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The River of Heaven
The River of Heaven


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Garrett Hongo attended Pomona College, the University of Michigan, and the University of California at Irvine, where he received a Master of Fine Arts degree in English. He is a professor at the University of Oregon, where he was Director of the Program in Creative Writing from 1989 to 1993. He is the author of two books of poetry, Yellow Light and The River of Heaven. He lives in Eugene, Oregon, with his wife and their two sons.

Photo: Ellen Foscue Johnson

Garrett Hongo's first book since Yellow Light has been awarded the 1987 Lamont Poetry Prize of the Academy of American Poets for a distinguished book of poems (judges: Philip Booth, Alfred Corn, Mary Oliver). In The River of Heaven, Garrett Hongo has drawn from his unusual background (born in Volcano, Hawaii, of Japanese ancestry, and educated in California at Pomona) to provide the materials for poems that would be highly exotic were they not infused with a level-headed sense of realism and a strong feeling that mundane realities are perfectly natural material for the poetry of our time. Here, Garrett Hongo transforms his mundane realities into elegant poetry. The volcanoes of Hawaii ("Eruption: Pu'u O'o"), the gritty urban streets of Los Angeles ("Four Chinatown Figures"), a California beach after the death of his father ("The Pier")--the places of Garrett Hongo's past metamorphosize into a poetry that is compelling and immediate.

Garrett Hongo grew up with a profound sense of estrangement from his past: "Family secrets, evasions, and my own ignorance fed an anger and a desire to know that would not abate." Born in Hawai'i, raised in Los Angeles after the age of six, a fourth generation Japanese American, inheritor of a recent past more comfortably forgotten than kept alive -- for Hongo, the "knowing" he so desired would come only when he returned to Volcano, the tiny town where he was born. This beautifully rendered memoir is an account of that journey, finally undertaken when he was in his early thirties: a journey toward the knowledge, about himself and his history, that would give him, at last, "a way to belong and a place to belong to."

Arriving in Volcano with his wife and infant son, Hongo settled in a cottage in the rain forest, amidst the "relentlessly spectacular landscape" below the summit of the Kilauea volcano. There, near the general store once owned by his grandfather, among people who quickly recognized the family resemblance in his face, he began to forge a connection to the human culture that, though he was pulled from it at an early age, helped to shape him, and to the living earth that helped to shape that culture. In this way, Hongo -- both native son and prodigal son -- found his own path into a world where "nothing was without its meaning or its memories."

In a powerful narrative interwoven with natural history and laced with luminous descriptions of the volcano and its rain forest surroundings, the author combines childhood recollections with the richness of feeling, image, and information that this journey provided to him: about his own family, about the experience of the Japanese American community at large in this century, and about the relationship of both the inner and outer landscapes to the human imagination. The result is a remarkable, deeply moving "book of origins" -- a revelation of the ways in which cultural identity, personal history, and love of place are created, lost, and regained.

My favorite kind of book is a poet's first prose work. The poet comes upon a story so large -- his life, nature, history -- hat he must break out of careful verse into the freedom of prose. William Carlos Williams, Rainer Maria Rilke, Sylvia Plath, Raymond Carver, Louise Erdrich -- and now Garrett Hongo."

-- Maxine Hong Kingston

"When I finished this brave and sharp story I wanted to start again because of the honesty in the author's voice and the many gifts -- beautiful language, vivid and apt anecdotes, a novelist's narrative instinct -- that await the reader. Garrett Hongo elucidates here a Dragon; he reveals intelligence as love. And he magics time."

-- Barry Lopez

"In this memoir, the village of Volcano is both a place on the map and a beacon in the far more elusive terrain of a man's personal history. In charting that history, Garrett Hongo has produced a lyrical and penetrating work grafting intimate recollection with broad insight. He has aspired to Rousseau's standard for himself -- and for all memoirists -- to recount comprehensively 'what I have felt . . . and what my feelings have had me do.'"