Guest blogger poet Christine Kitano decided to write about a visual image, a photograph.
When working on my second poetry collection, I knew I wanted to write about the Japanese American incarceration experience, but didn’t have a sense of how I wanted to approach this topic. I had explored the autobiographical in my first collection, so wanted to step out of my family’s immediate experience. At the time, I was also working on a series of persona poems, so finally I saw the connection between that work and the incarceration poems I wanted to write: I’d craft a persona to tell these stories.
I was living in Lubbock, Texas at the time, both geographically and culturally far from where I had grown up in southern California. I was surrounded by women my age who already had two or three children. When doing research for the incarceration poems, I found myself drawn to this photo. It was taken by Dorothea Lange on May 19, 1942, and shows a young woman arriving at an assembly camp in California. I couldn’t imagine raising a child, even under the best circumstances. How could someone balance the everyday care of a child with such an uncertain future?
I had found my persona. I would write from the point-of-view of a young, first-generation mother, a woman who leaves her home in Japan to start a new life in the United States, only to have that new home violently stripped away. When I look at this photo, I see her moving, falling forward under the weight of the faceless child. I see the motion in her feet, her shoes, her bare legs, her skirt fluttering under her coat. The man in front of her almost seems to move, as if he’ll step forward to help, but only if absolutely necessary. The other two men don’t move at all, instead maintaining their static, casual postures. I wonder why she’s alone, if she has a husband, and if she does, where he is. And I think of Dorothea Lange, just feet away, capturing this moment. This photo was censored and therefore unseen until 2006. I don’t know much about photography, but I know that this photo asks more questions than it answers.
Christine Kitano is the author of the poetry collections Sky Country (BOA, 2017) and Birds of Paradise (Lynx House, 2011). She teaches at Ithaca College and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.