- Nowhere Near Moloka’i
Nowhere Near Moloka'i (2004), Gary Chang's intriguing first book, is a bizarre, sometimes comic and often tragic interlinking of poetic narratives, some mimetic in content and style, some with a metaphoric, almost mythic symbolic intensity. Recurring characters like "Greydog," "Old Man" and the wonderfully odd "Captain Aloha" lend cohesion to the whole, yet this book refuses to be about its characters. "At Colorado State, the post-modern poet says I possess/an aesthetic for death," Chang writes in "For Those Impure Words Not Selected." Indeed, death figures strongly throughout this book, as does place; Chang's vision of Hawaii is characterized by a sense of belonging that transcends human mortality.
Bear Star Press has earned a reputation for accepting challenging work outside the literary mainstream. (See, for example, Arlitia Jones's award-winning The Bandsaw Riots.) That reputation will be bolstered by this latest offering. Though set in Hawaii, this is hardly a tourist's guidebook. From the first poem, in which Chang writes, "with no sound/mano accelerates off the ocean floor," the poems explain nothing, make no allowance for readers' possible ignorance of Hawaiian landmarks or slang. The strength lies in the fact that we do not need to understand the whole of Chang's vocabulary to appreciate the poems.
Chang focuses on the conflicting nature of the Asian-American experience in Hawaii. There is much joy, even hilarity here—see, for instance, the wonderful "Captain Aloha Winkies for Prairie Dogs"—yet poems such as "To the Blue-Eyed Gentleman Who Lectured Me" and "Kao: Face" present much darker images of racial and class conflict. The confrontation that ends the latter poem is representative: "Go for it." Release/ Fear, he growls./Please, please, call/me "Chink"/Please.
Chang is adept at characterization; his characters have a flesh-and-blood reality that makes their sufferings (and triumphs) seem more immediate and poignant. Yet even more important to the poet are depictions of pride in place and spirit; we leave his collection unwillingly, having encountered a world more intense, more beautifully real, than our own. (BM)