Poetry on the Margins

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Although Yusef Komunyakaa is particularly known for Dien Cai Dau (1988), which depicts various aspects of the Vietnam War, he also addresses other dimensions of the African American experience not commonly discussed by other poets. His extensive treatment of the old South, in particular, is unique for its mixture of poignancy and nostalgia. While employing African American art forms such as jazz and the blues, he is also a virtuoso of the dramatic monologue, the soliloquy, and the surrealist juxtaposition of surprising images. Critic Matthew Flamm has described him as “pain’s constant witness, often speaking for the historically dispossessed, but with the assumption that he does so only on his own idiosyncratic terms.”

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Komunyakaa was born and reared in Bogalusa, Louisiana, a southern town with a Ku Klux Klan presence. During the Vietnam War, he served as a correspondent and editor of The Southern Cross (1969-1970) and received the Bronze Star. He returned to the United States to complete his education, receiving a bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado in 1975, a master’s degree from Colorado State University in 1979, and a master of fine arts degree from the University of California at Irvine in 1980. Partly because of his academic training, Komunyakaa is extremely well read and very much at home with the writings of American poets past and present. While studying for his degrees, he published two chapbooks, Dedications and Other Darkhorses (1977) and Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (1979), in which he employs the grotesque and the macabre imagination to thematize the moral deformity of the world, especially the Old South. This subject, which appears to haunt Komunyakaa, is often symbolized in his poetry by skeletons, as well as by biblical images and allusions to moral depravity. He began teaching at Indiana University in Bloomington in 1985 after serving briefly as a poet-in-the-schools in New Orleans. Fascinated with Australia and concerned about its Aborigines, he has spent considerable time there and has written a chapbook, February in Sydney (1989), about his experiences.

Komunyakaa’s collection Magic City (1992) serves best as an introduction to his poetry because of its autobiographical nature. According to the poem “Mismatched Shoes,” his maternal great-grandmother was born a slave, and her daughter married an illegal immigrant from Trinidad. Other poems in the volume reveal that Komunyakaa was born when his mother was fifteen years old (“Family Tree” and “Venus’s-flytraps”), and that his father, a worker at a lumber company, was quick to fight back when he was kicked by the foreman (“The Whistle”). Barely literate, his father was sometimes abusive toward Komunyakaa’s mother but was nevertheless remorseful whenever she ran away (“My Father’s Love Letters”). Judging by the autobiographical poems, the Komunyakaas are a large, extended family in which love, care, and support are generously shared. “Unable to divide love from poverty” (“Banking Potatoes”), the Komunyakaas managed to survive under deprived conditions in spite of various forms of racism. Delineating such a background in his childhood, Magic City is a book in which vignettes of pain and joy, work and play, and love and hate interweave into a remembrance that mixes laughter, poignancy, indictment, and nostalgia.

Coping Through Poetry

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The genealogical pattern found in Magic City in fact dates back to the first part of Copacetic (1984), which launched Komunyakaa as a contemporary poet in the literary world. For Komunyakaa, the term “copacetic” conjures “jazz-blues feelings” associated with New Orleans. The choice of the word as a title also hints at the poet’s awareness of the African American community’s remarkable ability to survive. Derived from the Creole word coupesètique, “copacetic” is a slang expression for “excellent” or “very satisfactory”; its original meaning, however, was “able to be coped with.” In general, the volume stresses the idea of “copacetic” as relating to survival or coping and occasionally to the sense of feeling (genuinely or ironically) good about oneself.

The first part of Copacetic, “Blackmetal Blues,” exemplifies racial matters experienced by a variety of African Americans, mainly in the post-Civil War South. Although the author’s family is part of the composite narrative (“Family Tree”), the focus is on how African Americans were invariably affected by their predicament as an ethnic group, whether directly (as in “Reflections,” which concerns a lynching) or indirectly (as in “Initials on Aspens,” which deals with memories of slavery). The experience of racism is eventually put into a global-historical context (see “An African Exchange Student Awaits the Arrival of an African Princess”), thereby linking racial struggles in America with ones abroad, especially in South Africa (“Blasphemy”). The section concludes with “Lost Wax,” a personal meditation on the middle passage of Africans on the slave ships, the gods of Africa, and the “stuff” of which Africans are made. Affirming his ethnicity, the poet states: “I am without mercy/ because I am what/ night poured her lament into/ . . . Woman-mold, man-mold:/ whatever shape we think/ will save us, what’s left/ in us preserved by joy./ We won’t trade our gods/ for money.” Such a mixture of lament and pride is typical of the “copacetic” sentiment of this section.

“Blackmetal Blues” also contains examples of Komunyakaa’s favorite poetic forms, the dramatic monologue and the blues. Some of the poems employ the mask of a persona to explore certain situations associated with African Americans. For example, in “More Girl than Boy,” the persona addresses a certain Robert Lee, who has “made it home from Chicago” disillusioned with how “All the man-sweet gigs/ meant absolutely nothing.” Remembering how he and Robert Lee played together and embraced each other (before he discovered girls), and how Robert has taught him “a heavy love/ for jazz” and saved him from the streets, the persona welcomes Robert “back to earth” because he “always could make that piano/ talk like somebody’s mama.” The poet then tells Robert outright that he will always be his friend. The poem thus captures the bond between two young African Americans by dramatizing an episode in the mass migration of African Americans to the North. Some poems employing the dramatic monologue are also suggestive of the blues, as, for example, “The Way the Cards Fall,” which again deals with the migration of African Americans to the North.

“Mojo,” the second part of Copacetic, consists largely of monologues and soliloquies. Komunyakaa’s personal voice begins to play a dominant role. While racial matters reappear (as in “Let’s Say”), and musical forms such as jazz (as in “Copacetic Mingus”) and the blues (as in “Woman, I Got the Blues”) again serve as a motif, the poet ventures into a more modern—and modernist—world. The poems in this section may be challenging to read, but they are essentially written or arranged according to the principles described in “Safe Subjects,” which can be regarded as a poetic manifesto. In this manifesto, the poet muses upon the possibilities of extending his subject matters and deepening his expressions. There are complex messages in this poem, but the imagery suggests that Komunyakaa, acknowledging the darkness and horror afflicting the daily lives of African Americans, would like to probe into the truth hidden behind this sinister mask of reality.

In “Safe Subjects,” the juxtaposition of details taken from mundane reality with fragmented images of a horrifying nature hints at the surrealist style that Komunyakaa will be exploiting. Indeed, at his best, Komunyakaa is able to mix surrealism with the blues technique, creating an interesting expression combining European and African American elements. A good example is “Blues Chant Hoodoo Revival,” which, as the last poem of Copacetic, is also an ironic summation of the volume’s titular theme because of the intensity of the pain that the poet reveals about his African American identity.

I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), a collection of heterogeneous poems, opens with a powerful declaration of the independence of the self: “I have principles. I won’t speak/ on the natural state of the unicorn/ in literature or self-analysis./ I have no birthright to prove,/ no insignia, no secret password, no fleur-de-lis./ My initials aren’t on a branding iron.” The rest of the volume is informed by this uncompromising self-definition. The book’s title is derived from “When in Rome—Apologia,” a dramatic monologue depicting a streetwise playboy figure. The poem’s persona obviously has been dallying with a woman, but he gets into a potentially troublesome situation when he is confronted by her husband. To defuse the man’s anger, the person makes a number of relevant and irrelevant excuses and apologizes—ironically—for the eyes in his head. A few other dramatic monologues are written in a similar vein (“I Apologize”), and humorous satires abound in the book. Other accessible poems include character studies (“Olympia”), soliloquies and masked poems (“Touch-up Man”), and personal reflections and meditations (“Unnatural State of the Unicorn”).

Difficult Truths

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Despite its merits, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head can sometimes be puzzling. The reason behind the obscurity is perhaps Komunyakaa’s venture beyond “safe subjects,” which entails the delineation of what Matthew Flamm calls “difficult truths.” For Komunyakaa, truths are necessarily difficult. As an epigraph from Aimé Césaire suggests, rather than mere concepts, truths involve the totality of one’s experience. Moreover, according to an epigraph from Czesaw Miosz, truths are not only personal but also deeply rooted in the interests of the community. This poetics of difficult truths is applied successfully in poems such as “How I See Things” (where Komunyakaa contrasts his experience with a former freedom marcher’s rational view of the Civil Rights movement) and “Landscape for the Disappeared” (in which the poet describes a killing field in Louisiana in sensory terms). Komunyakaa’s critique of modern technology and Western civilization in the apocalyptic poems “1984” and ”Raw Data for an Unfinished Questionnaire” also illustrates that he is ultimately concerned about communal issues, even as he presents truth in terms of the most private experiences.

Winner of the Dark Room Poetry Prize, Dien Cai Dau, by which Komunyakaa’s reputation was established, is an important document of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Some of the poems appeared earlier in Komunyakaa’s 1986 chapbook Toys in the Field (1986), but, significantly, the title adopted for the book is in Vietnamese. Dien cai dau, which means “crazy ones,” is a term used by the Vietnamese to refer to American soldiers. The phrase occurs in “Starlight Scope Myopia,” a poem with a title that, in turn, puns on the nature of the war. In the poem, the persona recalls how, while spying and preparing to fire on Viet Cong troops who were loading an oxcart with rice and ammunition, he wondered to himself: “Are they talking about women/ or calling the Americans/ beaucoup dien cai dau?” The rest of the poem suggests that, for a moment, the soldier enters into an empathy (and sympathy) with those whom he is going to kill. This poem is typical of the way Komunyakaa approaches his subject: Its documentary realism transforms, toward the end, into a critical and humanistic reflection that remains largely unspoken. There is an unmistakable tension between the need to survive and the imperative to commit violence, and the gulf between the moment’s violence and the haunting, even remorseful, memory long after the act remains unbridgeable. Many other poems dealing with combat situations follow this pattern; the widely praised poem “’You and I Are Disappearing’” (in which a soldier gazes with prolonged awe at a girl whom he has caused to burn alive) is paradigmatic of this group.

In poems dealing with the facets of warfare, Komunyakaa not only captures the drama of the situations aesthetically but also, in the process, hints at the treacherous conditions and moral ambiguity of the war (“Camouflaging the Chimera”). Rather than dwelling upon bloody combats, he underscores the human tragedies afflicting not only the Americans (“Fragging”) but also the Vietnamese (“Sappers”). Significantly, the poet often offers a dual perspective on the war itself by dramatizing the encounters and interactions between the opposing forces, so that he presents the war from both sides’ point of view. “Night Muse and Mortar Round” shows Americans being easily lured to their deaths regardless of their intentions. “Re-creating the Scene” describes the gang rape of a Vietnamese woman with a baby by Americans. After filing a complaint, the woman simply disappears, leaving behind a baby who “makes a fist & grabs at the air,/ searching for a breast.” Poems concentrating on the interactions between American soldiers and Vietnamese women are especially remarkable, not only because they show how such relationships are destined to be circumstantial and abnormal (“The Edge”) but also because they epitomize one nation’s obscene violation of another at the most intimate level.

The critical stance in Dien Cai Dau is further underscored when Komunyakaa begins to introduce the race factor into some poems, thus reminding readers that the Vietnam War coincided with the era of racial strife, city riots, and the Civil Rights movement in the United States. The distinction between black and white soldiers first emerges as a motif in “Hanoi Hannah,” where, ironically, a Viet Cong woman—soon to be killed by the black soldiers—announces the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. In “Report from the Skull’s Diorama,” when a group of black soldiers “have lost their tongues” after reading propaganda leaflets reiterating that “VC didn’t kill/ Dr. Martin Luther King,” the lines setting enemies and friends apart are blurred beyond recognition. The death of King is presented as an intensely traumatic experience in the stageable dramatic monologue in prose “The One-legged Stool,” in which a black prisoner of war, after disbelieving and denying King’s death to his captors, eventually admits that he has been and will continue to be subject to white racism. The prisoner is so paranoid that he begins to equate the Viet Cong with Southern whites as agents of his oppression. The equation is a little odd but not entirely far-fetched, because, according to the implication in “To Have Danced with Death,” a black soldier’s being wounded in action is no guarantee that he will be accepted by whites as he visits the hospital. The racial distinction between black and white Americans is further problematized, rather inextricably, as black soldiers find racial segregation curiously institutionalized in a Vietnamese bar and yet ironically demolished in a brothel in the same red-light district (“Tu Do Street”).

Although Komunyakaa’s reflections on the Vietnam War do not hinge on the issue of race alone, his identity as a black man has given the war a special meaning that would otherwise have been lost. Even when he is dealing with the aftermath of the war, he tries to make this clear. In “Face It,” the concluding poem of the book, he begins by suggesting his anonymity as he stands before the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (“My black face fades,/ hiding inside the black granite”). Toward the end, however, he hints at how, before such a memorial, he is meant to be recognized after all: “A white vet’s image floats closer to me, then his pale eyes/ look through mine. I’m a window.” To some critics, Dien Cai Dau is a milestone in poetry by Vietnam veterans; scholar Vicente Gotera, for example, has commented that the volume “points to the possibility and actuality of self-renewal and solace,” a transcendent view that helps to “make possible a more accurate national vision of the Vietnam War.” It is the racial perspective that Komunyakaa has brought to bear on this transcending vision that makes the book an emergent classic.

Komunyakaa has quoted Ernst Fischer as saying that “beauty holds judgment and pronounces its verdict in lines of tempered steel.” Komunyakaa’s poetry appears to aspire to a similar condition—to let beauty itself express the truth. Accordingly, he has always disciplined the language in his poems to allow their carefully selected details and images to express themselves. His vision is embedded in his poems’ situations rather than declared by their personae. His voice, if often muted because of his “poetics of difficult truths” and his preference for letting the poem dramatize such truths, is distinctive; it has an impact that tends to linger rather than fade. Dien Cai Dau proved Komunyakaa’s abilities, and Magic City also contains sure signs of his maturity as a poet. His subsequent work has suggested that Komunyakaa has in mind further adventures and breakthroughs in both subject matter and artistic expression. Eager to individualize his voice, Komunyakaa thus continues to temper the steel of his poetry.

A Career Landmark

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The publication of Neon Vernacular in 1993 represents a landmark in Komunyakaa’s career. This collection, for which Komunyakaa was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1994, includes selections from the first seven volumes of the poet’s earlier work, as well as twelve new poems, thus representing the full range of the poet’s sensibilities and capabilities. Particularly remarkable is the autobiographical “Song for My Father,” a series of fourteen modern sonnets embodying in poignant cadences the narrator’s complex feelings toward the father, ranging from love to hate, from anger to sorrow, and from anxiety to reckoning. The experimentation in poetic form suggested by this poem also points to a new direction in the poet’s prolific and dazzling work that fully emerged in his later work.

In Thieves of Paradise (1998), while gemlike, accessible poems such as “Ode to a Drum” and “Meditations on a Dingo” abound, Komunyakaa appears to be drawing deliberately from a multitude of traditions (including Greco-Roman classics, the Harlem Renaissance, Spanish surrealism, jazz and blues, Beat poetry, American Indian culture, and Yoruba drama) to exemplify the diverse experiences that have contributed to his unique sensibilities as a maturing poet. Komunaykaa apparently takes a radical turn toward postmodern experimentation in poems such as “Palimpsest,” but the collection also features sets of lyrical poems that, linked together as narratives, tell compelling stories about the disoriented war veteran (in the “Debriefing Ghosts” section), as well as about historical figures such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi Indians (“Quatrains for Ishi”), and jazz musician Charlie Parker (“Testimony,” a set of fourteen sonnets similar to “Song for My Father”). A substantial selection of poems from this book is incorporated into Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems (2001), a retrospective collection that includes twenty-five early uncollected poems, a generous sampling that would help readers chart the course of the poet’s journey.

Judging by the full spectrum of his writing as represented in Pleasure Dome, it is apparent that Komunyakaa draws upon a great wealth of inspirations and expressions from a wide variety of writers such as Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sterling Brown, Margaret Walker, Countée Cullen, Claude McKay, Amiri Baraka, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Arthur Rimbaud, and Guillaume Apollinaire. However, the style of writing that Komunyakaa has been forging for himself will eventually be a versatile, adaptive one. Without relinquishing subject matters he has been known to excel in, Komunyakaa ventures beyond racial and wartime themes and expressions to expand his aesthetic agenda. Talking Dirty to the Gods (2000; nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award) examines and evaluates the seven deadly sins in 132 poems, each consisting of four unrhymed quatrains, with each line consisting of four syncopated beats. Populating a warped universe of e-mails and MTV with Homo Erectus, Polypheus, and Godzilla, the poems in this collection are remarkable not only for their stylistic innovation but also for their playful or sarcastic engagements with a tremendous variety of topics ranging from “Hearsay” to “Heresy.” Hence, sex toys shed surprising light on Roman mythology and history (“Sex Toy”), and a repentant hatemonger, George Wallace, is criticized as still unforgivable for having planted, like Cadmus, “an army of dragon’s teeth.”

Taboo,published in 2004 and designated as the first book of what is projected to be The Wishbone Trilogy, appears to be an even more ambitious undertaking, as the poet employs three-line stanzas as a device, taking advantage of the connections and tensions built into the three-line prosodic structure. With this trilogy, such other projects as Warhorses (2008), and a steadily increasing critical interest in different aspects of his work, Komunyakaa has been gaining broader recognition and appeal for his ability to inform matters of experience and imagination with aesthetic frameworks specially developed for their expression.


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Callaloo 28, no. 3 (Summer, 2005). This special issue devoted to Yusef Komunyakaa,edited by Michael Collins, includes poems, translations, and opera/verse-drama excerpts by the poet; it also contains an extensive collection of new interviews with him and discussions of his writing and career.

Cramer, Steven. Review of Dien Cai Dau, by Yusef Komunyakaa. Poetry 156, no. 2 (May, 1990): 102-105. Elaborate review of Komunyakaa’s Pulitzer Prize-winning volume.

Ehrhart, W. D. “Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War.” Virginia Quarterly Review 63, no. 2 (Spring, 1987): 246-265. Places Komunyakaa’s work in the context of writings inspired by the Vietnam War.

Flamm, Matthew. “Facing Up to the Deadly Ordinary.” The New York Times Book Review 92 (October 4, 1987): 24. Contains a brief review of I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head.

Gotera, Vicente F. “’Depending on the Light’: Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau. ” In America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, edited by Owen W. Gilman, Jr., and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland, 1990. Discusses Dien Cai Dau in the context of the growing body of work devoted to the Vietnam War.

Komunyakaa, Yusef. Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries. Edited by Radiclani Clytus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. One of the titles in the Poets on Poetryseries, this volume contains four groups of essays by Komunyakaa (essays on poets and musicians who have influenced him; the poet’s commentaries on some of his own poems; interviews; and artistic explorations revealing the poet’s current interests). “Lines of Tempered Steel,” a significant interview with Vicente Gotera in which Komunyakaa discusses the sources and models of his poetry, his aesthetic standpoints, and his views on contemporary American poetry, is reprinted in this volume.

Komunyakaa, Yusef. “Kit and Caboodle.” In The Eye of the Poet: Six Views of the Art and Craft of Poetry, edited by David Citin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. In this poetry-writing textbook, Komunyakaa, together with fellow poets including Billy Collins and David Citino, offers a virtual writing workshop to new and experienced writers of poetry.

Komunyakaa, Yusef. “Yusef Komunyakaa: The Black Nightingale Singing on Paper with the Richness of a Sweet Potato.” Interview with Willis Barnstone. In We Jews and Blacks: Memoir with Poems. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. In this dialogue with Barnstone, Komunyakaa discusses issues of race and education; he reveals that being a poet for him involves the process of discovery.

Salas, Angela A. Flashback Through the Heart: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2004. Seeks to demonstrate that Komunyakaa’s poetry, while addressing issues of race and class from time to time, has acquired enduring qualities thanks to the poet’s pursuit of an aesthetic agenda based on negative capability.

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