Hawaii-born poet Juliet S. Kono takes on one of the touchiest episodes in 20th-century U.S. history in her poem “Internment.” She writes in the poem about the internment of her fellow Japanese-Americans during World War II. Authorized by a series of presidential orders, some 31,000 people were interned in prison camps around the country, mostly in the western U.S., according to the National Archives. The poem suggests that, despite the ugliness of internment, beauty persists, promising hope.
“Internment” describes in concise detail the means by which Japanese-Americans were gathered and processed into a prison camp located at Crystal City, Texas. The authorities ship the internees via train from Santa Rosa, California, then examine and delouse them with DDT. Another, longer trip, this one a matter of days, takes the girl across the country to Texas.
Images that suggest dehumanization saturate this poem. Its first word is “Corralled,” describing the way the internees are gathered together like animals. This association of humans with livestock continues, with the girl feeling as if she has been branded. The chemical DDT, although used to treat human disease, was primarily used only as an insecticide on plants and livestock. Later, the poem describes the internees being fenced in “like cattle.”
Despite the ugliness of the poem’s subject matter, it contains an image of startling beauty: “dewdrops,” which appear “golden” in the Texas sun. Ironically, these jewel-like droplets appear on the barbed wire that confines the internees. A subtler irony is found in the camp’s location, Crystal City, a name that evokes delicate beauty; furthermore, the prison yard was “once a pasture.”
The poem’s theme builds from the irony of the out-of-place images of beauty and the dehumanizing livestock metaphor to reveal Kono’s point about the narrative itself. Treating people like animals strips them of their human rights and dignity, and it is wrong, but it does not necessarily destroy them. A seemingly uncaring world may still present images of beauty, but the careful observer sees that the golden drops are “impaled.” Kono’s use of this violent word, set alone on its line, underscores the underlying paradox at the heart of the poem’s theme: The world carries on, despite the tragedies on its surface, and glimmers of hope persist even in the darkest episodes.