From the Archives: the prison poetry of Minoru Yasui
If you live or work downtown, you probably drive by Minoru Yasui every day. Not the man himself -- he died in 1986, after serving more than four decades as a lawyer and cultural leader in Denver -- but the spot bearing his name: the Minoru Yasui Plaza, at 303 West Colfax Avenue, where there's a bronze bus of the man who committed his life to getting justice for himself and for the Japanese-American people.
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Yasui is probably best known for his actions in the courtroom challenging the legality of the government's restrictions on Japanese-American citizens during World War II. Yasui himself was turned away for military service nine times; he was arrested for being an enemy alien, then released; he deliberately broke the curfew and travel restrictions on Japanese-Americans, submitting himself as a "test case" of the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066; he was denied the right to practice law, and had to fight to win it back with the help of the ACLU. And in the 1980s, he filed a landmark writ of error coram nobis to overturn his 1942 conviction and wipe his record clean: He'd spent nine months in prison for breaking curfew.
For sixteen years, Yasui worked with the Japanese American Citizens League's Committee for Redress, which was instrumental in winning reparations for those who suffered during World War II. But he did not live to see the redress of grievances issued in 1988: an apology, a repeal of 9066, and an award of reparations.
Yasui's collection of papers -- an impressive 108 cartons, housed in the Auraria Library's Special Collections Department -- spans more than four decades of his life; it includes legal documents, memos, receipts, personal correspondence, items related to the coram nobis, even Christmas cards. Amid all that is a folder marked "Poetry." The folder contains a number of typewritten poems that Yasui composed while imprisoned for nine months for breaking his curfew and refusing to relocate to an internment camp at the government's orders. While they don't necessarily demonstrate a knack for verse -- they're a little intense and emotionally overwrought, good qualities in a lawyer but not a poet -- they do bring the plight of Yasui and the Japanese-American people into stark relief.
In one poem, called "Interminable Night," Yasui describes his prison experience over two pages. Sound plays heavily in these two stanzas, though the soundtrack is incomplete without hearing the echoes of Yasui's typewriter on the cell block:
There's desultory talk: Speculations as to what the sentence will be, Conjectures of how best to beat the rap, lamentations loud in injured tones Of being framed on a damn dirty deal, According to talk, how innocent are we all;
There are intermittent sounds: Sound of shoes dropping to the floor, Sound of flaring tempers, a short vicious fight, Obscene jokes, some indecent stories, big-winded braggery, Ribald laughter, lurid profanities, loud bursts of argument, All the mumble and grumble of imprisoned men.
And "Interminable Night" wraps up with this cheerful end:
Grim shadows on the wall, Crazily distorted in the devilish light, Remind in fiendish designs the ever confining bars, Muffled footfalls of screws on their rounds, A scampering cockroach pauses and leers down at me, And moving freely about, slips thru the bars in awful mockery. Night brings sleep to a hundred lost men, Sleep--yes, but a troubled sleep that brings no peace, And so passes the hours, the horrors of the night, In this hopeless place of the condemned and the damned.
From Minoru Yasui's "Interminable Night"
While much of Yasui's poetry is very heavy, it does have moments of levity and silliness, evidenced by his sign-offs, which alternate between "Jailbird Yasui" and "The Mad Mongolian."
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