Yusef Komunyakaa

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Yusef Komunyakaa American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2106

To Komunyakaa, the poem is a mechanism for self-discovery, a means by which both the poet and the reader can probe the outer layers of any experience with the intention of arriving at some core meaning. Indeed, much of Komunyakaa’s work focuses on this desire to get at the heart of the matter, whether it is who humans are or where they find themselves at any given moment in their lives.

At the beginning of his poetic career, Komunyakaa’s vision was rooted most often in his race and gender, but even in his earliest work, there is evidence of his desire to incorporate the perspectives of other people. This tendency to seek the universal expanded over time as Komunyakaa studied and traveled. Indeed, the poet’s evolving vision became increasingly marked by a rich interplay of past and present, of the history and culture of the United States and those of other lands.

Very often Komunyakaa’s poetic inquiries into the nature of identity and experience are retrospective. His poems about his formative years in the segregated South and his young adulthood set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War are explorations in hindsight, written many years after the actual events described. Such a retrospective approach allows the blood to cool and the poet to achieve the necessary aesthetic distance and psychological space between the present moment of composition and the original inciting incident, such as the emotional trauma of racism or the violence of armed conflict.

The typical Komunyakaa poem is often marked by a juxtaposition of apparently opposite elements. For example, the more formal diction derived from the poet’s advanced education and extensive reading is often set against the regionalisms of the rural South or the jargon of soldiers and jazz musicians. What results is the “neon vernacular” that Komunyakaa refers to in the title of his first edition of collected poems, a poetic language that illuminates meaning by expanding the linguistic options, the word choices, at the poet’s disposal.

Furthermore, Komunyakaa is adept at incorporating in his generally spare poems references, especially to musical culture, that amplify meaning through rich associations. In the poem “My Father’s Love Letters,” for example, the poet confesses his desire to slip a warning into the note he writes to his mother on behalf of his illiterate father that “Mary Lou Williams’ ’Polka Dots & Moonbeams’/ Never made the swelling go down.” This 1940 ballad, written by the team of Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen but whose performance by African American jazz vocalist Mary Lou Williams is remembered by the poet, captures the euphoria of a young couple’s first dance; its romantic imagery stands in sharp contrast to the bleak reality of a marriage after the magic wears off. The line also highlights the conflict between the boy’s desire to assist his father in his quest to lure his wife back to him despite his past history of physical abuse and his simultaneous wish that his mother would keep her present distance and stay safe.

Another major feature of Komunyakaa’s style is what has been labeled his montage technique. By this means, he builds many of his poems by superimposing one image upon another in order to create a single, complex, thematically related word picture. In the second stanza of his poem “Sunday Afternoons,” for example, Komunyakaa layers simile upon simile to capture a couple’s confrontation with the unexpected consequence of their acting upon their sexual desires; one moment they “were drunk and brave as birds diving through saw vines” and the next moment they are counting “speckled eggs, blue as rage.”

Dien Cai Dau

First published: 1988

Type of work: Poetry

The soldier-poet tries to make some sense of his Vietnam experience.

Written a decade or more after the author’s wartime experience, the forty-three poems collected in the volume titled Dien Cai Dau are arranged to follow the trajectory of a single black soldier’s experience of the Vietnam conflict from the moment that he suddenly finds himself dropped in the middle of the action to his homecoming and subsequent visit to the war memorial in Washington, D.C.

Komunyakaa’s initial military assignment in Vietnam consisted of frontline reporting. In so many ways, his dual roles as eyewitness and journalist prepared him for the eventual task, long after the fact, of trying to make sense of an experience that may, in the final analysis, never be fully understood. Indeed, the title itself, the Vietnamese phrase for “crazy in the head,” signals to the reader the bewildering effect that this long war had on all participants. The Vietnamese referred to American soldiers as dien cai dau, but the war itself bred a kind of insanity in everyone involved.

The first poem in this volume, “Camouflaging the Chimera,” focuses on the soldier’s desire to blend into the landscape in order to conceal himself from the enemy and to carry out his murderous mission. So much of the poem’s meaning hinges upon the significance of the term “chimera”(a term in literature that refers to an imaginary monster or an illusion or fabrication of the mind) and its resonance in the text. Displaying his wide knowledge of history and culture, Komunyakaa makes reference to the chimera as both monster and illusion. Blending in with the jungle landscape, the American soldiers wait patiently “to spring the L-shaped ambush” against the enemy, the Viet Cong; yet, despite the apparent success of their physical efforts to become part of the “terrain,” they cannot control their interior landscape, the thoughts and fears of the “world” that “revolved under each man’s eyelid.”

The “ghosts” that haunt the soldiers’ thoughts are not only those images, real and imagined, that inhabit a war-torn land but also those often-negative memories of the life left behind in America. In the poem “Tu Do Street,” for example, readers find another “two door” or double-sided theme. The speaker of the poem seeks the comfort of Vietnamese “bar girls” while simultaneously acknowledging the fact that these women may very well be the sisters of men he fought “back in the bush.” In addition, the black speaker encounters in this Saigon establishment the color lines that he left behind in his homeland, and these segregationist practices that he finds in the bars that serve the American military transport the soldier back to the Bogalusa of his youth and “white only signs.”

Like most of Komunyakaa’s work, the poem recognizes surface differences, the barriers constructed by international conflict or by racial prejudice, but it ends with a deeper awareness of a common humanity, “more than a nation inside us,” as represented by the fact that the black and white soldiers unknowingly pay for the sexual services of the same women, “touch the same lovers minutes apart, tasting each other’s breaths.”

The volume ends with a poem that some critics see as the finest elegy written about the Vietnam War. “Facing It” re-creates the author’s visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and makes particular reference to the wall etched with the names of more than 58,000 Americans killed or missing in the conflict. Depending on his physical relationship to the wall, the speaker’s face is reflected on the structure’s surface or it “fades, hiding inside the black granite.” A black veteran, the speaker feels that he is both outside and inside the memorial. Outside, he lives in the present and replicates his role as racial outsider in confrontation with the dominant white culture; inside, he revisits his wartime past, reconnects with dead comrades, and acknowledges his own wall-like role as “black mirror” offering the white veteran with his “pale eyes” the possibility of self-reflection and understanding. In essence, in all the poems collected in Dien Cai Dau, Komunyakaa is “facing” his own memories of the war in the context of his later decision to pursue a career as a poet.

“Sunday Afternoons”

First published: 1991 (collected in Magic City, 1992)

Type of work: Poem

The poet revisits a childhood experience to trace the origins of his role as interpreter.

“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?

Thirteen Kinds of Desire

First published: 2000

Type of work: Poetry/lyrics

The poet continues his experimentation with the musicality of verse.

Komunyakaa has long been fascinated by and acknowledged for his interest in the fusion of poetry and music. With poet and jazz saxophonist Sascha Feinstein, for example, Komunyakaa edited two volumes of The Jazz Poetry Anthology (1991 and 1996), and many of his own poems have been incorporated in larger musical compositions, such as Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio, composed by Elliot Goldenthal in 1995 and featuring two poems from Dien Cai Dau.

Komunyakaa’s own poems are often filled with musical allusions or shaped like musical compositions. In the latter regard, critics have noted the poet’s use of short lines whose rhythm is often unbalanced, a condition reminiscent of syncopated jazz riffs. Good examples of the poet’s style can be found in the thirteen poems that he expressly wrote as song lyrics for a collaboration with American jazz vocalist Pamela Knowles. Between 1995, when he met Knowles at a jazz festival in Australia, and 2000, when the recording Thirteen Kinds of Desire was released, Komunyakaa penned thirteen pieces whose “jagged symmetry” he felt would translate effectively into song.

A representative selection, one reprinted in Komunyakaa’s Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries (1999), is “New Blues,” which begins with the stanza: “We are hurting/ We are dying/ For a new blues/ One that doesn’t rhyme/ With worn-out shoes.” This desire to produce updated lyrics for an old musical style rooted in the imagery of farm labor and urban poverty Komunyakaa himself satisfies with reference to problematic contemporary issues, such as the power of multinational corporations, the threat of computer viruses, and the homogenizing pervasiveness of pop-culture icons such as Batman. The poem is a good example of the poet’s characteristic tendency to merge levels of diction, formal and informal, and periods, past and present, to create a “nouveau blues/ To underline/ What’s left behind.”

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Yusef Komunyakaa Poetry: American Poets Analysis