This poem was published in 1988 by Japanese American writer Garrett Hongo. It is the last piece in his collection, The River of Heaven. The poem utilizes a narrative structure and focuses on an older man who loses his life in the middle of the street in Chicago. Throughout, the poet uses a variety of literary devices, including allegory and imagery. Since publication, this poem has become incredibly popular. ‘The Legend’ is often studied in university and adored by poetry lovers worldwide.
Interestingly, when speaking about this poem, the poet recalls writing it during an unhappy period in his life when he was struggling to find direction in his creative writing. He was inspired to write this particular poem after viewing a news segment describing an older Asian man who was accidentally shot in the street in Chicago. This piece flowed from that very specific source of inspiration and is dedicated to the victim of this shooting. He is named specifically at the end of the poem as Jay Kashiwamura.
Explore The Legend
‘The Legend’ by Garrett Hongo is a tragic poem about an old man’s death on a snowy Chicago street.
In the first stanza of this poem, the poet begins by describing a Chicago street, an older man, and the peace and calm of his final experiences. The man is taking pleasure in the warmth of his laundry, collected within a paper bag, as he is shot on the street by an unknown boy. The boy gets away without any pedestrians in the vicinity pursuing him. These pedestrians also do nothing to help the wounded older man, who is, as the speaker notes, either Vietnamese, Thai, or Asian. His final words are likely spoken in his native language and are unintelligible and “mean nothing” to the pedestrians.
The poem turns at this point, shifting to a first-person narrator who is in his room reading the philosophical works of René Descartes. He suggests that after hearing about this man’s tragic death, he felt “ashamed” at his privilege and the general lack of empathy exhibited by everyday people.
You can read the full poem here.
In Chicago, it is snowing softly
the feel of warm laundry and crinkled paper,
In the first lines, Garret Hongo demonstrates his skill with narrative language as he describes an older man walking on a Chicago street. He utilizes short phrases like “snowing softly” and “twilight of early evening” to create a very real setting. The reader should have no problem imagining the scene as Hongo describes it. So far, the poet has utilized a peaceful and calm tone. There is nothing out of the ordinary about this older man’s activities. In fact, he has completed something that every reader will relate to— doing his washing for the week.
The fact that the older man is carrying his clean laundry in a “wrinkled shopping bag” and the fact that he has to leave his home in order to do laundry suggest that the man is not of great economic means. He may be struggling financially. This should trigger the reader’s empathy and interest, especially as the older man does not feel perturbed by his situation.
In fact, when he steps outside, the poet describes the man enjoying, for a moment, the feeling of the warm laundry on the crinkled paper. This is a perfect example of sense imagery. It occurs when the poet utilizes descriptions that should inspire the reader to feel what a character in the poem is feeling through the use of their senses. In this case, the warmth of the clothing seeps through the thin, rough paper of the bag.
flannellike against his gloveless hands.
blazes the storefronts and lit windows of the street.
The warm clothes and the paper bag are described as “flannellike” (an example of a neologism). Additionally, the poet uses “gloveless” to describe the man’s hands. Here is another example of how the man lacks something that others may find necessary on a cold winter day in Chicago. The fact that he isn’t wearing gloves suggests that, due to his economic means, he does not have enough money to buy them.
Continuing to use sense imagery, the poet describes a “Rembrandt glow” on the man’s face. There’s also an example of an allusion. Readers unfamiliar with Rembrandt paintings are likely to find themselves confused by this reference. The poet is describing a very particular effect that Rembrandt achieved in his paintings, which often feature characters standing near windows.
In the last lines of the stanza, the poet describes a flash of light reflecting on the “hollow “of the man’s cheek and blazing on the storefronts. This last flash of light is highly symbolic. The poet is marking the older man’s final moments of happiness and peace before a tragedy befalls him in the second stanza.
He is Asian, Thai or Vietnamese,
and very skinny, dressed as one of the poor
and turns, for an instant,
The lyrical-style narrative in the first stanza is replaced by pure narration in the second. The speaker describes the older man as “Asian, Thai or Vietnamese.” It’s unclear who this man is or his specific ethnicity. This places the reader at some distance from the man. It denies him his heritage and personal history. This is incredibly impactful as the stanza plays out.
The narrator also describes him as “skinny” and “dressed as one of the poor.” This is a cold and direct line that leaves little room for interpretation. The man is “skinny” and “poor.” These are two pieces of information that readers likely already interpreted from the poet’s allusions in the first stanza.
The poet utilizes another allusion in the seventh line of the stanza. He describes the man’s car as a “Fairlane” (this is a reference to a Ford Fairlane). In the ninth line of the stanza, the poet utilizes short phrases, separated by commas, to describe the moments before the old man’s death. He paused, for an instant, and turned around to face the commotion behind him. Him.
toward the flurry of footsteps
grabbing at his chest.
Hongo utilizes alliteration in the tenth line of the stanza as he describes the noise created by pedestrians on the street. There was a “flurry of footsteps” and “cries” as a boy walks into the scene shooting a pistol. He fires it once at the older man who falls forward grabbing his chest.
This narrative turn comes, seemingly, out of nowhere. It’s unclear at the end of the second stanza whether or not the older man is going to lose his life due to this terrible encounter. But, the previous details alluding to his poverty suggest that he may be in ill health and not in a position to survive a gunshot wound to the chest.
A few sounds escape from his mouth,
The noises he makes are nothing to them.
The third stanza includes the terrible details of the older man’s death. As he dies, a “babbling” that “no one understands” escapes his mouth. The people on the street, looking on, are “bewildered at his speech.”
The poet’s focus on the man’s words is one of the most important parts of this short poem. It alludes to one of the themes of this piece—alienation. Whether or not the old man is only making truly unintelligible sounds as he nears death or is calling for help in his native language (which is Thai, Vietnamese, or another “Asian” language) is unknown.
The poet’s use of language again robs the man of his identity and even his final words. By saying that his words are “nothing” to the pedestrians looking on, the poet also suggests that this man’s well-being, identity, desires, and suffering are “nothing” to the onlookers. He is “other” and to these Americans is “nothing.”
The boy has gone, lost
from the wounded man lying on the concrete
I am ashamed.
In the second half of the stanza, the poet turns his attention to the boy, who is “gone,” lost in the “foot traffic” of the Chicago street. He disappears without anyone pursuing him or without any details revealed about who he was or why he was carrying a gun that day. There is another turn in line nine of the stanza. The poet utilizes the first-person perspective. His speaker describes his own experience reading about “Descartes’ / grand courage to doubt everything / except his own miraculous existence.”
The poet alludes to the works of French philosopher René Descartes, who passed away in 1650. He is best remembered for the quote, “I think, therefore I am.” He emphasizes Descartes’s approach to the world and how he theoretically doubted the existence of everything except for himself. His ability to think and understand made him who he was.
There is a certain privilege in this way of thinking that the speaker feels connected to. The speaker is in a place of privilege himself that is “distinct” or separate from the wounded man on the concrete. His separation from this man, which is also seen in the cold attitude of the pedestrians on the street, makes him “ashamed.”
The poet is alluding to a general lack of empathy for one’s fellow human beings, especially when they look different from “you.” The people on the street were not Thai, Vietnamese, or “Asian.” According to the speaker’s narrative, they couldn’t understand the dying man’s last words, nor did they do anything to help the frail older man after he was shot.
Let the night sky cover him as he dies.
and take up his cold hands.
The final stanza of the poem is only three lines long. The poet uses anaphora in these lines, repeating the words “Let the” at the beginning of lines one and two. These final words are quite different from the previous three stanzas. They take the form of a prayer, as well as a eulogy, for the dying man.
The speaker asks the night sky to “cover him” as a means of protection and symbolic honoring, as the older man dies. He hopes the heavens, and whatever beliefs this older man held, bring him comfort and his final moments. The second line of the stanza mentions “the Weaver girl.” This is an allusion to a very specific old legend told within Asian and Native American cultures.
The weaver girl story features two young lovers, the girl (the weaver) and a boy (a goatherd or cowherd). They are separated by the Milky Way, a river in the stars. The weaver girl is responsible for holding together the fabric of the universe, weaving together all of its elements. Once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, a flock of birds, usually described as a group of magpies, creates a bridge to reunite the lovers. The story dates back to classic myths that are over 2600 years old. It is described in a famous poem written during the Song Dynasty by Qin Guan. It begins with:
Meeting across the Milky Way
Through the varying shapes of the delicate clouds,
the sad message of the shooting stars,
a silent journey across the Milky Way.
By mentioning this very specific Asian legend at the end of the poem, the poet draws a connection between himself and the older man whose identity remains unknown throughout the poem’s entirely. He wishes the man comfort from his place of security and hopes that he can find peace within the heavens. This is compared to the pleasure of reunion that the weaver girl and the goatherd boy experience when the gulf that separates them is bridged for a brief period.
Throughout this narrative poem, the poet engages with themes of alienation and the struggle of immigrants. Specifically, the poet is commenting on the struggle of Asian immigrants within the United States. Hongo uses allusion and very specific language to describe the “othering” of Asian immigrants in everyday American places. When the older man is shot, the pedestrians do nothing to help him, nor can any of them understand his dying words.
This tragic image is emphasized through the poet’s use of language. He states that the man’s last words “are nothing to them” and that the man is “ Asian, Thai or Vietnamese.” By stripping this man of specificity in regard to his identity, the poet is alluding to how immigrants are disregarded and alienated from contemporary society. Their lives, struggles, and deaths mean “nothing.”
Structure and Form
‘The Legend’ by Garrett Hongo is a four-stanza poem that is divided into stanzas of varying lengths. The first stanza is twelve lines long, the second: seventeen, the third: fourteen, and the final stanza is only three lines long (making it a tercet). The poem is also written in free verse. This means that the poet did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The end words, like “softly” and “week,” do not rhyme.
But, this doesn’t mean that the poem lacks rhyme entirely. The poet’s use of literary devices like assonance and consonance creates the feeling of rhythm and rhyme throughout the piece. For example, “softly” and “week” at the ends of lines one and two of the first stanza use the same vowel sounds.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: the use of the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “wash” and “week” in line two of the first stanza and “full” and “faded” in line five of the same stanza.
- Assonance: the repetition of vowel sounds in poetry. For example, the long “e” sound in “In Chicago, it is snowing softly.”
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “Let” starts two of the three lines in the fourth stanza.
- Juxtaposition: occurs when the poet places two contrasting or different ideas or images next to one another. For example,
- Allegory: is a narrative found in verse and prose in which a character or event is used to speak about a broader theme. In this case, the death of the unnamed Asian man symbolizes the treatment of Asian immigrants throughout the United States.
The poem is about the death of an old, poor man on a Chicago street. He’s shot in the chest by an unknown boy while putting his fresh laundry into his car. Throughout, the poet comments on themes of alienation and the general lack of emotion and empathy shown by everyday people for someone they feel is different from them.
The author is Japanese American poet, Garrett Hongo. He published this poem as the final piece in his 1988 collection, The River of Heaven. The title of this collection is, in fact, connected to the final image at the end of ‘The Legend.’
‘The Legend’ is a narrative poem written in free verse. This means that the poet uses lines of varying lengths and does not use a rhyme scheme throughout. The stanzas range from three lines up to seventeen lines.
This poem was written to comment on the challenges that immigrants within the United States face. This is seen through the poet’s focus on themes like alienation, solitude, and lack of empathy and understanding. As a Japanese American himself, Garret Hongo often utilizes emotions and details from his personal experiences within his poetry.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider exploring some related poems. For example:
- ‘My Mother’s Kitchen’ by Choman Hardi – explores the various items that a mother is handing down to her daughter as she moves away. It was written in the aftermath of the war in Iraq.
- ‘Parade’s End’ by Daljit Nagra – taps on the themes of racism and the suffering of Asian immigrants in the UK in the 20th century. It was published in the British poet’s debut collection Look We Have Coming to Dover!
- ‘Home’ by Warsan Shire – depicts the lived experiences of the refugees both inside and outside of their countries.