Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The theme of the outsider pervades the poem. As an African American raised in the segregated South, Komunyakaa would naturally be drawn to this concept of exclusion, and the reader finds evidence of this theme in the poet’s other works. “Between Angels and Monsters,” another poem collected in Magic City, tells how Komunyakaa and his boyhood friends helped set up the big tent for a traveling circus; they stood “like obsidian panthers in a corner of the white world.” Even as a soldier in Vietnam, as evidenced by the poem “Tu Do Street” from the volume Dien Cai Dau, the poet confronts exclusion in the informally segregated bars and brothels of Saigon. When he enters a bar patronized by white soldiers, Komunyakaa writes, “I’m a small boy again in Bogalusa. ‘White Only’ signs and Hank Snow.”

Banished from the house and prohibited from viewing the bedroom behavior of their parents, the poet’s brothers retreat from the screen door. The child-poet, however, stands his ground to gaze into the light from his dark vantage point. The speaker yearns for the knowledge he will need to interpret the adult mysteries, so he bends toward the light like a phototropic plant. In this case, however, it is not the sun that he glimpses but the dresser mirror cut in half “like a moon/ Held prisoner in the house.” The moon is not a source of light but a reflective surface, and it may be that the poet wants the reader to comprehend that the knowledge sought by the child is already within.

Regardless of the parental efforts to “latch the screendoors/ and pull Venetian blinds,” the children unconsciously carry within themselves, as reflected in their behavior in the yard, the seeds of adult sexuality and the latent awareness of its sometimes troubled consequences. One can also argue that, like the poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” by nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman, this work chronicles that single moment when the child-poet recognizes his difference from others, even from his own family. His brothers shy away from the house, but the poet who was then a child struggles stubbornly for a view of what has been denied. Unlike the others, the poet seeks vision. From this childhood experience, one can trace Komunyakaa’s career as a seer and an interpreter.