick." Sometimes the /k/ is quite buried inside the rhyming words, as in "breakfast" and "cooking"; at other times the /k/ is only slightly buried: "Akiko" and "Nagasaki." This last rhyming pair is intended to be the most damning indictment in the poem: the death of a little girl yoked with the death of thousands of people in the second atom-bomb attack, as if one attack were not enough. (I hope it doesn't come as a surprise to you that there are people in Japan who see Harry S. Truman as a war criminal, a monster as awful as Hitler or Stalin.)

Obviously (at least I hope it's obvious) this poem is an antiwar poem, one that highlights the horrors of war in the twentieth century: wholesale death dispensed antiseptically and distantly by people who only push a button and don't come face to face with the havoc and terror they have wrought. I hope it's equally obvious that I mean for this poem to be a symbol as well of the possibility that words, especially when used as/with art, can stop wars. Let's cling to that hope, friends.

1 comment:

Joy Leftow said...

So sad - yes can intuit it is from a true story.
works for me!

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