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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3041

In an interview, Hongo once said of himself as a poet that “I live on the earth and in the sky.” Many issues inform the style and content of his rich writing. Some of his Hawaiian ancestors worked on plantations, cutting sugar cane and stoking vats in the mills; others...

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In an interview, Hongo once said of himself as a poet that “I live on the earth and in the sky.” Many issues inform the style and content of his rich writing. Some of his Hawaiian ancestors worked on plantations, cutting sugar cane and stoking vats in the mills; others were professionals. Hongo’s own educational background includes a year of study in Japan and graduate school work as a student of Japanese language and literature. He translated his early poems into Japanese, and he has remarked that he sometimes still thinks in Japanese. On the other hand, his experiences growing up in a U.S. West Coast multiethnic community and performing poetry with a jazz trio have equally influenced his writing. His returns to Hawaii have deepened his appreciation of his familial roots there.

Connecting with ancestry is an important venture for Hongo, who uses as one central image in his poetry an old man who eventually turns out to be the poet. The wizened Asian man is mythical and elemental; he seems to hang over Hongo’s consciousness as a shadow or an alter ego. He has suffered and is wise, and he is the essence that impels Hongo to live sympathetically and to write well. Some of Hongo’s poems contain only vague resonances of the old man; poems such as “What For” seem to speak with the old man’s voice, expressing a longing to become “a doctor of pure magic” and heal his father’s pain. Another poem, “Roots,” identifies more directly the old man, who “hangs over my sleep.” Still another, “Something Whispered in the Shakuhachi,” is a narrative monologue in the persona of the old man that reveals poignant events in his life.

Male relatives are important subjects for Hongo. He shows his father working the swing shift and betting on horses; he recalls his brother playing guitar in the garage when they were younger, “practicing/ for the priesthood, preaching the blues.” Several poems and an essay focus on Kubota, Hongo’s maternal grandfather, for whom Hongo, the eldest grandchild, has particular affection. The name Kubota, Hongo reveals, can mean either “wayside field” or “broken dreams.” When Kubota died, a Buddhist priest gave him a name that meant “shining wisdom of the law.” A Japanese American born in Hawaii, Kubota ran a general store on the north shore of Oahu before moving with Hongo’s family to California. Through Kubota’s “talking story,” Hongo learned of such events as the bombing of Pearl Harbor and received with the stories Kubota’s directive to tell them to others. For Hongo, the obligation to speak is a ritual payment that the young owe their elders. In his poetry, he fulfills that injunction by witnessing and revealing the experiences of Japanese Americans.

Personal memory thus combines in Hongo’s poetry with cultural history. Further, Hongo’s early experience in the theater is evident in many of his narrative poems that take the form of dramatic monologues. In “Pinoy at the Coming World,” an anonymous plantation worker who loses everything that matters to him is as sympathetically rendered as if he had been a close relative. “Jingoku: On the Glamour of Self-Hate” tells the story of an evacuated soldier in Japan who succeeds for a time at gambling and then is reduced to squalor.

Hongo expresses outrage at the racist treatment he sees Asians experiencing in America. Such expression can be lyrical and sad, as in “Something Whispered in the Shakuhachi,” which focuses on one lonely man, or searingly painful, as in the depiction of the bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath in “Stepchild.” Though “Stepchild” has been faulted for didacticism and excess, it convincingly exposes the horror that human beings can wreak on other human beings, suggests the biting ways of the dragon and the shark to retaliate, and finally shows outrage being partially assuaged by healing and hope.

Hongo believes that the impetus of poetry is communion and communication. One poet should not necessarily be compared to others to determine who is superior, he thinks, because such an approach would lead to the institutionalization of poetry, forcing everyone to see the world in the same way. Despite his extensive experience teaching in universities, Hongo describes himself as being basically “anti-institution.” He prefers to imagine himself as Matsuo Bash, the ancient Japanese traveling poet, with a cluster of faithful followers, and adheres to the nontraditional style of learning offered in Eugène Ionesco’s play La Leçon (pr. 1951, pb. 1954; The Lesson, 1955). Hongo counts as important literary influences on his writing Philip Levine, William Wordsworth, William Styron, and James Agee. He has a great affinity for the sounds of words, for the beauty of language, and for the individuality of different dialects. Hongo’s attention to portraying in writing the way people talk is evident in such poems as“Cruising 99,” in which three friends converse while driving down a stretch of highway.

In his introduction to The Open Boat, Hongo explains not only the evolution of Asian American literature but also the motivation behind his own writing. This motivation is partly to fight the stereotypes of Asians in America, he says, and partly to widen the field of what has previously been considered mainstream literature, all the while encouraging “intellectual passion” and “an appreciation of verbal beauty.”

During his four years as director of the creative writing program at the University of Oregon at Eugene, Hongo brought a strong multicultural presence to the program. His choices for lecturers and suggestions for syllabi stressed that the American literary canon and styles of American writing encompassed more than had been traditionally considered. In the same vein, his three edited texts seek to foreground the Asian American experience and support their expression in poetry and prose. Hongo has worked ceaselessly to create a public forum for Asian American writers and has provided substantial support. His memoir Volcano powerfully interweaves his personal expression of returning to his lush tropical place of birth with his bittersweet recollection of the joys and the ordeals of his family of pioneering ancestors.

By teaching poetry to a wide range of students, Hongo is training a new generation of American and international writers. His poems continue to move a wide audience who can connect to their own family’s histories and their place in twenty-first century America.

“Yellow Light”

First published: 1982 (collected in Yellow Light, 1982)

Type of work: Poem

An anonymous woman, carrying a parcel of food for supper, gets off a city bus after a day of work and walks to her apartment.

“Yellow Light,” the title poem from Hongo’s first volume of poetry, uses description to convey personal sympathy and collective resignation. It uses many of the techniques that mark Hongo’s best poems and sets the mood for the works that follow in the collection. These are poems of striking images, full of close details about family members and neighbors, in which the poet examines the roots of his biological and ancestral identity and hones his personal, creative impulses. “Yellow Light” couples exploration with reconciliation, joy, and even playfulness with bitterness and class struggle.

The poem begins by closely focusing on an unnamed working-class woman: “One arm hooked around the frayed strap/ of a tar-black patent-leather purse.” She is on her way home in a multiethnic community of Los Angeles, a city Hongo knows well. It is early evening, and suppers are beginning to simmer on stoves while tempers start to seethe; adults coming home from work vent their frustrations on their children, and “gangs of schoolboys [are] playing war.” The day’s end finds people worn out and testy.

This is a poem built on contrasts that emphasize have-nots. The poet says he might have written about butterflies and flowering vines had it been spring or summer, but the time is October, and the season’s ripeness, rather than being appealing, is congested. The searchlights from uptown theaters and used-car lots are “sticks of light” that “probe the sky.” Such brilliant illumination conflicts with the dull patches of light thrown out from kitchen windows, “winking on/ in all the side streets of the Barrio.” The poem shows energy being infused into an already crowded and even malcontented community, one devoid of excitement and glamour, seething with routine and dissatisfaction. In contrast, the uptown lights, signifying where the excitement is, are distant but “brilliant” even from that distance, while the lights from the barrio apartments and houses are “dim.”

The anonymous woman worker is poor and tired, and Hongo lets his readers know that her life is not easy and is possibly joyless. From the bus stop, she must walk several blocks uphill and then up two flights of stairs until she reaches her apartment. Her heels are spikes that click “like kitchen knives on a cutting board” as she climbs the steps. She performs routinely dull chores, but Hongo’s description of them is anything but routine. Infusing his images with sharpness, he deftly conveys resentment at poverty and anger at an inability to break out of it. The poem’s final image is at once uplifting and earthy—perhaps the cycle will be broken, or perhaps something will happen to make it bearable, or perhaps problems will simply be covered up. An image of the moon cruises “from behind a screen of eucalyptus,” and covers everything “in a heavy light like yellow onions.” The poem is at once sensuous, poignant, and foreboding.

“Cruising 99”

First published: 1978 (collected in Yellow Light, 1982)

Type of work: Poem

Three friends, all Asian American poets, drive down Highway 99 in California on a mystical journey in search of truths about individual and cultural identity.

At thirteen pages and with nine sections, “Cruising 99” is the longest poem in Hongo’s collection Yellow Light. It is also the poem that uses the most variety of line length, meter, stanza, and mood. Though there is a narrative thread to the poem, it is a thin one, broken up with both jazz lyrics and meditative monologue. The many voices Hongo uses in the poem caused one critic to call him “the Rich Little of Asian American writing.” His facility is evident, as he stretches readers’ minds and limbers his own creative sinews by experimenting with forms and focus. His indebtedness to Beat generation writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg is evident, as is his love of music. Hongo dedicated the volume to his wife, violinist and musicologist Cynthia Thiessen.

Highway 99 is an old route that connects the inland cities of the West Coast from Mexico to Canada. Hongo’s “cruise” along it took him and two friends around Southern California, an area they knew well. In describing rich landscapes of walnut groves, arroyos, and manzanita, Hongo is also obsessively searching for some compelling truths about his own origins and identity as the car heads for a town called Paradise. He has remarked that such preoccupations are “more than a nostalgia or even a semi-learned atavism, though these things certainly play their parts. It is rather a way to isolate, and to uphold, cultural and moral value in a confusing time and environment.”

As the title suggests, the poem offers an expansive journey that is a search for connectedness and meaning. It is reminiscent of the poetry of Walt Whitman, whom Hongo celebrated in a 1992 essay published in The Massachusetts Review and whom Hongo counts as an important influence in developing his own spiritual optimism. Highway 99 is a useful metaphor because so many people have traveled it or live near it. Like elements of Whitman’s vision, it is democratic and encompasses many people, each with a different experience and each with an experience that is changing. Such change creates for Hongo both journey and myth.

The poem was originally published as Hongo’s section of The Buddha Bandits down Highway 99, an early collaborative effort with fellow Asian American poets Alan Chong Lau and Lawson Fusao Inada, who are the two friends who accompany him down Highway 99. The poets believe in illuminating cultural history with ethnic connectedness, and they use jazzy rhythms and verbal syncopations to record sensations and to achieve enlightenment. Because Hongo also selected “Cruising 99” for inclusion in The Open Boat, it is clearly an important poem to him. It is a tour de force in which Hongo celebrates both the past of his Japanese heritage and the present of his American upbringing.

“Something Whispered in the Shakuhachi”

First published: 1982 (collected in Yellow Light, 1982)

Type of work: Poem

An old Japanese man who makes bamboo flutes is forced to burn them when he is interned in a relocation camp during World War II.

“Something Whispered in the Shakuhachi” is an intimate poem, extremely evocative and lyrical. In its focus on one elderly and enfeebled man, Hongo is able to show a strength of spirit that can transcend the most challenging and demeaning of conditions. To understand more about how the notion of the old man functions as a seminal concept for Hongo, it is a good idea to read another of his poems, “Roots.” In that poem, Hongo talks about an old man hanging over his sleep whose “signature . . ./ scratches across my unconscious life,” a metaphor for his own Japanese origins, which live in his heart. The physical part of his identity, Hongo implies, is a carefree American “girl-watching” in California, and the light in his soul is his Japanese heritage.

The old man of both poems delights in his talent for carving shakuhachi, bamboo flutes. His story is made explicit in “Something Whispered in the Shakuhachi,” in which the old man, about to be interned in a World War II relocation camp, is ordered to leave his home and give up his belongings. Rather than have his precious flutes destroyed, he burns them himself, but even after they are gone, he can hear their “wail like fists of wind/ whistling through the barracks.” After the war, when he returns home, the memory of the flutes and their melodies still give him comfort. Whenever times are bad, there is “one thicket/ of memory that calls for me/ to come and sit/ among the tall canes/ and shape full-throated songs/ out of wind, out of bamboo,/ out of a voice/ that only whispers.” Although Hongo himself did not experience internment, he speaks on behalf of those who did and, on a broader level, for all victims of social injustice. The poem affirms the power of faith, of will, and of memory to survive hardship and catastrophe.

This poem is the closing work in Yellow Light. It is as if Hongo has worked up to baring his soul and, for a finale, offers what is most important to his sensibility and yet most difficult to reveal. The first line of the poem suggests that Hongo will share a “secret” and that the reader who follows carefully will be “enlightened.” What is revealed is that the old man is truly enlightened and that he easily, almost without even being aware of it, still sings his songs with the flutes—a noble, self-possessed, and peaceful role model indeed. He knows what is important in life and lets that clear vision guide him in all that he does.

“Ancestral Graves, Kahuku”

First published: 1988 (collected in The River of Heaven, 1988)

Type of work: Poem

A visit to the neglected cemetery of the persona’s Japanese American ancestors in Hawaii reveals that his murdered grand-aunt is buried there.

“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 American employees in which to bury their dead. The poem’s revelation of the continued ownership of the sacred land by white people contributes to its theme of concern with racial hostility.

Finally, the two visitors reach the grave of Yaeko, grand-aunt of the persona. In an impassioned voice, he reveals how her own father, his great-grandfather, murdered her with the handle of his hoe for sleeping with a Scottish man in the open fields. This shocking murder at the climax of the poem reveals the deep racial and misogynist resentments born out of a discriminatory plantation society. The persona leaves open whether Yaeko loved the Scot or was raped by him, focusing on the shock of her violent murder.

The visitors leave, shamed by the desolate status of the cemetery. It is a visible reminder of their failure to honor their ancestors as prescribed in Buddhism. There is no forgiveness for this failure, just as there is no forgiveness for the murder of Yaeko. As the two visitors depart, they are moved by the violence of the past and saddened by the neglect of the present, where only the once violent sea soothingly speaks to the dead.

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