Yusef Komunyakaa Poetry: American Poets Analysis
Because Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry is so rich in imagery, allusion, metaphor, musical rhythms, and ironic twists, it possesses a freshness and a bittersweet bite whether the subject is the raw beauty of nature or the passions and follies of human nature. He has said that poetry does not work for him without “surprises.” His poetry surprises both in its technique—the juxtaposition of disparate images and sudden shifts in perspective—and in its subjects. Generally his poems have a sensual quality even though the subject matter varies greatly: childhood memories, family feuds, race, war, sex, nature, and jazz. Scholar Radiclani Clytus commented early in Komunyakaa’s career that the poet’s interpretation of popular mythology and legend gave readers “alternative access to cultural lore. Epic human imperfections, ancient psychological profiles, and the haunting resonance of the South are now explained by those who slow drag to Little Willie John and rendezvous at MOMA.” Komunyakaa’s comment that “a poem is both confrontation and celebration” aptly captures the essence of his own work.
Two early books, the first of Komunyakaa’s published by a major university press, introduce many of his subjects and techniques and were the first to win for him critical acclaim. Copacetic focuses primarily on memories of childhood and the persuasive influence of music. The narrator speaks of “a heavy love for jazz,” and in fact musical motifs run throughout Komunyakaa’s poetry. He has compared poetry to jazz and blues in its emphasis on feeling and tone, its sense of surprise and discovery, and its diversity within a general structure. Poems such as “Copacetic Mingus,” “Elegy for Thelonious,” and “Untitled Blues” convey the power of this kind of music, in which “Art & life bleed into each other.” Depending on the poem, music can serve as escape, therapy, or analogy. Often it is combined with richly sensual images, as in “Woman, I Got the Blues.”
I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head and Dien Cai Dau
I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head continues this motif while adding new subjects and themes. The ugly side of race relations in the United States is suggested in several poems. Komunyakaa also begins to explore the pain of the Vietnam War. “For the Walking Dead” is a moving account of “boyish soldiers on their way to the front” who seek respite with Veronica in a local bar.
The past wounds and present scars of the Vietnam War are the subjects of Dien Cai Dau, whose title means “crazy” in Vietnamese. The powerful yet exquisitely sensitive—and sensual—way in which Komunyakaa conveys the pain, loss, and psychic confusion of his experience in Vietnam found a receptive audience. Most present a moment or a reflection in a richly nuanced but undogmatic way. In “We Never Know,” he juxtaposes a delicate image of dancing with a woman with the reality of an enemy in the field, whom he kills and whose body he then approaches. The moral ambiguity of the moment is highlighted by the tenderness with which the soldier regards the body:
When I got to him,a blue haloof flies had already claimed him.I pulled the crumbled photographfrom his fingers.There’s no other wayto say this: I fell in love.The morning cleared again,except for a distant mortar& somewhere choppers taking off.I slid the wallet into his pocket& turned him over, so he wouldn’t bekissing the ground.
Poems such as “Tu Du Street” and “Thanks” are even more complex in their multiple, often conflicting, images. The former presents the bizarre reality of racial prejudice even in Vietnam, “where only machine gun fire bring us together.” The women with whom the soldiers seek solace provide one common denominator:
There’s more than a nationinside us, as black & whitesoldiers touch the same loversminutes apart, tastingeach other’s breath,without knowing these roomsrun into each other like tunnelsleading to the underworld.
(The entire section is 1,283 words.)