CORAL ROAD POEMS. Garrett Hongo. Knopf. 102 pages. $26
Murder Leaves Its Mark. Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl. University of Hawai‘i Press. 301 pages. $16.99
CORAL ROAD POEMS. Garrett Hongo. Knopf. 102 pages. $26
Murder Leaves Its Mark. Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl. University of Hawai‘i Press. 301 pages. $16.99
Pele in therapy. Maui as superhero. The cannibal king O‘ahu Nui in a world of shady deals and political corruption. The star-crossed naupaka lovers as Honolulu high-school sweethearts. In this one-of-a-kind anthology, old meets new as Hawai‘i’s best writers, including Ian MacMillan, Maxine Hong Kingston, W.S. Merwin, Victoria Kneubuhl, Alan Brennert and more, present favorite myths and legends in surprising contemporary settings. Here are 17 tales of old Hawai‘i—lovingly reimagined and retold for the 21st century.
Editor Christine Thomas is a freelance features and travel writer and book critic.
Full list of contributing writers:
Maxine Hong Kingston
Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl
J. Arthur Rath III
Softcover; 176 pp
Editor: Christine Thomas
Release Date: November 2011
It’s a given that releases from local poetry publisher TinFish Press will feature verse, but form, subject and author are usually a surprise. The latest installment, TinFish 19, defies preconceptions from the outset with a volume reminiscent of an old composition book, complete with rust-colored cardboard covers and thick black binding. There’s no introduction, only title and table of contents—throwing readers right into what feels like someone’s private—if quite well made—poetry journal.
Editor Susan Schultz made an excellent choice opening the collection with Jill Yamasawa’s enchanting and unusual ode to paradise, “The Prodigious Man.” It begs to be read aloud and pointedly engages one’s tongue and mind: “You must have a mind of paradise” it advises, to “behold everything that is not here / and everything that could be,” and to devour the poem’s charms.
It’s smart, too, that what follows are two pieces about TheBus, an inextricable but not often exalted facet of our island ‘paradise’. In a series of thirteen short poems offering different perspectives, Gizelle Gajelonia boldly likens TheBus to God; echoes its bumpy, potholed circuit; and subtly evokes a generation’s dependence on public transportation.
Ryan Oishi, in turn, rides TheBus, using complaints about traffic to open up a prosaic laundry list of O`ahu’s problems. While these facts, such as projections that O`ahu will deplete its groundwater by 2020, are important to know, and his aim to provoke change admirable, there’s little humor or style to lift it out of a well of doom.
Many of the collection’s poems are intriguing but largely inscrutable, and the more successful ones tend to be less complicated in language play and more inventive in structure, without becoming mired in concept or forced in intention. Barbara Janes Reyes’s meditation “She: Chant/Fragment,” builds in intensity and depth as it continues, repetition working to its benefit from the first “she of air-conditioning / she of tinted windows,” to “she of brittle peroxide / …she friend of earthworms” and beyond. Emelihter Kihleng’s humorous yet earnest attempt to persuade unwanted tourists from visiting Pohnpei, “Don’t Come to My Island,” unfurls its message like a wave that reverberates on our shores.
Other standouts are Janna Plant’s “Flashing Daisies,” which reflects its clipped phrases like a mirrored mobile; “What the Landlord Said” by Oscar Bermeo, conjuring an arsonist’s sandpaper hands; and “Mao’s Indigestion” by Kenny Tanemura, whose tender description and concrete imaginings make real a world where Mao’s deepest worries and remembrances are unveiled.
But stuck in the middle—and it’s often in the center of our personal journals, too, where things get good—is arguably the collection’s best. “On Place and Certainty” by Dennis Phillips draws in readers with its confident voice of presumed authority, spins them out past “the anniversaries of births and deaths / [that] cluster around us like shadows / gathered at the base of a midnight tree at noon,” and around the hurricane of “phrases you never thought you’d use,” finally delivering them to the oft-searched for, “one real place.”
Of course, that place, like this unassuming yet robust collection, is not at all what one would expect.
—Reviewed by Christine Thomas
For the Honolulu Advertiser, published 11/22/09
Ho’okupu: An Offering of Literature by Native Hawaiian Women
Edited by Miyoko Sugano and Jackie Pualani Johnson
Mutual Publishing; 130 pages; $12.95
Since ancient times, offerings have come in many forms, from gold, cattle and prayer to, as Tamara Laulani Wong-Morrison writes in “Proper Offerings to Pele”: “’ohelo berries / Red bulbs complete with an offering chant.” Wong-Morrison’s poem is just one offering presented in “Ho’okupu: An Offering of Literature by Native Hawaiian Women,” a new anthology of contemporary works by eighteen Hawaiian women.
Editors Miyoko Sugano and Jackie Pualani Johnson, both UH Hilo professors, situate the anthology within a formal framework of ceremony and protocol. Before the first contribution, “Ka Waiho A Ka Mana’o” by Haunani Bernardino, readers are confronted by acknowledgments, a foreword, opening mele, lengthy greeting wherein the editors justify the use of English language, and a separate editors’ “mahalo.” Tacked on at the end is a substantial appendix including a second table of contents, biographies, a glossary, closing mele, and writer interviews conducted by the editors’ students. While well intentioned, these bookends end up creating an impression of extraneous filler, detracting from the “meat” of the offering.
The writers in the collection vary in age and background, live on O’ahu, Moloka’i, Hawai’i and the mainland, and range from Pualani Kanaka’ole, who is from a long line of chanters and hula performers, to Cheryl Bautista, a recent college graduate who works for a general contractor. Intersecting themes such as taro farming, voyaging, ‘ohana, paddling, death, and even genetic engineering seep through equally varied mediums of verse, haiku, play, short story, chant and talk story.
When it does get going, the collection happily opens with Phyllis Coochie Cayan’s and Kanani Aton’s haiku, both evoking the ghost of deceased local poet Wayne Kaumuali’i Westlake and standing alone refreshingly enjoyable bites of imagery. One example is “Hana i ka lo’i,” where Aton writes with playful precision: “Cool pebbles of rain / Fall laughing on taro leaves / Wish I knew the joke.” Later, in J.W. Makanui’s longer, four-stanza poem “For Grampa and Gramma and Summers, with Love,” the refrain “Makaweli red dirt” is smartly repeated throughout to provide momentum and increase a powerful building of memory and emotion.
The most unique contributions can’t help but stand out from the crowd. Doodie Cruz’s one-act play “Whose Nose Dat?” is an energizing change of form and a tender yet tough depiction of tradition carried on in a new and changing Hawaiian family. Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl’s courageous and engrossing short story “Ho’oulu Lahui” provocatively conjures Hawai’i in 2021, when a newly formed “Ministry of Hawaiian Culture” carries out a noble but misguided mission of water and land conservation and re-population under the slogan “Increase the Race.” And Eleanor K. S. Ahuna’s “Mama” presents her mother’s talk story, encompassing such captivating memories as teaching hula in Keaukaha and cooking on a tin can stove, and told in disarming everyday language.
While primarily looking to the past, evoking ancient knowledge and tradition, this earnest collection showcases not only the diversity of Hawaiian women, their concerns and daily lives, but offers an intriguing mix of meditations on emotion and politics, nature and family, and both the real and the imagined.
–Reviewed by CHRISTINE THOMAS
Published October 11, 2009 in the Honolulu Advertiser
Memory in Motion
She could not be escaped
that day, soon to be joined
in her bed of earth and ash,
there, perched above
as we walked, or rode, encircled
by the carriage’s hooved melody.
There was no gauzy mist
for her, as there is today,
no clouds, even, pinned to the spring sky.
Only dogwood blooms, like tiny moons
showering scattered light
across shadowed squares of grass.
Her smile, the subtle appetizer
of a throaty, coarse laugh—
long gone. Only the tremble
of fingers, hers now mine,
as we walked on.
And when we sat to look upon
that gold box carried
in a soldier’s steady grip,
Hers reached out—
holding what once was
her husband, my friend:
that small container,
confining the uncontainable,
so solid, so frail, as collapsible
knotted hands that
shined like opals each time
she smoothed the hair
from her face,
reading, chin tucked, brow
crumpled and worn; eyes
like stones shimmering
at a shallow stream bed,
mossy green casting
greys and browns into the inexorable
water tumbling by.
And now him.
Yes, her step, also, was like mine;
the curve of my jaw, like his.
Parts of me, alone together,
twin blood feeding my bones;
a memory in motion, desire
freed and captured. Dreamed,
Until it’s time,
and I traverse the currents
cold white lines
pointing toward home.
– © Christine Thomas
1) There’s till time to enter the Hint Fiction contest, which ends midnight April 30th. If you don’t know what hint fiction is–seriously?–it’s creating a story that’s 25 words (not including title) but still a story. Stewart O’Nan — author of Songs for the Missing (I reviewed it for the Miami Herald) — is the final judge. Winner gets $25 amazon gc.
2) It happily appears to be true that not only the first female poet, but one who is openly gay, will succeed my writing mentor Andrew Motion as the UK’s next poet laureate. Carol Ann Duffy is soon to be chosen, so they say.
4) A few spots are left in Rebecca Walker’s ART OF MEMOIR workshop on Maui, June 14-21. According to Walker (the daughter of Alice), you can expect “morning work periods, evening readings, marketing strategy sessions, plenty of free time to enjoy the island, and one-to-one meetings with Rebecca. Key elements of writing and publishing memoir, including theme, voice, structure, genre, and querying agents and publishers in the quickly changing publishing industry will be explored throughout.“
5) Remember late author James D. Houston in your prayers, who died last week; may he rest in peace. Throughout his esteemed writing career, Houston has authored nine novels and many books of nonfiction. His stories and essays have been anthologized and have appeared in myriad publications from the New York Times and the New Yorker, to Honolulu Magazine and Manoa Literary Journal. His last novel, Bird of Another Heaven, vividly positions readers inside King Kalakaua’s inner circle, following a half-Hawaiian, half-Native American girl from California who becomes a mistress of the Merrie Monarch. Read more about Houston in Jacket Copy.
6) Just for fun, read Eric Puchner and Katharine Noel’s humorous essay about what it’s like to be married to another novelist.
Westlake: Poems by Wayne Kaumualii Westlake (1947-1984)
By Wayne Kaumuali`i Westlake
Edited by Mei-Li M. Siy and Richard Hamasaki
UH Press; 275 pages; $17.95
Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Special to the Advertiser
When Wayne Kaumuali`i Westlake composed the epigrammatic poems collected in “Westlake: Poems,” he’d already dropped out of college in Oregon, immersed himself in Taoism, and day-by-day created his own poetic philosophy, a Taoist-Hawaiian cultural spirituality, with a later dose of taut political awareness.
“Well, (shiny) like a mirror, here I am,” Westlake has described himself and his work, and this collection provides a remarkably intimate and complex self-portrait of both man and poet.
Arranged loosely by theme—a smart move by Hawai`i poet and co-editor Richard Hamasaki, who also includes his contextual introduction and insightful critical analysis—and penned from 1960-1984 (the year Westlake was killed at age 36 by an alleged drunk driver), Westlake’s verse offers a pungent catalogue of multifaceted yet everyday life experiences. Most entries are short and untitled reflections—yet others, like “God,” span pages—and though some have been edited and published, others were left as is, even one scrawled on a leaf.
They include translations and allusions to earlier poets, are in turn contemplative, calm and subtly playful, perpetually orbiting religion and Westlake’s apparent quest to simply be, as “the coconut” articulates: “the coconut / on the beach / just sits there.”
Whether mischievous or thoughtful, Westlake’s verse consciously wanders landscapes of time and space, capturing nature’s purity and in just these five lines, the essence of living Hawaiian myth and legend: “just like naupaka / I’m half / in the mountains / half / by the sea.”
Sometimes he simply mirrors the minute realities of his era–“eh—you / don’t give me / any of your / acid enlightenment / you just dropped / even deeper in / darkness,” but he never shies from the personal, often twain with the political, using writing to cope with intense anger and grief such as that expressed in the prickly series “Down on the Sidewalk in Waikiki.” Written while Westlake worked as a janitor at “Okadaya” in the early ‘70s, these pieces hover uncomfortably close not to only his but also many people’s simmering abhorrence for the Waikiki machine.
Beyond theme, though, Westlake’s work shines with form and rhythm. His concrete poems explode from tradition in a modern echo of Hawaiian petroglyphs that Westlake explains as “the art of making visually stimulating pictures out of words.” His artistic and multi-layered rendering of the word HULI is in many ways brilliant.
Many longer poems are song-like with a refrain, or unintentionally mimic the punch and cadence of modern slam poetry. Westlake also utilizes pidgin throughout, not phonetic transcription but its innate pulse, as in this diaphanous pairing with the haiku: “silent / still- / the moon.”
But whatever the focus or shape, and in spite of a reliance on the short form and, irksome, the exclamation point, reading Westlake’s verse is a reward, and his intimate, earnest reflections nearly convince that Hawai’i should only be written about in exactly this way.
It’s poetry month (you’re celebrating, right?), and I’m signed up for Knopf’s poetry newsletter, gifting me with a new poem each day. Today’s email offered two poems by Mark Strand, and I thought I’d share the one that resonates with anyone with a passion, writing or otherwise.
The Midnight Club
By Mark Strand
The gifted have told us for years that they want to be loved
For what they are, that they, in whatever fullness is theirs,
Are perishable in twilight, just like us. So they work all night
In rooms that are cold and webbed with the moon’s light;
Sometimes, during the day, they lean on their cars,
And stare into the blistering valley, glassy and golden,
But mainly they sit, hunched in the dark, feet on the floor,
Hands on the table, shirts with a bloodstain over the heart.
Poet and fiction writer Jane Mayhall died March 17 at the age of 90. Her last collection of poems, Sleeping Late on Judgment Day: Poems, was published in 2004 by Knopf, who has generously shared one of her poems, below.
It is a splendid choice. My favorite lines: “tell it / like it is, don’t gloss over / in silent splendor.”
May 10, 1918 – March 17, 2009
* * * * * *
“Never Apologize, Never Explain”
by Jane Mayhall
On the contrary, always apologize and explain,
in the terror-white veracity, down to the essence bone,
tenaciously follow the long road. Be
capable and Voltairean, discreet of form and substance, tell it
like it is, don’t gloss over
in silent splendor.
Give the unattractive facts. But they won’t be
that insipid (arrears of heavenly bodies).
And if you have to polish up
the contemptible gaff, give it all you’ve got-seriously,
don’t swindle and pretend the sky
didn’t fall in.
But dole out the mathematics, saviors of the gut.
Inching without propaganda the longhand
of dream. Even insult the host who
just wanted to play the game. Apologize in sample color,
if you loved something, say it. If kept
under your hat,
let the fallacies represent you.
From whatever Acropolis of stress, bat with
that genuine non-expurgation, the angel of bottomless pits.
Versatility and science; right the wrongs you know,
and do it with wholeheartedness. In fundamentals
so brash, or like a glass
* * * * * *
Listen to a recording of Knopf’s poetry editor
Deborah Garrison reading “Untitled” by Jane Mayhall.