Tuesday, March 31, 2020

coral road

Since Garrett Hongo's Coral Road is a "pilgrimage"--mostly through stories of Hongo's ancestry of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii--it makes sense that it begins in motion, "out of Hilo." The winding shapes of the poems feel fluid, akin to the constant ruminating of the past and the forward push of moving and thinking in the present. There are many long, elegant sentences throughout, rich in detail and sound. In "A Child's Ark," a poem which the speaker remembers a favorite TV show from the 1950s, the idea of movement is expressed in succinct verbiage where "kids would wend their way through the attractive curves of a game path." This is one of the more unassuming and surprising poems here and is, in a way, the crux of the book itself. Elegantly-constructed, Hongo illustrates how haunted the speaker is since youth in re-creating--"mapping out a village of my own" from distinct physical and emotional details that can be pulled. Many of the poems confront art and artists, photographs and pieces of history (including the scraps of census and immigration docs included within the book) with verve and complexity. I am thinking of the second section in particular of letters from the American Japanese detained in the country during WWII which summon Hikmet and Neruda. In the third section, the poet speaks through an artist: there's a plotting of dense vision and detail which ultimately ends up with "limed pigments"--"my symbols spare and cerulean." I was particularly amazed there, how Hongo is able to move through so much and ultimately end on something beautiful, simple. This dissonance between muchness and "the little to tell" runs throughout. As do images of fire in all sorts of ways, from a cane field ablaze, to torches, comets, "alabaster light over the empty Hawaiian sea," and a lit cigarette. Hongo also touches upon the remove of the artist: painted infernos are merely "benign." What more can be done sometimes other than looking--whether at the remnants of an old Shell station (the word "shell" a play upon the literal sea-laden image which this book is soaked in) or in "Holiday in Honolulu"--a photograph of Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong--and, out of so much richness and pain, trying to express everything simple, deceptively so, and blue.

-Jeffery Berg

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