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The River of Heaven (1988): Who Shall Wear the Robe and Crown?

Garrett Hongo, The River of Heaven (Knopf, 1988)

[originally posted 12Mar2001]

A koi pond adorns the book's cover.

Every time a jellyfish stings, an angel gets its wings.
photo credit: goodreads

Hongo’s second book of poetry was the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1987, an award which usually lends a great amount of buzz to a poet for a very short time. Hongo, unfortunately, is no exception, and not long after this book’s release, he slid back into the relative obscurity afforded most of the country’s top poets.

Hongo mostly writes in, and excels at, narrative form; a forgotten art in the Eliot-influenced American culture of the latter half of the twentieth century. Unlike most narrative poets, Hongo is willing to take the time to remember what poetry is while telling his story, and never lapsing into more prosaic sentence structure while still getting his points across. An example (I opened the book at random to pick it; seldom is a book of poetry good enough throughout to do that) from the middle of the poem “Morro Rock”:

And I knew a girl once
who lived near there,
and whom I’d visit,
hitching north, needing her still.
She was the first I’d known
who could sit, oblivious,
still in her long shift,
pull both knees to her arms,
and rock gently in the sand
while a thin foam of sea washed around her.
I’d stand barefoot in the foam
while the ocean percolated around us,
and toss wet handfuls of sand
towards the combers, empty of feeling.
The Rock filled the space behind us.

There’s not an unwritten rule of poetic creation not broken in that stanza, and yet Hongo pulls it off without, seemingly, any effort at all. Truly excellent stuff that should never have gone out of print. ****

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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