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‘Isako Isako’: No punches pulled when confronting internment

by Iain Maloney

Contributing Writer

Mia Ayumi Malhotra’s collection of poetry enters the world at an apposite moment, when the U.S. government has been locking children in cages and blanket-labeling Mexicans and Muslims as the enemy within. “Isako Isako” is born from a similar time in U.S. history: internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Isako Isako, by Mia Ayumi Malhotra.
100 pages
ALICE JAMES BOOKS, Poetry.

State-sponsored racism, Malhotra shows in her redolent, rolling lines, leaves deep scars. The opening poem, “To My Many Mothers, Issei and Nisei” deliberately recalls Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” its breathy lines tripping over themselves in anguished celebration of the “women / in workpants and suspenders who worked like dogs,” before pushing us into the “crowded horse stalls / and half-built barracks of Rohwer, Arkansas” where these heroic mothers are imprisoned.

On the next page is the official U.S. Army order concerning the euphemistic “evacuation” of “all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien.” From the off, Malhotra pulls no punches.

The collection moves between the political and the personal, utilizing the idiosyncratic grammar of an immigrant and repurposing the “evacuation” order to powerful effect. She uses line length to differentiate between more generalized abstractions and specific memories, culminating in the poem “After Hiroshima,” where structure breaks down entirely in the face of such horror.

“Isako Isako” is a carefully controlled whirlwind of ideas and impressions that reminds us that the scars laid down today will still be visible generations from now.