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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 2, 2004

Collection of poems knits together a moving, painful tale of Hawai'i

By Wanda Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

Nowhere Near Moloka'i by Gary Chang; Bear Star Press, paper, $12

After one closes "Nowhere Near Moloka'i," the mind resembles the detritus on the floor of an old car. A jumble of seemingly unrelated images lingers — severed goats' heads, a snake hissing alongside a hiking trail, marauding packs of dogs, the moon over Haleakala, the remains of a plate lunch on a table at Iva's.

In Gary Chang's loosely woven net of poems, each of these encapsulates a memory. Taken together, these bits form themselves into autobiography, and spell out themes that concern the Honolulu-born writer.

The storyteller is a poet, Greydog, who kills goats and feral dogs for a living; who elegizes violent men, derelicts and even a murderer; who polishes off cases of Moosehead beer in the company of friends with equally colorful nicknames and who, upon moving to the Mainland, writes home asking for a "No Touch the Native" T-shirt.

The book, a chop suey of English, pidgin and Hawaiian in a seamless mix that any local will appreciate, is punctuated by a particular kanji that Chang explains in an endnote means something like the English word chaos ("war, rebellion, revolt, insurrection, riot, disturbance"). Indeed, a central theme is dissonance: the nexus of pain and unrest, anger and questioning that builds around the contradictions of the poet's life.

He is a deeply feeling writer who carries a gun and a razor-sharp knife. He's a local boy who sees beneath the local-boy armor of drink- or drug-fueled bravado to the pervasive fear of "making shame." He is a man who gets the joke in a postcard of a ravenous shark with the caption, "Send more tourists — Hawai'i." On the Mainland, where Chang earned a master's of fine arts degree and taught at Colorado State University, "Grey Suffers Cultural Displacement Residing in the Foreign Nation of Continental America," as one poem title puts it.

Don't stay away from this book because it's poetry (which many find intimidating) or because it's about uncomfortable topics. There is blood, yes, and ugliness, but there is also humor and deep feeling. And there is a contemporary Hawai'i story, well told.