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Garrett Hongo 1951–
(Full name Garrett Kaoru Hongo) American poet, editor, memoirist, and dramatist.
An award-winning poet, Hongo is an important voice in post-World War II Asian American literature. Ethnic considerations are constant elements in his work, as he explores the experiences of Asian Americans in Anglo society and seeks...
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- Critical Essays
Garrett Hongo 1951–
(Full name Garrett Kaoru Hongo) American poet, editor, memoirist, and dramatist.
An award-winning poet, Hongo is an important voice in post-World War II Asian American literature. Ethnic considerations are constant elements in his work, as he explores the experiences of Asian Americans in Anglo society and seeks to come to terms with his own identity in American culture. Delving into history and memory to express the bitterness of prejudice, Hongo frequently employs character studies and anecdotal first-person nar ratives to express his thoughts. Of his creative impulse he has stated: "My project as a poet has been motivated by a search for origins of various kinds, quests for ethnic and familial roots, cultural identity, and poetic inspiration, all ultimately somehow connected with my need for an active imaginative and spiritual life."
Born in the village of Volcano, Hawaii, Hongo was raised on the North Shore of the island Oahu and later in Southern California, where his family moved when he was six. He attended a racially mixed high school in a workingclass Los Angeles neighborhood, where he was exposed to the urban street life and cultural alienation that color his work. Hongo subsequently studied at Pomona College and graduated with honors in 1973. A fellowship enabled him to spend the following year in Japan writing. Upon returning from abroad, he enrolled in Japanese language and literature classes in a graduate program at the University of Michigan. While there, he won the university's Hopwood Poetry Prize. Prior to completing graduate studies, Hongo moved to Seattle, where he worked as poet-in-residence for the Seattle Arts Commission and founded a locally based theater group. His play, Nisei Bar and Grill, premiered in 1976, and two years later he co-authored a volume of poetry entitled The Buddha Bandits Down Highway 99 together with fellow Asian American writers Alan Chong Lau and Lawson Fusao Inada. Hongo returned to graduate studies in 1978, this time at the University of California, Irvine. In 1980 he received his M.F.A. degree. That year Hongo also was selected one of four winners in the annual Discovery/ The Nation poetry contest and has since received numerous awards and fellowships. In the following two decades, he has taught at several universities, served as the poetry editor of The Missouri Review, and edited influential volumes of Asian American poetry and essays. Hongo is presently a professor at the University of Oregon.
In Yellow Light, his first book-length volume of verse, Hongo presents images from his childhood and family life growing up in a multicultural Los Angeles neighborhood. Some of the poems are portraits of difficult lives, depicting dispossessed members of the underclass, or lonely, isolated individuals of foreign descent suffering oppression and discrimination in American society. In other cases Hongo has commented on trials endured by immigrants, including the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the anti-Japanese sentiment they suffer today. When the poet shows assimilation having been achieved, it is often at the cost of estrangement from cultural history. In more personal poems, Hongo explores the origin of his creativity and his need to express himself in verse. He also seeks connection with his Japanese heritage, but recognizes that he has been considerably shaped by American pop culture. In his second book of poetry, The River of Heaven, Hongo continues to combine personal memories with observations about individual lives and the significance of cultural bonds.
Hongo has been praised for his powers of description and the depth of feeling conveyed by his verse. Commentators find that despite taking on subjects such as victimization and prejudice, he successfully avoids moralizing or sentimentality. Comparing Hongo's style to that of Walt Whitman, critics have noted that both poets celebrate their creative urge and the feeling that they are linked to their surroundings and history. Furthermore, Hongo frequently utilizes literary devices typical of Whitman's poetry, such as long, flowing lines, descriptive lists, and repetitive use of phrasing and word order. Diane Wakoski, in reviewing Yellow Light, highlighted perhaps the most important quality of Hongo's poetry when she called attention to the "enthusiasm" and "spirit of life" evident in his verse.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 58
The Buddha Bandits Down Highway 99 [with Alan Chong Lau and Lawson Fusao Inada] (poetry) 1978
Yellow Light (poetry) 1982
The River of Heaven (poetry) 1988
Other Major Works
Nisei Bar and Grill (play) 1976
The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America [editor] (poetry collection) 1993
Under Western Eyes: Personal Essays from Asian America [editor] (essay collection) 1995
Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai'i (memoir) 1995
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SOURCE: A review of Yellow Light, in The American Book Review, Vol. 6, No. 2, January-February 1984, pp. 4-5.
[In the following, Wakoski lauds Yellow Light as "one of the most exciting books of poems I have read in recent years."]
In the spring of 1963, Gilberto Sorrentino, primary book reviewer for Kulchur magazine, reviewed my second appearance in print, a book called, as a joke by its editor LeRoi Jones, Four Young Lady Poets. In his review, Sorrentino said,
Diane Wakoski is the least interesting of the four poets presented…. Essentially, this is middle-class poetry … Miss Wakoski's poems are disguised in the "modern" trappings but she is as superficial as Edward Albee, another middle-class product.
Of the three other poets, Carol Berge has gone on to become an interesting avant garde fiction writer; Rochelle Owens, an impressive avant garde playwright; and, until recently, Barbara Moraff had more or less disappeared from the literary world, to my knowledge not having published any books for the past 10 years. For better or worse, I have published 13 collections of poems, numerous small press "slim volumes," and a bit of writing on contemporary American poetry.
I have begun my review with this painful memory, never quite healed, to say that I vowed when reading that unthinking and condescending view of my work (though, I must say, I am a deep admirer of Albee's plays, but I am afraid that our work has little in common, not even middleclassness, for when Sorrentino was writing those lines he had obviously not investigated my life. I come from the lower classes, with virtually uneducated poverty-line parents) that I would never so thoughtlessly review young writers, first books, new work. The three books of poems I want to talk about here are very fine examples of poetry and authors whose work I am thankful to talk about. I would like to say things about Hongo, Luhrmann, and Williamson that I wish had been said about my early work, for I feel great affinities with all these poets, each so different but each working in the strength of "American grain."
It was not entirely gratuitous of me to quote Sorrentino's words about my early poems. For something he said as condemnation—"Middle-class"—is now, 20 years later, something we must reckon with as mainstream reality. And for better or worse, we have made a middle-class art in America, to serve I suppose, the first genuine middle-class country where, according to the authors of Megatrends, there are now more white collar workers than blue, and information is our new industry.
When we use words like "academic," "middle-class," and "bourgeois," as pejorative now, I think we all sound a little dated and out of touch. There is a new American poetry which comes out of comfortable orderly lives. It is written by the Kinnells, Staffords, Levertovs, Creeleys, Kumins, Rothenbergs, and even Ginsbergs. The "men in Brooks Brothers suits" are no longer the enemies. In fact, we live in a decade where it is hard to identify the enemy, though many of the predictions of Orwell's 1984 have come true. Self-destruction seems far more a hazard of our society than either a Big Brother or a Gestapo-style police.
It is to these problems that Tom Luhrmann addresses himself in The Objects in the Garden. Like most of us, Luhrmann is a member of the American middle-class who perceives inherent difficulty and pain in the comfortable, even beautiful way of life we have achieved….
In contrast to The Objects in the Garden, Garrett Hongo's Yellow Light could originate in another world. And perhaps it does. Hongo is first generation American, with Japanese parents. Some part of his childhood was lived in Hawaii, and most of his poems are located in Southern California. This is a dull way to introduce what I think is one of the most exciting books of poems I have read in recent years. It was love at first reading, that had me walking through the midwestern streets of East Lansing, Michigan, dreaming of Southern California, thinking of Rexroth's poems, feeling the spice of crossing two cultures and having the riches of both. Hongo's language is more sensuous than Kinnell's or Levertov's or Lorca's, at his best. Not to slight those poets, all favorites of mine, but Hongo is astonishing. After reading "Who Among You Knows The Essence of Garlic?" I may give up writing food poems, for this one tops everything I have seen in my Feastletters search.
Flukes of giant black mushrooms
leap from their murky tubs
and strangle the toes of young carrots.
Broiling chickens ooze grease,
yellow tears of fat collect
and spatter in the smoking pot.
Soft ripe pears, blushing
on the kitchen window sill,
kneel like plump women
taking a long, luxurious shampoo,
and invite you to bite their lips.
Why not grab basketfuls of steaming noodles
lush and slick as the hair of a fine lady,
Two shrimps, big as Portuguese thumbs
stew among cut guavas, red onions
It is an amazing piece of descriptive writing. But that is the least of Hongo's skills. He has written the best poem I have ever seen on the American treatment of native Japanese during the Second World War, because it is not really written about that subject, nor does it preach or editorialize in any way. It is a poem called "Off from swing shift," which is about his father coming home from work and getting involved with his passion of gambling, in this case, the horse races. He ends the poem,
There are whole cosmologies
in a single handicap,
a lifetime of two-dollar losing
in one pick of the Daily Double.
Maybe tonight is his night
for winning, his night for beating the odds
of going deaf from a shell
at Anzio still echoing
in the cave of his inner ear,
his night for cashing in
the blue chips of shrapnel still grinding
at the thickening joints of his legs.
But no one calls
the horse's name, no one
says Shackles, Rebate, or Pouring Rain.
No one speaks a word.
It is true, when one has a rich ethnic background, full of unusual customs, interesting foods, a different language or perhaps even religion that there might be something richer in a person's life to write about. Perhaps Sorrentino's dismissal of the middle-class was a feeling that there could be nothing to write about in the uniform lives of the suburbs compared to the slums of big cities. Yet, John Updike has magnificently disproved that in his Rabbit series. The one difference I see between Hongo and Luhrmann's middle-classness, has nothing to do with richness of materials, for both have immense imagination and sensuous powers of description. No, the difference is that Luhrmann's poems are shadowed with a sense of impending crisis, both social and personal (because the social will affect us all), and Hongo's poetry simply is filled with a—what shall I call it—joie de vivre? Elan? Somehow there is no contemporary word, but there is an enthusiasm which simply cannot be suppressed. In a long poem, "Cruising 99" the reader can feel the spirit of life itself moving from rhythmic incantation to prophecy. But unlike Luhrmann's prophecy, Hongo's comes from the persona of a wayside palmist who tells him,
Look at your hand now.
You can see yourself dancing
on the hell just above the wrist.
You must be a happy man.
You'll be born again and again,
get to the threshold of Heaven,
never enter but keep coming back,
here, for fun, for friends,
until this will be Paradise,
and Paradise just an old resort
the highway's passed by.
Well have a nice trip.
You'll make it yet.
Says so right in that curvy line
around the Mount of Venus,
that thumbstump there,
right where the long straight line
cuts across like an interstate.
Contrast this with Lurhmann's lines in "Hurricane Weather,"
The hurricane has come
and overturned the Ferris wheel.
It has covered the bugle with dust
and set the rocking horse on fire.
It has mated the ostrich and the rhino
and made one of us think he's in Heaven.
And no wonder words don't work.
Perhaps I love Luhrmann's poems for their sense of doom, just as I love Hongo's for their insouciance. What the truth of American poetry today is, is that both Hongo and Luhrmann came through middle-class college educations, Luhrmann at Sarah Lawrence and New College, Hongo at Pomona College; and both have MFA degrees in writing, from Columbia and UC, Irvine, respectively. And they have personal individual visions, not some stereotype we must label and reject as "middle-class."
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SOURCE: A review of Yellow Light, in The Journal of Ethnic Studies, Vol. 12, No. 4, Winter, 1985, pp. 123-25.
[In this review, Uba asserts that the "principal concerns " of Yellow Light are "the quest for a personal identity and the desire to build and retrieve a collective identity by sifting through the past."]
A few years back a popular weekly newsmagazine ran an article on Japanese Americans, treating them as an American success story. The article was headlined—"Outwhiting the Whites." Garrett Kaoru Hongo's book of poetry, Yellow Light, demolishes the onesidedness of such headlines and grapples with the underlying problem toward which they unintentionally point: the problem of an ethnic group whose own identity remains ill-defined.
Not that Hongo merely trumpets the familiar tune of ethnic pride. Rather, he excels at balancing a passionate interest in ordinary working-class people performing ordinary activities, with a deep-felt concern over what they are often the unknowing victims of. In the title poem, "Yellow Light," for instance, an unidentified Los Angeles woman returns with a load of groceries to her "neighborhood of Hawaiian apartments, / just starting to steam with cooking" but fails to observe the "war" being waged between the "dim squares" of kitchen light in the barrio and the "brilliant fluorescence" emanating from the wealthy Miracle Mile district. Neatly skirting both the sentimentality and the obvious partisanship that this scenario invites, Hongo concludes the poem without even a glimmer of awareness on the woman's part of the class conflict to which she seems heir, but instead with a riveting, ambiguous image of the yellow moon, at once minatory and transfiguring, that devours "everything in sight." In "Off from Swing Shift," one of several fine poems written about his father, Hongo combines an incisive portrayal of a factory worker who, only within the safe confines of home, dares remove "the easy grin / saying he's lucky as they come," with a genuinely moving depiction of hope seasoned with despair, as the man, a Japanese American war veteran gradually growing deaf "from a shell / at Anzio," listens for the late race results on the radio.
The balance Hongo strikes between the individual's private experience and the larger cultural matrix of which tne individual constitutes a part refers the reader to the principal concerns of the book as a whole: the quest for a personal identity and the desire to build and retrieve a collective identity by sifting through the past. In his search for personal identity, Hongo not only jockeys back and forth through time but also through space, traveling from California to Japan and back again. In Japan he finds himself inescapably the outsider, reduced, at least at first, to writing "postcards" back home. But these "Postcards for Bert Meyers" are not filled with the banalities of the ordinary tourist; instead, they define both what has been lost and what has been retained in modern Japan's headlong rush for technological advance. At one point the poet is the bemused foreigner caught in the literal crush of rush hour commuters, able to recover his equilibrium only at the moment when the train stops "And lets out a small puff / Full of tiny Japanese people" ("Yamanote Sen"). At another point he is a lone human figure magically transformed in an urban landscape itself transformed by a sudden rain: "All around me / the ten thousand things / of the universe go slack / in the day's new lagoon, / and I seep out of myself like / water from the soaked earth …" ("Alone in a Shower"). Gradually, the poet achieves a harmony with that part of the Japanese past that remains alive to the mutual imagination of its descendants on both sides of the Pacific.
Throughout the book, Hongo's wit and humor leaven the more programmatic elements of his quest. In "Crusing 99," even as he journeys toward the California town called Paradise, he playfully admits that he is inclined to allow his "mind to wander" and at one point even grumbles that the "Dodgers / haven't made it to Vero Beach." And in the marvelous, whacky tour de force, "Who Among You Knows the Essence of Garlic," he savages the pretensions of foreigners by converting their interest in exotic foods into a weapon turned back upon them.
While Hongo's personal quest carries him afar, his attempt to build a collective identity leads him to concentrate wholly upon the Japanese experience in America. Except for the long, hortatory poem "Stepchild," Hongo resists the twin temptations to script an Asian American history at a single stroke and to lash out at those elements of American culture that have worked to deprive Japanese Americans not only of their identity but, more insidiously, of their awareness of their need for one. Instead, he concentrates on individuals and on fragments of lives, and allows their interconnections steadily and silently to accumulate. Within this compass, Hongo ranges widely, from a memorable portrait of a hard-drinking plantation laborer in Hawaii named Kubota who "laughs and lights a cigarette, / breathes out a wreath of smoke / for his funeral, fifty years away" ("Kubota") to an evocative description of a visit to the Nippon Kan in Seattle's Astor Hotel, where yellowing programs and an "open tray of greasepaint," lonely artifacts from a final stage performance in the fall of 1941, help lead to a surrealistic epiphany, a moment of total engagement within the past ("On the Last Performance of Musumé Dojoji …"). "And Your Soul Shall Dance" is a hymn to the artist and writer Wakako Yamauchi, who, as a child, yearns so intensely to escape the unpoetic confines of her environment, a "flat valley grooved with irrigation ditches," that when she enters the schoolyard her "classmates scatter like chickens, / shooed by the storm brooding" on her horizon.
Occasionally, Hongo slips. The poem "Roots," which celebrates the links the poet has forged with his Japanese past and the self which has come into his possession, is overburdened finally by the weight of its message. Simply to affirm that there is "a signature to all things / the same as my own" is not enough when the reader expects to be shown that this is so. The long "Crusing 99" suffers from the opposite problem: despite its boisterous humor, it is never completely clear of purpose and ultimately grinds to a halt before a mystifying "scarecrow / made of tumbleweeds" and its own disconcerting mixture of poetic styles. And perhaps more poems on the war-time internment of the Japanese on the West Coast are in order too, given Hongo's avowed concern with curing the condition of "amnesia" within Japanese American culture. Nevertheless, this is an excellent volume of poetry, make no mistake. Hongo applies wit, intelligence, and craftsmanship to his serious theme as few others have been able to do. His book is certain to gain a privileged station in Asian American literature courses, as well as to fuel the continuing controversy over enlarging the American literary canon.
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SOURCE: "Voices of Democracy," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXI, No. 10, 13 June 1988, pp. 15-16.
[In the following review, Pettingill maintains that the poems in The River of Heaven are Hongo's "elaborate ritual of atonement for leaving behind his culturally ambiguous background."]
Each year the Academy of American Poets sponsors the publication of the Lamont Selection, a promising writer's second book of verse. The latest to appear is Garrett Hongo's The River of Heaven. The author, of Japanese descent, was born in Volcano, Hawaii. The exotic places he describes—seedy Chinatowns, Pacific ports with their international jumble of peoples and customs—might sound, in paraphrase, like backdrops for Mr. Moto or Charlie Chan. Yet they are really nothing like that: "I have no story to tell about lacquer shrines / or filial ashes, about a small brass bell, / and incense smoldering in jade bowls." Hongo's tale, in fact, concerns what it feels like to grow up as the child of unassimilated immigrants, to be soaked with values incompatible with those of one's ancestors, yet not fully accepted by the new culture.
Given Hongo's themes, it is understandable that his method has been powerfully shaped by the poetry of Philip Levine. The old saw that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery never seemed more applicable. Not that Hongo lacks a distinct voice. Rather, Levine's style has provided a vehicle for the disciple to release his own pent-up cries of cultural loss and longing, from the opening "Nostalgic Catalogue" of Hawaii's ethnic diversity to the oriental simplicity of the book's final elegy for a victim of random street violence:
Let the night sky cover him as he dies.
Let the weaver girl cross the bridge of heaven
and take up his cold hands
Hongo chooses his memorable images to illustrate the cruel paradox that those outside the mainstream must purchase success at the price of estrangement from their own peoples.
One of the most effective poems here tells of Hongo's experience as a student in a California high school, where he was put in "advanced placement, / segregated from the rest of the student body." He admirably evokes the intellectual ghetto the "AP" system can create, and the ambivalence of the mostly Japanese whiz kids in it toward the casual lives of those tracked for a more limited education. Looking back, Hongo realizes that his fellow students were all, in a sense, losers: "Free, white and twenty-one' is the formulaic. / Cynical and exclusive, it doesn't mean / 'Emancipation,' that freedman's word / signifying unlimited potential, an open road / like Whitman saw, a view from the prospect / of Democratic Vistas, a sense of magnificence / and of election." The punks disappeared into the small time criminal world of the West Coast's oriental slums, and even the bright students remained outside the Anglo establishment they had been ostensibly groomed to enter. "There are none of us elect. Jap or Sheenie / hawking rags in the New York streets, / nothing matters under corrosive skies, / the burdened light that bears down on us / with the tremulous weight of guilt and outrage."
Hongo's verses become an elaborate ritual of atonement for leaving behind his culturally ambiguous background. A pair of historical monologues narrate the tragedies of men trapped between two ways of life. "Pinoy at the Coming World," based on a true account, tells of a sugar cane cutter who has risen to plantation bookkeeper. He sets himself above his former fellows, boasting of children "born, not smuggled here." This hubris is punctured when his offspring become victims of the 1919 flu pandemic. An equally sad story belongs to Jigoku, who declaims "on the glamor of Self-Hate." A Japanese-Hawaiian veteran of the Korean War, he returns to a life of gambling and pimping, then emigrates to Japan, hoping "to drift, guiltless, / on the aspic of Tokyo's squalid human sea." Instead, awash with homesickness, he fancies how his drowned corpse might be borne by the current back to "Hilo Bay, / fused in a posture of supplication / … as a fan is folded."
Do these two books [The River of Heaven and Philip Levine's A Walk with Thomas Jefferson] signal a loss of faith in Whitman's Democratic Vistas? I don't think so. Whitman never claimed that the melting pot had already dissolved every boundary of race or economic class. He did believe that "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem," continuously writing itself, resolving its failures along the way to an eventual apotheosis. What could be more truly democratic than to acknowledge shortcomings, while at the same time preserving faith in the Ideal? In this sense, Philip Levine and Garrett Hongo prove to be genuine descendants of Tom and Walt.
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SOURCE: "Passionate Virtuosity," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLII, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 149-57.
[In the review below of River of Heaven, Schultz admires Hongo's "rich vocabulary and undulant syntax, " which "hold his stories of loss and remembrance in a secure, distinctive music. "]
Like [Philip] Levine, Garrett Hongo, in The River of Heaven, attends with care to those excluded from whatever the American Dream has become in the 1980s. In "The Underworld," he recounts watching a movie—a slapstick come dy—in the old Orpheum in Los Angeles, and listening to the chatter and laughter of "the shimmering, mingled throngs of the poor" who take "a common pain or delight in, just once, / another's humiliation." Hongo has even dedicated a poem, "Choir," to Levine, but here a difference between the two poets is apparent. Hongo, the younger poet, seems less alone, less embittered than Levine does in his newest book. The central moment of "Choir" is the poet's recollection of singing in his junior high hallways with a makeshift quartet: himself, "a black kid, a white one, and another Japanese." The "black kid" taught the group "Summertime," and "Together our voices made a sound none could make alone, / 'Harmonics,' Harold said, a tone from the choir itself…." Such moments of connection, usually achieved through storytelling or music, buoy this poetry, lending it a sweetness even as it sings of indignity or loss.
The first part of Hongo's book is carefully structured to make explicit the way music and story can mitigate suffering. A poem, "Mendocino Rose," is about driving through the countryside north of San Francisco, listening to a taped Hawaiian ballad and seeing the viney flower "overtaking all the ghost shacks and broken fences / crumbling with rot…." he poem ends in a revelatory moment when the flower, the ballad, and the poet's own emotion fuse in his desire to make a music that can garland this landscape of decay:
The fact is collapse; the response is a music that follows the contours of collapse but triumphs over it. Therefore, in the poems which immediately follow, the act of commemorating, of saving into music, is primary.
The music he finds, at its most effective, is Whitmanic. He uses the catalogue effectively, as in "Nostalgic Catalogue," and parallel phrasing, as in "O-Bon: Dance for the Dead," which builds to an impressive climax:
I want the cold stone in my hand to pound the earth,
I want the splash of cool or steaming water to wash my feet,
I want the dead beside me when I dance, to help me
flesh the notes of my song, to tell me it's all right.
The poem is a high point in the collection, and it teaches us again that rhetoric and poetry are not best understood as opposing terms. By comparison, several poems in the final third of the book seem lax and prosey, the most extreme of these being "96 Tears." In most of his work, however, Hongo's rich vocabulary and undulant syntax hold his stories of loss and remembrance in a secure, distinctive music.
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SOURCE: "A Vicious Kind of Tenderness: An Interview with Garrett Hongo," in Poets & Writers Magazine, Vol. 20, No. 5, September-October 1992, pp. 37-46.
[In the following conversation, Hongo discusses the craft of writing and the role of his family history in his poetry.]
[Alice Evans]: At a craft workshop recently, you talked about how important it is for the individual to act as a witness to history. Witnessing appears to be a primary directive in your work. How would you describe the poet's role as historian, from both a broad view and a personal one?
[Garrett Hongo]: As poets we need to portray the events of the world from our own point of view. We need to be attached to the events of the world in our own lives. Sometimes history passes us by and we don't know it. I believe that poets must speak as witnesses to historical events. I don't believe in [the official version of] American history; I believe in what we've witnessed as the travesties in American history.
I try to be faithful to the history of Japanese in America and write from it, and I've made it my responsibility to know everything that I can about it. It's like Czeslaw Milosz says about Lithuania: "If there is no singer there is no history." That's how I go into the world: if I don't write it, it's not going to get written, and I don't want people to stop that. I see that the person in my way who is causing me difficulty is also repressing the expression of the history of my people.
I have a lot of pride. It comes from my people, my whole family. I had a very proud grandfather and grandmother whose pride was taken away because of World War II. You don't forget it.
Tell me about your own history. What were the forces that produced an acclaimed poet? How did the doors open for you?
The reason I'm doing anything at all is because I'm an individual who is part of a corrective process in American history. I got educated because Governor Pat Brown funded a program for poor kids to study at the best universities in California. So I was given an academic scholarship to go to a very elite school, Pomona College. Because this education came from a political circumstance of opportunity and empowerment, it's not hard for me to believe the thing that I believe. And I never give a damn about making it.
You say you don 't give a damn about making it, but you have made it. You 've been very honored as a poet. What has that meant for you?
It's not a question of making it. It's a question of standing up and honoring a past which I feel was dishonored. It's on those principles that I carry myself forward.
Yes, I've been honored, and I'm happy for that, for complicated reasons, I suppose. One of the nice things about that is it gives me more opportunity to address my subjects. Honors, insofar as that's concerned, are very good. They endorse my projects and they give me the opportunity to address my subjects. They also are great medallions and great weapons in the fight to get that story told.
I wish my grandfather had been honored, but this country did not do that to him, so I do it.
Your poetry shows great depth of feeling, a characteristic I find unusual for a man.
Maybe it's a human characteristic. Most males are not human any more. I like that joke in the book Little Big Man, where the Cheyenne call themselves human beings and they call the other people ghosts—or the "white man." Maybe male culture—I don't want to offend anybody—but maybe people have forgotten how to be human beings.
My grandfather was not this way, my father was not this way, Hawaiians are not this way. We have a lot of aloha—spirit, love, trust. When I moved from Hawaii to Los Angeles there was no aloha in Los Angeles. Man, there was a lot of brutality. But it's good that I learned about that too, because you have to ward things off. Tenderness is a very underrated emotion. It's also much attacked and maligned. So I've made it my job to learn a vicious kind of tenderness.
Could you elaborate?
James Wright's tenderness I believe in. You know the poem, "To a Blossoming Pear Tree"—"the dark blood in my flesh drags me down with my brother"—that's the kind of tenderness I believe in. I love you because I know we're both going to die. I love you because everyone else is trying to beat us up. "Flayed without hope, I held the man for nothing in my arms."
A lot of people were excited about having you come to teach at the University of Oregon. What kind of teacher are you? What do you emphasize and what ticks you off?
The kinds of things I might criticize a student for are a lack of commitment, a lack of concern for the reader, obscurity. I like things to be reasonably clear. I don't go in for a lot of verbal pyrotechnics, but there's always a Gerard Manley Hopkins out there, or a Hart Crane, or a Charles Wright. You've got to worship them.
I care a lot about self-knowledge, knowing what you're going to write about, knowing what you sing, knowing what you like to sing about, and helping the students connect with that.
I guess I'm still a Confucian. I believe that people are basically good, not basically bad. So I believe that if they learn to trust their nature, something good will emerge out of it, even if it's an angry nature. You know, people aren't angry for no reason, they're angry for a reason usually. And poetry is a loving craft, so even angry poems are in the service of some love.
You talked at the craft workshop about poetry being treated as an elite practice. You mentioned being turned off by literary aloofness, obscurity, a system of privileged meaning accessible only to those initiated into that system. What kind of emphasis do you put on technique?
Technique can show a commitment, technique can show energy. Technique shows you've invested. Also candor shows you've invested, you've invested in trust.
The thing I work to build first in the workshop is trust. Not only that the students trust me, but that they trust each other, because the thing that kills expression and creativity is a lack of trust, an environment of hostility. And the workshop's primary function to me is to give people a sense of a sympathetic yet creatively critical audience. That's the main job.
I've been in some very destructive workshop situations.
Well, it's easy to be destructive—to be critical and careless. It's harder to be critical and supportive. There are not too many people who have shown the ability to do that in our history. Some of my heroes are people who have been great teachers—Bruce Lee, Theodore roethke, Philip Levine. When I interviewed for this job, and people asked me why I wanted to do this, I said: because this is a self-assignment for me. I believe in the craft, I believe in the profession, I believe in the cause, and in my own mind I'm not going to be significant in terms of my people unless my work is shown to be valuable, in that it helps better the world. In the martial arts, as in anything, the final requirement of someone in the profession—in the art—is that they start a school that lives beyond their own life, that they help people find what is valuable in the art, that they inspire people not only to do well but to try to do well for others. And that's what's left for me to do yet. That's the reason I came here. It was an opportunity for me to test and extend myself, but also to contribute.
We have to increase the opportunity for people to have free voice, free expression, and that's what I hope for here.
Poetry—creative writing—is free speech. That's why Jesse Helms wants to shut us down. There are very strong forces in play right now that want to shut down the National Endowment for the Arts, because the understanding is that it is a forum for free speech in America. It really is.
I have a friend who's a legal scholar, in what they call critical legal studies. She did an article on poetry—particularly women's poetry—as an alternate system of jurisprudence to the law, and I think that's the reason why people are so upset by it. That's why poetry is so threatening and why it's practiced by so many people who are outside of economic and political power. Because it's our system of jurisprudence. Poetry is another judgment.
And speech with devotion to private moments of emotion also has a place in poetry as well as speech about unauthorized history. After all, that's what the Old Testament was about. And the New Testament. They're unauthorized histories.
Donald Barthelme said, "Do you think the Bible would have been written if people thought they were writing the Bible?" That's pretty good, I've got to say. Barthelme inspired me a lot, and his confidence that this could be done helped me….
Let's talk a little about your writing habits now. Are you a disciplined writer, do you write every day?
I'm an actor as a writer. I prepare the character, you know, like Stanislavsky.
So the idea of the character dictates the poem?
Not really, no. The gut, the feeling, the emotional and narrative core of the book does.
I was talking to Barry Lopez and asked him how it was to work with a certain editor. He said "I don't know yet, I haven't shown her anything." He's been working on this book for two and a half years—three years almost—and said, "I don't know, I don't know this book very well yet." I said "huh?" and he kept talking: "the way I do things, I never show an editor anything until I get at least a complete draft done, and then I'll go over it line by line." He's still kind of putting the book together and doesn't know what kind of a book it is, what the personality of it is, what's going to go in it. He lives the book; he's preparing it.
That's the way I do it too, but I don't know what I'm doing. He knows what he's doing, For him it's a method. For me it's floundering.
It. was great to hear him tell me that because when I write my book of poems I kind of run into the poetry, I run into the book. Like, I was writing and it didn't really come together, but I just kept living with this feeling of trying to capture the love, the aloha [a word of welcome], the commitment to democracy my father had, because I knew I didn't have what he had. So that was my koan [a prayer of meditation], that was my problem with The River of Heaven. And once I got it, once I felt "in the feeling," then the poems started to come, one by one, then more, then more and more and more and more.
Every time I extended myself I realized something new, and I pushed myself to the next level; the last poem I wrote for the book was "The Pier," a long poem at the end of The River of Heaven. It's a democratic statement. My father had those beliefs. He's a Hawaiian Democrat.
He was active politically?
Every Hawaiian is active politically. You know, equal rights, enfranchisement for all peoples, and Go For Broke. And that's kind of, like, you talk that way, you think that way on the mainland—especially in Orange County at the "University of Apartheid"—you're ostracized, you're looked upon as some kind of dirty, rotten ethnic. So I wanted to do something that might blossom, because they're trying to take that belief away from me. It's like a religion. You kill the religion first and it's easy to have the people die.
I wanted to bring the religion back in me and there were certain fathers behind it also, not just my own flesh fathers, but William Butler Yeats and his great poem, "Among Schoolchildren," and William Wordsworth, in "The Immortality Ode." "Among Schoolchildren" is a model behind "The Pier." Instead of schoolchildren it's Cambodians and Vietnamese that I see. Those two poems are ghost poems behind "The Pier."
So I took on as much as I could, I took on my father's life and his democratic principles, and I wished to critique the oppressive ideology of white racism and to invoke the great fathers of mystic revelation and poetic power, William Butler Yeats and William Wordsworth—and I tried to put it together in "The Pier."
My working method is to let the meditation grow. I guess it's kind of Eastern, but it's also like Wordsworth. He walked all over the Wye Valley, meditating, ruminating, and he'd come back and then write the poem about it after his long walks. I don't have a craftsman-like, disciplined daily writing method.
The River of Heaven came together at the MacDowell Colony in six weeks, I read somewhere.
It wasn't only those six weeks, though they were crucial. MacDowell helped a lot and going to Hawaii helped a lot. Just before I was at MacDowell I was in Hawaii with my friend Edward Hirsch. I was running around, I was showing Hawaii to this person, who wanted to know me and my history and he appreciated it so much. It inspired me, his love for my people's way, it inspired me to share more of my heart through poetry with the rest of the world.
Tell me about the book you 're working on now, Volcano Journal.
It's a book of retreat and return, meditation on going home to a home I never knew, which is this volcano. And coming back to it, to the history of my family, coming back to that culture, the biology, the biota [the animal and plant life of a particular region considered as a total ecological entity], the rainforest, the volcano itself. It's nonfiction, not like John McPhee, more like Thoreau.
When you read from that book the other night, you mentioned that you needed to experiment with form. Could you talk about that?
In writing this book, the poetic form needed to expand for me. What I found to be the form was the Japanese nikki. It's a travel diary, poetic prose. We have examples in American literature in Moby Dick and Walden. In that vein I write this book.
You were eight months old when your family left Volcano. What took you back there?
I was invited, when I was about 31, to give a couple of readings in the islands and was invited to give a reading in Volcano, where they have an art center.
What happened for you there?
I knew that that was it. I knew I had to go back. I knew I wasn't finished with it. I knew there was something. And I was true to it. I was true to that little insinuation, and it's made all the difference in my heart. It's made all the difference in the soul of my family. My boys love it, my wife, everything. So I didn't ignore my calling.
It seems that in Volcano you found yourself as a writer.
That's right. In geography and geology, you know, when lava comes out of the earth it's not magnetized, and the way they can map continental drift is by tracing the magnetic fields, because after the lava is emitted and solidifies, then it's magnetized, and it's magnetized according to our orientation to magnetic north. So there's something to that, the first time you come into the world. Many people are magnetized. You get your little stratigraphy, that kind of thing. I feel perfect there, I can't tell you. It's always a good day in Volcano.
I have a friend, Native American poet Ray Young Bear. When I met him I was nothing, I was completely shiftless. He had a feeling for his ancestors, he had a feeling for his tribe and his people, he knew where he stood, he walked with the grandfathers. I took that as a criticism of my own psyche and soul. When we were eighteen, I didn't have that. When I was eighteen, I was like the "stolen child." But I have that now. I walk with my grandfathers and have absolutely complete confidence. I'm their grandson. It took me a lot longer than Ray, but I got there.
In Yellow Light, you write about returning to Japan to find your family's name. Are you talking about your natal family?
Everybody. I'm talking about those that the literature has forgotten, those that the culture has forgotten. It's important to me that we be remembered, that there be a literature for us, that we be sung about, that there be songs for the lives that my people have lived. That's why the poetry of Philip Levine inspired me so early—"Vivas for those who have failed," the names of the lost.
I said in an interview somewhere, sometime, part of the motivation behind my first book was to recuperate or reinscribe our name in the registry, the list of names in Japan, the list of names in Hawaii.
So not literally Hongo, but the lost names of all your people.
There's a serious pun in that, because my name means homeland. Hongo means homeland.
I was a little confused because there was some mention of changing names, or taking on a new name.
A lot of Japanese did that. Like people coming through Ellis Island, they just changed their names.
Tell me about the use of oral history in your poetry. You write very eloquently about people not directly connected to you.
You write the history of the tribe and you sing from sources. I used the Oral History Project of the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Hawaii, God bless them. We need to be liberated, the love of oral history needs to be liberated, the love of our people needs to be liberated. We're a colonized place, culturally colonized.
This is our pride, this is our history, this is our identity. We're a colonial people. We're like the blacks in southern culture. I mean, politically we're a canceled culture. We're like the copper miners in Chile—there's no difference. We're like the students in Tiananmen.
So you 're trying to reawaken….
I'm not trying, I have to. It's a compulsion with me. I don't have a choice. If I'm going to be what my grandfather was, I have to do it this way. For me to be a person in my eyes, this is what I have to be.
Your mother's father is the one who was taken away?
That's right. It's like Indians say: you have ghosts, you have your aumakua. I have my aumakua, I have my guardian spirits.
Tell me more about your work habits. When you 're in Eugene, are you able to write?
That's what I thought. You need the open time that a Guggenheim provides; you need ΝΕΑ [fellowships]. If you wanted to now, could you earn your living solely as a writer?
I could probably get an advance, but I don't know if I could live on it. I'm still learning to be a prose writer and still learning what kind of a prose writer I am. I'm enjoying the experience, finally.
I'd like to get back to your writing question. I like to write seven pages every day except weekends, which I like to spend with my family.
Sometimes I just get a page. I just get a bad page. I get a lot of pages that are real lousy but I've started working on a problem, or a theme, a beat, narrative or emotional, and the next pages are really … I just trash it and I find my way into the subject. I'm enjoying myself, so I write between a page and seven pages a day, single-spaced.
You work first thing in the morning?
Your poetry is very songlike at times, it's very lush. You 've described your style as narrative, Whitmanesque. You relate oral history, you talk about your roots, both family personal and family historical, and it seems to me you go all the way back to the universe itself. Your work has lots of references to the universe.
Thank you. I've looked down into the middle. You stand over a pond of lava boiling up, or you stand on the top of Mauna Kea and you look up at a star, it's impossible to think anything else.
Well, it's a very expansive view. A lot of poetry is focused only on the personal these days, only on the wounds the person has suffered. Yours branches out into the universe.
There are so many things to wither the soul, and poetry does the opposite. I won't let my poetry wither my soul, poetry has to enhance it. I don't believe in poetry as a discipline, or a narrow field, or an elite practice. I believe in poetry as empowerment. Singing for Power, you know, that great book by Ruth Underhill about the Papago Indian ceremonies. I mean, I like those ideas that poetry is like singing for power, trying to find, crying for your own vision. Every one of us finds it in our own way, if we're worth anything. But one of the things I like about being a poet, is that I get to do that. I don't always have it, but I get to do it every now and then. I like it.
I feel privileged to be able to do this. I feel very grateful to be able to do it. At the same time I feel proud. I've sacrificed. I haven't cared about cars, or career, or those kinds of things. I've been caring for the singing. I mean, I've had great teachers—like Bert Meyers, like Charles Wright—great, scrupulous, ethical, dedicated artists who have helped me feel the right way, who have confirmed my intuition and instincts and who fostered my loyalties. I needed those teachers to help me along, I did, I did.
To help you find your song?
Yeah, particularly my man, Charles Wright.
What did he teach you?
To believe in my poetry, to let my poetry lead me into my life, not the other way around.
Who's helped you the most with craft?
Well, with the technique, I can help my own self. What I needed help with was to believe in my spirits and to confirm my impulses and to deepen them, and also to challenge me to be loyal to them.
C. K. Williams was the most instrumental. I brought a poem into class, the one about the woman on the bus, "Stay With Me." C. K. looked at me like this, he drilled me with his eyes. "This is the real thing," he said. "If you can write like this, I don't understand why you write all that other stuff." He was working on "Tar," a breakthrough poem for American literature. It's no wonder how passionate he was. He said, "I don't see why you waste your time, and what's more, I don't see why you're wasting mine." The next week I wrote "Yellow Light," then "Off from Swing Shift." All the poems in Yellow Light were written under C. K. Williams and Charles Wright.
C. K. taught me to write from a grander state than the mundane, to take the big thing and put all of it in the poem, not to divide it off into short story or essay. He confirmed me in my devotion to writing my own thing. He pounded me on top of my head until I got mad and charged. He motivated me. If it weren't for him I don't know if I would have had the guts. I can't slack off from that level of vision.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2833
SOURCE: "The Volcano Inside," in The Southern Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, April, 1996, pp. 337-43.
[In the review below, Jarman calls Volcano "a remarkable, profound, and haunting book. "]
When the poet Garrett Hongo was six years old, his parents, both descended from Japanese immigrants and like himself natives of Hawai'i, left the islands and moved their family to Los Angeles. It was the late 1950s, for immigrants a time of great promise—a promise that American history has shown was not an illusion. The prospects were especially bright in Los Angeles, for even then that amazing incorporation of cities, spread over two vast, linked areas, the Los Angeles Basin and the San Fernando Valley, was a site of unique multiculturalism. Los Angeles included the second-largest Spanish-speaking population in North America (after Mexico City), and the second-largest Japanese population in the United States (after Honolulu). Hongo grew up within and surrounded by communities noted for their ethnicity. His high school in Gardena, a city with a predominantly Japanese population, represented the African, Asian, Anglo, and Hispanic peoples of greater Los Angeles, a rich flood that filled the grid sprawling between the San Gabriel Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
It is clear from Volcano, a Memoir of Hawai'i, a remarkable, profound, and haunting book, that Hongo missed nothing of L.A.'s panorama of diversity. Yet from his perspective today, the move his parents made from Hawai'i to Southern California was a catastrophic act of deracination. Forced by family conflict to leave their home, the Hongos subjected themselves and their son to an experience of alienation that marked the father for tragedy, and the son for a crisis of identity. Volcano is not only a contribution to immigrant literature, that most American of forms, but it is an account of questing and returning, a search for the father's origins and a reenvisioning of the son, that borders on the Homeric.
Hongo's native place is the big island of Hawai'i, with its towering peak, Mauna Loa, and active volcanic craters. According to family lore he was born either in Hilo or behind the store his grandfather established and his parents operated at a little wayside named after the mileage marker on the road from Hilo—29 Miles Volcano. It is Volcano, which is more or less a country village, that Hongo considers his birthplace. His book recounts, in part, his numerous returns and extended visits there. The first time he returns, as a grown man with a wife and child, he is recognized by the local postman as his father's son. Albert Hongo ran his father's place, the Hongo Store (which still stands), only for a year after leaving the service, then took his family to Oahu. After a droll badinage about the senior Hongo, the postman, speaking Pidgin, asks the author "in that bemused and intimate, derisive way of island Japanese, 'So what? You come back for search your roots or somet'ing?'"
Hongo is indeed in search of his roots—and something else. In Hawai'i he connects with family—aunts, uncles, and the wives of his grandfather—who make him listen to their story of Eden and his family's particular fall from grace. His meetings are all revelations, but none can change his own story:
How can one derive a sense of self from something as lately invited into one's life as Volcano was for me? I was born there, but left it after only eight months. It was a mystery to me, and one for which I had no special curiosity until I was past thirty. Though my anxiety demanded that identity have its source in the unchanging—a place and attendant culture somehow "fixed" in the scheme of things, a thing easily characterized and identifiable—my thoughts ran otherwise, saying I belonged nowhere, that a shopping mall in Missouri or a trout stream in Oregon or a Hilo movie theater could explain me as well as the lava eddying out of the lake at the vent of Kupaianaha.
There is something that makes this book more than a search for roots, more than another immigrant memoir. Admittedly there is nothing in the facts of the story to distinguish it from other such quests. The something more is the passion of the writing. Hongo writes as if the island of Hawai'i, with its weather and geology, its birds and plants, could be translated from mute existence into speech. The following passage is typical of the intensity he brings to small but telling details. Here he describes the breeding habits of a Hawaiian club moss that favors the soil of volcanic vents.
The gametophytes ferret themselves into minute cracks in the lava, hidden away in the microgaps of basaltic rock where moisture collects from rainfall and where it condenses from the sulphurous vents of steam billowing from the cliffsides and cracked earth near Kilauea. Swain and maiden find both their underground nursery and their darkened bower within the scores of gaping fumaroles and sulphur banks along the rim of the summit caldera. They swarm into life inside the volcanic vents, sustained by heat from the volcano and hidden by its crevices, a Paolo and Francesca of biology, thrilled in innocence, embryos of sexual experience perpetually sequestered in the dark infernos of earth. It is their very immaturity, their primitive but abundant adolescence (the gametophytes grow in uncountable swarms), that produces offspring, those "adult" plants that are the sexless green professori greeting me, nodding under cool, gray robes of afternoon rain, sleeves full of hidden energy. For the club moss, it is its embryos that are the parents, giving birth to adults and not to children, its existence an evidence of life sent into a strange reversal of the conventional anthropomorphic narratives of maturity.
Everything Hongo evokes, even the busywork, as he calls it, of his naturalist notebook, resonates with his obsession: to give new birth to himself. At the same time, in the tradition of the travel book, the stranger gains intimate experience of a foreign place he or she may never visit except through the imagination of the surrogate traveler.
This extended work of prose, a memoir as its subtitle tells us, fleshes out many of the subjects treated in Hongo's collections of poetry, Yellow Light and The River of Heaven; and in many ways Volcano is itself a poem. One might expect that the analogous poetic form would be the epic. Indeed, many of Hongo's references, many of the figures to which he compares himself and his quest for patrimony and patria, are from the Western epic tradition. But this book, in the guise of a nonfiction account of one man's search for and reclamation of his origins, also contains elements of the lyric poem. Wordsworth's Prelude might be an apt analogy, but Hongo's language has a lushness, derived from a love of the names, epithets, images, and metaphors of the natural world, that exceeds Wordsworth's. Here the presiding genius of the English lyric tradition is John Keats. Hongo's negative capability consists in the way he manages to let his Keatsian impulse keep company with Japanese and Hawaiian folk song and the haiku of Bash and Issa.
Yet Volcano is thoroughly modern, containing as it does a Joycean multiplicity of voices and allusions, formal language and slang, Pidgin English, Japanese, and Hawaiian, and references to Asian and Western myth. With Hongo as the Stephen Dedalus/Telemachus figure, and for Dublin both Hawai'i and Los Angeles, it does invite us to consider its story as a latter-day quest. It also has that modern sense that something more urgent than literature is intended, that by sheer force of imagination the author can remake himself, and that we are reading the record of that remaking. It is a postmodern book, too, because it is a postcolonial book, with all that means about the interpenetration of an imperial culture and an indigenous culture that must, by the work of the artist, reassert itself. The reassertion is problematic, especially for an artist who sees himself as part of a dispersed people, but this, too, is an element of the book's post-colonial character.
To accomplish his task, Hongo has made himself a student of a place. He has tried to sublimate the volcano inside him into the island of his study. He acknowledges implicitly that the volcano he describes in Hawai'i is an objective correlative, a metonymy for his own psychology. Viewing a video of himself reading his poetry to an audience in Los Angeles, he recognizes suppressed anger in the contradictions between his role as a teaching poet and the character he sees before him on the screen.
I was nothing like the standard image of a college professor. I was nothing like the intellectuals who had educated me. I was working-class—like Chicano rockabillies from East L.A. or the chang-a-lang bad boys that made up all the bands that played the clubs along Hotel Street in Chinatown Honolulu. There was no imperturbable chill about me. I fussed. I raged a little. A sacrifice to my passion, I was caustic and daunting on the screen, combative and elemental. Like raw earth, I boiled in my own moods, swollen in a petty defiance, telling myself I mimicked nothing.
If he mimics anything it is the lava tubes that carry magma from Mauna Loa to the sea, breaking out in fumaroles and spatter cones along the way. He associates volcanoes with birth, yet the real analogy is his developed psyche. The idea or image of fire blossoming, flowering out of the inner earth, runs throughout the book, making it chthonic, truly. The imagination's work, to create a home, or as he says, "a land," finds its parallel in the geologic upheaval in which the earth's molten core becomes manifest through lava, which in turn becomes a solid place where life is lived, plants flourish, and people make their homes.
Hongo contrasts the nostalgic but half-forgotten world of Hawai'i with the actual world of Los Angeles, where he grew up. When writing about Los Angeles, Hongo's style has a more acute angle, a leanness, as in this passage about his high school in Gardena:
School was tepid, boring. We wanted cars, we wanted clothes, we wanted everything whites and blacks wanted to know about sex but were afraid to tell us. We "bee-essed" with the black kids in the school parking lot full of coastal fog before classes. We beat the white kids in math, in science, in typing. We ran track and elected cheerleaders. We ruled, we said. We were dumb, teeming with attitude and prejudice.
He associates the mainland with his early lessons about adaptation to language and custom, which included the discarding of his island memories. Most important, it is on the mainland that he learns about race and its most significant manifestation in the history of Japanese-Americans—their relocation during World War II. When he falls in love with a white girl in high school, he learns that she thinks of herself as Portuguese and that "white people were always something too." Both his racial group and hers resent their pairing, and each of them is punished violently. "Race," the teenage Hongo learns, "is an exclusion, a punishment, imposed by the group." When as an adult he learns about the relocation of mainland Japanese after Pearl Harbor (those in Hawai'i were treated to other indignities), he discovers that race can also be an exclusion, a punishment, imposed on the group. He is outraged, and aims his fury not only at this crime against humanity, but at the silence of the older generation of Japanese-Americans who never made an issue of it and never told him of the event.
Yet it is another kind of silence that shrouds his father's sad life—that of cultural dispossession. Though race and relocation are adjunct themes, the motive force for Hongo's Telemachean search is the mystery of his father's lost identity. In his father he sees a stunted artist who as a boy raised bonsai trees. He even refers to him as "a botanical Wallace Stevens of Honolulu." As an adult, a father and husband, Albert Hongo works in Los Angeles as a troubleshooter on the assembly line for an electronics firm, increasingly isolated by his deafness, his Pidgin English, his estrangement from his past. He works the swing shift to avoid the requirements of a social life, but endures a buildup of daily humiliations at his job. In his spare time he reads spiritualist and metaphysical texts (what his son calls "self-help"), plays the horses, and memorizes sports statistics. By the time of his early death, from heart failure, he has few if any friends and little connection with his family. Whoever he was has been lost. His gravesite in San Pedro is devoid of any sense that he was part of a society or a culture:
If you stood at his marker and gazed toward the water, a steel suspension bridge between the mainland and the naval shipyard at Terminal Island was usually visible through ocean vapors and the constant smog. His grave was near the curb of the road that wound through the hillside plots, and the mottling shade of a stand of eucalyptus trees swept his headstone at dusk. Nothing on it said he was a "local boy," that he raised bonsai on Wiliwili Street and shined shoes on McCully Street in Honolulu, that he was a son of Hawai'i who never came home.
Hongo searches for and finds the initiating event, perhaps the original sin, that led to his family's loss of their Hawaiian Eden, his father's fate, and what he calls his own "dispiritedness." He tells a complex emotional story of abandonment and betrayals, both petty and great. When he considers his reconnection with his native place, as he brings his wife and children there to visit, he sees it has taken "the better part of four generations" to absolve the sin that separated him from his land.
Garrett Hongo has attempted to write a book equal to the recreation of his identity. It includes a gorgeous plumbing of geologic depths, a naturalist's excitement about utterly new plants and animals, and a discoverer's enthusiasm for what was already there. But it also contains a bleak admission of the need for affection, some response from the making earth, which leads him on more than one occasion to desire a lethal unity with that earth. As he explores a fresh lava field, Hongo admits:
It was still hot, giving off shimmers of heat, and I could feel the skin on my face prickle, the heels of my feet getting warm. I wasn't wearing shoes, just a thick pair of beach sandals. I wanted to feel that lava, would've gone barefoot over it if I could've. At one point he curls up in the sulfurous breath of a newly petrified wave of molten rock. He associates his rebirth with a physical assimilation of the island where he was born.
In his writing, both poetry and prose, Hongo has attempted to embody what he calls the "world of feeling and specificities among the vast and monolithic Other of race in America." If he has succeeded, as I think he has time and again, then his experience must become part of our experience. Surely this is different from the assumption of universality, one questioned by so much that makes up contemporary literature. And yet one of the most moving passages of Volcano is affecting because of the way it extends our universe as readers. Dreaming of his maternal grandfather, Kubota, on the night he died, Hongo sees him night-fishing on a beach in Oahu that he loved:
"The moon is leaving, leaving," he sang in Japanese. "Take me deeper in the savage sea." He turned and crouched like an ice-racer then, leaning forward so that his unshaven face almost touched the light film of water. I could see the light stubble of beard like a fine gray ash covering the lower half of his face. I could see his gold-rimmed spectacles. He held a small wooden boat in his cupped hands and placed it lightly on the sea and pushed it away. One of his lanterns was on it and, written in small neat rows like a sutra scroll, it had been decorated with the silvery names of all our dead.
With lyric poetry like this, we have to feel—to be made to feel—what the poet feels. I think we do. We may not claim the dead whose names are inscribed on the sutra scroll, but we feel what it means to call them ours. In the end, Volcano is less an epic, the history of a people told in poetry, than a lyric, the yearning song of a soul, which might be the reader's, too. It is certainly one the reader will not soon forget, like amazing news, like news from home, coming from beyond rivers and mountains.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 326
Hai-Jew, Shalin. Review of Volcano. Northwest Asian Weekly 14, No. 23 (9 June 1995): 15.
Recounts Hongo's search for "personal peace" in his memoir.
Review of Yellow Light. Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 May 1992): 9.
Praises the "full poetic arsenal" Hongo displays in this collection. "By discovering his family" in these poems, the critic observes, "the poet discovers himself. And through him, a vivid sense of the Japanese-American past and present emerges."
Moffett, Penelope. "Verses Chronicle Tales of Asian-Americans." Los Angeles Times (19 March 1987): V 1, 19.
Biographical sketch and interview with Hongo.
Moyers, Bill. "Garrett Kaoru Hongo." In The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, pp. 201-15. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Interview addressing the sources and inspiration for Hongo's works and the practice of poetry in modern America.
Oyama, Richard. "You Can Go Home Again: Writer and Poet Garrett Hongo Reclaims His Birthplace and Heritage in Volcano: A Memoir of Hawaii." Asianweek 17, No. 3 (8 September 1995): 13.
Characterizes Hongo's memoir as "a beautiful song of place, history, and familial inheritance."
St. John, David. "Raised Voices in the Choir: A Review of 1982 Poetry Selections." The Antioch Review 41, No. 2 (Spring 1983): 231-44.
Includes an assessment of Yellow Light, calling it "a beautifully written and extremely moving book."
Sato, Dan. "Volcano: A Poet's Record of His Search for His Roots." International Examiner 22, No. 10 (6 June 1995): 13.
Mixed review of Volcano that admires Hongo's "fierce intelligence and showy, florid metaphorical language," but censures his occasional ponderousness and focus on minutia.
Tillinghast, Richard. Review of Yellow Light. The Sewanee Review XCI, No. 3 (Summer 1983): 478.
Commends the "unusually wide range of moods, subjects, and settings" displayed in Hongo's first collection.
Review of Yellow Light. The Virginia Quarterly Review 59, No. 1 (Winter 1983): 26.
Judges Yellow Light "a very uneven work" in which "some fine pieces of writing" are "[s]quirreled away among many seemingly pointless poems."
Additional coverage of Hongo's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 133; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 22; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 120; and EXPLORING Poetry.