• Homage to a Picture Bride

    Garrett Hongo

    Spring 2023

    When years were long with labor in the sugarfields,
    I sought a wife, at last, choosing her from a photograph.
    She was but fifteen, a shy child of a bride
    wrapped in faded kimono, as I likewise was wrapped in wind,
    a man of thirty, weathered by work in the green seas
    of cane, my savings finally enough to take my wedding vows.

    Before then, it was to the coming world that I made vows
    to wrest a new life from the earth and leave the fields
    so I might cast my eyes without sorrow from mountains to the sea,
    never again to falsify who I was in a photograph
    as though I were a clerk or a saddler, sheltered from the constant winds,
    the image I’d sent, a deception to my young bride.

    She was young but daily growing, my new bride.
    We stood on the pier and took our vows,
    and I led her to the North Shore, its mountains torn by winds,
    below them the rippling green fields
    of cane stretching all the way to the sea,
    a landscape no one would care to photograph.

    Before we left, someone took a photograph—
    this laborer and downcast picture bride
    half his age at their dockside ceremony of vows—
    staged before a background of slate-gray seas
    and the small curls of waves tossed by winds,
    impassive faces resigned to a hard life in the canefields.

    We were destined never to leave the fields—
    my wife gave birth to a son we did not photograph
    as, before he could cry, he was taken by the wind
    that came betrothed as his own promised bride,
    journeying from the Afterworld over storm-tossed seas,
    our mortal dreams of a better life all but disavowed.

    She herself died within a year of our vows
    and so finally escaped the sugarfields,
    a ghost in flight, ha-alele-hana, over the dread seas
    that never would be captured in a photograph,
    so that, ever after, only resolve would be my bride
    and my mourning cloak a coat of harsh winds.

    Only the wind knows my sorrows now, whatever vows
    my bride and I made are forever lost in the sugarfields,
    this photograph the one moment we lived apart from life’s cold seas.

    Garrett Hongo is the author of three collections of poetry, three anthologies, and Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai‘i. He lives in Eugene, Oregon, and teaches at the University of Oregon, where he is a Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences.

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