Washington Square Review

William Kelley Woolfitt

Manzanar Haibun (i)

William Kelley Woolfitt

Japanese-Americans interned at Manzanar raised thousands of rubber plants.

“Japanese Nurserymen Experiment to Solve Rubber Shortage” —Washington Post headline, 9/9/1942


Two brothers on a blacked-out bus crowded with people, bags, trunks. Blinds pulled, windshield soaped, driver peering through a wedge of clear glass. One brother says, so mobs can’t see, throw stones. One brother says, keeping us dumb, afraid. When the driver says it’s safe, raise the blinds, two brothers look out at desert, tumbleweeds, the unfinished camp.


barbed wire, raw trenche 

barracks, no walls or roof 

frames skeletal, frail, exposed


Ranks of bare-chested men with shovels, men sunned and dusted the bronzes and browns of wheat pennies, hoji-cha tea, and horses. Camp divided into blocks divided into barracks divided into units. Two brothers with sacks of straw for beds, khaki blankets, quarreling when they cannot sleep. One says one hundred percent American, one says pro-Japanese. One brother joins the rock gang, the rubber project, tends guayule transplants in lath houses and cutting beds. One brother works in the mess hall, peels potatoes, opens cans of fruit and pink sausages, stirs cauldrons of stew. 


mess hall open as a crate

plumes of dust                     earth like iron

old bone, laced with crack 


Too much good press halts the rubber project: Manzanar’s nurserymen must not be portrayed as loyal: no more budget, no more water supply. Strife in the mess hall, rumors about unions, the white steward who pilfers sugar and pork. One brother tells his friends to give up their masks and clubs. Late at night, one brother washes the puzzle of cuts, the mottled bruises on his brother’s back, and then steals water, creeps to the rubber seedlings.


long stems and gray leaves

shiver when he wets them

against the coming heat



WILLIAM KELLEY WOOLFITT is the author of two books of poetry, Beauty Strip (Texas Review Press, 2014) and Charles of the Desert (Paraclete Press, forthcoming). He has received a Howard Nemerov Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. His poems and stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Threepenny Review, Appalachian Heritage, Tin House online, Notre Dame Review, New Ohio Review, The Cincinnati Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere.