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I’ve admired Garrett Hongo, the great Japanese American poet since I first read “Yellow Light” in The New Yorker in 1980.

One arm hooked around the frayed strap
Of a tar-black patent-leather purse,
The other cradling something for dinner:
Fresh bunches of spinach from a J-Town yaoya,
Sides of split Spanish mackerel from Alviso’s,
Maybe a loaf of Langendorf; she steps
Off the hissing bus at Olympic and Fig,

Set amid Los Angeles’s dazzling array of cultures and peoples, in a dense, working-class neighborhood near what is known today as Koreatown, Hongo’s poem offers many of the themes and first fledglings of what have become enduring linguistic gifts. Though it doesn’t indicate this outright, the woman described in “Yellow Light” is Hongo’s mother, who appears again in “Her Makeup Face,” a poem included in his forthcoming fourth book of poetry, The Ocean of Clouds. In the later poem, the portrait is more detailed, personal, and psychological; its language and voice appear less “purely” poetic in parts, but it now contains both lyric beauty and historical complexity hard-earned over a lifetime. The following passage alludes to the family’s history of immigration to the mainland not from Japan but from Hawaiʻi, and explores the softening of Hongo’s antagonistic relationship with his mother as she softened with age:

In her last illness, while lying comfortably in her bed
in the semi-private room of the care center in Carson, California,
her mind and lifelong rage sweetened by the calm of forgetfulness,
she said she wanted to go back, that it was “a good place”
and she’d like living there again. “Ripe mangoes and guava taste
every day,” she said, “And everybody knows you your family bess.”

In the Prologue to Volcano, Hongo’s 1996 memoir named for the town where he was born, he describes with great precision and skill how his mother drilled him at age six in mainland English after the family moved from Hawaiʻi to LA and at the same time, tried to drill out his island pidgin (fortunately, he retained that patois). In this primal scene, we see a dialectic common to immigrants generally; their children learn English and the demotic of the streets, in the complex process of becoming American—or rather becoming a further hybrid type of American:

She teaches me fricatives, gives me exercises, shows me where to place my tongue against my teeth. I say there, there, there, constructing a calisthenic phalanx of enunciation. I say earth. I say with. She teaches me to flatten the melody of my speaking, taking the lilt of Portuguese from my sentences, the singsong of Canton Chinese. I extract the hard, clipped vowel-oriented syllables of Hawaiian, saying poor, not pu-a. I have to soften my tongue to shape it around the new way of saying words, to make it shape itself in my mouth more quickly so that I can make more sounds, smaller sounds, faster sounds in a sentence that has to flutter the way a mullet swims, almost surreptitiously through lagoons of syntax rather than churning through the blunt reef of my thinking like ulua, a jack crevalle that hunts, like speaking pidgin.

All through these sentences, Hongo places metaphors, alliteration, and word choices within rhythms that give the language a superior pop. Look at the fish metaphors of the last sentence which echo the oceanic surroundings of the island from which Hongo and his mother have been exiled. Hongo’s is a prose where, as William Gass once said in distinguishing the literary from the ordinary, the words stick on the page. They’re permanent, as true literature should be. In both Volcano and The Perfect Sound, Hongo’s 2022 memoir, the prose embodies the rigors, techniques, and vernacular of verse.

In writing classes, I frequently cite a section of Volcano which describes Hongo’s MFA experience with instructor C.K. Williams. The narrative construct sets Williams up as the threshold guardian/mentor from whom the apprentice poet must achieve approval. The story of Hongo as ephebe frames a second story which charts his ill-fated relationship with a fellow high school student, a Portuguese American. As a mixed couple, they cannot go to the Japanese dances nor the white ones, so they attend for a while the Chicano dances (Hongo is instructed by a Chicano friend how to dress and wear his hair to fit in—“We passed, ese”).

Beside the narrative construction, I use the section to center Hongo’s belief that our deepest investigations into race and certainly our prime poetic task is to capture specific experiential feelings, not political or ideological positions which are by definition generic, and group based. True poetry resides in our deepest, most buried personal feelings—the wounds we are ashamed of and find hard to excavate. Reflecting on his apprentice work, Hongo acknowledges that his younger self knew he was juking and jiving, presenting monologues in the voice of the gigolo William Holden in Sunset Boulevard or Toshirô Mifune in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. He voices his former self-censorship with a convenient racial excuse and feint:

Class was a torture. People had a hard time speaking up. When they did, they praised shit, so far as I could tell. They wrote shit.
I wrote shit too. I didn’t trust anybody. Poetry? I said to myself. Not with these people.

As a Japanese American poet in a mainly white workshop, the young Hongo is correct in sensing he’s not safe, that the class will not understand nor value his ethnic and racial experiences growing up in LA. All that is true. But his deepest fears don’t involve others. What he fears most are his own experiences, their seeming difference or marginal placement in the culture, and even more so, the pain he suffered when a gang of Japanese American boys beat him for dating “outside the race” and his girlfriend was accosted by a white football player who broke her wrist. As Hongo explains, coming from Hawaiʻi, his younger self was unaware of the effects of the incarceration of mainland Japanese Americans during WWII and thus, the fierce tribal rage that he and his girlfriend unleashed. The trauma wreaked upon them made it impossible for their relationship to continue, and the pain of that loss and his yearning for connection across ethnic and racial boundaries, are experiences which the younger self learned to bury.

The narrative then switches back to the workshop. Frustrated by Williams’s lack of approval thus far, the young Hongo finally and desperately writes a poem which embodies his sense of loss and a yearning that he has denied. The poem narrates a chance encounter between a young white woman crying on a bus and a young Black man standing nearby her. Against his own impulses, the young man acknowledges her pain and when she asks him to sit with her until his stop, he does so. She takes his hand which he has placed on her shoulder to express his concern:

He can feel the loose skin
around her neck, the hard bone
of her jaw, the pulse
in her throat, thudding against
his knuckles, and still he wants
to pull away, but hesitates,
stammers, asks again,
“Hey…Is it okay?”

In the workshop, class members hoot at the scenario’s seeming sentimentality—“A [B]lack guy and a white girl? Where did you come up with this story—The Naked City?” They view this poem as falsely dramatic and sensationalizing. Not so Williams. After some silence, he seizes on its authentic voice: “This is the real thing.”

He’d recognized the poetry within me, telling me what my poetry was. He’d shared his judgment. It is the most valuable thing an artist has besides passion, besides experience. He would accept none of the false words I had been typing and handing in each week. From me, he held out for a truth—that there is a world of feeling and specificities among the vast and monolithic Other of race in America. When I gave it, he gave back. It was a blessing.

I want to emphasize the phrase, “there is a world of feeling and specificities among the vast and monolithic Other of race in America.” “Feeling and specificities”—that is one way to characterize Hongo’s writing; his work challenges where much of contemporary literary trends have been heading, where experimentation eschews eloquence, where technique serves technique rather than the soul and where group outrage substitutes for the individual voice. This is one of Hongo’s great gifts: He reminds us where our true poetry resides and originates.

* * *

Rereading Hongo’s work, I’ve found myself stumped at where to focus. His work will last far beyond that of many more famous and awarded contemporaries (I assert this even though he was a Pulitzer finalist for his second book The River of Heaven, which won the Lamont Poetry Prize).

Should I go into the reasons he has not been recognized as an heir to Seamus Heaney or Derek Walcott, reasons which range from his race and geographical location to the long time between his second and third poetry book to the trendiness of poetic reputations, where networking matters more than skill?

Should I start with the beauty and power of his language, whether in poetry or prose, its rhythms and complex syntax, the stunning word choices and vast vocabulary, the lush details of his descriptions, the brilliance of his metaphors, his ability to write with a painterly eye, a global range of references and diction, and the presence and knowledge not just of the Anglo-American and European traditions, but the languages of Hawaiʻi and its plantation songs as well as the blues and African American culture as well as Bashō’s haiku and haibun? Should I mention the simple fact that so often, reading him, I have to look up words and terms, that he possesses a vocabulary that seems almost Shakespearean? Should I write of his immense literary knowledge and how he complements it with his grasp of literary and political theory? Should I write about how his grasp of theory is wedded to his ability to go beyond received wisdom and analyze what’s beneath the surface of commonly held beliefs or practices?

More Poems by Garrett Hongo on JSTOR

Should I write of the progress of his work, from the sparer lines of his first book to the complex, polyvocal, and multilayered poetry that he has developed over the course of his career? Should I write of how his poetry has absorbed the lessons and practice of his writing two groundbreaking memoirs, where his culturally and historically complex personal story intertwine in Volcano with the landscape of Hawaiʻi and in The Perfect Sound with the world of audio equipment and musical memories? Should I break down his interview response on how he arrived at the prose style of Volcano and how it demonstrates his immense erudition and multiple intercultural influences: “I took years and years to find the prose style for Volcano. I wanted a dense, even a cadenced prose like Melville’s in Moby-Dick, a storytelling one like Thoreau’s in Walden, and a ‘poetic’ one like Emerson’s in his essays. My other models were Kamo-no-Chōmei’s hojōki (translated by Oliver Sadler as “An Account of my Hut”), a kind of Book of Job in Japanese, Tsurezuregusa by Yoshida Kenkō (meditations on life and aesthetics translated as Essays in Idleness by Donald Keene), Petrarch’s “The Ascent of Mount Ventoux,” and Yasunari Kawabata’s izu-no-odoriko (The Izu Dancer), a kind of Japanese La Vita Nuova.”

Should I write of him as a visionary of American culture and history, someone uniquely talented and placed so that his poetic writings point us to the multiplicity of voices that are “great within us”, the variety of cultures and peoples who have contributed to our history? Should I write of how his work in several genres functions as a trenchant and liberating critique of parochialism, essentialism, and racism? Should I quote him on the ways any culture or group of people will try to police its members, enforce conformity and refuse the complications and contradictions of facts, narratives, experiences, or beliefs that contest the reigning ideology? His deeply held principle that no matter how outre, dissident, inconvenient, or “incorrect,” the varieties of our individualized experiences and narratives cannot be excluded simply because the powers that be—a form of groupthink—would banish such deviations?

Should I write about the biographical details of the enormous work that went into his grasp of so many traditions and cultures and wells of intellectual thought? And if so, should I go into the specifics of how, as a teenager, in part through a writers’ workshop in Watts, he met two of his mentors, Stanley Crouch and Quincy Troupe, and later others like Ishmael ReedRobert Hayden, and Michael Harper? Should I write of how his Gardena high school was a mélange of Japanese Americans, African Americans, whites and Chicanos, and thus, how his cultural, historical and political influences can’t be limited to an essentialist reading of a typical Asian American writer, that he’s someone who could discuss the intricacies of John Coltrane and link that to his reading of Walt Whitman or who, with a Latina writer like Helena Viramontes, can sing favorite Tex-Mex ballads or who can adopt Hawaiʻi’s pidgin to poetry as in his “An Oral History of Blind-Boy Lilikoʻi”? Should I go into his life-long study of Hawaiʻi’s plantation culture, that mixture of Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, indigenous, and haole, so that he could turn his family background and stories into a mythic poetry built out of fragments and half-told tales, as in his wonderful “Cane Fire,” where the sugar fields are burning clear for harvesting, and his grandmother’s brother kills a luna, an overseer, and hides in the smoldering field. In a scene that unfolds with cinematic power, his grandmother at fifteen is summoned to urge her brother to give himself up to the authorities:

The image I have is of her walking over opened ground absolutely cleared of cane,
The brown and black earth mounded up around her as she stood among the small hillocks
as if a score of graves had just been dug,
the soft, inconstant breezes pressing a thin cotton dress against her skin,
Her back to the crowd while she says something into the wind that only the cane and
Matsuo could hear.

And then his crying ceased and he emerged magically from a curtain of smoke and cane,
His eyes tarred and patched with burnt oil and charcoaled with molasses.
He stood out for an instant, in front of wicking flames,
Then felt the bead of a rifle on him, and he slipped quickly back in,
The cane fires muffling whatever words he might have called as they took him in.

Should I write of the ways Hongo’s background and my own have intertwined and of our long friendship? Or about what his work and three Asian American anthologies—with their corrective and instructive introductions—have meant to fellow Asian American writers? How he points to the ways we can and must unlock and re-vivify our marginalized lost histories, the fragments from our family pasts, creating for ourselves a new hyphenated culture to sustain us? Should I focus on his “best” poems, that is, the most aesthetically perfect, or do I address the breadth of his themes, the various modes he writes in and how, in his most ambitious work, it’s not just the neatly perfect that sometimes astonishes me but the scope and depth of the experiences and feelings he captures, the cultural and historical distances he travels?

I’m outlining a book with this litany. That Hongo deserves as much is a testament to the magnitude of his achievement. Unfortunately, this is only an article, already past my word limit. So I will end by focusing on “An Oral history of Blind-Boy Lilikoʻi,” a poem that should belong in any contemporary anthology and mark Hongo as a master craftsman and voice of distinction.

Set in the voice of a Hawaiian player of stringed instruments, the poem details Lilikoʻi’s musical biography, tracing the mix of styles, music, and instruments he’s encountered because of Hawaiʻi’s amalgamation of cultures and histories. Like Hongo, this musician eschews parochialism or essentialism and instead remains open to a variety of aesthetics and sounds; he sees diversity as necessary to creativity and his musical delight. Due to its pidgin and its hovering between the ghost of an iambic pentameter line and a longer, more loping one, the poem’s orality echoes the voice of Derek Walcott’s great poem, “The Schooner Flight.” For although the origins of Hongo’s poem stem from his Hawaiian background, its seeds also harken to Los Angeles, where a fellow Black student told Hongo, then 14, of a summer poetry workshop in Watts run by this writer Quincy Troupe. As part of the workshop, Troupe took the students to the Mark Taper Forum to see a matinee performance of Walcott’s play, Dream on Monkey Mountain—“We goin’ to see a play by a Caribbean brother,” says a Troupe-like character in “The Night’s Cascade,” Hong’s 2019 account of the event.

Hongo describes in that poem how the Creole poetry of Walcott, also coming from an island culture like Hawaiʻi’s, stunned the teenager in a way he could not quite articulate. After that performance, Hongo lay down on a bench outside the Taper and tried to absorb and make sense of what he had just seen and heard, for he recognized in Walcott’s language a corollary or echo to Hawaiian pidgin. Suddenly the teenager was reimagining his own history, his own sense of his native landscape:

It was a dream and I was in it, back as a boy in the fields of cane by the sea again,
weeping for that memory at fourteen, the sound and strophes of my own demesne
reaching, even now, through tides and shallows glittering with the night’s cascade
I still wear as a mantle of stars and warm rain dancing me into the next silver decade.

In close quarters, whether in LA or Hawaiʻi, languages, cultures, and people bleed and breed into each other. Hongo knows this, deep in his bones, and so does the Blind-Boy he gives voice to decades after hearing the hybrid tongues of Walcott’s groundbreaking play:

I played the slack-key, some hulas, an island rag,
and made the tourists laugh singing hapa-haole songs,
half English, half Hawaiian. Come sundown, though,
I had to shoo—the contract entertainers would be along,
and they didn’t want manini like me
stealing the tips, cockroach the attention.

(As so often happens with Hongo’s vocabulary, I had to look up manini, which refers to a fish drawn in from the ocean by a rain—i.e., an intruder.)

But Blind-Boy’s influences don’t stop simply with the music of the islands. Near the end of the poem he relates an encounter with a Black blues musician. Hongo ends it in a clipped cadence of pidgin and loose pentameter, coalescing his first linguistic influence with the traditions of the English canon (just as Walcott’s “The Schooner Flight” echoes the opening of Langland’s “Piers Plowman”). Here the elisions of syntax, the rhythms, pronunciation, and vocabulary of pidgin mark a new music for American poetry, an instant classic, which mirrors how Lilikoʻi absorbs the music of African America:

He singing, yeah? sounding good but sad.
And den he bring his funny guitar from case,
all shining metal with puka holes
like one pointsettia spidering over the box.
Make the tin-kin sound, good for vibrate.
Make da kine shake innah bones sound
like one engine innah blood. Penetrate.
He teach me all kine songs. Field hollers, he say,
da kine slave g’on use for call each oddah
from field to field. Ju’like cane workers.
And rags and marches and blues all make up
from diss black buggah from Yazoo City,
Up-river and a ways, the blues man say.
Spooky. No can forget. Ass how I learn for sing.

As Hongo proclaims in “Holiday in Honolulu,” another poem in Coral Road, centering on the visit of Billie and Armstrong and trombonist Trummy Young to the islands: “What’s ‘original’ anyway? Indigenous and essentially anything?”

There is no essential purity—whether in culture or peoples or history: That is America. That Hongo’s poetry embodies the country’s impurity, its multiplicity of tongues and peoples—this is what makes him a guiding spirit to the America we have always been and just as importantly, the America that is surely coming.

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