Wednesday, April 09, 2008

BillyBlog's Favorite Poems, #22 ("Looking at Kilauea" by Garrett Hongo)

This is one of those cheap, lazy, not-enough-time-in-the-day, what-was-I-thinking-promising-a-poem-every-day posts.

I am conflicted because I generally do not like long posts, which can be problematic when the poet one is plugging writes longer poems. So, bear with it, if you please....

If you haven't heard of Garret Hongo, it's probably because he's not a prolific poet, but what he writes is profoundly personal in the context of an early life in Hawai'i and in Southern California, both places to which I have a strong personal connection.

I first read Hongo when I experienced his memoir Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai'i in 1996. This is one of my favorite memoirs of all-time and worthy in itself of a separate, more thoughtful post.

Hongo goes back in his prose and poetry to the Big Island of Hawai'i often, and to those poems, that resonate with the atmosphere of that wonderful place. So I offer up "Looking at Kilauea” not as a "favorite poem" but as a representation of all that I love about Hongo's poetry. Blogger musses up the spacing of the actual text, so I recommend looking at the hyperlink if you want a full effect. But otherwise:

"Looking at Kilauea"

I’ve been looking at Kilauea
and its various eruptive features
for a few years now, and,
every time I do it,
I really never know what it is I’ll be looking at,
looking for, remembering, or comparing it to.
It’s kind of like daydreaming,
gazing at the birth-stem of all things.

The looking follows the structure of a daydream,
finding its dips and turns,
its connections with the ten thousand things,
then dipping back again into a rapturous privacy
and the specifics of the one that is before me—

a fissure line of rupture in the earth fuming with sulphurous air;
a glistening beach of newborn black sand;
a conical driblet spire crowning a fresh flow that,
out of its blowhole,

spouts an incandescent emission like red sperm over the new land;

solidified eddies of paho’eho’e
swirled like fans of pandanus leaves
inundating Highway 130 near Kaimu;
or a frozen cascade of lava
sluiced over a low, dun-colored bluff
that foregrounds a deep-focus panorama over the sublime,
shades of gray and black plain of Ka’u Desert,
the mother’s breast of my universe.

When I first came here,
I was aware I was before a deep mystery
that shocked and yet seemed to work subtly too,
driving through the green thigh of imagination,
reminding me,
as my thoughts formed themselves
into faintly tidal rhythms of realization and befuddlement,
of what was the quintessential mystery—
questions of poetry and creation.

My mind and soul seemed turning in a dance,
squiring each other,
revolving like twin stars in a galaxy of lavas
flowing in a slow, mortal spiral
up the bole of a frightened tree standing in its path,
its crown a fan of gray coral,
creating a form out of fire and extinguishment,
a frothy, snakelike cone of astral matter,
blobs of yin and yang
in velocities of vortex and tango,
ascending up the blazing trunk of an ohi’a tree
burning to ash and char.

I heard a song.
I had a little vision of schoolchildren crossing,
not a village green in London
or gamboling through some clichéd countryside
dotted with barns and farmponds,
but over a plain of smokes,
over a dire lake of black lavas
transformed into the congenial earth they could walk upon.

There simply was everything to think about,
and my mind, in those moments,
seemed suddenly capable of thinking them all,
holding them in one breath’s time,
the myriad of creation’s entirety
caught in the spirit’s dance of my apprehending.

An ocean of thoughts. A body made electric by them.

Death not ending, ever, but the absence of inspiration,
a falling from the bright light at the center of the earth.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of this in his essay “Nature.”
He spoke of crossing Concord Green at night
with a feeling that removed him from himself,
taking in all of the universe
through the body of his soul,
which seemed to him like “a transparent eyeball.”

His soul lifted.
All of learning, faith, and human effort
seemed subsumed in the momentary awareness.

What was Concord, Massachusetts, but a metaphor for human
an earthly ambition, a city on a hill that looked upon heaven?

He resigned his ministry,
which had become, sadly,
the fragmentation of his faith,
but his loyalty shifted
to the new mission of articulating his wonderfully homespun,
yet transcendental vision.

He wrote.
He became a poet,
his testimonies given over to beauty.
praising flowers,
a moment’s thought,
the rhodora with eternity
embowered deep in its blossoming pink cups.

Living here,
the looking gives details that, in the mind,
pile against each other like clouds against Mauna Loa,
subductions and effervescences shoring like seas against a

Recollecting takes meditation,
another daydream, and then it comes:

if I drove up from Wayne’s house and through the park,
plunging past all the micro-climates of rain-beaded ginger lilies
and the scorched forest of ohi’a and staghorn ferns
dying in the suffocating sulfuric fogs of Steaming Bluffs,
crossing the little sink bowl of a tiny caldera matted with ferns
and sedges,
I’d get to a mound of land near Uwekahuna
where I can look out over the inflatable summit dome of Kilauea
rising over a long slot of pulverized lavas, buff and brown in
sunny weather.

If I stopped and pulled over,
if I walked out onto the little roll of the land
giving way to little faults and gullies,
an inner sea of unstable rock
frequented with seismic swarms
and churning with a hundred rises
as if the gathering pods of khaki-backed, migrating whales
were spuming their way from Kilauea Summit towards
Mauna Loa,
I would see a long black groove
that would be Volcano Highway
twisting through the gully that is the seam of earthen creation
where the land,
churning with perceptible movement,
becomes Mauna Loa,
an earthform “Concerto de Aranjuez”
building slowly through basaltic gradients of blue and gray
into the summit caldera obscured by clouds,
dwarfed by the inverted bowl of the afternoon sky’s pale,
porcelain blue.

I would lean against an onrush of wind
scudding over the plain of lavas,
sent by the flattening heel of a cloudbank,
insubstantial wraith
skydiving in the space between heaven and Kilauea,
between one volcano and another.

If I reached beside me,
scrubby boughs of ohelo bushes would be cowlicking
like the thick fur between the shoulders of a wolf or a bear,
ruffled alert by wind or the scent of humans walking close-by.
Shining berries, some a deep red, others more pale,
some of them spotted with blemishes,
would bounce with a sugary weight against my hand
as I bent to pluck them.

The land and its atmosphere will have gathered themselves
into whatever act the clouds and myself might bring about:

a tribute of afternoon rain,

garlands of purple trailing like a fringed skirt under the
moving clouds,
a handful of tiny fruit, unstrung,
juicy pearls tossed from my hand
into the scuffed canyonlands of eroded lavas reaching out to me
from a sullen sleep,
the unimagined oblivion of dormancy, barren of praise.

I rouse this rock into the space of my own living.
It is music. It is the sweet scent of rain
spouting in puffed quarternotes of dust on the land.

If I turned to leave.
back toward my car parked by the side of the road,
I would be through with looking,
my body shuffled against the wind
like a tree, red-brilliant,
full of passionate blossoms too heavy for its boughs,
the long mountain at my back,
pure upwelling of Kilauea in my soul,
the dancer and the dance,
kin to earth again.

If you like that, check out also "Pinoy at the Coming World".

Previous Favorite Poems for National Poetry Month:

#23 - "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" by Randall Jarrell
#24 - A Handful of Richard Brautigan
#25 - "A Buddha in the Woodpile" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
#26 - "Separation" by W.S. Merwin
#27 - "The Flea" by John Donne
#28 - Poem Twenty from Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair
#29 - "Magpie's Song" by Gary Snyder
#30 - "Eunoia" by Christian Bok

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