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By Garrett Hongo

In Chicago, it is snowing softly

and a man has just done his wash for the week.   

He steps into the twilight of early evening,   

carrying a wrinkled shopping bag   

full of neatly folded clothes,

and, for a moment, enjoys

the feel of warm laundry and crinkled paper,

flannellike against his gloveless hands.   

There’s a Rembrandt glow on his face,

a triangle of orange in the hollow of his cheek   

as a last flash of sunset

blazes the storefronts and lit windows of the street.


He is Asian, Thai or Vietnamese,

and very skinny, dressed as one of the poor   

in rumpled suit pants and a plaid mackinaw,   

dingy and too large.

He negotiates the slick of ice

on the sidewalk by his car,

opens the Fairlane’s back door,

leans to place the laundry in,

and turns, for an instant,

toward the flurry of footsteps

and cries of pedestrians

as a boy—that’s all he was—

backs from the corner package store

shooting a pistol, firing it,

once, at the dumbfounded man

who falls forward,

grabbing at his chest.


A few sounds escape from his mouth,   

a babbling no one understands

as people surround him

bewildered at his speech.

The noises he makes are nothing to them.   

The boy has gone, lost

in the light array of foot traffic

dappling the snow with fresh prints.

Tonight, I read about Descartes’

grand courage to doubt everything

except his own miraculous existence

and I feel so distinct

from the wounded man lying on the concrete   

I am ashamed.


Let the night sky cover him as he dies.

Let the weaver girl cross the bridge of heaven   

and take up his cold hands.


               IN MEMORY OF JAY KASHIWAMURA


Garret Hongo, “The Legend” from The River of Heaven (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987). Copyright © 1988 by Garret Hongo. Used by permission of the Darhansoff Verrill Feldman Literary Agents.

Source: The River of Heaven (Alfred A. Knopf, 1988)

Poet Bio

Garrett Hongo was born in Volcano, Hawaii, and educated at Pomona College and the University of California at Irvine. He has written a memoir, edited two volumes of Asian American poetry, and published two volumes of his own poetry, Yellow Light and The River of Heaven, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His poetry describes the historical, social, and philosophical ramifications of his Japanese-American and working-class heritage. He uses parallel phrasing and layers of words and images to create narratives that record this ancestry and explore overlooked aspects of American history.

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