Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Cadence of Silk” occurs in the middle of the second section of The River of Heaven, nestled among other poems about growing up in Los Angeles in a mixed Anglo-American, Asian, and Latino culture. Although this poem does not bring the issues of culture to the forefront, other poems in this book highlight the trials and joys of growing up on the outside of American culture, while finding a place inside. Hongo has described his own work as “a search for origins of various kinds, a quest for ethnic and familial roots, cultural identity, and poetic inspiration.”

Hongo’s work is easily accessible to young people because he writes with authentic language and humor about the experiences of youth, while crediting these experiences with the importance and significance that they deserve. Hongo has provided some sort of voice for what he called “newly arrived peoples with their boat trails of memories from across the oceans.” These comments alone attest to the usefulness of a poem such as “The Cadence of Silk” in talking with young people about poetry, sports, and the perfection of language and action. The poem itself has so much action that it would be an ideal starting point for involving students who are usually unresponsive to poetry.

In “The Cadence of Silk” Hongo directs the reader’s attention to the artistic and physical feats of the game and compares basketball to ballet. The language of the poem is designed to make the reader feel comfortable and unthreatened by the action of the poem. Even if the reader does not like the Los Angeles Lakers, the poem can be satisfying, as the point of the poem is not to prove that the Lakers are the best team, or even that basketball is the best sport. Rather, the poet attempts to reveal what is appealing about the game by leading the reader through a perfectly executed play, which is characterized by sounds that cannot be heard by spectators, but only seen—the cadence of silk, when it swishes and undulates and everyone sees that the basket has been successful.