Garrett Hongo’s long-awaited third collection of poems is a beautiful, elegiac gathering of his Japanese-American ancestors in their Hawaiian landscape and a testament to the power of poetry, as it brings their marginalized yet heroic narratives into the realm of art.
In Coral Road Hongo explores the history of the impermanent homeland his ancestors found on the island of O‘ahu after their immigration from southern Japan, and meditates on the dramatic tales of the islands. In sumptuous narrative poems he takes up strands of family stories and what he calls “a long legacy of silence” about their experience as contract laborers along the North Shore of the island. In the opening sequence, he brings to life the story of his great-grandparents fleeing from one plantation to another, finding their way by moonlight along coral roads and railroad tracks. As his grandmother, a girl of ten with an infant on her back, traverses “twelve-score stands of cane / chittering like small birds, nocturnal harpies in the feral constancies of wind,” Hongo asks, “Where is the Virgil who might lead me through the shallow underworld of this history?” In fact, it is Hongo who guides himself—and us—as, in these devoted acts of recollection, he seeks to dispel the dislocation at the center of his legacy.
The love of art—making beauty in however provisional a culture—has clearly been a guiding principle in Hongo’s poetry. In this content-rich verse, Hongo hearkens to and delivers “the luminous and the anecdotal,” bringing forth a complete aesthetic experience from the shards that make up a life.