Once you start, there’s no stopping. Three Asian American men, a handful of years apart in age, held together by a common state (California) and a common vocation (poetry), are driving north on Highway 99, that 425-mile lifeline of the Central Valley, as straight a shot as geology allows. Ever since performing as a trio with musicians on backup, they had styled themselves the Buddha Bandits. Now they were on a three-person, zero-audience tour of the West Coast. Like young men since the dawn of automotive time, they’ve got the radio on, or they’re filling the silence with their raucous improvisations:
Let’s go camping
Let’s go chanting
Let’s go cruising
Let’s go boozing
Let’s go smoke
Let’s go folk
Let’s go rock
Let’s go bop
When the youngest of the three calls the car a “heap,” his friend corrects him:
“Don’t worry. This is a dodo-driven, autopiloted, cruise-controlled, Triple-A-mapped, Flying-A-gassed, dual-overhead-cam, Super-Sofistifunktified, Frijole Guacamole, Gardena Guahuanco, Chonk Chalupa Cruiser with Buddha Bandit Bumpers, Jack!”
It’s only when his motormouthed friends have cut the chitchat and nodded off that our youngest Buddha Bandit, a twentysomething named Garrett Hongo, can drive through the quiet, liminal hours and hear himself think:
Distances don’t matter
nor the roll of the road past walnut groves.
It’s sky that counts,
the color of it at dawn or sunset,
a match more true to the peach
than a mix of oils by Matisse.
Or maybe it’s actually weather
we love most, the way it shifts
and scatters over the state
like radio waves bouncing off the face of the moon.
This dialogue of one is titled “On the Road to Paradise,” after Paradise, that bright idea, and Paradise, a town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, up where the air and the traffic start to thin out. Getting there from Los Angeles takes you nearly the length of Highway 99, past the major turnoffs and urban turn-ons of Bakersfield, Fresno, Modesto, Stockton, Sacramento, Yuba City. Hongo’s punning title, paving a way between heaven and earth, sets the high-meets-low tone for the lines to follow, which shoot skyward in one line, hug the road in the next. Each of these three sentences begins with a big claim made short-and-sweetly. “Distances don’t matter,” Hongo starts, sounding like a SoCal Walt Whitman, putting a modern spin on the elder poet’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not.” The next two claims—“It’s sky that counts,” “maybe it’s actually weather”—blend grandeur and chumminess, like the banter of ancient philosophers, bickering at the bar. None of these small syntactical canisters has room enough for Hongo’s fizzing imagination, which continually overbrims with fresh thoughts. Take his curatorial appreciation of the sunset’s perfectly peachy hue, or the very next sentence, which would rather journey to the moon and back than commit the linguistic sin of making small talk about the weather.
As the Banditmobile makes its unvarying way down Highway 99, Hongo’s mind floats free, gliding every which way over the Central Valley: “There it goes, down the arroyo, / through manzanita and Mormon tea.” “Might as well let it,” Hongo shrugs; after all, there’s “Nothing but God and Country on the radio now.” All in a night’s drive, the mind wanders to places and phrases no poem has reached, before or since: the whimsied thought of harvesting the weather to sell it and “do something politically efficacious for a change,” or the weary fantasy of Highway 99 taking a sharp turn into plot or artistic prestige, intersecting with “a spy movie, some Spanish galleon, / or maybe a Chinese poem with landscapes / in brocade, mist, wine, and moonlight.” After such mental aerobatics, it’s all the more surprising when Hongo ends the poem by admitting some limits to his imagination:
This California moon is yellow most of the time,
like it was stained with nicotine,
or sealed in amber like an insect.
Why is it always better somewhere else?
Why do I always wish I were Tu Fu?
For Tu Fu, the youngest in the trinity of Tang dynasty poets, the cleanly white moon was an endlessly renewable poetic resource. In seventies California, it has staled to a disconcerting yellow—the “stained” yellow of a pack-a-day smoker’s teeth, the fossilized yellow of amber imprisonment. There’s no paradise up there for Hongo’s mind to soar to, and certainly no recovering Tu Fu’s golden era. No wonder the poem breaks off into silence here—if there’s “somewhere else” where things will get better, it’s bound to be farther down 99, somewhere over the horizon. Eyes on the road, Garrett.
“On the Road to Paradise” appears in Hongo’s first book publication, The Buddha Bandits Down Highway 99 (1978), a collaboration with his two fellow highwaymen, Lawson Fusao Inada and Alan Chong Lau. The sequence marks the first of many road trips taken in Hongo’s writing; it’s its own best argument for why the best emblem for that half-century of poetry is a road trip. A single life course with a definite starting point but an uncertain destination, the exact path impossible to predict, narrated and understood only in retrospect. A little bit Joseph Campbell, a little bit Chuck Berry, a hero’s journey and a rock ’n’ roll joyride. The all-American experience of watching America pass by, conducting an on-the-fly cartography of a storied landscape as it vanishes behind you, shrinking from the nostalgic distortions of the rearview mirror. Taken together, Hongo’s three full-length collections—Yellow Light (1982), The River of Heaven (1988), and Coral Road (2011)—have catalogued drives across the United States mainland, Hawai‘i, Asia, and Europe. That’s not counting all the sea voyages, the migrations, the relocations, the dramatic monologues, or all the poems that come bundled with round-trip tickets to other worlds and historical lives. We’re lucky to share some time and space with the man himself, but the poems? They have places to be.
The spatial breadth of the poems is one manifestation of this essay’s subject, what I’m calling Hongo’s sense of extended play. The poems extend in all the ways you might expect or hope a poem to: they extend gratitude and sympathy, metaphors and reflections. But then they keep on extending in just about every dimension, pushing far beyond today’s narrow conceptions of what a lyric poem can do and be. From the start, Hongo’s poems have been too roomy to fit John Stuart Mill’s definition of poetry as “feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude.” They have always faced outward to address family and friends, actual ancestors and imagined forebears, and they’ll extend across any gulf of time, distance, or difference to make that connection. With as much formal ranginess as Walt Whitman, Charles Olson, and C. K. Williams, they extend their lines across the page’s blank field, then extend fixations and sequences between books published decades apart. They bring into play poetry’s neighbors, including history, drama, memoir, the personal essay, diaries, and literary and music criticism, all genres Hongo has published in and made his own. An extended play, of course, is also an EP, a record with more tracks than a single. Any audiophile could tell you that—and with his latest book The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo (2022), Hongo has proven himself an audiophile’s audiophile. Maybe that’s an even better emblem for the poetry: an EP, a lifework adding up to something greater than a single selfhood, a single story, a single style. So think of this essay as an EP for Garrett Hongo. Four tracks on his distinctive sound, his extended play. Some background music to listen to as you ride these poems down the road to Paradise, see the cutoff coming, and keep going.
Once you start, there’s no stopping. So why not start at the beginning, four hundred thousand years ago, when a hot spot in what nothing then living could call the Pacific Ocean plumed with magma, forming the last and largest of the Hawaiian Islands: the Big Island, Hawai‘i. Or start comparatively recently, just six thousand-odd years ago, when a linguistic lava called Proto-Indo-European began hardening into irregular, craggy formations that we’re still incapable of breaking apart, like the etymology-proof name Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire and the forge, or his Roman counterpart, Vulcan, the root of the English word volcano. Start, maybe, with the waves of people who washed up on the Hawaiian Islands from every direction, for work or wealth, in peace or war: the Polynesian sailors who settled the islands and became their native people; the European explorers who made first contact in 1778; the Americans who soon after set up plantations for sugar, coffee, and pineapple, illegally overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom, and brutally annexed the Hawaiian Islands in 1898; and the laborers who came to work those fields from China, Japan, Portugal, the Philippines, Korea, Puerto Rico, and Okinawa—all of them ancestors to the multiethnic population of the state of Hawai‘i, all of them contributors to the islands’ polyglot song.
Or start on the Big Island in a town called Volcano, at a family-run establishment called the Hongo Store. It’s where a boy was born to two Japanese Americans in 1951, right in the store’s back room, and where, months later, the trio of mother, father, and son shared a brush with nonexistence. In 1952, after eighteen inactive years, the town’s namesake volcano, pregnant with magma, began to erupt. Everyone felt the earth shake, even the newborn, midway through his bath-time:
My parents felt those rumblings
Coming deep from the earth’s belly,
Thudding like the bell of the Buddhist Church.
Tremors in the ground swayed the bathinette
Where I lay squalling in soapy water.
Father and mother, with baby in her arms, run out to the car just in time to hear the rumblings subside, leaving only “the Edsel’s grinding / And the bark and crackle of radio news.” No apocalypse that day. Just a settling of “red ash,” and only the slightest damage to the store, preserved in the photographic record of the day: one “print the size of a matchbook” showing a “dark skinny man, shirtless and grinning,” lifting “a naked baby above his head— / Behind him the plate glass of the store only cracked.” It’s a hell of an origin story, a bit of mythmaking laid right beneath one’s feet, and Garrett Hongo wasn’t even old enough to remember it firsthand.
The poem I’ve been quoting, “The Hongo Store,” appears in Hongo’s first book of poems, Yellow Light, a work of verse-autobiography that deserves shelf-space alongside William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, with its life-punctuating “spots of time”; the shy childhood reminiscences of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Hayden; and the watercolored childhood fantasias of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films. But Hongo is no everyday memoirist. When looking back, he refuses to turn the past into his one-man show. In Yellow Light’s title poem, which opens the book, Hongo imaginatively follows his mother as she returns from work, “cradling something for dinner” for her expectant son. The young Hongo doesn’t make an appearance, unless you count the hunger that aches through the poem, lending his similes their sweet, yearning specificity. When his mother “climbs up the two flights of flagstone / stairs” to their walkup, we hear “the spikes of her high heels / clicking like kitchen knives on a cutting board,” getting prep work started before she’s even in the door. At the poem’s close, the moon slides in behind her and “covers everything, everything in sight, / in a heavy light like yellow onions.” (“onions”! Who before Hongo would dare end a poem on a word as ordinary, as pungent, as “onions,” then place that poem first in their very first book?) Yellow Light’s second and third poems sketch portraits of a father and a brother, respectively. Later poems cast Hongo’s imagination even further—to a quashed sugar strike on Oahu in 1923, or across the history of Asian immigration from Chinese Exclusion to today, a sociological epic rarely told with the chromatic range of feeling it deserves. Yellow Light does come around to formative memories: Hongo’s introduction to his Japanese name, Kaoru; a year of travel in Japan; a young poet’s heady wish, registered in “To Matsuo Basho and Kawai Sora in Nirvana,” to “maybe write a hip haiku / where Basho saw smiling frogs / hump croaking ones.” But this autobiographer won’t pretend he can tell you who he is without explaining who his people are first.
And “his people” includes you. The candid, neighborly poems of Yellow Light extend their welcome not only to Hongo’s family and friends but to his readers, from encyclopedic poetry buffs to those wholly uninitiated with him, his work, or his communities. Even at his most protective, Hongo will still invite you over for a virtual dinner—and he does, in the book’s feast of linguistic description, “Who Among You Knows the Essence of Garlic?” Its first stanza is a test and a tease, holding outsiders at arm’s length only to beckon them close with a tantalizing starter: “Can your foreigner’s nose smell mullets / roasting in a glaze of brown bean paste / and sprinkled with novas of sea salt?” From one angle, Hongo’s anthology-piece is an ode to Japanese home cooking and everything it preserves, from a cultural legacy of perfected sensations to a family’s most treasured practices: “Can you hear my grandmother / chant the mushroom’s sutra?” From another angle, it’s an ode to the delectability of the English language, prepared just right—its luscious liquids, succulent sibilants, savory slant-rhymes, and intercontinental fusion of dictions. Some lines slip into slapstick: “Flukes of giant black mushrooms / leap from their murky tubs / and strangle the toes of young carrots.” Others achieve the lurid allure of so-called “food porn,” years before the internet’s collective foodies coined the term:
Soft ripe pears, blushing
on the kitchen window sill,
kneel like plump women
taking a long, luxurious shampoo,
and invite you to bite their hips.
If any PSA for eating fresh fruit deserved to be blurred out for nudity, it’s this one. Hongo’s is the rare food poem to satisfy all the contradictory desires we impose on food—our cravings for surface pleasures and for cultural roots, for sublime dishes to wow our guests and for recipes that under no circumstances may be diluted to accommodate foreigners’ narrow tastes. Take it from me—someone whose maternal grandparents, first-generation Chinese immigrants, ran a restaurant for decades, 365 days a year, closing one day ever, to cater my parents’ wedding. Either one can cook up a Proustian moment with only a splash of oil, some aromatics, and a few seconds of stir-frying. If you don’t know the essence of garlic—if you’ve been deprived of the kind of flavor that inspires this kind of poem—then poor you. You’re missing out.
Once you start, there’s no stopping. One of Yellow Light’s most prescient portraits ends on a sentence that travels through time. In the span of a breathtaking line break, it leaps from a quotidian moment, the exhalation of “a wreath of smoke,” to that moment’s inevitable conclusion, decades in the making:
He laughs and lights a cigarette,
breathes out a wreath of smoke
for his funeral, fifty years away,
scents the air with the acrid incense of tobacco,
and blesses the wind that will scatter his ashes.
This is the final stanza of “Kubota,” a poem named for the man it portrays: Hongo’s maternal grandfather Hideo Kubota, known at home and abroad by his last name alone. It’s not an elegy, or at least it wasn’t when it was published in 1980, three years before Kubota’s death. Read in any year, it flaunts Hongo’s unparalleled gift for unfolding the strange shapes time takes, revealing its nestings and doubling-ups: say, the presentness of the past in this memory’s close-up on Kubota’s laughing, lighter-lit face, then a foreboding of the future, an eventual scattering of ashes, in the “incense” flaking from his cigarette’s tip. Think of Hongo’s nested times as rhymes—conceptual rhymes, visual rhymes, and, of course, sonic rhymes, which he tightly interlaces in his closing couplet. There’s a pungent kick to the flattened a’s and falling rhythms of ácrid, tobácco, scátter, and áshes, but also a gentler countercurrent of short e’s and shushing s’s: scents, incense, blesses, and again, that impeccably chosen last word, ashes. This stanza does justice to life’s countless evanescent moments and to its single extended arc, finding a form fit for both: a single winded sentence, expiring as it goes along. So there’s one last rhyme, form with content. A life measured out in laughs, cigarettes, and blessings, like a poem broken into lines, is a matter of expended breath.
Kubota is the first of two dedicatees of Hongo’s second book, The River of Heaven. The other is Hongo’s late father, Albert Kazuyoshi Hongo; the two men died two months apart. In a 1986 reading, Hongo talked through both losses: “The first death was expected; the second was astonishing, was a surprise, and devastating, ultimately. And then I suddenly became the oldest male in the family.” The River of Heaven stands tall as a pinnacle in the history of American elegy, and it faces certain challenges unique to that history. It memorializes a father and a grandfather in a Japanese American community where the language of grief, particularly between men, was not frank expression or full-throated song but a patchwork of decorum and ritual, inference and silence. And it chronicles the lives of men whose stoic heroism was never documented, let alone acknowledged, men discouraged from speaking on either the universal or the racially specific hardships they were dealt by the twentieth century. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kubota was taken in for questioning, under suspicion simply for his ethnicity, and placed in detention on a Navajo reservation in Arizona for nearly four years. A hemisphere away, in the very same war, Albert Hongo served in the United States Army, risking his life for a country that could entertain only two understandings of Japanese American men: weapons to deploy or threats to detain.
The burden on Garrett Hongo, as the family’s poet, receiver, and storyteller, was to mine what few memories and what slim archive survived to tell those men’s stories. To speak not only for them but somehow with them, squaring himself with their absences, offering the by-no-means-compensatory presences of his poems. The burden on Hongo the son, grandson, and newly oldest man in the family, as he explained in his 1986 reading, was quite literal: “I was charged with taking their ashes back to the islands. So I did. This is a poem for them, for those ashes.” The staggering elegy Hongo reads next is titled “Obon: Dance for the Dead”; the English subtitle refers to the Japanese Buddhist practice of dancing as alms for the souls of the dead, Bon Odori, annually performed during the summer festival of Obon. The poem begins with a pair of optical illusions:
I have no memories or photograph of my father
coming home from war, thin as a caneworker,
a splinter of flesh in his olive greens
and khakis and spit-shined G.I. shoes;
Or of my grandfather in his flower-print shirt,
humming his bar-tunes, tying the bandana
to his head to hold the sweat back from his face
as he bent to weed and hoe the garden that Sunday
while swarms of planes maneuvered overhead.
Here we have two men, two stanzas, and too many descriptive tools to count—Hongo strikes upon a new one in just about every line. Start with that first portrait of Hongo’s father. What begins as honest-to-goodness stocktaking, internal and external—“I have no memories or photograph of my father”—explodes into present-tense immediacy with the poem’s first line break, “my father / coming home from war,” the enjambment landing like a kick to the front door. As though in real time, Hongo draws two rapid sketches of his father’s frame. First Albert is “thin as a caneworker,” a body whittled down by labor and sweat; only a line break later, he is something even more pitiful, “a splinter of flesh.” At which point Hongo hurriedly drapes his father in an entire period costume, head to toe, with only three verbal brushstrokes: “olive greens,” khaki pants, glossy black shoes. For his grandfather, already at work in the early hours of Sunday, December 7, 1941, Hongo exchanges portraiture for a cinematic tracking shot. Starting in tight on a shirt’s innocently pretty “flower-print,” Hongo pulls back to reveal more and more: a sweat-sopped brow, then a home garden, then a new theater of war beginning overhead. Where Hongo’s first stanza stayed silent, focusing purely on dimension and color, his second mixes in an ominous soundtrack, as the sociable cheer of hummed “bar-tunes” is overwhelmed by the cacophony of swarming warplanes.
It’s such an economical exercise in world-building that you barely notice that Hongo is describing something that doesn’t exist. “I have no memories or photograph,” the poem began; Hongo was born too late to create the former, and no one had the foresight to take or preserve the latter. The moments that would have been captured in these hypothetical memories and photographs, those spots of time, those cruxes in an intergenerational saga: those all really happened, of course. Now that his father and grandfather are gone, Hongo yearns to ratify them with the certainties of personal testimony and documentary evidence. Where do they exist now, beyond his yearning? Do they exist anywhere outside of this poem?
Continuing the tradition of sober, long-lined meditations in English, from Wordsworth to Whitman, from Hayden to Heaney, “Obon: Dance for the Dead” thinks through these questions, and finds every solution lacking. Hongo has “no memories of the radio that day,” no news to contextualize his loss, and “no story to tell about lacquer shrines / or filial ashes”—no story of cultural traditions handed down, entrusted from father to son. Now, as a new father, a grown man who can say with pride “I’ve made a life and raised my house / oceans east of my birth,” Hongo still can’t discern the consoling lament of traditional Japanese music, “the sound of flute / and shamisen jangling its tune of woe.” All he can hear are his instruments packed away and uncaring nature raging outside, a music of inactivity and entropy:
The music nonetheless echoes in its slotted box,
the cold sea chafes the land and swirls over gravestones,
and wind sighs its passionless song through ironwood trees.
By the poem’s end, Hongo reaches one articulation of what a solution might be. It’s not in those missing memories or untraceable photographs, nor in his grasping after absences, but in what tangible presences remain:
More than memory or the image of the slant of grey rain
pounding the thatch coats and peaked hats
of townsmen racing across the blond arch of a bridge,
more than the past and its aches and brocade
of tales and ritual, its dry mouth of repetition,
I want the cold stone in my hand to pound the earth,
I want the splash of cool or steaming water to wash my feet,
I want the dead beside me when I dance, to help me
flesh the notes of my song, to tell me it’s all right.
All along, Hongo was in search of a satisfying ceremony. Here, in the poem’s final quatrain, he scripts his own ritual out of impassioned, patterned verse. The descriptive wizardry that began the poem has consolidated into a summoning spell, opening on the self-possessed anaphora of “I want,” “I want,” “I want,” then surging ahead atop an incantatory iambic pulse: “I wánt the splásh of cóol or stéaming wáter”; “I wánt the déad besíde me whén I dánce.” What Hongo can offer the dead is a rhythm, a skeletal “song” made of “notes” both musical and scribbled down; what he wants in return is someone to help him “flesh” out his song with movement, conviction, a steady pace that wordlessly persuades him “it’s all right.” Like his earlier yearning for memories and photographs, that want is at once profoundly felt and impossible to satisfy. It’s a plea for the comforting reassurance that no one provides better than one’s elders; paradoxically, what Hongo needs those elders to assure him is that they’re not truly there, they’re gone, and that a life without them will still be, in the poem’s last words, “all right.” This is Hongo extending his sense of poetic play further than ever, fording generational divides, minding the gap between life and death. By throwing his ancestors one more verse line, a bit more time to speak back to him, he contrives something to say goodbye to.
Once you start, there’s no stopping. The poems of Hongo’s third and latest collection, Coral Road, inhabit some of the most expansive canvases you’ll find in American poetry. But why limit that sentence to “American,” or to “poetry”? Coral Road's promiscuity with geographies and genres begins as early as its table of contents, which reads less like a random sampling of contemporary poems than a lost library of manuscripts, a repository of world knowledge: “An Oral History of Blind-Boy Liliko'i.” “The Art of Fresco.” “A Map of Kahuku in Oregon.” Lines so immense they could eat iambic pentameter for lunch unroll across this book’s pages, spooling along the right margins. Sections and sequences tally up to five, seven, even fifteen parts, giving the lie to any one part’s pretensions to authority or exhaustiveness. Twenty-three years separate Hongo’s second book and his third, but the time spanned by Coral Road stretches decades beyond that, particularly in its forthright dramatic monologues; Hongo relates other lives with a memoirist’s self-scrutiny, ambling freely down alternate timelines. In his autobiographical poems, Hongo keeps speaking for and listening back to his familial and cultural past: “As I am Kubota’s voice in this life, / chanting broken hymns to the sea, / So also am I my father’s hearing, / fifty-five now and three years shy of his age when he died,” he reaffirms in the first lines of “Bugle Boys.” But Coral Road also looks ahead, extending the intergenerational chains of ritual and remembrance by welcoming in the newest Hongo men, Garrett’s sons. The book’s cover image depicts the family graves in Kahuku, Hawai‘i, photo “courtesy of the author.” In its final poem, “Elegy, Kahuku,” Hongo revisits those graves, where he convenes the family men, living and dead: “I’ve taken my sons there a few times now, / Taught them the bows and genuflections of worship, / The murmurs of a chant.” A chant handed down by a grandfather and a father, passing through Hongo, sounds anew in the murmurs of two sons. The extended play takes another spin.
Few examples of Hongo’s extended play are more extravagant or more moving than the book’s second section, “The Wartime Letters of Hideo Kubota.” Assuming the voice of his maternal grandfather Kubota during his wartime imprisonment in Arizona, Hongo addresses similarly imprisoned or isolated figures from across world literature, from the Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet to José Arcadio Buendía, the patriarch of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. In “Kubota to the Chinese Poets Detained on Angel Island,” Kubota writes to the early-twentieth-century Chinese migrants held in the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Harbor, where they awaited and endured the wearying interrogations that would determine their legal fates. Inadvertently, while filling and killing time, these migrants helped found the Asian American poetic tradition, making their largely anonymous mark on their prisons by carving Chinese poems into the center’s wooden walls. Writing from the mainland, Kubota bridges two unthinkable conditions, forging a solidarity between isolates:
When they ask you your brother’s name, say It is Kubota.
When they ask me what light attracts the fish at night,
I will answer The light of angels from Island.
When they ask what fish come to the light,
I will say A fish that swims the River of Heaven.
Where can a Japanese American detainee speak frankly with Chinese America’s canon-making vandals, except within Hongo’s balanced lines? Meeting relentless questioning (“When they ask,” “When they ask,” “When they ask”) with poised responses (“say,” “I will answer,” “I will say”), Kubota talks himself and his far-off fellow detainees, step by step, through their imminent interrogations. Besides a common predicament and Hongo’s fictional lingua franca, Kubota and the Angel Island poets share an inventory of myths and icons, including the River of Heaven, an East Asian epithet for the Milky Way. Of course, The River of Heaven, italicized, is also the title of Hongo’s second book. It sounds so far-fetched, Kubota’s image: “A fish that swims the River of Heaven.” But in two generations’ time, his poet grandson made that image—an imaginary river with real fish in it—into a printed and bound reality, available at your nearest bookstore or local library.
So sprawling is Hongo’s extended play of late, so adhesive, so multitudinous, that I find the poems of Coral Road nearly impossible to excerpt or summarize. And the poems Hongo has published since have only extended that book further, drawing Coral Road’s threads in unprecedented directions. Skim the past few volumes of your favorite journals, and you’ll read more of Kubota’s letters, alongside Hongo’s earnest memorials to dearly departed teachers and comrades in poetry. You’ll reenter Hongo’s childhood, which as it recedes backward has paradoxically lengthened and broadened, drawn ever sharper in Hongo’s retrospective self-portraits. And you’ll even find Hongo revisiting moments and motifs first written about decades earlier, returning with second thoughts and a distanced clarity. Hongo’s most recent poem in the Sewanee Review, “In Marble and Light,” begins precisely where “OBon: Dance for the Dead” could not—with Hongo rifling through an internal storehouse of images of his father, recalling “an old 8x10 photograph of my father / with two of his war buddies”: “It was a black and white studio shot / touched up so their faces looked like smooth marble, but sepia- // toned with a cast of weak coffee.” Like that earlier poem, “In Marble and Light” ends by uncovering a sense of sculpted solidity, except this time it’s closer than ever, closer even than wishfully having “the dead beside me while I dance.” This time, it’s as close as Hongo’s own skin. At a Memorial Day gathering at the National Cemetery, a Nisei World War II vet reaches toward Hongo and brushes his cheek:
“Your face the same as your father’s,” he said, the palms of his gloves rough
as emery against my skin. And I was made marble, wet with a shining light.
Astonished, Hongo turns to stone. What a perfect omission, the ghostly “is” dropped from “Your face the same as your father’s.” Linguists call this phenomenon the zero copula; I recognize it from my Chinese American elders’ zero-words-wasted vernacular, from sentences whose subjects and predicates hug one another tight. Here, the dropped “is” compresses “Your face” against “the same as your father’s” until the words sing out a rising rhythm, and the two faces, Garrett’s and Albert’s, all but superimpose. Recovering his father, in this final couplet, is no longer a matter of something as vaporous as memory (a word Hongo forgoes for its rhyming opposite, the abrasive grittiness of “emery”). It’s a matter of being a father’s living monument, an embodiment as solid as “marble,” a visage as fickle as “light” shining on a tear-wet face.
I’ve nearly reached the end of this essay and still only discussed these poems in pieces, a line or stanza at a time. That’s borderline heretical, like judging a movie by its trailer, or a museum’s masterworks by the postcards for sale in the gift shop. So let’s end by looking at a recent poem in full, a lyrical ballad worthy of Coleridge and Wordsworth, transplanted to the streets of Gardena, California. It’s among Hongo’s shortest poems, but rarely has his sense of extended play been more adventuresome, as it connects the Japanese folk music of min’yō to the American miracle of Motown, the suburbs to the Milky Way, worldly goods to the spirit world. It’s called, with a wink to the great American poet Smokey Robinson, “I Got Heaven . . . ”:
I swear that, in Gardena, on a moonlit suburban street,
There are souls that twirl like kites lashed to the wrists of the living
And spirits who tumble in a solemn limbo between 164th
And the long river of stars to Amida’s Paradise in the West.
As though I belonged, I’ve come from my life of papers and exile
To walk among these penitents at the Festival of the Dead,
The booths full of sellers hawking rice cakes and candied plums,
All around us the rhythmic chant of min’yō bursting through
Calling out the mimes and changes to all who dance.
I stop at a booth and watch a man, deeply tanned from work outdoors,
Pitch bright, fresh quarters into blue plastic bowls.
He wins a porcelain cat, a fishnet bag of marbles,
Then a bottle of shōyu, and a rattle shaped like tam-tam he gives to a child.
I hear the words of a Motown tune carry through the gaudy air
. . . got sunshine on a cloudy day . . . got the month of May . . .
As he turns from the booth and reenters the River of Heaven—
These dancers winding in brocades and silk sleeves,
A faith-lit circle briefly aswarm in the summer night.
“I swear,” the poem promises, before telling us a single thing to believe or not. It’s like opening a composition on the unmoored dissonance of a diminished seventh chord, starting in an atmosphere of hazy unsettlement. In only two words, Hongo is calling apparent truths and seeming fictions into question, but he’s telling us to trust him as our guide, our suburban Virgil: I swear this is the right way. What follows has the shimmering quality of folktale, as every pair of lines or half-lines flashes between the quotidian and the fantastic. A moonlit suburban street, kites on wrists, a street fair on 164th Street: that’s classic Americana. Twirling souls tethered to our fates, tumbling spirits who mingle among the living, “a solemn limbo” of the dead from the West Coast to the Paradise in the West? That’s another of Hongo’s backgrounds, the cosmology of Japanese Buddhism. The first stanza’s long, largely unpunctuated lines keep faith and truth in equal suspension: there’s magic humming in a phrase like “tumble in a solemn limbo,” with its trochaic footfall and nasal m’s and n’s, but also a somber music sounding out in Hongo’s untroubled, end-stopped lines: This is how it happened, I swear.
Two lines in, the second stanza finally grounds us in a Festival of the Dead, a Japanese custom we saw glancingly in “Obon: Dance for the Dead.” But again, Hongo unsettles our senses with an opening aside: “As though I belonged.” Do poets and scholars, leading idiosyncratic lives of “papers and exile,” belong among everyday people? Do everyday people belong in a carnival at the crossroads between earth and heaven, sharing suburban streets with souls and spirits? “I Got Heaven . . . ” convinces you to try answering yes, just as these festivalgoers are going through the motions of a dance for the dead, its “mimes and changes,” and just as Hongo is daring himself to walk among penitents, taking in everything he sees and seems to see with a clear-eyed, reportorial gaze. What he lingers on longest is a man who appears to be, in every way, his foil. Far from exiling himself among papers, he is “deeply tanned from work outdoors.” Instead of maintaining an observer’s remove, he is immersed in the festival’s games, winning prizes, blessing a lucky child with a toy rattle, an early induction into music-making. And unlike our trustworthy speaker, this man might not be a man at all. To the disembodied and unplaceable tune of the Temptations’ “My Girl”—“I’ve got sunshine / On a cloudy day / When it’s cold outside / I’ve got the month of May”—the man up and disappears. Did he reenter the River of Heaven, that long river of stars to Paradise? Or has he simply slipped into a joyous crowd, as it lights up the summer night with a man-made Milky Way of fluorescent streetlights, swirling silk sleeves, and a “faith-lit circle” of dance? Either way, Hongo ends the poem with glimpses of an earthly, even an earthy Paradise, distractions worth returning from the afterlife for: sunshine and the month of May, communities stitched together by dance and play, and even the pop perfection of “My Girl.” (Note how Hongo twice subtracts the pronoun “I” from the song’s lyrics, leaving an unpronounceable ellipsis in its place. It’s as though there’s no soul singing “My Girl,” just soul music singing itself.) Published in 2014, “I Got Heaven . . . ” began thirty-five years earlier, in stranded lines Hongo first jotted down as an MFA student at UC Irvine; failing to wrestle the lines into shape, he stowed the manuscript pages in a file marked “’79 Drafts.” All that young poet needed, it turns out, was the guiding hand of an older, more seasoned collaborator. Someone with three luminous poetry collections and a shelfful of publications behind him, wandering through memory as though he belonged, showing him the way to the poem. Once you stop, you start over.