Neon Vernacular

by James Willie Brown

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1798

With the proliferation of writing programs, it would seem that the maturation of poets could be speeded along, so that the years they normally spend raising their heads above the level of their juvenilia might be shortened to a few semesters. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case, at least not generally. More than speeding development, the programs are valuable for furthering careers, of both student and teacher, and if a career becomes recognizably such through publication, then the more publication—through appropriate channels, naturally-the better. Consequently, many more books of poetry are being published, not counting the multitudes being self-published, than ever before. The strong poet who once put forth five to ten books of new poems in a lifetime-or fewer; as in the case of Louise Bogan-today is a careerist who scores that much in a decade. In the foreword to New American Poets of the ’90’s (1991), editors Jack Myers and Roger Weingarten, two beneficiaries of the writing programs, characterize this postmodem condition as a “move toward pluralism and decentralization of aesthetic-political power,” a “historic breakthrough” that “has made it easier to find and gauge the pulse of the art.” Even stripped of its self-serving jargon, this statement is misleading. The problem with the contemporary situation in poetry—one that, ironically, the writing programs are, on the surface at least, meant to redress-is that by far most of the work produced, whether by teacher or ephebic teacher (that is, student), is weak. What strong work there might be gets lost among the rubble. Yet both are needed if readers are to acquire the ability to make judgments of strength and weakness. To seek strong work from the strong poets of the past is only a partial remedy, for the dead should only guide us, not live for us. We must find strength among those who live among us, and so it is that books like Yusef Komunyakaa’s Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award in 1994 and the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for poetry), which provides work both very weak and quite strong, are especially welcome.

Over a period of fifteen years, Komunyakaa published eight books of poetry, seven of which provide the selections in Neon Vernacular. Included is a section of twelve new poems. Thus the reader finds here encapsulated the development of Komunyakaa’s work reaching back to his years as a student at Colorado State University and as an M.F.A. candidate at the University of California, Irvine. The change in his poetry over the short span of fifteen years is remarkable and attests his desire, and ability, to strengthen his vision while at the same time seeking a voice, and a technique, suitable to that strengthening.

The earliest poems included are three from Dedications and Other Darkhorses (1977). These serve as a fitting introduction to the rest of Komunyakaa’s work; not only do they establish the particular voice-improvisational, hard-edged, and fancifully imaginative-that Komunyakaa is drawn to for the next ten years, but they also suggest some of the conflicts the more mature poet will have with this voice. This voice, as do many immature voices, finds its content in its style. The first poem follows its title “The Tongue Is” with the line “xeroxed on brainmatter,” which is to suggest that the matter of the brain, meaning both its material and its content, is blank paper until words, the tongue, are imprinted thereon. Yet the poem recognizes with its last lines that the tongue is also “a victrola in the mad mouth-hole/ of 3 A.M. sorrow.” That is, it simply plays back griefs. The heart, then, provides content for the tongue. Yet the content of these lines is not the griefs themselves, merely a generalized, abstracted statement about griefs, voiced in an amateurish and sentimental style (“mad mouth-hold,” “3 A.M. sorrow”). The speakers of these early poems are not ready to delve into the murk of human truths at the core of their pain but prefer to dash about among the flashy abstractions guarding that core from view. Equating these abstractions with the self reduces a person to the situation of the speaker in “Chair Gallows” who watches himself in a mirror swallowing himself in a mirror, and who can only “hope this is just another lie.” It is still many years from the time Komunyakaa will begin the more difficult work of attempting the truth, of detailing human sorrows, specifically his own, with a humane and loving clarity.

First he must outlive his immature voice. For Komunyakaa, as for many poets, this means finding out where the voice cannot go by the painful process of riding it as far as it can. The selections from his next book, Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (1979), are filled with overstretched imagery that at its best entertains with its pyrotechnics-though it more often misfires-and with the struttings and displays of a good boy trying to be bad. In this last respect, these poems echo with the voices of other bad-boy writers like Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac, writers both bad and boyish. “Looking a Mad Dog Dead in the Eyes” is vintage Bukowski; yet a later dog poem, “The Dog Act,” reveals a deeper core to Komunyakaa, who is clearly unconvinced by his boyhood infatuations. “I’m the warm-up act,” the speaker states. “I make a face/ that wants to die/inside me.” Reading this statement self-referentially suggests that the style, the put-on face, barely has the strength to keep living and is recognized for “the warm-up act” preceding the main attraction yet to come. Komunyakaa already feels the limitations to his voice. In “Corrigenda” the speaker admits that he does not “know how/the legless beggar feels when/the memory of his toes itch.” These itchings of the memory of amputated parts of the self are what drive Komunyakaa forward in his development, and only when he knows how he feels when memory returns do his strong poems come forth.

His next two books, Copacetic (1984) and I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), mark the turning point in his development, evidenced in a stretching for new styles and themes. Even the contrast between the two titles suggest something of the ongoing conflict, the one boastful (if one assumes that it tries to characterize the poems it precedes), the other self-deprecatory. By the later book, the bad-boy tone has been

abandoned, although the overstretched imagery and abstractions by and large remain. Komunyakaa experiments with celebrations of jazz, attempting, it seems, to work his way toward something truly close to his heart. He also includes one overtly political statement, “1984,” which is as unconvincing as most poeticized political statements. One poem, “For the Walking Dead,” points in the direction he takes in his next two books: poems of war, specifically the Vietnam War.

Since he served as a correspondent at the height of the war, it is likely that Komunyakaa experienced firsthand the horrors he details in Toys in a Field (1986) and Dien Cai Dau (1988) using a simple and direct voice that contrasts with his earlier work in its attempts both to make sense of one specific context of human experience and, simply, to make sense. Because these poems do not put on displays of imaginative prowess, they come across all the more powerfully, engaging the actual source of imaginative power, the reader’s own processes. Moreover, because the poems share one “real-life” context, all the tricks of the earlier poems fall away, including the abstractions and bad-boy talk. Hints of these faults do linger in the selections from Toys in a Field, but in the later book they are banished. The mirror within the mirror into which the boy-poet fell in “Chair Gallows” becomes the reflective surface of the Vietnam War Memorial in “Facing It,” in which readers see themselves and one another and merge, not with the mirror, but with humans’ collective and individual pain. Where the earlier “1984” had failed in its attempt to be political, failed because it was merely ideologically political, these poems succeed in being humanly political through their examination of actual relations between people in an actual context. The minor context of the Americans in Vietnam becomes a kind of telescope through which the larger society back home can be viewed. Poems like “Tu Do Street,” “Jungle Surrender,” “Report from the Skull’s Diorama,” and “Facing It” ache with a deeply human experiencing and embodying of the emotional and spiritual tensions at work wherever humans interact, tensions that are especially made evident in the crucible of war.

With these two books Komunyakaa seems to have discovered the larger theme, memory, around which revolve the strongest of the remaining selections, those from February in Sydney (1989) and the new poems. Many of these poems make suggestions about the processes of memory through assuming the voices of characters remembering. Others are more direct meditations on the subject. The most effective are those in which Komunyakaa seems to bring forth his own memories, effective because they present the abstractions arrived at in the meditations in a context that feels fully fleshed. Especially moving is the poem “Songs for My Father.” Its snapshots of Komunyakaa’s relationship with his father as the two, essentially, grew up together seem to recollect emotions once lost, allowing the reality of feeling to memories otherwise devoid of meaning. Also, the poem both directly and indirectly addresses the issue of voice. It becomes clear from the portrait of the father that the cockiness of Komunyakaa’s youthful voice was in fact his father’s voice-thus its unrealness, its derivative quality. As the poet puts it, speaking simultaneously of his father and himself, “I can/ Remember when you had a boy’s voice.” This poem gives depth to William Wordsworth’s suggestion that “the Child is father to the Man” through embodying this idea in memories alive with feeling. This poem might truly serve as a gauge of the pulse, when strong, of contemporary poetry, which at its best melds the literal with the literary, carrying forth in poetry the project begun in prose at the beginning of this century by monuments such as James Joyce and Marcel Proust.

Far more valuable, then, than a year’s worth of writing seminars would be the careful reading of a book such as Neon Vernacular. Even more valuable than the portrait of poetic development that this book makes available are the moments of true strength that have emerged from that development.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, March 15, 1993, p.1292.

The Kenyon Review. XV, Fall, 1993, p.217.

Library Journal. CXVIII, March 15, 1993, p.81.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 5, 1993, p.6.

The Nation. CCLVII, December 27, 1993, p.810.

The Village Voice. June 8, 1993, p. SS6.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXIX, Autumn, 1993, p. SS137.

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