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About this poet

Japanese American poet, Garrett Hongo, was born in Volcano, Hawai'i, on May 30, 1951. He attended Pomona University and the University of Michigan. He received his MFA in English from the University of California at Irvine.

His collections of poetry include Coral Road: Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011); The River of Heaven (1988), which was the Lamont Poetry Selection of The Academy of American Poets and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Yellow Light (1982). He is also the author of Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai'i (1995), and he has edited Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays and Memoir by Wakako Yamauchi (1994) and The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America (1993).

His honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

He is currently Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Oregon at Eugene, where he directed the Program in Creative Writing from 1989 to 1993.

The Legend

Garrett Hongo, 1951

In memory of Jay Kashiwamura

In Chicago, it is snowing softly
and a man has just done his wash for the week.
He steps into the twilight of early evening,
carrying a wrinkled shopping bag
full of neatly folded clothes,
and, for a moment, enjoys
the feel of warm laundry and crinkled paper,
flannellike against his gloveless hands.
There's a Rembrandt glow on his face, 
a triangle of orange in the hollow of his cheek
as a last flash of sunset
blazes the storefronts and lit windows of the street.

He is Asian, Thai or Vietnamese,
and very skinny, dressed as one of the poor
in rumpled suit pants and a plaid mackinaw,
dingy and too large.
He negotiates the slick of ice
on the sidewalk by his car,
opens the Fairlane's back door,
leans to place the laundry in,
and turns, for an instant,
toward the flurry of footsteps
and cries of pedestrians
as a boy--that's all he was--
backs from the corner package store
shooting a pistol, firing it,
once, at the dumbfounded man
who falls forward,
grabbing at his chest.

A few sounds escape from his mouth,
a babbling no one understands
as people surround him
bewildered at his speech.
The noises he makes are nothing to them.
The boy has gone, lost
in the light array of foot traffic
dappling the snow with fresh prints.

Tonight, I read about Descartes'
grand courage to doubt everything
except his own miraculous existence
and I feel so distinct
from the wounded man lying on the concrete
I am ashamed

Let the night sky cover him as he dies.
Let the weaver girl cross the bridge of heaven
and take up his cold hands.

From The River of Heaven by Garrett Hongo, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1988 Garrett Hongo. Used with permission.

From The River of Heaven by Garrett Hongo, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1988 Garrett Hongo. Used with permission.

Garrett Hongo

Garrett Hongo

Japanese American poet, Garrett Hongo was born in Volcano, Hawai'i, in 1951

by this poet

poem
No one knew the secret of my flutes,
and I laugh now
because some said
I was enlightened.
But the truth is 
I'm only a gardener
who before the War
was a dirt farmer and learned
how to grow the bamboo
in ditches next to the fields,
how to leave things alone
and let the silt build up
until it was deep enough to
poem

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