Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, in 1947, Yusef Komunyakaa has traveled far in his poetic journey. His awards range from the Bronze Star he won while serving in the Army during the Vietnam War to the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for his collection Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems(1993). This volume also won the Kingsley Tufts Award, and the William Faulkner Award. His collection Thieves of Paradise (1998) was a 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, and he continues to accumulate critical praise for his work. A prolific writer, in 2000, the same year he published Talking Dirty to the Gods, he also published a collection of essays and criticism, Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries. Yet another collection of poetry, Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems 1975-1999, appeared in spring of 2001. Komunyakaa, a professor in the Council of Humanities and Creative Writing program at Princeton, has published nine collections of poetry, two anthologies, and a number of recordings, including collaborative efforts with musicians.
Critics and scholars have tried to describe Komunyakaa as a Southern writer, or a black writer, or a Vietnam War poet, or a jazz poet. In truth, all of these descriptions fit. In works such as Dien Cai Dao (1988), for example, Komunyakaa demonstrates his ability to translate lived trauma into poetry of witness. Yet none of these descriptors do justice to the range of Komunyakaa’s talent. It would be better, perhaps, to cease trying to slip him into some easy category and instead to examine Komunyakaa as a poet of the first degree, a writer whose impact will continue to exert influence on writers for years to come.
There may be no better place to start than with Komunyakaa’s 2000 volume of poetry Talking Dirty to the Gods. In this work, Komunyakaa turns away from the free-form verse and short lines that have characterized a good deal of his poetry and toward a formal, highly structured, highly polished series of four-line, four-stanza poems. Always the innovator, Komunyakaa challenges himself to create a complete book of lyric meditations controlled by the four-line, four-stanza form. In the hands of a less talented poet, such an experiment could have turned tedious at best and disastrous at worst. Komunyakaa’s language and subject matter, however, are so inventive, so quirky, and so well integrated that the form does not detract. Indeed, the form, so well established and evident on the printed page, becomes fluid and flexible in the reading, as if the poems need the human voice to provide the variety and rhythm that the rigidity of the form might seem to preclude. There is something almost Zen-like in the practice, in the way that Komunyakaa’s poems become meditations on life on Earth within the boundaries of his chosen form.
Talking Dirty to the Gods takes as its subject all forms of life, from slime molds, wasps, and Greek gods, to absent lovers, contemporary artists, and dead poets. In these poems, Komunyakaa’s language can be jazzy, serious, allusive (and elusive), satiric, or all of the above, sometimes in the same poem. The poems, then, are connected by their attention to the traditions of the past as well as by the inventiveness of the language.
Komunyakaa’s desire to make internal connections among these poems is evident in several ways, including his use of titles. The first poem is called “Hearsay,” while the last is “Heresy.” Within the volume are poems titled by each of the seven deadly sins, forming yet another internal link. There are also poems that seem to carry on an internal dialogue with each other, most notably “The Goddess of Quotas,” “The God of Variables,” “The Goddess of Quotas Laments,” and “The God of Variables Laments.” Further, he links an additional two poems by their gender opposition, “Incubus” and “Succubus.”
Komunyakaa includes a number of poems titled by months and arranged chronologically. Beginning with his poem “Janus,” Komunyakaa introduces the notion of passing time: “The new year/ Gazes back to Lot’s wife/ Lost in a dream of summer/ While the season’s first snow falls.” At nearly the end of the book, Komunyakaa returns to this theme in “November’s Nocturne”: “A rainstorm slants into an icy/ Wedge. Windows & doors whine/ A jam session of bedsprings/...
(The entire section is 1796 words.)