“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 lights from the barrio apartments and houses are “dim.”
The anonymous woman worker is poor and tired, and Hongo lets his readers know that her life is not easy and is possibly joyless. From the bus stop, she must walk several blocks uphill and then up two flights of stairs until she reaches her apartment. Her heels are spikes that click “like kitchen knives on a cutting board” as she climbs the steps. She performs routinely dull chores, but Hongo’s description of them is anything but routine. Infusing his images with sharpness, he deftly conveys resentment at poverty and anger at an inability to break out of it. The poem’s final image is at once uplifting and earthy—perhaps the cycle will be broken, or perhaps something will happen to make it bearable, or perhaps problems will simply be covered up. An image of the moon cruises “from behind a screen of eucalyptus,” and covers everything “in a heavy light like yellow onions.” The poem is at once sensuous, poignant, and foreboding.