The Poem

Garrett Kaoru Hongo’s “Yellow Light” is unrhymed free verse of five unequal stanzas, the longest one opening the poem and the shortest one closing it. The tone of the poem is conversational; its syntax, diction, rhythms, and lilt are those of contemporary conventional speech.

On its surface, “Yellow Light” is at once a poem about a community that is specifically identified and about an individual, who is not specifically identified. Its setting is inner-city Los Angeles, a “J-Town” barrio a few blocks from the intersection of Olympic Boulevard and Figueroa Street. This is a struggling, racially mixed, working-class neighborhood whose social and economic anxieties, it is evident, erupt regularly in domestic abuse and street brawls. The poem, both wistfully and indignantly, describes the tawdry setting in sensory detail. This is a busy, crowded, and volatile environment where Japanese, Koreans, Hawaiians, and Chicanos exist in close proximity and not always harmoniously.

The poem’s bare narrative focuses on a female adult’s homeward trek at the end of a tiring day’s work. The reader is given no personal information about the woman, but one determines in the course of the poem that she is either poor or frugal (perhaps both), that her job is probably office work or sales (she wears high heels), and that she lives on the second floor of an apartment building. It is dusk; she gets off the bus and walks uphill three blocks to her...

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Forms and Devices

The name Hongo means “homeland,” and in ways either subtle or overt, Hongo’s poetry is intimately tied up with his ethnicity. At the same time that his poetry is written in honor and in memory of his Japanese ancestors, it exhibits full awareness of the assimilation necessary for Asian Americans to live in the United States. Assimilation is taken to a higher level in “Yellow Light” as Japanese must not only acclimatize to American culture but also live side by side with Hawaiians, Koreans, and Chicanos in a true melting pot. The idea of the melting pot is emphasized by Hongo’s decision to set the poem at suppertime, when apartments are “just starting to steam with cooking.”

The apartments may be steaming with cooking, but the neighborhood is steaming with racial unrest. The fights broadcast from loud televisions and the adults yelling at their children signal the conflict, both domestically and socially, that plagues this working-class community. Hongo’s concrete imagery gives the anger and the hostility a sharp edge. The bus from which the woman departs is “hissing,” the schoolboys she passes are “playing war,” the televisions are not being turned on but “flick[ed]” on.

After the initial paragraph, which sets the volatile mood, Hongo pauses for wistful reflection of a past season, presumably a more peaceful time. “If it were May.,” stanza 2 begins, then late spring flowers would be blooming, despite the smog;...

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