Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430
“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.