“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...
(The entire section is 430 words.)