by Steve Haruch
Where: Vanderbilt's Buttrick Hall
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 22
There’s no denying that Garrett Hongo was a driving force behind the further advancement of Asian-American literature. In 1993, five years after winning the Lamont prize for his lyrical, elegiac collection The River of Heaven, also a Pulitzer finalist, he edited perhaps the most essential anthology of its kind — The Open Boat: Poems From Asian America, which introduced new audiences to poets like Agha Shahid Ali and John Yau.
Hongo remains an important figure in contemporary poetry, writing and teaching in the University of Oregon’s vaunted writing program. His latest, Coral Road, continues his exploration of personal memory and lived history.
You can read his poem "What For" after the jump.
"What For," Garrett Hongo
At six I lived for spells:
how a few Hawaiian words could call
up the rain, could hymn like the sea
in the long swirl of chambers
curling in the nautilus of a shell,
how Amida’s ballads of the Buddhaland
in the drone of the priest’s liturgy
could conjure money from the poor
and give them nothing but mantras,
the strange syllables that healed desire.
I lived for stories about the war
my grandfather told over hana cards,
slapping them down on the mats
with a sharp Japanese kiai.
I lived for songs my grandmother sang
stirring curry into a thick stew,
weaving a calligraphy of Kannon’s love
into grass mats and straw sandals.
I lived for the red volcano dirt
staining my toes, the salt residue
of surf and sea wind in my hair,
the arc of a flat stone skipping
in the hollow trough of a wave.
I lived in a child’s world, waited
for my father to drag himself home,
dusted with blasts of sand, powdered
and the strange ash of raw cement,
his deafness made worse by the clang
of pneumatic drills, sore in his bones
from the buckings of a jackhammer.
He’d hand me a scarred lunchpail,
let me unlace the hightop G.I. boots,
call him the new name I’d invented
that day in school, write it for him
on his newspaper. He’d rub my face
with hands that felt like gravel roads,
tell me to move, go play, an then he’d
walk to the laundry sink to scrub,
rinse the dirt of his long day
from a face brown and grained as koa wood.
I wanted to take away the pain
in his legs, the swelling in his joints,
give him back his hearing,
clear and rare as crystal chimes,
the fins of glass that wrinkled
and sparked the air with their sound.
I wanted to heal the sores that work
and war had sent to him,
let him play catch in the backyard
with me, tossing a tennis ball
past papaya trees without the shoulders
of pain shrugging back his arms.
I wanted to become a doctor of pure magic,
to string a necklace of sweet words
fragrant as pine needles and plumeria,
fragrant as the bread my mother baked,
place it like a lei of cowrie shells
and pikake flowers around my father’s neck,
and chant him a blessing, a sutra.