Poems and Commentary

In What It Means to be Free Lawson Inada reads all of seven poems and sections of three others.

The video opens with a "song of freedom," "Denver Union Station," the story of families at the end of their internment leaving Amache Camp in southeastern Colorado, training to Denver, then fanning out "to all those special places we knew as home"-Fresno to the Inadas. The conductor's cry, "'Denver Union Station-Everybody off!'" echoes through the years as Inada's grandfather asks him to impersonate the conductor so he can hear again the words that released them homeward. And the speaker/poet relives that event and those words every day of his life when he wakes up "not in Amache, not in Amache." In fact, phenomena he observes, like the crescent moon, take him back to that trip.

Two related techniques in this exhilarating poem help create the drama-repetition and pace. By stanza four the poem is pushing along like the train the family is riding-"it was a slow train, faster/than fences, faster than Amache/back there, back there, back there-/Amache, Amache, Amache, trying to catch us." Along with the repetition of "smile" and "journey," "'Denver Union Station-Everybody off!'" is used as a chorus, dampened by parentheses, three times near the end of the poem to hold off readers, remind them of the importance of the event, and to lead them to that most important final word of the poem, the word to which the entire poem has been driving.

And then there would be silence.
And there in the empty, echoing station
("Denver Union Station-Everybody off!")
the old man would look at the child,
their eyes would meet,
and they both would smile-

and the smile would be
("Denver Union Station!")
the smile of the journey,
their journey,
and the smile would be
("Denver Union Station!")
the smile, their smile,
and everybody's smile,
of freedom.

The other poem most obviously about freedom is the last of the "Poems in Stone":

With new hope,
We build new lives.
Why complain when it rains?
This is what it means to be free.

Here families have returned home after the war to start over-in this case in rainy western Oregon-only to realize that, of course, all is not perfect, but being free means putting up with problems of daily living.

Home is a major topic in many of Inada's poems. In "The Legend of Home," the images are mainly of things people "on the outside" take for granted-trees and grass, dogs and cats, the blue tricycle, tunnels, overpasses, bridges, ice cream cones, and "when you came to a fence,/you went around it!"-just everyday things. Lawson Inada says about what prompted this poem, "I remember these kids [in camp] talking about their fabulous places. And the funny thing, of course, is that I've since been to these 'fabulous places' and they're the kind of places you drive right through or you wouldn't think twice about, but, boy, when you're in a place like camp, they loom large in your memory."

Those places and events become part of legends, lore based on historical truth handed down orally or in writing; that's what Lawson Inada has done for us by writing and reading his Legends poems. He has said about these poems, "The camp legends are things that I remember as a child, and, as you well know, things that happen when you're small, even though you don't regard them as big events at the time, when the years go on you remember them and they take on a sort of legendary glow."