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Yellow Light Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Yellow Light,” the title poem from Hongo’s first volume of poetry, uses description to convey personal sympathy and collective resignation. It uses many of the techniques that mark Hongo’s best poems and sets the mood for the works that follow in the collection. These are poems of striking images, full of close details about family members and neighbors, in which the poet examines the roots of his biological and ancestral identity and hones his personal, creative impulses. “Yellow Light” couples exploration with reconciliation, joy, and even playfulness with bitterness and class struggle.

The poem begins by closely focusing on an unnamed working-class woman: “One arm hooked around the frayed strap/ of a tar-black patent-leather purse.” She is on her way home in a multiethnic community of Los Angeles, a city Hongo knows well. It is early evening, and suppers are beginning to simmer on stoves while tempers start to seethe; adults coming home from work vent their frustrations on their children, and “gangs of schoolboys [are] playing war.” The day’s end finds people worn out and testy.

This is a poem built on contrasts that emphasize have-nots. The poet says he might have written about butterflies and flowering vines had it been spring or summer, but the time is October, and the season’s ripeness, rather than being appealing, is congested. The searchlights from uptown theaters and used-car lots are “sticks of light” that “probe the sky.” Such brilliant illumination conflicts with the dull patches of light thrown out from kitchen windows, “winking on/ in all the side streets of the Barrio.” The poem shows energy being infused into an already crowded and even malcontented community, one devoid of excitement and glamour, seething with routine and dissatisfaction. In contrast, the uptown lights, signifying where the excitement is, are distant but “brilliant” even from that distance, while the...

(The entire section is 484 words.)