The speaker of ‘‘What For’’ recalls the things he loved and looked forward to when he was six years old. In the first stanza, he describes his childhood sense of magic: a few Hawaiian words had the power to make it rain and sang through the nautilus like the sound of the sea. The Amida Buddha (the main Buddha in the Pure Land sect of Buddhism) had the power— through the liturgy of a priest—to satisfy the poor with words (mantras) while they offered what little money they had.
Stanzas 2 and 3
In the next two stanzas, the speaker talks about his grandparents. First, he remembers how he looked forward to the war stories his grandfather told while playing hana cards (Japanese cards). He remembers his grandfather playing cards and slapping his cards down with a short martial arts-type yell. Readers may notice that the speaker says he looked forward to his grandfather’s stories, but the description makes it evident that he looked forward at least as much just to being with his grandfather. In the next stanza, the speaker’s attention turns to his grandmother. He remembers her in the kitchen, cooking a curried stew. As he lived for his grandfather’s stories (surely filled with excitement and intrigue), he also lived for his grandmother’s songs, which were likely soothing and carefree. The grandmother’s domestic life is underscored by the fact that while she cooks, she also weaves mats and sandals. The religious motif appears again here, as the design she is weaving is Japanese calligraphy of Kannon’s love. Kannon is a bodhisattva, a being whose compassion leads him or her to desire the state of spiritual enlightenment known as Buddhahood for all living beings.
The speaker says he lived for the red dirt that stained his feet, and also for the salt from the sea and the wind that got in his hair. He recalls how he loved finding a smooth, flat stone he could skip in the trough of a wave. All of these things demonstrate the speaker’s deep love for the setting and place of his childhood, for the specific natural features that he loved and that became part of him.
Stanzas 5 and 6
In the next two stanzas, the speaker takes the reader into part of his daily routine as a child. He tells how he anticipated his father’s return from work, exhausted and dusty. The description of the father’s physical appearance and fatigue imply that the father works at a construction site or in a mine. It is hard work that is physically demanding. In fact, the father is already at least partially deaf, and the drills and jackhammers worsen the condition. The speaker continues his memories of his father at the end of a hard day of work into stanza 6. He handed his dented lunch box to the speaker, and then the boy unlaced the military boots his father had been working in all day. This interaction conveys how completely exhausted the father was; he sat down without even taking his lunch box to the kitchen, and his young son worked at the laces to remove his boots. Then the father heard the new name the boy had made up at school that day and allowed him to write the name on the newspaper. As tired as the father was, he had patience for his young son. When the father touched the child’s face, his hands felt like a gravel road. They were rough and calloused. Only then did the father tell the speaker to run along and play, so he could get up and set about scrubbing all the dirt from his face. The speaker describes his father’s face as resembling koa wood, a Hawaiian wood with a rippling grain.
Stanza 7 and 8
The speaker takes the reader into his emotional life as a child in the next two stanzas. He saw his father’s pain and fatigue at working so hard, and he wanted to make the pain go away. Specifically, he wanted to make his legs and joints feel good again, and he wanted to be able to give his father back his hearing. He even describes what it might be like if his father could hear by referring to the delicate sound of crystal wind chimes. The eighth stanza continues describing how the child wanted to heal his father. He was aware that his father had wounds from his past and present—from the war and from work. The speaker imagines that if he could heal him, his father’s shoulders would not ache, and the two of them could play catch together with a tennis ball. Regardless of whether the scene is a memory or a fantasy, the son longs to play with his father the way other boys do. By referring to the papaya trees, Hongo brings in the tropical setting he loves. In both of these stanzas, the speaker wants to be the one to heal and provide relief for his father. His desire is not just for his father to be healthier—he himself wants to be the agent of that relief. It is an active rather than a passive desire.
In the last stanza, the speaker connects his train of thought from the previous two stanzas back to the first stanza. In the first stanza, he spoke of magic and religion. Here, he applies those beliefs to the desire to heal his father. He says at the beginning that he wanted to be a doctor (a healer) of pure magic (effortless, innocent power). He reiterates the language motif of the first stanza by explaining that he wanted to make his father a necklace of words that smelled of trees, flowers, and freshly baked bread. Hongo uses synesthesia (mixing the senses so that one object is described with the sensory information of another; here the words have scent). This creates an interesting dynamic that supports the innocence of the child’s perspective. In the last image, the speaker imagined himself putting a shell and flower lei on his father and speaking a blessing over him. The speaker refers to a sutra, which is a Buddhist scriptural saying.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Garrett Kaoru Hongo, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010.