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10-13-2017

Garrett Hongo

 

Coral Road

 

I keep wanting to go back, across an ocean, blue-grey and uncaring,
White cowlicks of waves at the continental shore, then the midsea combers
Like white centipedes far below the jetliner that takes me there.
And across time too, to 1920 and my ancestors fleeing Waialua Plantation,
Trekking across the northern coast of O`ahu, that whole family
                                                                            of first Shigemitsu
Walking in geta and sandals along railroad ties and old roads at night,
Sleeping in the bushes by day, ha`alelehana--runaways
From the labor contract with Baldwin or American Factors.

My grandmother, 10 at the time, hauling an infant brother on her back,
Said there was a white coral road in those days, pieces of crushed reef
Poured like gravel over the brown dirt, and, at night, with the moon up,
As it was those nights during their flight, silver shadows on the sea,
It lit their path like a roadway made of dust from the Ocean of Clouds.
Michiyuki is what they called it, the Moon Road from Waialua to Kahuku.

There is little to tell and few enough to tell it to--
A small circle of relatives gathered for reunion
At some beach barbecue or Elk's Club veranda in Waikiki,
All of us having survived that plantation sullenness
And two generations of labor in the sugarfields,
Having shed most all memory of travail and the shame of upbringing
In the clapboard shotguns of ancestral poverty. 

                                                                    Who else would even listen?
Where is the Virgil who might lead me through the shallow underworld of this history?
And what demiurge can I say called to them, loveless ones,
                                                                        through twelvescore stands of cane
Chittering like small birds, nocturnal harpies in the feral constancies of wind? 

All is diffuse, like knowledge at dusk, a veiled shimmer in the sea
As schools of baitfish boil and revolve in their iridescent globes,
Turning to the olive dark and the dropoff back to depth below,
Where they shiver like silver penitents--a cloud of thin, summer moths--
While rains chill the air and pockmark the surface of the sands at Sans Souci,
And we scatter back inside to a humble Chinese buffet and cool sushi
Spread on Melamine platters on a starched white ribbon of shining cloth. 

 

A Child's Ark

Hot Los Angeles summer days, late ‘50s, a seven-year-old
Shut in the tiny, midtown apartment on South Kingsley Drive, 
I'd flip on the TV to the black-and-white game shows,
Re-run comedies and half-hour detective dramas,
Seeking company, avoiding the soaps, news, and cartoons.

 

One of my favorites for a while was a show called "Kideo Village,"
In which kids would wend their way through the attractive curves
Of a gamepath spooling through the sound studio and its faux lampposts,
Small minimalist archways, doors, pushcarts and streetstands
Set up and interspersed along the telegenic route--
A bakery, a toy shop, the ice cream parlor, etc.
The tragedies strewn in the way would be a bookstore or piggy bank--
For one you'd have to lose a turn and stay inside to read a book,
For the other, you'd give up spending for a certificate of virtue.

 

The glory was a pet store of fluffy animals--
Nose-twitching rabbits bearing sachets of cash around their necks,
A dog hitched to a wagon filled with sacks of stage gold.
Wealth was the message, the child contestants obliged
To exercise the right energy and enterprise
To run themselves briskly through the board's intricate arrangement
Of pleasure, danger, and delight without risk,
Their assignment to luck into opportunities
That would set off crescendos of bells ringing,
Video paradisos of lights flashing through the transparent lucite
         under their feet.

 

Yet it was splendor and the minute articulations of a fantasy village's architecture 
That mesmerized me, that a child could skip along in a moment's time
Without having to be put in a car or be handled by adults,
To a candy store, movie house, or shop full of cream puffs.
Glee and surprise were everywhere just on the next luminous square
Around the looping turn on the glittering gameboard.

 

When the power went out one day, or perhaps when the show was canceled,
I got out scissors, paper, and pens, Crayolas arranged in stick puddles
On the dingy, carpeted floor of the apartment's living room,
Mapping out a village of my own on wax paper from a kitchen drawer.
I found empty green stationery boxes my mother brought home from work,
Tore the labels off, drew on them, marked rectangles for doors; 
I cut windows, made folding blinds, used the leftover cutouts
To make counters and tables, a long, folded cardboard flume
For water to run in a sluice.... the tofu-maker, the rows of shacks,
A union hall where my uncles would gather, my aunt's gas station
On the highway, clear glass medicine bottles for pumps,
The peaked roof of Kahuku Betsu-In, the barber's, the butcher's,
The Chinese Association...

           This was the village we left behind--
And our apartment, the scatter of debris on its floor, my child's ark 
           of the lost world.

 

Bugle Boys

As I am Kubota's voice in this life, 
                                        chanting broken hymns to the sea,
So also am I my father's hearing,
                                55 now and three years shy of his age when he died,
My ears open as the mouth-shells of two conchs, drinking in a soft, onshore wind.

 

In the fall of '63, at the end of our first year in Gardena, south of L.A.,
                                electrician that he was, he built his own home hi-fi--
Speakers out of parts from Scandinavia, an amp kit ordered through the mails,
The glittering turntable, brushed gold aluminum, a drivebelt, and an inboard motor-- 
Each component meticulously laid out on a bedsheet soon after it arrived,
Jigsawed cabinet boards with serrated edges, yellow capacitors and rectifiers black as tar,
                                shining and glossy as acquarium fish under living room light,
And the miniature crystal towers of vacuum tubes, 
          steel pins scaly as aged platinum, 
Erector sets of grey plates and haloed getters intricate as space stations 
          under sparkling glass.
In shapes like Coke bottles, potato mashers, and--my favorite--the tiny rockets
                                                                                              with arrowed heads
He called "Bugle Boys" for the labels of white-line cartoons, 
          anthropomorphized tubes 
          blowing trumpets stamped on each of their sides. 
"They make electric sound come sweet," he said, "Like no can b'lieve..."

 

He'd spend evenings in the garage, soldering circuitry and studying schematics--
Blue zigzags and squiggles on grey paper that folded like army maps--
            checking his work.

 

Once the speakers were set in their walnut cabinets 
and the amp out of its gold-mesh cage,
He asked me to listen while he balanced the stereo channels--a marvel--
And swapped input tubes, pulling pairs from the sagging pocket
                                                                                    of his aloha shirt,

 

The glass of them making a gentle clatter like tea or sake´ cups 
As they knocked softly together when he dipped and swirled his fingers in, 
          pulling them out like fancy fish from a bowl.

 

He couldn't hear.
                         Or, rather, he couldn't quite hear, losing it from a lifetime
                                                                         of cumulative, small misfortunes:
A fever as a child in McCully, guns and canons while away at war at seventeen,
The job holding down a jackhammer, the job under jet engines at Kane`ohe Marine Base.
I knew every reason, though he never gave one himself.

                                                                                  "Sit here," he'd say,
 

Pointing to the carpeted floor in front of the beige sofa we never used. 
He'd throw me a zabuton to sit on, tell me to concentrate, 
And I'd hear measure after measure of Big Band tunes filling the room
Like airy clouds of brass cotton lofting around the lamps, ashtrays, 
           and coconut curios around me.

"American Patrol," "Ciribiribin," and "Shake Down the Stars" took turns
With lush vibraphones and strummed ukes--50s hotel music from the Islands.

 

"Tell me whatchu hearing," he'd say, and I would, my father taking notes,
Smiling over our evenings of pleasurable work, string basses and horns in my ears,
Kickdrums and toms reverberating through the floorboards,
Sinatra swaggering a tune, just behind the beat.

 

What did I know of travail or passion then? My father trying to beat the clock,
Hastening to hear or not hear each spinning A-side he ever danced to 
              at the Black Cat in Honolulu 
Before the world closed its cave of cotton around him,
Cymbals become a silent splash of metallic light, snare rolls a strobe of sticks 
              with no sound,
A song only a murmur without scale,
                                                     and music a birthplace he could never return to.

 

"No ka ipo lei... manu," sang the Sons of Hawai`i, and so I said they did,
My father jotting it down, Bugle Boys jousting in the pocket of his shirt.

 

-from Coral Road, Knopf 2013, selected by Guest Editor TR Hummer       

PROMPT: In Garrett Hongo's "A Child's Ark," Hongo explores a TV game show and his relationship to it as a child. Have fun with this one. Think back to a particular game you enjoyed as kid. It could be a board game, a game show, a video game, that game of hide-and-seek when you received your first surprise kiss (not auto-biographical on my part at all!), a sport, the last time you played baseball or the most memorable World Series game you ever watched, a mind game your evil older sister played on you when she wanted her way (again, not auto-biographical on my part at all...), any sort of game you can think of. 

Describe the game and show the reader how you related to it. Did you play it? Did it play you? Was it a game you enjoyed, a game tha hanuted you, a game in which you always played the villian? Is the game just a game or is it a metaphor for something deeper? Enliven the poem with rich imagery and metaphor. Be imaginative. Perhaps parts of the poem should take on the bahaviro of the game itself. Keep the poem to one page like Hongo, and enjoy!

 

BIO: Poet, memoirist, and editor Garrett Hongo was born in Volcano, Hawai’i, in 1951 to Japanese American parents. He grew up in Hawai’i and Los Angeles, and earned his BA from Pomona College and his MFA from the University of California-Irvine, where he studied with the poets C.K. Williams, Howard Moss, and Charles Wright. His collections of poetry include Yellow Light (1982), The River of Heaven (1988), which received the Lamont Poetry Prize and was nominated for a Pulitzer, Coral Road: Poems (2011), and The Mirror Diary (2017). His poetry explores the experiences of Asian Americans in Anglo society, using lush imagery, narrative techniques, and myth to address both cultural alienation and the trials of immigrants, including the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, as well as the anti Japanese sentiment today. Because he delves into history and his own memory to express the bitterness of prejudice, Hongo’s poems frequently take the form of character studies and anecdotal first-person narratives. As Hongo told Contemporary Authors: “My project as a poet has been motivated by a search for origins of various kinds, a quest for ethnic and familial roots, cultural identity, and poetic inspiration—all ultimately connected to my need for an active imaginative and spiritual life. One might get at these through religion or the contemplation of moral and socioeconomic problems, but for me the way has led to the study of and the desire to contact, through the writing of poetry, those places and peoples from which I’ve been separated by either history or personality… I write to be a voice that I can listen to, one that makes sense and raises my own consciousness. And I write for all the people who might want the same thing, no matter what race, class, or nationality.”

Hongo’s style—particularly his use of descriptive lists and repetitious word order and phrasing—has invited comparison to 19th century American poet Walt Whitman. The dramatic power of these devices is matched by Hongo’s sense of purpose: “I’m committed to a task of enlightenment,” the poet told the Los Angeles Times, “of bringing the stories I know to the so-called ‘legitimate culture.’” Hongo’s language has been described as elegant and lyrical in both his poetry collections and his prose memoir, Volcano: A Memoir of Hawaii (1995). As in his poetry, Hongo’s memoir connects with his family’s past by recreating the Hawaii and California of his father and grandfather. In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Sigrid Nunez placed Hongo in the broader poetic tradition of Yeats: “Hongo takes to heart Yeats’s assertion in his Autobiography that the poet who wishes to create a work that will last must first find metaphors in the natural landscape he was born to. This will give the reader some idea of the scope of Hongo’s ambition. And indeed this book’s greatest pleasures are its descriptions of that ravishing land of rain forest and live volcanoes.”
 
Hongo has received numerous honors and awards for his work, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He is the editor of the acclaimed anthologies The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America (1993), Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays, and Memoir (1994), and Under Western Eyes: Personal Essays from Asian America (1995). He is currently Distinguished Professor of the College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of creative writing at the University of Oregon where he directed the Program in Creative Writing from 1989-1993. He lives in Eugene with his wife and children.