Turquoise and aquamarine slowly pitching against the limestone cliffs, and I’m hearing teenage boys whoop and scream as they leap from the jetty to the cool waters under the lighthouse tower of Port-de-Cassis.
I’m in France, alone with my desire to praise song and the soft, inner voice of calm and mourn the brilliantine waters patchy with indigo, streaks of viridian, and powdered temperas of azurite under the sub-infinite of Cap Canaille cutting like a cruise ship across the horizon.
A pleasure boat chugs through the slick of channel out to sea, thrumming up a vee-wash of wake trails, while the black shadows of stones look up from the bottom like the upturned faces of drowned cadavers that refuse blessings of the light. The angling rock beneath the red-tipped tower of a warning siren jutting out over the sea to the left of where I sit smoking a Robusto on Camargo’s terrace reminds me of the lava promontory Lā‘ie Point somehow, a day over thirty years ago I spent with Kawaharada conjuring old Hawaiian voyagers who found the islands by star map and the prophecies of wind and easterly currents from Tahiti. We gazed up the shore from Punalu‘u past Ka‘awa and Kahalu‘u, coconut palms, A-frames and wili-wili along the beaches, and let our hearts wander over the past centuries before to the first landfall and paid homage to the first canoe that came by star.
Now, I hear the plosive, soft cannonade of a wave against a hollow in the cliffside and the ratcheting drone of cicadas among the rosemary and scrubs of pine around me. A tour guide’s amplified spiel drifts over to me from a boat out at sea, and the pale zodiac of history murmurs back in a crumple of waves.
My life gathers its pieces in a mosaic of cadmium and regret, all I’ve lost in the negative space of my days a faint warble of diminishment amidst the glories of promise laid out beneath me like a sail of many colors fallen upon the waters, furling with every turn of sorrow in faint shrouds of a ghostly current.
Reading Jarman at Shakespeare and Company, Paris, 2017
Warm afternoon sun high and to the right above the rose of the cathedral on Ile de la Cité, the narrow, cobbled street in front of me like a wharf with a flotilla of bistro tables and chairs, the lunch crowd casting off, abandoning its digestifs and ravaged tiramisu, I hear canticles of churchbells from Notre Dame intermingled with traffic noise— impatient beeps from horns and the wasplike whine from motor scooters accelerating into the scrum of buses and cars— a sonic palette of babble in Shanghai Chinese and French speakers seated alongside me on the picnic table outside the café of the bookstore patronized by the famed Moderns. It’s a student crowd in early spring—bare-armed young women in blouses like splashes of paint in primary colors flouncing over the black of their pencil skirts and leg-hugging slacks, stubble-faced young men in long-sleeved tees and stone-washed jeans, every one with a smart phone or Bluetooth mike at their lips like Eucharistic wafers about to be received and swallowed, body of Apple, bread of Android…. Not a tourist near except a Chinese matron in eggplant slacks and a white linen jacket Walking arm-in-sauntering-arm with her French companion, herself dressed in a suit of rose-colored silk. Wilco-Tango-Foxtrot, everybody looks so damn cool as though already in a painting by Pissaro at Musée d’Orsay. My daughter, jet-lagged, is asleep in our tiny, fourth-floor hotel room in Rive Gauche (I’ve left a note, tucked into her suede boot beside the bed, that I’m around the corner), and I’ve come to read my friend’s poetry, a new book he gifted me with last December in LA’s Venice. “After a year of too much face time,” Jarman writes in “The Heronry,” the title poem composed from a bluff overlooking a coastal estuary rich with bugs and birdlife, he came so he could “gaze across the face of a lagoon” and “out over the shallows, near where a black phoebe fluttered and looped… and the night herons studied their dreams.” For me too, it’s been months since my time was my own, days filled with worry and obligations, the trivial importances of an academic life and the burden of my own soullessness as I’ve lived it. “Simply to watch as other creatures lived… lent me a greater peace than prayer,” the poet tells me, and I know for myself that the way is non-contention and yet I’ve contended, lived by opposition rather than a righteous surrender. I’ve thought myself virtuous, pono, as the Hawaiians say, a scowl on my brow every day, blasphemies on my tongue as though truculence and self-tyrannizing might lift the world and an angry heart like a roseate sun held with tenderness against the baptismal bowl of sky. Follow the breath, a teacher once told me, let the leaf gather what the world sends in spirals of a spiritless wind that asks questions of no one who lies down on his left or right side, whose eyes brim at the gateless gate like chalices of wine. The Big (double-deck) Bus exhales its pneumatic brakes at the curb of Rue Saint-Julien-Le-Pauvre, and the swank tables of Quai de Montebello fill and refill around me like cups of Americano or, better still, caffé machiatto topped with tulips of milk and the white whips of a delicate sentience.
Garrett Hongo was born in Volcano, Hawaiʻi and grew up on the North Shore of Oʻahu and in Los Angeles. He was educated at Pomona College, the University of Michigan, and UC Irvine. His latest works are Coral Road: Poems and The Mirror Diary: Selected Essays.Currently, he’s at work on The Ocean of Clouds(poems) and The Perfect Sound: An Autobiography in Stereo(nonfiction). He teaches at the University of Oregon.
Header photo by Romas_Photo, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Garrett Hongo by Franco Salmoiraghi.