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On Garret Hongo's Poetry

Samuel Maio

Garrett Hongo, for example, has used in his two books--Yellow Light (1982) and The River of Heaven (1987)--the confessional voice in many poems that are less narrative and more reliant on images . . . . Perhaps, too, they are more given to sound. The principal concerns of Yellow Light, a book of carefully ordered poems, are: the discovery of the history of the Issei (the first generation of Japanese immigrants to America), the forging of myths regarding the Issei and succeeding families, and the ethnicity peculiar to the poet's ancestral beginning. Structured in five movements, the poems' central speaker travels through his home neighborhoods, Japan, and America's western region. Engaged in searches that lead to the creation of myths and the recreation of ancient ones, these poems ultimately record the process by which the speaker learns to understand the importance of the immediate.

"Yellow Light," the opening poem, takes us to inner-city Los Angeles, the setting for the book's first movement, where a woman with groceries passes "gangs of schoolboys playing war" on her way home to cook dinner. This is what she sees:

From the Miracle Mile, whole freeways away,
a brilliant fluorescence breaks out
and makes war with the dim squares
of yellow kitchen light winking on
in all the side streets of the Barrio....
The moon then, cruising from behind
a screen of eucalyptus across the street,
covers everything, everything in sight,
in a heavy light like yellow onions.

The combination of lyrical description with the narrative is representative of Hongo's technique. The plain language and unsheathed images contain, within the control of the voice, the emotions this scene evokes for the speaker remembering his mother's daily routine. Given the book's purpose of scheme, it is appropriate that the poems of this first movement address the speaker's early life and condition of home. . . . As the conclusion of "Postcards for Bert Meyers," a prayer is proposed for the restoration of a heritage, as it was at an earlier time, uncorrupted by history and migration . . . .

Myths for the present, arising from the past, must be written, as called for in the long poem "Stepchild." Interspersed with passages by Carlos Bulosan and others regarding the history of Japanese immigrants, the speaker asks:

Where are the myths, the tales?...

They are with the poets,
the scholar transcribing
talks with survivors,
the masters of the stage,
the novelists collecting cosmologies...

The task defined, the speaker meets his responsibility in the last movement by creating stories about his childhood, the memories being summoned by looking at a photograph ("The Hongo Store 29 Miles Volcano Hilo, Hawaii"), about a failed labor strike attempt, written in haiku ("C&H Sugar Strike Kahuku, 1923"), about old men and friends ("Kubota" and "And Your Soul Shall Dance"), and, finally, about coming to peace with the history of personal experience and circumstance ("Something Whispered in the Shakuhachi"). . . .Hongo utilizes the confessional voice as a means of personal discovery, much as Lowell did in Life Studies.

From Creating another Self: Voice in Modern American Personal Poetry. Copyright 1995 by Thomas Jefferson University Press.

Suzanne K. Arakawa

Hongo's poetry and prose are expansive, for they touch upon the personal, social, historical, and philosophical. In fact, his most successful poems contain poignant examinations of people, places, nature, heritage, and history—all under the aegis of what Robert Schultz terms "Hongo’s rich vocabulary and undulant syntax [that] hold his stories of loss and remembrance in a secure, distinctive music."

Hongo first achieved success as a writer while founder and artistic director (1975-77) of the Asian Exclusion Act theater group in Seattle, Washington. His play Nisei Bar and Grill (1976) looks at Korean War veterans and their postwar struggle. At this time, Hongo collaborated on a poetic volume with Alan Chong Lau and Lawson Fusao Inada entitled The Buddha Bandits down Highway 99 (1978), in which he contributed the nine-part poem "Cruising 99."

Yellow Light is Hongo's first poetry collection. This volume offers tender homages to Japanese American history and the working class. Mainly, he venerates the laborer—exemplified by Hongo's own grandfather and father and those in poor neighborhoods who struggle daily to maintain dignity. He also records history through illuminating and bracing personal points of views. One poem entitled "Stepchild" highlights how Japanese American historical exclusion from school textbooks and discussions have affected the speaker. This forgetfulness demonstrates that Japanese Americans are misbegotten because America as a whole has not acknowledged them as Americans. The poem establishes that part of the success of the American past can be attributed to Asian laborers, many of whom were used and then ousted from the country when no longer needed. In other poems, Hongo explores our need not only to discern our own essences but also to generate a depth of feeling for humanity. "Roots" encourages the location of the deeper self, the dedication to its discovery, and the knowledge that there is a unique signature to all things animate and inanimate.

The need for shared common experiences and the need for dignity and escape from ridicule are themes carried over to The River of Heaven (1988), which won the Lamont Poetry Prize and a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Hongo retrieves memories by reconstructing the past through a collection of viewpoints. He wants to commune with departed elders, and he memorializes those gone by inhabiting specific people and characters in order to tell their stories. As a result, he records their lives so that they may continue to live.

Hongo's use of parallel phrasing can be described at times as Whitmanesque; in his poetic narrative, he carefully layers words and images. Hongo infuses the visual with other sensate details. Also, animal imagery as well as Hawaiian legend inform his poetic irnpressions. Consequently, memories imbued with cultural and organic resonances display reverence for nature and its power to help people establish their own identities.

Hongo pays mindful consideration to the amplitude of what makes us human and connected to one another, to the past, and to nature. The need to find music in oneself is significant. His poems ask that we reexamine our detachment from ourselves, from our spirits, from each other. In fact, we sense that the soul can reach magnanimous formulations regarding the preciousness of humanity and nature. As Maxine Hong Kingston eloquently states, Hongo "extends splendor—and the sight and voice and concern of American poetry."

from Encyclopedia of American Literature. Steven R. Serafin, General Editor. Copyright 1999 by the Continuum Publishing Company

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