The River of Heaven
Yellow Light (1982) was Garrett Hongo’s first book of poetry, and The River of Heaven, his second, won the 1987 Lamont Poetry Prize. Divided between the Hawaiian settings of Hongo’s childhood (part 1) and the Los Angeles settings of his teenage years and beyond (part 2), the poems in The River of Heaven are sometimes about the poet himself and sometimes about characters whose lives recommend them to his sympathy and analysis.
In part 1, some of these characters are hustlers made romantic by Hongo’s treatment of them. Bad luck helps to make them interesting in this respect. The narrator of “Pinoy at the Coming World,” for example, though he advances from field-worker to storekeeper, and holds onto his fragile success by learning English and keeping out of trouble with the cane workers’ union and the plantation company that owns the store, loses his youngest child to an influenza epidemic. While waiting for her death, he (Hongo, that is) romanticizes his sorrow: “I wanted the roar from the sea, from falling water,/ and from the wind over mounds and stones/ to be the echo of my own grief. . . .” Another sly character who contends with bad luck is Flash in “Jigoku: On the Glamour of Self-Hate.” Back from the Korean War, he becomes a small-time gambler and pimp in Hawaii, then a blues-loving solitary in Japan, where he imagines death imagining him as a murder victim dredged up from Hilo Bay.
Other characters, such as the one in “Cloud-Catch,” start out badly in life. The wanderer in this poem is deserted by his father and mother when he is six, but he seems to keep his spirits up through an eccentric nostalgia for family life. This character’s father (who resembles the storekeeper in “Pinoy at the Coming World,” tells his own story in “The Unreal Dwelling: My Years in Volcano.” His wife has left him, and he stays one step ahead of misfortune all the time. First he drives a cab, then he becomes a petty crook, and finally he escapes the law by building his own store in the country. Still, death is catching up to him, so he makes life meaningful by feeding his fish, remembering the past, and loving his son—in short, by keeping his responsibility to life itself in mind.
Often the characters in part 2 are failures whose actions or dreams give them a kind of seedy nobility. In “Metered Onramp,” the poet watches from his car as bums pick through the litter on a slope adjacent to a freeway entrance ramp. He speculates that they are after “something precious . . . something/ without value for us but essential to them. . . .” One of these street people, Sally, slides and flops down the muddy slope as though she were having sex with it. The laborer in “The Sound of Water,” depressed about money and bills, imagines himself a Buddhist monk while having lunch in a café. “Portrait of a Lady” shows a young woman “waiting for a deal, some new idea or fresh start”; she daydreams about exotic pleasures for herself. Feeling sorry for herself because her dreams have not come true, she sentimentalizes her failure, wishing for an...
(The entire section is 1288 words.)