Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1796
Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, in 1947, Yusef Komunyakaa has traveled far in his poetic journey. His awards range from the Bronze Star he won while serving in the Army during the Vietnam War to the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for his collection Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems(1993). This volume also won the Kingsley Tufts Award, and the William Faulkner Award. His collection Thieves of Paradise (1998) was a 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, and he continues to accumulate critical praise for his work. A prolific writer, in 2000, the same year he published Talking Dirty to the Gods, he also published a collection of essays and criticism, Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries. Yet another collection of poetry, Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems 1975-1999, appeared in spring of 2001. Komunyakaa, a professor in the Council of Humanities and Creative Writing program at Princeton, has published nine collections of poetry, two anthologies, and a number of recordings, including collaborative efforts with musicians.
Critics and scholars have tried to describe Komunyakaa as a Southern writer, or a black writer, or a Vietnam War poet, or a jazz poet. In truth, all of these descriptions fit. In works such as Dien Cai Dao (1988), for example, Komunyakaa demonstrates his ability to translate lived trauma into poetry of witness. Yet none of these descriptors do justice to the range of Komunyakaa’s talent. It would be better, perhaps, to cease trying to slip him into some easy category and instead to examine Komunyakaa as a poet of the first degree, a writer whose impact will continue to exert influence on writers for years to come.
There may be no better place to start than with Komunyakaa’s 2000 volume of poetry Talking Dirty to the Gods. In this work, Komunyakaa turns away from the free-form verse and short lines that have characterized a good deal of his poetry and toward a formal, highly structured, highly polished series of four-line, four-stanza poems. Always the innovator, Komunyakaa challenges himself to create a complete book of lyric meditations controlled by the four-line, four-stanza form. In the hands of a less talented poet, such an experiment could have turned tedious at best and disastrous at worst. Komunyakaa’s language and subject matter, however, are so inventive, so quirky, and so well integrated that the form does not detract. Indeed, the form, so well established and evident on the printed page, becomes fluid and flexible in the reading, as if the poems need the human voice to provide the variety and rhythm that the rigidity of the form might seem to preclude. There is something almost Zen-like in the practice, in the way that Komunyakaa’s poems become meditations on life on Earth within the boundaries of his chosen form.
Talking Dirty to the Gods takes as its subject all forms of life, from slime molds, wasps, and Greek gods, to absent lovers, contemporary artists, and dead poets. In these poems, Komunyakaa’s language can be jazzy, serious, allusive (and elusive), satiric, or all of the above, sometimes in the same poem. The poems, then, are connected by their attention to the traditions of the past as well as by the inventiveness of the language.
Komunyakaa’s desire to make internal connections among these poems is evident in several ways, including his use of titles. The first poem is called “Hearsay,” while the last is “Heresy.” Within the volume are poems titled by each of the seven deadly sins, forming yet another internal link. There are also poems that seem to carry on an internal dialogue with each other, most notably “The Goddess of Quotas,” “The God of Variables,” “The Goddess of Quotas Laments,” and “The God of Variables Laments.” Further, he links an additional two poems by their gender opposition, “Incubus” and “Succubus.”
Komunyakaa includes a number of poems titled by months and arranged chronologically. Beginning with his poem “Janus,” Komunyakaa introduces the notion of passing time: “The new year/ Gazes back to Lot’s wife/ Lost in a dream of summer/ While the season’s first snow falls.” At nearly the end of the book, Komunyakaa returns to this theme in “November’s Nocturne”: “A rainstorm slants into an icy/ Wedge. Windows & doors whine/ A jam session of bedsprings/ In love’s deep twilight. . . . ” The passage from winter, through spring and summer, and back to winter again provides a subtle frame for the collection, a frame that reflects the mutability and melancholy of conscious life.
Many of the poems in the volume draw on Komunyakaa’s extensive knowledge of mythologies of the world, including Judeo-Christian beliefs, as well as on his connections to jazz and his intense interest in the natural world. Indeed, a reader with little knowledge of classical allusions may be daunted by the dazzling variety of mythological characters who people his poems. In “Infidelity,” for example, Komunyakaa uses the Greek god Zeus, known for his amorous affairs, as his subject: “Zeus always introduces himself/ As one who needs stitching/ Back together with kisses.” In the lovely “Pyramus and Thisbe,” Komunyakaa uses the classical story of doomed lovers to relate something of his own life: “At nine,// I didn t know delicious words/ To say to a girl.”
Komunyakaa does not limit himself to classical allusions, however. Sometimes musicians figure in his poems, as in “Speed Ball,” a meditation on Chet Baker; sometimes his gaze includes eastern allusion, as in “Ukiyo-e.” Sometimes he chooses to juxtapose unlikely allusions from different sources. In each case, however, his use of allusion is both deft and accurate. The result can be a wry humor; readers do not expect, for example, to find Pan “raising Cain.” More often, the allusions serve to connect Komunyakaa’s reflections to the very oldest and truest stories humans know.
Some of these stories include the troubled love between father and son. In the poem “Isaac,” the narrator is Abraham’s son. In the biblical story, God instructs Abraham to kill Isaac, only to stay his hand at the last possible moment. Komunyakaa gives Isaac these words: “I bear a knife scar,/ But still love him as a son/ Should. I am his terror./ Sometimes I sleep with one eye/ Open. He’s made promises/ Anyone with good sense knows/ He can’t keep. . . . ” The edgy danger between father and son, between parent and offspring seems both troubling and true in Komunyakaa’s lines. In a number of other poems, Komunyakaa alludes to the tools of his father’s trade and to his father himself. “Meditation on a File” seems to do both. “You belong/ To a dead man, made to fit/ A keyhole of metal to search/ For light, to rasp burrs off/ In slivers thin as hair . . . ”
Some of the stories are about love (and lust) between men and women. In “April’s Fool,” for example, the narrator recalls a young girl whose name he carved in an oak desk and who is killed by a car while riding her bicycle. He connects lust with words in the poem “Lust,” conjuring the feel of a name on lips, “Words, juicy as passion fruit/ On her tongue.” He also comments on the transitory, momentary nature of love and lust in his poem “May,” a meditation that at first seems to be about mayflies, whose life span is a single day, a day of sex and death. Komunyakaa even refers to the fatal love between a man and woman in his poem “A Famous Ghost.” In this poem, the narrator is the dead poet, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide by putting her head in a gas oven. Her husband, Ted Hughes, found the rest of his poetic career tainted by the speculations surrounding Plath’s death. Most telling, perhaps, is the line from the poem “My last breath// stole from his. . . . ” marking Komunyakaa’s recognition that death steals from life just as life steals from death.
Komunyakaa also includes many poems that take as their subjects the natural world. He writes of slime molds, polecats, raccoons, hyenas, and wasps, among others. Many of these poems concern the cycle of life, the way that life feeds off itself. In “Ode to the Raccoon,” for example, Komunyakaa describes both the living raccoon and the raccoon on the plate, surrounded by sweet potatoes and red peppers. In this poem, he juxtaposes religious images such as that of the raccoon washing his “paws at the altar” with images of the raccoon hunt. The blessings that the raccoon ironically receives in the last line are those said across a table.
It is in poems such as “Bedazzled” where Komunyakaa’s virtuosity seems most evident. “A jeweled wasp stuns/ A cockroach & plants an egg/ Inside. . . . ” the poem opens. Again, the poet reflects on the way that life grows out of death; the young wasp larva uses the cockroach’s living body as its sustenance, taking the roach’s life force and making it his own. Although this event is from the natural world, there is nonetheless the sense of evil in this poem. The image of the “premature stinger” waiting “like a bad idea, almost// Hidden . . . ” tightens the tension in the middle of the poem. There is a murderous quality to the wasp, a sense of the predatory made that much worse by its lack of consciousness and lack of conscience. In the last line, Komunyakaa tells the reader that the newly hatched wasp is as “Bright as Satan’s lost tiepin.”
The longer one spends with the collection as a whole, the more the poems seem to move in the same direction. Although each of the poems is individually powerful, and although the poems take on different subjects, the collection itself seems poised to say something important about the cycles of time, of space, of nature, of life. Komunyakaa builds the poems in opposition to each other in order to present the full picture; for each reference to a point in time, such as October, there is another reference to the conjoining of past and present, such as the comparison of Zeus to a rock singer. Nature, while portrayed in stunning images, is also brutal in these poems. Life is both sweet and melancholy, fertile and sterile.
Just as ritual connects people with their mytho-historic pasts, these little poetic rituals allow readers to observe the comic and tragic dimensions of all life, not just human. Through his heart-breaking facility with language and myth, Komunyakaa demonstrates a profound understanding of the ways that life feeds on death and death on life. This is a collection of poetry worth reading again and again, its subtle nuances unfolding slowly with each approach.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (August, 2000): 210.
Library Journal 125 (August, 2000): 110.
The New York Times Book Review 105 (December 10, 2000): 36.
Publishers Weekly 247 (July 24, 2000): 82.
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