Knowledge of the writer's life is important to understanding his work. Garrett Hongo's poem, "Yellow Light," published in a book by the same name in 1982, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Hongo was born in Hawaii although he has lived most of his life in California and Oregon. He is currently an English professor at the University of Oregon.
The poem "Yellow Light" is written in free verse and follows no particular pattern. Using the third person point of view, each stanza completes one aspect of the story. The poem is full of descriptive language and comparisons.
The narrator unemotionally observes a woman as she returns from shopping to her apartment. The strong imagery directs the reader through the streets and the people of the neighborhood. Hongo portrays an ordinary scene in an arresting environment. The time is early evening in October in Los Angeles.
Coming home from shopping and wearing high heels, the woman steps off a bus and walks up the hill toward her home. She seems to portray fashionable style but is betrayed by her purse with its frayed handles. In her other hand, she carries her shopping: fresh spinach, fish, and Swedish bread.
Her climb takes her past the diverse cultures clustered together. Schoolboy gangs play war, and Spanish children hopscotch on the sidewalks. The scents and sounds of the neighborhood just beginning the evening flood through the air.
If it were a different time of year, the poet insinuates, the scenery would be altered. In springtime, beautiful flowers would be blooming, and the insects fresh from their cocoons might be finding the warmth of the street lights.
Wisteria shaking out the long tresses of its purple hair
Orange butterflies settling on the lattice
But it is fall, and the images are more harsh, and the scenery more stark.
As the woman climbs the flight of stairs to her apartment, the scene becomes more personal: the sounds of her heels as she walks; her movements as she places her groceries on the floor; and the rummaging through her purse to find the keys. The last impression finds the moon shining through a bush into the window thus covering everything like the smell of yellow onions.
Using several metaphors and similes to convey his scene, the poet's descriptions place the reader into the barrio as the woman passes through it.
Los Angeles seethes like a billboard under twilight
...a brilliant fluorescence breaks out and makes without the dim squares
The spikes of her high heels clicking like the kitchen knives on a cutting board.
Each comparison suggests beauty but realism in the same expression.
The woman seems to ignore her surroundings because she is neither distracted nor involved. Her focus is on the purpose clearly before her. Tired from work and yet used to the long journey home, she shows no emotion as she travels through the neighborhood filled with a multiplicity of life's activities. She like, her environment, is swallowed by the yellow light.