Monday, October 3, 2011

Poem by Garrett Hongo

A few weeks ago, I downloaded a Daily Poetry app for my iPhone that each day delivers a fresh, recently published poem. This morning I was pleasantly surprised to find that the poem of the day features Kauai, referencing places and events that are familiar and dear to me: Waimea Canyon, Hanalei Bay, the bon dance, etc. Thought I'd share:


Waimea, a village on Kaua'i's southwest shore, is where they went first—
Thatched huts and mud floors, sewers for streets, or pathways, really,
Like sluices in heavy rains—human mire, cane bagasse, and runoff around their feet.
I went there once, but it was summer, and I was with my sons, our first gentle ones.
They were teen and preteen then, soft and bewildered by every thing—
The turquoise Gatorade half-bowl of Hanalei Bay, calm as bathwater,
Lo'ikalo taro fields, brown terraces of tremulous green hearts
                                                               lolling in the light afternoon wind,
and the viridian elephant's feet of mountains rising into lavish clouds
                                                                         purple as poi.
We hiked the swampy Alaka'i one day and saw birds big as crows,
Yet plumed like parakeets, fiery orange and yellow, and stared
At the ribboned varicolors of rocky chasms and felt the wind lift us from our collars
                                                                             flapping like loose sails.
One night, the clearest evening of the year, I took them to Bon Odori,
Where the living dance for the expiation of the dead caught in limbo
To release them from trial and permit a passage to nirvana—an ultimate heaven.
Counterclockwise in summer robes, holding fans, twirling loose, draping sleeves,
The dancers would circle around the yagura, a tower in the middle of a ball field,
And laughter would rise like sugary smoke from the broiling fires at every booth,
While folks clapped hands to ondo rhythms, pre-millennium country tunes
About the rice harvest, mining coal, or simply lovelorn travail.
I always liked the clarinets and saxophones, honking softly like pelicans at the shore—
Their old, pentatonic melodies and lugubrious trills, cornier-than-thou.
But my sons grew up with none of these, far from this past that was, to me,
The real world and its genuine glory—not the strained exile I suffered
Pushing a grocery cart up the cereal aisles of a sad Safeway.
                                                                                   This was home to me—
Wandering a sandy parade ground while the PA blared with min'yō and lantern lights
Bobbed like glass floats along the intricate nets of electrical wire strung above us,
The barker's call of the next tune and his welcome of a dance club from Maui,
Men in their seventies, fit and muscled, with white-haired crew cuts and creviced faces,
Women in ricebag aprons and embroidered shawls, geta clapping their heels
                                                                               as they walked
from pool to luminous pool of neighbors and friends, the pre-school children
crouching arrhythmically inside the dance-ring and stamping their feet
           just behind the beat.
We flowed along, anonymous to all, gathering brief, impolite stares,
For, although we might look as if we belonged, no one knew us,
Or even the favor of our faces, as none shared our blood, and we were strangers
                                                                             to this edge of Paradise,
Ourselves ghosts of our ancestors among the living of Waimea,
Who could barely see us, squinting, rubbing their eyes, and blinking,
Trying to bring our bodies into focus, our faces like shadows in a mirror,
Silhouettes of darkened lanterns not quite lit by the glow from another close by.
I thought to make a prayer then, and we took a few steps away from the dancing
Towards the long, flower-lined entry path to the shrine and offertory,
Decorative, straw-wrapped tubs of shōyu stacked in pyramids along
                                                                    each side of the butsuma.
I showed the boys the slow way to approach, heads bowed, hands in gasshō,
As I myself learned at the monastery, the priest taking my hands and lifting
                                                                                  my thumbs,
Taking my head firmly and inclining it down like a barber would a boy's.
And then the three-point genuflection—knees on the floor, forehead touching
                                                                                            the carpet,
Hands upraised over the ears as if they were flowers floating on the surface
                                                                                           of a pool
Where you'd just dipped your face to search its bottom for roots.
Namu Amida Butsu we murmured, Homage to the World-Compassionate One,
And a winding veil of emptiness spun alert inside my heart, stranger in these shadows,
My soul aswerve like a battered moth, misdirected in summer flight
            by the gentle web of pitching festival lights.

 -  by Garrett Hongo

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