They say you can’t go home again.
I believed that until I found this poem — “Leaving,” by Cathy Song.
Wahiawa is still
a red dirt town
where the sticky smell
being lopped off
in the low-lying fields
rises to mix
with the minty leaves
in the bordering gulch.
This may well be the only poem ever written about my hometown of Wahiawa.
All I wanted to do thirty years ago was leave it.
Leave the red dirt and pineapple fields
the mildew under the eaves
the GIs from Schofield Barracks
the Filipino men clapping when I sang
the “Unchained Melody” in the saimin restaurant.
Before I could read, Wahiawa was just fine with me.
I didn’t know about snow
or overcoats and boots;
didn’t know it was possible
to drive from state to state
or that I lived on a tiny dot
in the middle of the Pacific.
After I opened a book,
real life, exciting life, worthwhile life
seemed to exist somewhere else.
Hawai’i was just too limited, too remote,
too forgotten by the rest of the country.
I read so many books,
but never saw myself in any of them.
In “Leaving,” the narrator talks about being “kept under cover” by her mother. In their small, dark world, the children knew mold, mildew, and centipedes, building “houses within houses,” depending on National Geographic for a glimpse of the outside world. They were “squeamish and pale.”
This made me remember why I left my family and friends and moved to England after college. My destiny just seemed to be very far away from where I was born. I refused to become part of the undergrowth.
Now, I’ve seen a little more of the world, but whenever I sit down to write anything, I’m still writing from Wahiawa. I guess you can take the person out of the place, but you can’t take the place out of the person. I keep wondering if I’ll always think so small, so limited, so confined. Writing is my way of trying to break free.
Cathy Song also grew up in Wahiawa, graduated from Wellesley College and Boston University. So she left, too (but eventually returned to Hawai’i where she lives now). As children, we lived five minutes apart, but never knew each other (I did know her older sister, though). All these years later, I’ve met Cathy through her poetry. I know so well of what she writes.
“Leaving,” from her first collection, Picture Bride (Yale University Press, 1983), has taken me back home.
Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at Big A little a.
“Life’s a voyage that’s homeward bound.” ~ Herman Melville