Yusef Komunyakaa

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Yusef Komunyakaa Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1283

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.

Copacetic

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.

In “Thanks,” the narrator gives thanks to an unspecified being for the myriad coincidences that saved him one day in the jungle as he “played some deadly/ game for blind gods.” The poet provides no resolution or closure, just a series of powerful, haunting images:

Again, thanks for the dudhand grenade tossed at my feetoutside Chu Lai. I’m stillfalling through its silence.

Thieves of Paradise

Komunyakaa won an American Academy of Arts and Letters award given to writers with “progressive and experimental tendencies.” This book is an example of this artist’s ability to experiment with form and ease the reader into accepting poetry that is unfamiliar. Much of the subject matter is familiar—the grim reality of war and its psychological aftermath, the body’s hungers and betrayals, the allure of memory and imagination—but the presentation is fresh and intriguing. “Palimpsest” is a seemingly random, kaleidoscopic series of four-quatrain poems that move from “slavecatchers” to tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to the backwoods to jazz musician Count Basie. By confronting uncomfortable truths, the poet writes, “I am going to teach Mr. Pain/ to sway, to bop.”

Several, such as “Nude Interrogation,” “Phantasmagoria,” and “Frontispiece,” are prose poems that force one to rethink the nature of the form, while Komunyakaa’s images work on the emotions. “The Glass Ark” is a five-page dialogue between two paleontologists.

This collection includes the libretto “Testimony,” about Charlie Parker, written in twenty-eight fourteen-line stanzas. It captures the reckless allure of the man and the time:

Yardbirdcould blow a woman’s strutacross the room. . . . pushed moans through brass. . . . Highheels clicking like a high hat.Black-beaded flapper. Blue satinYardbird, he’d blow pain & glitter.

Talking Dirty to the Gods

Talking Dirty to the Gods stands apart from earlier works in its adherence to a strict, traditional form. Each of its 132 poems consists of sixteen lines, in four unrhymed quatrains. Much of the appeal of this collection stems from the freedom and friction Komunyakaa creates by presenting his unusual images and bizarre juxtapositions in a tightly controlled format. The gods he discusses are taken from the ancient and the modern worlds, the exotic and the commonplace. Whether discussing the maggot (“Little/ Master of earth”), Bellerophon, or Joseph Stalin, he is able to humanize his subject enough to win at least some sympathy from the reader.

Neon Vernacular

Neon Vernacular won considerable critical acclaim as well as the Pulitzer Prize. In addition to culling the best from earlier books, it adds gems of its own, including the unrhymed sonnet sequence “Songs for My Father,” a powerful fourteen-poem sequence that chronicles the poet’s complicated relationship with his dad. In “At the Screen Door,” in which a former soldier murders because he cannot separate the past from the present, Komunyakaa returns to the psychological aftermath of Vietnam.

Pleasure Dome

The publication of Pleasure Dome led to laudatory reviews not only for the book’s poetic achievement but also for its high purpose: “Nearly every page of these collected poems will pull you from your expectations, tell you something you did not know, and leave you better off than you were,” said a reviewer for Library Journal, while Booklist praised Komunyakaa’s “fluent creative energy, and his passion for living the examined life.” Pleasure Dome is an extraordinarily rich collection of more than 350 poems. All earlier books except Talking Dirty to the Gods are represented. There is also a section titled “New Poems” and another, “Early Uncollected.” Among the new poems is “Tenebrae,” a moving meditation on Richard Johnson, the black Indiana University music professor who committed suicide. The lines “You try to beat loneliness/ out of a drum” are woven throughout the poem with a cumulative, haunting effect.

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