Poetry on the Margins

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.”

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,...

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Coping Through Poetry

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 948 words.)

Difficult Truths

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

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A Career Landmark

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 629 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 444 words.)