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What For

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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.

Garrett Hongo, “What For” from Yellow Light. Copyright © 1982 by Garrett Hongo. Reprinted with the permission of Wesleyan University Press.
Source: Yellow Light (Wesleyan University Press, 1982)
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What For

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  • Poet, memoirist, and editor Garrett Hongo was born in Volcano, Hawai’i, in 1951 to Japanese American parents. He grew up in Hawai’i and Los Angeles, and attended Pomona College and the University of Michigan for his BA. He earned his MFA from the University of California-Irvine, where he studied with the poets C.K. Williams, Howard Moss, and Charles Wright. His collections of poetry include Yellow Light (1982), The River of Heaven (1988), which received the Lamont Poetry Prize and was nominated for a Pulitzer, and Coral Road: Poems (2011). His poetry explores the experiences of Asian Americans in Anglo society, using lush imagery, narrative techniques, and myth to address both cultural alienation and the trials of immigrants, including the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, as well as the anti Japanese sentiment today. Because he delves into history and his own memory to express the bitterness of...

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