Garrett Kaoru Hongo Critical Essays


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Garrett Kaoru Hongo’s poems in Yellow Light and The River of Heaven offer a chronological narrative of his life and of his development as a poet. By reading the poems in the order of their presentation, one becomes immersed in the external details of life in the modern metropolis, exotic locales, and a multicultural community, as well as in the resulting internal emotions and reflections of the writer. A recurring theme in his work is the search for a personal identity that is unique, separate, and autonomous but also continuous with one’s heritage. There is a sense of the need for separation and then return; the poems trace a journey of discovery.

Yellow Light

The title poem of Yellow Light sets the tone for the rest of the collection. These earlier poems reflect the writer’s concern with the sensibility of his father’s soul, which was brutalized by his necessary manual labor and the hardship of making a living in an alien society. The sensations, the impressions, of his father’s condition were indelibly etched on the consciousness of the poet as a young child. The conflict and compromise that he knew his father felt become abstracted into larger, less personal issues and then reparticularized into observable details of the environment and projections into the lives of observed people.

In “Yellow Light,” a woman returns to her apartment after work and shopping. In her walk through the city, the poet juxtaposes images of nature with the trappings of city life. The contemporary urban environment has as its “natural” images children reenacting war games, sounds of domestic squabbles, noisy machinery, polluted air, and unsightly barriers separating yard from yard, protecting material property. These contrast with vivid sensations of a truly natural environment, appearing here as flowers that would be colorful, fragrant, and profuse.

The contrast continues in descriptions of the light the woman experiences. Light is often used in poetry to indicate truth or clarity of vision. The city offers only ugly, glaring, artificial light—false illumination. It is revealed in searchlights from car lots and the fluorescent and neon lights of commerce and trade. By offering the warm and mellow glow of a kitchen lamp as an alternative to this light, the poet hints that each individual may establish his or her own “natural” territory domestically: a place where one is in control and one’s values and priorities are proper. Later poems indicate that poetry itself may be one’s private territory, where a corrective vision can be offered as an alternative to the flawed world “out there.” Hongo carries forth the kitchen image, and its associations with sustenance and nurturing, in the overpowering natural light of the moon, a larger version of the mellow kitchen lamp, here compared to the rich yellow of onions. The light of the moon proves ultimately victorious, as it blankets the horrors of the city and renders invisible the lesser metropolitan lights. The act of writing poetry, the poet suggests, may itself be redemptive.

The remaining poems in the volume continue with similar themes and may be grouped accordingly. Several of them focus on domestic life, often employing the idea of a return to the haven of home and family. In “Off from Swing Shift,” a father returns home from the sapping drudgery of his assembly-line job to the comforts of his humble apartment and the pleasures of the idle pastime of gambling. In “Preaching the Blues,” a young man returns from a time away from home to find his brother waiting for him at the airport. They reestablish the patterns of their childhood relationship by enacting the ritual of playing basketball in the parking lot. As they drive home, memories of their youth and the growth and patterns of their relationship engulf the narrator. He is filled with empathy for the life of his brother, which is linked with his, yet of an entirely different essence and identity.

Empathic projection is also apparent in two other domestic poems, “Stay with Me” and “The Hongo Store.” In the former, the poet depicts a gesture of kindness between strangers. A woman on a bus is filled with emotional suffering. As she cries silently and unobtrusively, a young black man reluctantly bridges the gap from polite concern to a true sharing of her pain, as he comforts her by holding her. In the latter, the poet projects himself into a photograph taken just after the family home and store had survived...

(The entire section is 1852 words.)