Yusef Komunyakaa

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Lenard D. Moore (review date 15 March 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, in Library Journal, Vol. 118, No. 5, March 15, 1993, p. 81.

[Below, Moore favorably reviews Neon Vernacular.]

[Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems] is comprised of poems from seven of Komunyakaa's previous collections. A master at interweaving memory and history to shape his experiences into narratives, Komunyakaa enriches his poems with details: "His fingernails are black / & torn from blows, / as if the hammer / declares its own angle of reference." Music has its special force with a rhythm that seems to enforce meaning: "Heartstring. Blessed wood / and every moment the thing's made of / ball of fatback / licked by fingers of fire." As an African American, Komunyakaa defines a culture with striking imagery that is often misunderstood by mainstream readers.

Introduction

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Yusef Komunyakaa Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems

Award: Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award

Born in 1947, Komunyakaa is an American poet and editor.

Neon Vernacular (1993) includes work from several of Komunyakaa's previous volumes as well as various new poems. Like much of his verse, the collection is highly autobiographical and focuses on his identity as an African-American, his upbringing in the small community of Bogalusa, Louisiana, and his experiences as a soldier during the Vietnam War. Incorporating tales of anger, violence, death, racism, and poverty, his poems are often infused with rage and exhibit a pessimistic outlook on life. Critics note, however, that even when writing about emotionally wrenching events from his tour of duty in Vietnam or his relationship with his, at times, abusive father, Komunyakaa is frequently able to evoke feelings of tenderness and hope; in "We Never Know" he writes: "Our gun barrels / glowed white hot. / When I got to him, / a blue halo / of flies had already claimed him. / I pulled the crumpled photograph / from his fingers. / There's no other way / to 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 be / kissing the ground." Reviews of Neon Vernacular have additionally noted Komunyakaa's emphasis on music as well as the musicality of his writings. Robyn Selman asserted: "Like a brother less self-conscious than the poet, music as Komunyakaa hears it is not merely a celebration or even culmination of heritage and culture, but an alternate linguistic anatomy."

R. S. Gwynn (review date Winter 1994)

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SOURCE: "What the Center Holds," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 741-50.

[In the following excerpt, Gwynn discusses Komunyakaa's focus on jazz, Vietnam, family, and Louisiana in Neon Vernacular.]

Yusef Komunyakaa is a poet whose work I have known mostly through anthology pieces, one of which, the beautiful "Facing It," is the most poignant elegy that has been written about the Vietnam War. The "it," of course, is the Wall:

      A white vet's image floats
      closer to me, then his pale eyes
      look through mine. I'm a window.
      He's lost his right arm
      inside the stone. In the black mirror
      a woman's trying to erase names:
      No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

It is a pleasure to have Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems in hand, a collection that gathers together poems from small press publications with those of three of Komunyakaa's books from Wesleyan (work from his most recent collection, Magic City, is not included). In all, it's a mixed bag, with the best work the newest. Komunyakaa has written about jazz and edited an anthology of poems on the subject, but too often his own jazz poems, like this passage from "Elegy for Thelonious," consist of recitations of allusions that have little intrinsic interest:

      Crepuscule with Nelly
      plays inside the bowed head.
      "Dig the Man Ray of piano!"
      O Satisfaction
      hot fingers blur
      on those white rib keys.
      Coming on the Hudson.
      Monk's Dream.

When Komunyakaa is able to step back from the discographies and incorporate jazz-style riffs into his speech patterns, the effect is much more gratifying, as in "Unnatural State of the Unicorn," where he asks a lover to set aside his academic, poetic, and assorted other credentials and simply "Introduce me first as a man." Here, his superb ear is much in evidence:

       Before embossed limited editions,
       before fat artichoke hearts marinated
       in rich sauce & served with imported wines,
       before antics & Agnus Dei,
       before the stars in your eyes
       mean birth sign or Impression,
       I am a man.

Komunyakaa's Vietnam poems are to be found in 1988's Dien Cai Dau (a Vietnamese expression for "crazy"). He served as a correspondent during the conflict, and some of his descriptions of battle have an Ernie Pyle-like quality of compassion tinged with a journalist's unsparing eye for ironic detail:

       He danced with tall grass
       for a moment, like he was swaying
       with a woman. Our gun barrels
       glowed white-hot.
       When I got to him,
       a blue halo
       of flies had already claimed him.

The most recent work in Neon Vernacular focuses on the poet's hometown of Bogalusa, Louisiana, a subject that he heretofore has not explored. Though Wesleyan's jacket copy is quick to note that Bogalusa was "once a center of Klan activity and later a focus of Civil Rights efforts," Komunyakaa's themes are rites of passage, friendship, and family. True, "The whole town smells / Like the world's oldest anger," but its source is the chemical plants and paper mills, "the cloudy / Commerce of wheels, of chemicals / That turn workers into pulp." I particularly like "Immigrants," a section of a long poem made up of scenes of growing up, for its unusual racial perspective, how blacks viewed "Guissipie, Misako, / & Goldberg" and other exotic imports to the South:

       We showed them fishing holes
       & guitar licks. Wax pompadours
       Bristled like rooster combs,
       But we couldn't stop loving them
       Even after they sold us
       Rotting fruit & meat,
       With fingers pressed down
       On the scales.

Probably the most impressive new poem is the last, a long elegy for the poet's father, a laborer who worked hard at everything, even making his children's Easter egg hunts a challenge, "hiding the eggs / In gopher holes & underneath roots." Some of Komunyakaa's memories are not easy, recalling his combative father's "Wanting me to believe / I shouldn't have been born / With hands & feet / If I didn't do / Your kind of work." Others capture delicate spots of time:

       Sometimes you could be
       That man on a red bicycle,
       With me on the handlebars,
       Just rolling along a country road
       On the edge of July, honeysuckle
       Lit with mosquito hawks.

At the end of a man's life, with his "name & features half / X-ed out," the old resentments have to be set aside. What is left is a son's lingering respect for the strength that "steered us through the flowering / Dogwood like a thread of blood."

Principal Works

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Dedications and Other Darkhorses (poetry) 1977
Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (poetry) 1979
Copacetic (poetry) 1984
I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (poetry) 1986
Toys in a Field (poetry) 1986
Dien cai dau (poetry) 1988
February in Sydney (poetry) 1989
The Jazz Poetry Anthology [editor, with Sascha Feinstein] (poetry) 1991


Magic City (poetry) 1992
Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1993

Erik Ness (review date May 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, in The Progressive, Vol. 58, No. 5, May, 1994, p. 50.

[In the following excerpt, Ness remarks on the themes and subjects presented in Neon Vernacular.]

For Yusef Komunyakaa, the experience that seared him into poetry was serving in Vietnam. In Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, Vietnam stalks Komunyakaa….

But for him, the atrocities [he witnessed] carry an extra burden. The first-person narrator cannot forget "how I helped ambush two Viet Cong / while plugged into the Grateful Dead," he writes in one of his previously published poems, "Jungle Fever." In some of the new poems, the same sentiment persists. "Fever" begins, "I took orders made my trail / Of blood, & you want me / To say it was right." He warns memorably: "You can hug flags into triangles, / But can't hide the blood / By tucking in the corners."

For shelter, Komunyakaa runs to women and to jazz, and many of his newer poems have a vibrant musicality about them. As he advises, "Don't try to make any sense / out of this; just let it take you / like Pres's tenor & keep you human."

Yet many of the poems are direct and readily comprehensible, especially those that wrestle with his father. The new poem, "Songs for My Father," is as wrenching an Oedipal square-off as you'll find anywhere in contemporary letters.

Komunyakaa roots his poetry in his native Louisiana. He vividly describes the scenery and the people on the lower end of the economic scale whom he encounters every day—housekeepers, handymen, papermill workers, lawncutters. Growing up black in the South, he confronts the racism that is all around. In "How I See Things," he asks: "Have we earned the right / to forget, forgive / ropes for holding / to moonstruck branches?"

There is a despairing vision that runs throughout, only partially leavened by the jazz and the sex. In one poem, he calls his body "a poorly rigged by-pass / along Desperado Ave." and in another, he says, "We were way stations / between sweatshops & heaven."

He provides some hope, however, in the new poem, "Praising Dark Places." He tells the story of lifting an old board and finding a scorpion, centipedes, and other life flourishing "in this cellular dirt / & calligraphy of excrement." That this society can persist beneath our view suggests the possibility of survival, and Komunyakaa says, "I am drawn again / To conception & birth."

Bruce Weber (essay date 2 May 1994)

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SOURCE: "A Poet's Values: It's the Words over the Man," in The New York Times, May 2, 1994, pp. C11, C18.

[In the article below, based on a conversation with Komunyakaa, Weber relates Komunyakaa's background and origins, various aspects of his writings, and his views on the writing process.]

Yusef Komunyakaa, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry three weeks ago, is still receiving congratulations from acquaintances as he walks the hallways and quadrangles of the Indiana University campus here. People seem surprised to see him, as if he had been in hiding, calling out to him "Hey! Man of the hour!" and the like.

You would know he was a shy man just from the way he acknowledges his well-wishers, an embarrassed-seeming bow of the head, an abbreviated wave of the hand. And indeed, in the pantheon of poet stereotypes—the vitriolic, passionate drunkard is one; the wry, acerbic loner another—Mr. Komunyakaa, a professor of English, is more the dreamy intellectual, a Wordsworthian type whose worldly, philosophic mind might be stirred by something as homely and personal as a walk in a field of daffodils. Still, there's a way he gives off the sense of a cauldron, bubbling beneath the surface. He's not happy talking about himself.

"I'm happier talking about the process of writing, yes," he said. He's a dark-skinned man, with a broad nose and a dusting of salt-gray in his hair. His voice is a quiet country rumble, distinctly Southern, with a Cajunish tinge that betrays a childhood spent in Bogalusa, La. "Skeered," he'll say for scared; "paw-em" is how says the word poem.

"I'm even happier to have people read my work," he said. "I'm uncomfortable with the focus on the poet and not on the poem."

At 47, Mr. Komunyakaa (pronounced koh-mun-YAH-kuh) is something of a paradigm of the contemporary poet-academic. He is the author of eight books, including Neon Vernacular, the collection of new and selected poems for which he was awarded the Pulitzer, and he has been teaching a full load of graduate and undergraduate courses at Indiana since 1986. He taught at the University of New Orleans before that. He acknowledges poetry to be the most inaccessible of literary forms, requiring a commitment from readers that not many are willing to make. But he himself is committed to the relentless plumbing of ideas and the language needed to express them.

Poets need to be of eccentric and independent turn of mind, and Mr. Komunyakaa seems just that. He's pleased by ambiguity, complexity, resonance without clarity. His poems, many of which are built on fiercely autobiographical details—about his stint in Vietnam, about his childhood—deal with the stains that experience leaves on a life, and they are often achingly suggestive without resolution. "I think of my poems as personal and public at the same time," he said. "You could say they serve as psychological overlays. One fits on top of the other, and hopefully there's an ongoing evolution of clarity."

In the language of his poems, too, is a sense of struggling to embrace complexity, images layered on images to create depth rather than simple revelation. He occasionally wishes he were a painter, he said, because the images in his poems often come from pictures that arise in his head and he has to work, experimenting, to approximate them.

"I like connecting the abstract to the concrete," he said. "There's a tension in that. I believe the reader or listener should be able to enter the poem as a participant. So I try to get past resolving poems."

Even in conversation he gravitates to anecdotes that are at once poignant and elliptical.

Take the story of his name. It is probably of West African derivation, the poet said, although he isn't sure. According to family legend, it was brought to this country by his grandfather.

"He slipped into this country from the West Indies, most likely Trinidad," Mr. Komunyakaa said. "He was a stow-away, I suppose. And the story was that he was wearing one boy's shoe and one girl's shoe."

He is the oldest of five children "and the only one who reads poetry," Mr. Komunyakaa said. His father, who died in 1986, was a carpenter. Their relationship was clearly complicated.

"He taught me to learn the tools, that tools make a job easier, and I see that as paralleling the technique of poetry," Mr. Komunyakaa said. Relations between the two weren't smooth, however, and a poem in the new collection, "Songs for My Father" depicts the older man as both a hard worker and an angry, abusive philanderer. The poet's mother, when her marriage was over, moved to Phoenix, where she still lives.

Bogalusa, in the lowland toe of the Louisiana boot, north of Lake Ponchartrain on the Mississippi border, is a mill town. "Culturally it's desolate," Mr. Komunyakaa said. "It was a place where there was vegetation all over. In spring and summer, there was almost a psychological encroachment of it, as if everything was woven together. Growing up, I was always going into the woods and pulling things apart, the muscadine vines that had overtaken the oaks. There was a chemistry going on in the landscape, and I identified with it, so I kind of look for that wherever I go."

His first books were volumes of an encyclopedia his mother bought in a supermarket. He read the Bible through twice when he was a young teen-ager; then at 16, in a tiny church library, he came across James Baldwin's book of essays Nobody Knows My Name, which inspired him to write.

In 1969, Mr. Komunyakaa joined the Army and went to Vietnam. He served as an "information specialist," reporting from the front lines and editing for a military newspaper, The Southern Call, and winning a Bronze Star. When he returned home, he went to college, at the University of Colorado, then to graduate school at Colorado State University and the University of California at Irvine. In the peripatetic fashion of poets looking for a way to make a living, he pursued fellowships and teaching jobs in New England and, finally, New Orleans. It was there he met his wife, Mandy Sayer, an Australian novelist and short-story writer, whom he married in 1985. And it was there he embarked on the most fruitful period of his career.

"It took me 14 years to write poems about Vietnam," he said. "I had never thought about writing about it, and in a way I had been systematically writing around it."

While he was renovating a house in New Orleans in 1983, he said, he wrote his first Vietnam poem, periodically climbing down a ladder to write down lines in a notebook. "And it was as if I had uncapped some hidden place in me," he said. "Poem after poem came spilling out."

And indeed they still do. In the new collection, a poem called "At the Screen Door" describes the experience of a soldier returning home a changed man in ways he doesn't quite understand. He's watching a woman—his wife? his mother?—from outside the house; she doesn't see him yet. It ends this way:

      Who is it
      Waiting for me, a tall shadow
      Unlit in the doorway, no more
      Than an outline of the past?
      I drop the duffle bag
      & run before I know it.
      Running toward her, the only one
      I couldn't have surprised,
      Who'd be here at daybreak
      Watching a new day stumble
      Through a whiplash of grass
      Like a man drunk on the rage
      Of being alive

Evidently, some demons lie not so dormant beneath Mr. Komunyakaa's serene exterior, and the impression was underscored when, apropos of nothing in particular, he began to speak about violence. It is endemic, of course, in American cities, like Phoenix, where his mother lives, he said. But it is even more deeply rooted in rural America.

"I grew up with guns around me," he said. "The rituals of violence. People hunting. Killing hogs, rabbits. Pragmatic violence. At the time it seemed pragmatic, but now I question it. In our culture we celebrate violence. All of our heroes have blood on their hands. I have a real problem with that."

In an interview that had otherwise been meandering and quiet, this was a moment of focus and fire. There's a poem in it, perhaps.

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