On Garrett Hongo's Poetry

Samuel Maio: On Garrett Hongo's Poetry

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.