The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Written in free verse, “Sunday Afternoons” is a relatively short poem of thirty-five lines divided into seven stanzas. The title refers to the day and time of the week when the poet’s parents excluded their children from the family house and locked the doors to ensure their privacy while they had sex. This poem is just one of a number of verse compositions, most of them collected in the volume Magic City, wherein Yusef Komunyakaa explores his and, by extension, the readers’ shared childhood. In this regard, most children have memories of coping with the mystery of forbidden access, of engaging in the frustrated attempt to decode the parental sounds heard on the other side of closed doors.

Using the first-person plural pronoun “we,” the poem is told from the perspective of the poet and his siblings when they are excluded from the monitoring parental presence and left to their own devices. Even in the confines of the family yard, however, the children discover their own innate animal nature by identifying, in the second and third stanzas, with the sometimes wild creatures that cross their field of experience. They become “drunk” on mayhaw juice and terrorize nesting birds. After this exercise of animal spirits and animal cruelty, the children, in the fourth stanza, refocus their attention on the house and their shared realization that there is something going on inside, something to be interpreted solely by auditory evidence. What...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In both the poems about his childhood in rural Louisiana and his celebrated compositions on his Vietnam War experience (Dien Cai Dau, 1988), Komunyakaa displays the Romantic trait of finding correspondences between humanity and the natural world. Set free in the yard, for example, the children mimic, in their engagement with the landscape, the pattern of many adult relationships. First, they are intoxicated by the juice of the mayhaw and the crabapple. The ripe fruit embodies that period of sexual fertility that adolescence will bring. Then, the children feel “brave/ As birds diving through saw vines.” Similarly, future hormonal urges may lead to the potentially painful risk-taking that is also a component of adolescent experimentation. Finally, they observe dogs in heat, and this image of feverish intensity is followed by the children holding speckled eggs in their hands as a hawk circles overhead. Thus, natural images of puberty and fecundity foretell the end of the state of sexual latency the children now experience. Most of the poems in Magic City explore this engagement with the natural world. In a 1994 New York Times interview, Komunyakaa recalled his hometown of Bogalusa, Louisiana, as a “place where there was vegetation all over. There was a chemistry going on in the landscape and I identified with it, so I kind of look for that wherever I go.”

In the second half of the poem, when the poet refocuses on what may be taking place inside the house, there is an acknowledgment of the consequences...

(The entire section is 631 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Aubert, Alvin. “Yusef Komunyakaa: The Unified Vision, Canonization and Humanity.” African American Review 27, no. 1 (Spring, 1993): 119-123.

Collins, Michael. “Staying Human.” Parnassas: Poetry in Review 18/19, nos. 1/2 (November 1, 1993): 126-149.

Ehrhart, W. D. “Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War.” In America Rediscovered: Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, edited by Owen W. Gilman and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland, 1990.

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 and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland, 1990.

Salas, Angela. “Race, Human Empathy, and Negative Capability: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa.” College Literature 30, no. 4 (Fall, 2003): 32-53.

Stein, Kevin. “Vietnam and the ’Voice Within’: Public and Private History in Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau.” Massachusetts Review 36, no. 4 (December 1, 1995): 541-561.