The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 910

“Morro Rock” is a long poem in free verse, its eleven stanzas varying in length from three to twenty-eight lines. The rock of the title is a landmark offshore in Morro Bay, California; it serves as a focus for memory and meditation as the narrative moves from various descriptions of the rock to events and images suggested by its form, location, and environs. Ultimately, the rock becomes a symbol for the play and importance of the imagination and for the uncertainty of reality.

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Although Garrett Kaoru Hongo’s poem is autobiographical, it ultimately moves beyond the personal voice to make a statement about perception and about the act of writing poetry. In this sense, it can be termed metapoetic.

The poem begins in mid-line with a dash, as if the first description offered of the rock is simply another in a series of possibilities. In the fog, the rock resembles a fedora; in the sun, it invokes the choppy yet unified movement of a modern sculpture. No matter how it is described, the rock is perceived as an intrusion, something out of place and unnatural as it violates the smoothness of the ocean surface and the regularity of the surf. The second stanza is interpretive. The narrator indicates the importance of the perceiver in giving Morro Rock its identity. He imagines its omnipresence in various situations, such as a tuna run, the franticness and carnage of which reminds him of the war. In stanza 3, a day at the beach with one’s father encompasses an attempt to capture the perfect photograph, to render the rock as an artistic artifact. Finally, in stanza 4, the rock plays a part in a love story gone awry.

The last line of stanza 4 offers an important comment on the role of the rock. When the lovers feel the emptiness of the death of their affair, “The Rock filled the space behind us.” Morro Rock is simultaneously an absence and a plenitude, or a fullness of presence. It offers a hinge for the attachment of meaning, a mass that can occupy the blank spaces of knowing and reading reality in one’s life.

In stanza 5, the “true” affair of the author’s teens becomes mythicized, material at once for sordid retellings at youthful gatherings and archetypal accounts among the aged for all time, like the biblical narrative of Abraham and Sarah. The love story is carried forth in stanza 6, the center of the poem. Here are the homely and superficial details of a typical courtship, its innocuous beginnings. No one can object, just as no one can truly understand the nature of Morro Rock, until the surface is scratched. When the lovers merge physically to offer a unit in opposition to or rivalry with the agreed-on truths and morals of the community, they become scapegoats and martyrs to their new vision: After “finding the gods/ in each other,the lovers were killed with stones,and a quick, purging fire of hate.” They are the victims of racial prejudice, but their love becomes generalized with the use of words with mythological resonances: the riders “hooded like hanged men,” the women “keening in the nightcrowlike,” the lovers’ death “smeared with bruises/ and the beach tar and twigs of ritual.”

Stanza 8 restates the indifference of nature and its enduring, cyclical processes, but now the writing is imbued with the magic of human interpretation. The ruined building stands for the rival “religion” established by the lovers, which the society annihilated ritualistically as representing an order that they could not accept. Cranes here can be seen as birds of beauty and sadness, purity of vision, an unattainable ideal, as in Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Sembazuru (1952; Thousand Cranes, 1958). The pair of cranes is real, but they are also symbolic, natural gods that cleanse the area of the sacrifice of the lovers as the amorous birds themselves dance “a curious rite of celebration.” The paradoxical images of love and death, of union and destruction, of order and chaos, and of clarity and obscurity merge when the cranes settle on Morro Rock. Their presence of whiteness, naturalness, and fertility contrasts starkly with the “Rock’s dark brow.” Its status as a proper noun, along with its personification, reveals its somber omnipresence—black, intrusive, and barren—and its paradoxical absence—of color and of meaning.

The parallel three-line stanzas with which the poem ends move away from description, narration, and memory to philosophical reflection about Morro Rock and its agency in this poem. Stanza 9 is a statement reaffirming the merging of opposites in the action witnessed within the poem, which began in love and ended in death but proved them not to be opposites in that process. The poem emphasizes that the truth of the autobiographical experience lies in fact, in memory, and in any similar retelling. Literature and poetry even help to render it more clearly, more true in spirit, like a rock that becomes smoother and more lovely with the erosion of the tide. Finally, one is left with the rock, the initial object of definition in the poem. The entire poem has rotated on its centrality, yet here the narrator releases it to its own independent existence. People fashion reality from the materials at hand, filtered through memory, emotion, sensation, and knowledge of other stories, poems, and myths. The poet captures the truth here, yet Morro Rock remains the enigmatic matter that is only itself, “this chunk of continent equal to nothing.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 357

The poem achieves momentum primarily through capturing complex images: moments in time now remembered in their particulars from a distance and therefore crystallized and essentialized. The poet uses the images connected with Morro Rock to show how its meaning and existence change according to the imagination of the perceiver. The rock can be a hat or a horse, but more important it can be a major figure in the formation of art, which symbolizes differing personal realities.

The images ultimately move toward a contrast of opposites, which the poem contrives to merge paradoxically: Two opposing actualities can both be true at once. Morro Rock itself is the principal embodiment of the paradox, for it is the ostensible subject of the poem, present in some form in every vignette, yet it really is not pertinent to the human actions portrayed, except as a pivot for interpreting events. The oppositions are apparent in contrasts of colors (black/white), of textures (fluffiness/hardness), of time (personal/communal past), of emotions (love/hate), of events (sexual union/death), and of diction (specific/mythological).

At the end of each major stanza, the rock has metamorphosed into something symbolic that carries the tenor of the poem. In stanza 1, it is a junked car engine, the churning of its pistons alien to the natural churning of the surf. In stanza 2, it becomes the spokesman for the margin between sea and land, a “black beadeloquent on the horizon.” In stanza 3, it is a clipper or messenger ship. In stanza 6, the rock becomes a tacit agent of the murder of the lovers, for they “were killed with stones,” perhaps even pieces broken off Morro Rock by the surf.

The poem seems most cryptic in its final three stanzas: The first and last of the trio are philosophical and poetic statements that turn on the metaphor offered in the central tercet. Here, Morro Rock is transformed into a jewel (that is, the artistic rendering of its presence) and a Platonic reality separate from its earthly form, a reality indicated by its starry truth (like a jewel) spelled forth in a human making of meaning (which is art).

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 167

Gunew, Sneja. “Gendered Reading Tactics: Public Intellectuals and Community in Diaspora.” Resources for Feminist Research 29, nos. 3/4 (Fall/Winter, 2001): 57-73.

Hongo, Garrett. “A Vicious Kind of Tenderness: An Interview with Garrett Hongo.” Interview by Alice Evans. Poets and Writers 20, no. 5 (September/October, 1992): 36-46.

Ikeda, Stewart David. “The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America.” Ploughshares 20, no. 1 (Spring, 1994): 202-205.

Jarman, Mark. Review of Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai’i, by Garrett Hongo. The Southern Review 32, no. 2 (Spring, 1996): 337-344.

Monaghan, Peter. “How a Small, Nondescript Writing Program Achieved Distinction.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 44, no. 33 (April 24, 1998): A13-A15.

Muratori, Fred. Review of The River of Heaven, by Garrett Hongo. Library Journal 113 (May 1, 1988): 81-82.

Pettingell, Phoebe. “The River of Heaven.” The New Leader 71, no. 10 (June 13, 1988): 16.

Schultz, Robert. “Passionate Virtuosity.” Hudson Review 42 (Spring, 1992): 149-157.

Slowik, Mary. “Beyond Lot’s Wife: The Immigration Poems of Marilyn Chin, Garrett Hongo, Li-Young Lee, and David Mura.” MELUS 25, nos. 3/4 (Fall/Winter, 2000): 221-242.

Yu, Larry. “Under Western Eyes: Personal Essays from Asian America.” Amerasia Journal 22, no. 3 (Winter, 1996): 169-172.

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