(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Ancestral Graves, Kahuku” is a deeply personal poem of Garrett Hongo that emphasizes tragic aspects of his original Japanese American community in Hawaii. The poem begins as the persona drives to the cemetery of his ancestors on Hawaii. He is accompanied by an unidentified guest, who may be the wife of the author who joined Hongo on his first return to Hawaii when he was in his thirties, or a close friend, or a poetic stand-in for the reader. The path toward the cemetery leads to images of decay, such as a rusting sugar mill, a derelict gas station, a ghost town, and an abandoned golf course. Nature is reclaiming human artifacts including, in a hint at the violence revealed at the poem’s end, houses once guarded with shotguns.

Once the two people enter the graveside past three wrecked cars, Hongo describes the remnants of this Japanese American Buddhist cemetery. The persona guides his guest as he was guided once as a boy by his aunt. Now, the graves are no longer tended to; there are no more offerings of food and incense to the dead, as is Buddhist custom. Nature itself has contributed to the disturbance of the dead. In 1946, a tsunami destroyed more than half of the graves, washing their content out onto the beach. As Hongo told an audience in Los Angeles in 1992, indigenous Hawaiians knew not to bury their dead by the sea. Yet the white owners of the land allocated only this most useless, infertile area right by the sea to their Japanese...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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