Sunday Afternoons

by James Willie Brown

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“Sunday Afternoons” is one of a number of poems wherein Komunyakaa explores childhood memories. In this case, it is the remembrance of how his parents would expel their four boys from the house in order to have the space and time for sexual relations.

The poem is divided roughly into two parts. The first four stanzas focus on the collective experience of the speaker and his siblings as they run wild outside the house, intoxicated by their temporary freedom from parental restraint. The final three stanzas focus on the speaker, the individual “I” of the poem, and his personal quest for knowledge.

In the first part of the poem, the children unconsciously replicate the behavior of their parents, who indulge in their libidinous urges behind “latched” doors. For their part, the children, “drunk” on the tart juice of crabapples and the reddish fruit of the hawthorn, act on natural impulse, like birds flying through green briers to reach their nests. Yet, like their parents, the adult nest builders within the shuttered house, Komunyakaa and his siblings instinctively seem to know that they possess the power to destroy what they have made. “There in the power of holding each egg” taken from an unprotected nest or in the lesson to be learned from “the hawk’s slow, deliberate arc” rests the flip side of humanity’s creative urges.

The children know that there is a thin line between cries of passion and shouts of anger, the ear-piercing utterances of a “Saturday-night argument about trust and money.” From the auditory evidence provided by their own parents, they realize that they “were born between Oh Yeah & Goddammit.”

In the second part of the poem, while the speaker’s brothers back away from the house and the “cries fused with gospel on the radio,” Komunyakaa presses harder against the screen door, peering into the interior of the family home. The boy seeks greater knowledge, the light of truth, but what he discovers is the reflection of a “dresser mirror” cut in half by the bedroom door “like a moon held prisoner in the house.”

Moonlight is reflected light, and the reader is left to wonder if the troubles of the boy’s parents prefigure whatever adult relationships he himself may have in store. In “My Father’s Love Letters,” another popular poem from the volume Magic City, the poet makes reference to how his mother fled the family home because of his father’s physical abuse. Is this the inevitable consequence of human passion?

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